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The real estate developer, designer, and art collector Amir Mortazavi has made a career out of exploring the potential of physical spaces. Based in Lisbon, Paris, and San Francisco, he is a LEED-certified licensed general contractor with his company M-PROJECTS. He also leads commercial and residential projects with his design firm Studio Mortazavi, and welcomes professionals to the co-working company CANOPY he co-founded with Yves Behar and Steve Mohebi.
His experience in contemporary art—from sitting on the board of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to running Highlight Gallery with his wife— has led Mortazavi to his latest project, Villa San Francisco. It is the first French artistic residency in the United States, by artists for artists. The space is filled with existing, reinterpreted, and one-of-a-kind artworks, all curated or commissioned to embody French and Californian aesthetics.
Visiting artists living and working in Villa San Francisco from two to four weeks are meant to engage with both cultures, as well as technology and science events with local community institutions and organizations.
Whitewall spoke with Mortazavi about which artists created the construct for Villa San Francisco.
WHITEWALL: What was your vision for Villa San Francisco?
AMIR MORTAZAVI: I thought what would conceptually be very interesting with the design of the space was to create a thread between artists and designers from the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as from France. And at the same time, knowing that French artists will be coming to the Bay Area to be inspired by other French artists who created paramount bodies of work in the Bay Area, and get more excited about doing their best work when they come to Villa San Francisco for their residencies.
Agnès Varda and JR both came to mind initially as artists who created seminal bodies of work in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 1960s, Agnès made documentaries there, so we worked with Rosalie, her daughter, and the foundation to get some film stills from a project and put them throughout the apartment. We also worked with JR, who made The Chronicles of San Francisco, where he photographed over a thousand citizens in San Francisco of diverse backgrounds and told their stories.
At the same time, I wanted to tell the visual arts and design stories of French artists and Northern California artists. It was important to show, historically, the 20th-century artists that have created an impact in both France and the Bay Area.
WW: Which artists came to mind for each region?
AM: Wayne Thiebaud immediately came to mind for the Bay Area portion. Colors his French Pastries painting from the 1960s were used—in the main family room, dining room, and kitchen—in combination with the molding proportions of a room in Villa Medici in Rome. To separate the rooms, we used the stripes of Daniel Buren’s from Palais Royal in Paris, which creates a dialogue between Buren and Thiebaud—arguably two of the most well-known painters from these regions.
Then we asked Nathalie du Pasquier, a French artist who is a seminal leader of the Memphis Milano movement, to do the scenography for the two bedrooms. We combined that with Nor Cal craftsmanship. We worked with disciples of J. B. Blunk, who used natural woods and materials and sometimes let it age, to create more applied art pieces.
With that in mind, I worked with some younger Bay Area designers— like Yvonne Mouser, Jay Nelson, Jesse Schlesinger, and Jonathan Anzalone—and we worked with Yves Behar for the couch. The last element we added were some artworks from French artists, such as Mrzyk & Moriceau, Anna Koak, Schuyler Beecroft, and Barry McGee.
WW: How did you work with the artists to create the pieces that fill the space?
AM: Other than the pieces by Jonathan Anzalone, all were commissioned. Jesse and Yvonne have very large pieces throughout the home, and I wanted them to think about France and create objects that are unique in their visual and craft vocabulary, but with an influence from France so that it has this thread from the two locations.
Jay made a sconce that was inspired by a Charlotte Perriand sconce, which was made of aluminum that pivots. He used his personal vocabulary—raw, recycled, old redwood beams that are taken from homes that are being remodeled in San Francisco—and created a similar sconce but with this material in that fashion. He also made these pendants that were inspired by Brancusi’s sculpture atelier that are these rounded balls and sticks that are similar to the totems he created. Yvonne created the dining table set and some lounge chairs inspired by the Arc de Triomphe.
Jesse made the coffee table, thinking about the view outside that he can see of Golden Gate Park. He found a big chunk of cypress, aged it outdoors, and used that. It’s interesting to have a view of a coffee table that came from down the hill in the park.
WW: How would you describe your personal art collection?
AM: We have upwards of a hundred pieces or so. There’s pretty much zero figurative artwork; a lot of it is artists who work with materials to tell stories in socially impactful ways. Pedro Reyes is an artist that I collect in depth. We have his Palas por Pistolas—shovels that he created with firearms that were destroyed from Tijuana, which then planted a thousand trees.
There are others by Samuel Levi Jones, who takes old encyclopedia books and skins the inside cover of the book to create collages that think about African American history and how “African American” was left out of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Art should have depth. That’s the beauty of artwork—the stories and the meaning that they hold that they can share with others.
WW: The ongoing pandemic continues to change the cultural sector. Where do you see the future of art being?
AM: The future of art is going to be much more democratic post-COVID. I’m hopeful it’s going to be less focused on the blue-chip gallery world and more focused on creativity in general happening outside of the major culture centers of the world.