The celebrated fashion designer, artist and collector talks to Jonathan Bastable about his eclectic tastes; what informs his eye; and why ‘it is important to let things go’
Sitting outside a villa on the shore of the Jungfern Lake, near Berlin, Wolfgang Joop waves a hand at the tree-lined avenue between the house and the water. ‘The dividing line between East and West was right there, outside the gate,’ he says. ‘The Wall was yet to come, but when I was growing up here in Potsdam I needed to show my papers if I wanted to walk down that path.’
Before the frontier was sealed, Joop’s family seized an opportunity to move to Braunschweig, in the West. But Joop missed the dusty grandeur of the imperial palaces in Potsdam. Sanssouci, the 18th-century summer residence of Prussia’s King Frederick the Great, ‘was my playground’, Joop says; as a young man, he felt stifled by what he saw as the dreary Bürgerlichkeit, or middle-class mentality, of provincial West Germany.
Everything Joop has done in his life, as both a fashion designer and an artist, seems to address his painful sense of being just the wrong side of the border — of being a foreigner, albeit an undetectable one.
‘That broken identity was very important to me,’ Joop says. ‘There was a desire to find a glue to put the broken halves together. But I always say: if you feel like an alien, stay where you are. That feeling of being alone and different, with your own values and judgments — that is something you have to fight to hold on to.’
This outsider mindset has also influenced his approach as a collector, though this is a label he rejects (‘I am not a collector at all,’ Joop says). Joop has no interest in taxonomies or in acquiring complete sets, nor does he believe in specialisation.
He has filled a succession of homes with 18th-century furniture, contemporary sculpture, painting and decorative art — all in a joyous spirit of unbridled eclecticism. He likens these aesthetic arrangements to mixing guests at a dinner party. ‘It’s about putting an Alexandre Noll abstraction alongside a Rococo canapé, or a Prouvé daybed together with a Marc Quinn canvas — and then waiting to see if they whisper to each other in the night,’ says the designer. When he lived in New York, Joop confides, the mismatched sofas in his apartment compelled more than one visitor to press upholsterers’ business cards into his hands.
Although a self-professed non-collector, Joop nevertheless acquired the habit early in life. ‘When I was about 12, I tried to buy a work by the 18th-century Dresden master Leberecht Vogel,’ he explains. ‘The painting depicted his two children reading. It was in the back of a shop behind an oven, totally dirty. The dealer was a fat, drunken man. When I went to buy it he said, “Come on, let’s drink some schnapps.” Young as I was, I drank with him and kept asking: now can we talk about the picture? No! He never sold it to me. But then, years later, I came across it in a hard-currency antiques centre in East Germany. I bought it for 30,000 Deutschmarks. That was when I was 42.’
Joop was an accomplished picture restorer as a young man, and that early training continues to inform his collector’s eye. ‘When I look at a piece of art or furniture, I want to know how it is made,’ he says. ‘If it’s a painting, how was the scene lit? How was the pigment prepared? I am curious like a child. I want to put my nose close to the work and sniff it. I want to understand how a thing is crafted — that means more to me than the value or the provenance. How and when has it been repaired? What interests me is the arrangement of the moment — why did the artist or artisan do what they did, in the way that they did it.’
The same restless curiosity explains why the designer’s various acquisitions are in a constant state of flux.
For a time Joop owned some important canvases by Polish-born Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, whom he describes, admiringly, as ‘a supernova’, a ‘Fata Morgana’. ‘I saw at once that she looked at women the same way I looked at women’, Joop says. He has since parted with his Lempickas, and also with some of his beloved Noll furniture (although two pairs of Noll chairs — each pair carrying an estimate of £40,000-60,000 — will be offered in Christie’s sale of 20th Century Decorative Art and Design on 18 October in London).
But Joop continues to acquire new pieces, ultimately believing that you can only really understand a work of art when you own it.
‘When you buy at auction it is intimate, almost sexual. You are saying to the work: come closer, let me touch you, I want to possess you. Live with me for a short while.’ Why just a short while? ‘Because you have to let things go when the time comes’, Joop says. ‘It is so important to let things go.’