The Fondation Martell or the art of self-invention

 Cognac  |  7 June 2018  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Established at the heart of Cognac’s historic centre, the Fondation d’Entreprise Martell has transformed the Gâtebourse building into a site dedicated to experimentation in savoir-faire: a combination of art, architecture, handicrafts and design. Open and multidisciplinary…

A key architectural feature of the town of Cognac, this former cognac-bottling plant, constructed in 1929 as part of the rise of the International Style, is in the midst of being revamped. By 2021, the building’s 5,000 m2 over five floors will gather exhibition spaces, production workshops, a digital platform, a resource centre, a restaurant and a panoramic café. On the strength of its three-century-long history, Martell is commencing a new chapter stretching towards creativity, research and diverse professions. The Fondation Martell, in the words of César Giron, CEO of the Martell, Mumm, Perrier-Jouët group, is “open to the town, the region, the international sphere, with a multidisciplinary vocation.” Nor has it suffered any shortage of funds since its launch in October 2016, as illustrated by its ambitious programme and an endowment of 5 million euros over 5 years. We meet Nathalie Viot, its very dynamic director…


You are behind the Fondation d’Entreprise Martell’s forerunner programme, and since 1 January 2017, you have been the foundation’s director. How did you envisage its cultural identity?

I proposed a multidisciplinary foundation without a collection. Firstly, I wanted to avoid conservation, maintenance and insurance issues. The other thing is that if you buy art, you have to follow its market, and it was important for us to stay independent. I come from the world of contemporary art; I was previously artistic advisor for the City of Paris and co-director of the Galerie Chantal Crousel, so I’m very familiar with its ins and outs. Instead, we decided to commission designers and craftspersons to create the foundation’s furnishings, objects and lighting, in order to create a usable collection. In some way, the foundation goes back to the idea that was very popular in the 1930s of industrial design as an integral part of our everyday environment.


How did Martell come to set up this corporate foundation?

The family history doesn’t indicate any particular links between Jean Martell or his wife and artists. The company called on illustrators to design its billboards or labels, and followed packaging innovations. In 2001, Martell was taken over by the Pernod Ricard group, and this was ultimately how the cultural path opened up. My role is to commission architects, designers, artists, musicians, choreographers, craftspersons, installations, intangible works, events, etc. I start off by asking them to come to Cognac so that they can soak in the place, the memories, the family history and the House to create links. In 1715, Jean Martell initiated the practice of archiving of everything, and Martell has archives that stretch out over 5 km: from billboards to drawings via travel accounts, different promotion objects and accounting books. This rich documentation constitutes an extraordinary collection of memories and a source of inspiration for guest artists. Of course, the artists are also free to produce creations based on the wider environment – the light, the building, the people – and their own artistic universe.


What is your mission? To endow the brand with a cultural image?

Cognac is one of those towns that has lived for centuries on the reputation of a particular product – Martell has existed since the 18th century. Today, Cognac and its trading houses need to find an identity that is coherent with contemporary society and the rules imposed by legislation. As a result of France’s Évin law, we cannot promote alcohol, and it’s important for us to protect the public, especially young people. Therefore our mission is to promote the territory and its knowhow, to offer exceptional projects designed for our site, and finally, to make Cognac into a new cultural destination.


Do you place great importance on artistic professions?

Indeed, artistic professions are an important pillar of our programme. When I made this suggestion to the chairman of the Pernod Ricard group, who is also chairman of the foundation, he saw the obvious connection with the house’s history and knowhow. Wood, nature, olfaction, glass, basketwork, assembly are all elements that inspire me for the foundation’s programme. If for example we take the example of the Fondation Ricard, which defends emerging French creation, our history is different due to the age of the house and its establishment locally. Let’s not forget that the Martell foundation is set up in a building that was Martell’s former bottling plant. We belong to this territory, and it is through this anchorage in the territory, with an international vision, that I construct the foundation’s identity. We are setting up partnerships with cultural institutions and associations in Cognac and the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region – for example the Domaine de Boisbuchet or the Abbaye aux Dames, in Saintes, which since 1974 has played host to one of the biggest ancient-music festivals. In this context, we’ve welcomed choreographer Catherine Contour and sound designers Blue Yéti as residents, and they produced a sensorial and corporal creation paying homage to the Gâtebourse building and its bottling activity. There are also the unique moments orchestrated by Avant-Scène, a theatre in Cognac, or the Chahuts festival in Bordeaux.


You commissioned a temporary pavilion from the Madrid-based architectural agency SelgasCano, inaugurated in June 2017, in which you started off your programme pending the end of construction works…

Before the building’s internal renovations, we asked artist Vincent Lamouroux, in October 2016, to fill 1,000 m2 of the building’s ground floor. He created an immersive work called Par nature, which plunged us into a mineral and vegetal landscape fixed by a white-chalk covering. As we had to close the building for 18 months of works at the end of this exhibition, César Giron, chairman of the foundation, asked me to fill the paved courtyard, in other words, 2,300 m2. It was in this context that I asked the Madrid architects to design a 1,300 m2 space that has been our programme space since June 2017 while giving the whole site a very special character: an innovative futuristic image in the middle of architectures from past centuries. These installations also allow us to establish an ethic in our way of approaching production, through the re-use of materials in the interests of recycling. Once Vincent Lamouroux’s exhibition finished, we threw nothing away: we gave 12 tonnes of sand to the company Verallia, replanted 60 plants on sites of the Martell company, and re-used the wood in the Pavillon Martell by SelgasCano, which itself will find a second life after it is dismounted in October 2018.


The Pavillon was set up in summer 2017 on the Martell premises, in the paved courtyard of the former bottling plant…

Before the foundation’s opening, we wanted to offer an active forerunner of our future activities. The pavilion designed by the Spanish agency SelgasCano allowed the creation of a space open to the town, that is free and accessible by all. This is the first work in France to be completed by these internationally renowned architects. It is quite an organic structure made from polyester and fiberglass rolls by the French brand Onduline, in which we set up spaces with flexible inflatable elements. The indoor itinerary of this structure is punctuated with works and installations by guest artisans. SelgasCano designed a real working tool that each artisan can become a part of, like the two fascinating young basket makers from L’Oseraie de l’Île, who created site-specific works.


Can you describe the development stages of your future venue?

After two years of works carried out by the Bordeaux architecture firm Brochet, Lajus and Pueyo – which notably undertook the renovation of the new Musée de l’Homme in Paris –, with which we are working closely together to develop every floor, we will inaugurate, at the end of June, the ground floor and its 900 m2 of exhibition space, as well as the roof-terrace which has a panoramic café entirely designed by Parisian designers Premices and co along with local craftspersons. In 2019, the first floor will welcome the production workshops, to be followed year after year by the immersive and olfactory universe and its “consultation bubbles”, the restaurant, and finally our offices. The manufacturing workshop is a dedicated space in the form of a residence for artisans and other creators who will be given access to 3D printers (namely for ceramics), ovens for glasswork, laser cutters for wood and dedicated workshops (for fabric, paper, music…), all supervised by a workshop head.


Why is there a space reserved for the digital sphere?

To stay in line with the future and innovation. Digital technology also lets us approach a young public born with these technologies. Getting them to come is also a way for us to adapt to their generation’s tools.


Which artists did you ask to the inaugural exhibition?

The Adrien M & Claire B company has designed a work called L’ombre de la vapeur, using video projectors and presence sensors. Against a continuum of images generated and animated in real time by synchronised computers, infrared computers will detect the presence of spectators who will become protagonists in the work. This poetic digital and interactive installation owes its origins to the Torula, a fungus native to the Cognac region, which mushroomed all over the building before the renovations!



Fondation d’Entreprise Martell. 16 avenue Paul Firino Martell, Cognac.


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