Studio K.O. french minimalism
The home of Studio KO owners Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty is half an hour southeast of Marrakesh. As you approach it, the landscape gradually becomes empty, and rare huts disappear. The dirt road rises to the Atlas Mountains and runs along a hidden oasis. Soon the burnt adobe walls of an empty village appear. The place has no name, just kilometer 33.
The French who founded Studio KO (K – Karl, O – Olivier ) work as an indivisible unit. Olivier is 44 years old, and Karl is 49. Marty is a draftsman, and Fournier is a dreamer. “ Olivier tends to add things and I follow him and subtract,” says Fournier. “ In the end, everything we do,” he adds, “ Becomes a musical score for piano four hands .”
Olivier Marty (left) and Carl Fournier
Fournier describes the house’s style as ” anti-wow “. Several rooms with low ceilings are scattered around the courtyard. Somewhere there are pots with cacti and shrubs, somewhere a shady corner with a low sofa or dining table, where the piercing midday sun does not penetrate. Behind adobe walls with tiny windows are six bedrooms—distinguishable from modestly furnished living rooms by simple beds and wooden clothes sticks suspended from the ceiling. The ceilings are reinforced with palm and eucalyptus beams or geometrically coffered with wooden rods in a traditional South Moroccan technique called ” tataoui “. In one of the rooms, they are brightly painted in a colorful Berber style. In the cramped kitchen, Fatima, the housekeeper, cooks on a primitive stove.
And one tiny bathroom. “ In the beginning, when we organized the space, we reflexively designed a bathroom for each bedroom ,” says Fournier. Can you imagine how much water that would be ? More than the entire village consumes! It’s not normal .”
To unwind on the weekends, Fournier and Marty often fly here from Paris, where they live and where their firm is headquartered. There is no Wi-Fi here, and as Fournier notes, cell phones don’t work here.
Split Studio KO
According to Marty, from the very beginning, Studio KO showed a kind of split personality. Private villas, the core of Studio KO’s architectural practice, offer eloquent yet simple dialogues with secluded, sometimes inaccessible surroundings. It’s hard to imagine this approach coming from the same drawing board as hotel and restaurant interior design, which can be dramatic, playful, and superbly filled (” Interior design is what keeps the light going,” says Fournier . “Clean architecture is a deliberately unprofitable business .
Studio KO projects are becoming more famous and the “bifurcation” is growing. On the one hand, the modest masterpiece of the Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakesh; on the other, the kitsch of the Chiltern Firehouse in London.
To understand the overall aesthetic, you need to feel the basic principles used in the dwelling at km 33:
- preference for local materials. The poorer and rougher the better (some of the house’s rain gutters are made from tin cans and the door hinges are carved from old tires);
- refusal to add any custom colors;
- unwavering loyalty to the physical and social content of the structure. One potential client of Studio KO (a famous Italian fashion mogul) demanded a traditional Moroccan riad on a large plot of land. “ Riads were designed for cramped city life, so the idea of a self-contained riad is absurd ,” says Fournier. Studio KO turned him down.
This gives an idea of how Studio KO works – each project bears the imprint of its own circumstances, so the similarities are not always immediately noticeable. “ We always try to adapt a project to its place ,” says Fournier. “ If there is a common thread, it is natural light that becomes a kind of intangible building block .” In a 2009 villa in Tagadert, mud mortar facades virtually disappear into the surrounding desert, coming to life as the sun passes overhead, changing color. In a 2014 home in Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, meanwhile, concrete is paired with ebony. No architect eschews the word ” minimalism ” but their complex version is hand-shaped and that’s not the path to perfection. “This is not about erasing the human touch, but about highlighting it ,” Fournier explains. “ Imperfection is part of the process. This is our language, but you can only recognize it if you feel it.”
The approach shows a similarity of views with their fellow countryman Arnaud Zannier , who created a magnificent wabi-sabi chalet in France and minimalist bungalows in Cambodia. And although the duet does not directly talk about this, the principles that guide them are fully consistent with the aesthetics of wabi-sabi, which inspires another famous European – Axel Vervordt.
“ Authenticity and deep roots, that’s what characterizes them ,” says Jean-Louis Froment , an influential French curator who met Carl and Olivier in Marrakesh many years ago and had a strong influence on their worldview. – Most of the architecture today is ostentatious, there is a temptation to make monuments to someone or some brand. They are striving for the opposite. Even the YSL Museum is so well integrated with its surroundings that it seems to be sliding down the street .”
Froman notes that their house is not so much a house as a giant prayer bench. But it would be wrong to call the radical simplicity of the house monastic. The place is warm, it encourages easy living and freedom from the daily hustle and bustle. Absolute loneliness, the endless desert sky, the slow movement of the sun and shadows in response, all this directly enters into the life of the house.
“ Our involvement here is minimal. It’s more of a reverence for that kind of life than a Studio KO architecture manifesto ,” Carl says. “ But it still becomes a kind of manifesto .”
Exercise in style
But that’s not the kind of manifesto that Studio KO fans would easily recognize in the duo’s famous contributions to Chiltern Firehouse . In 2014, they helped convert an 1889 Gothic fire station into a hotel for André Balazs . Surrounded by floral woven calico and potted palms, it is close to a parody of the extravagant English aristocracy. As they conceived the project, Fournier and Marty came up with a backstory and built decor around it with the insane monomania of Wes Anderson ‘s The Grand Budapest Hotel . Marty calls such commissions an ” exercise of style “, after the classic work by Raymond Queneau .in which he tells the same story in 99 different ways. This is a formal ploy that the French adore.
“ Chiltern is the story of a great and noble English family that is ruined and forced to quit,” says Marty. They get an old fire station, where they will try to live the way they used to, although they have no money. Some things, like the flower carpet, are almost ugly on their own, but they are perfect together as it is all part of the story .”
Fournier and Marty met while studying architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. They formed a relationship before the two of them even thought of going into business together. Before that, they were connected only by the fact that both came from dysfunctional families.
“ My theory is that our careers came about because of childhood suffering, ” says Fournier. “ We come from the same intellectual background where people have never thought about their living space, comfort or aesthetics, only basic utility. It wasn’t terrible, just wrong .”
Their first trip in the early 1990s to Morocco was an epiphany before it even ended. Among the first people, they met was Jean-Noel Schaeffer, a Frenchman settled in Marrakesh, who owned a riad in the medina (old part of the city). Fidget Schaeffer showed the young architects true Morocco. “ It was thanks to Jean-Noël that we fell in love with this land, its fortified river villages, its kasbahs, the light, and then the traditional crafts that have remained untouched for centuries,” says Fournier.
Just as importantly, Schaeffer led them along the velvet rope of Marrakech’s small but glitzy social scene. It was long before all of France made Marrakech it’s a desert playground when the first pilgrims probably had names like Hermès and Agnelli. “ That was our launch pad, a series of chance encounters and friendships, ” says Marty.
In 2004, Fournier and Marty built their first home, Villa D, a series of adobe cubes with multiple windows that are both foreign and familiar. They took the earth they dug for the pool and foundation, mixed it with chalk, and built the whole house out of bricks. “ Then it was just unbelievable,” says Fournier.
That same year, they performed their first style exercise, L’Heure Bleue Palais, a hotel in the Moroccan seaside town of Essaouira is woven around the imaginary life of the worldly Jewish merchant who once owned it. Chiltern Firehouse owner André Balaz first saw what the couple was capable of when he stayed at the hotel.
Silent triumph of Studio KO
Fournier and Marty soon met with Pierre Bergé , socialite of Marrakech and partner of Yves Saint Laurent. The two became friends after Fournier and Marty redecorated Berger’s old colonial house in Tangier. “ They are not arrogant like some of the other architects I know,” Berger noted. They were close, but it still came as a surprise to everyone when Pierre entrusted his legacy to Carl and Olivier – a museum and cultural center in memory of Yves Saint Laurent. They had never designed public buildings before and no one knew if they were ready for such an order. In May 2017, Fournier and Marty handed over the keys to Berger at the opening ceremony in the museum hall.
The 4,000 square meter Yves Saint Laurent Museum in Marrakech has been a quiet triumph. Clean lines reign here, contrasting walls of terrazzo, concrete, and terracotta bricks, and a round central open-air atrium. Marty compares the interaction of volumes with cubic sculpture. The museum is not a literal reminder of, say, Le Smoking, Saint Laurent’s iconic women’s tuxedo. “ The only real reference to Saint Laurent is the layers of brick, reminiscent of the weaving of cloth. Marty says. “ I bet if he were alive, he would want something completely different, but in the end, I like to think that he would love it. ”
This is not a museum
Whenever Fournier and Marty returned to Paris, Schaeffer told them of his adventures in his long literary epistles. In one of them, he wrote that he came across a man named Salek, who was unsuccessfully trying to cross the river with his donkey. Chauffer helped him cross over and they became friends. Later, Schaeffer, Carl, and Olivier often gathered at Salek’s house in the hills outside Marrakech.
A few years ago, Salek left for El Aaiuna, the Sahara village where he was from. “ We were very sad to see the house start to fall apart because, you know, these adobe-walled houses fall apart quickly if you don’t maintain them day in and day out,” says Fournier. “ We decided to take him in order to save him .”
Fournier, Marty, and Schaeffer rented the house for 99 years (they couldn’t buy it under Moroccan law) and set about restoring it, which was no easy task. Salek and his family lived in a series of rooms that changed roles as furniture moved around them—a bedroom, a dining room, and a living room.
The walls in most of the house were crumbling. They rebuilt them using updated traditional methods. The walls now have a mixture of dirt and chalk that will strengthen them over time. However, they never intended to make a museum of the Moroccan way of life. “ We will not pretend that we are Moroccans and that is how we live. Fournier notes. “ The house is tailored to our tastes and needs .”
Georgia O’Keeffe must have thought something similar when purchasing her famous Pueblo-style Pueblo Ranch in America.
So what is this cross-cultural hybrid that has emerged outside of both Studio KO’s architecture and its interior design work? The principle Marty laid out can be applied to the duo’s approach to just about everything: ” A home is a reflection of its own surroundings .” Fournier, adds: ” It is not the style that unites everything, but the attitude.”