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‘My Paradise Is a Library’: Hans Ulrich Obrist Remembers Karl Lagerfeld

Paying tribute to the legendary designer and his passion for books

When the very sad news that Karl Lagerfeld had died first appeared, an avalanche of tributes from a younger generation of designers appeared on social media. Olivier Rousteing, Balmain’s Creative Director said: ‘A true legend that never played by the rules but also set most of the ones people follow today. A person that put his heart so much into his work that the world fell in love with him for generations. You have been a school for all of us, you will always be present, reminding and defining what fashion is.’ (As a school boy, Lagerfeld had won the Woolmark Prize, out of 200,000 entrants; of the back of this success, Pierre Balmain gave Lagerfeld his first job and also put the coat he’d designed into production.) Clare Waight Keller, Artistic Director of Givenchy said: ‘He was an inspirational force behind many moments in my life and I feel truly privileged that I could call him a friend.’ Virgil Abloh posted a picture of Karl with the fashion designer and DJ NiGO: ‘this image alone was enough to make my generation dream’.

I was first introduced to Karl Lagerfeld by my friend Zaha Hadid in 2011 at the Mercer in New York where they were meeting to discuss the Chanel Mobile Art Pavilion that she was designing. Lagerfeld arrived with so many suitcases, it was as though he was moving house. We had our first conversation where he told me he loved New York: he said it was his favourite city in the world. 

When the Mobile Art Pavilion opened, at the Institut du Monde Arab in Paris, I was invited by Chanel to curate an evening of poetry and literature with Etel Adnan, Adonis and Adam Zagajewski, with an architecture panel that included Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Karl Lagerfeld. Karl told us about his vision for chocolate architecture, which was very unexpected. A chocolate city!

He wrote a post for my Handwriting Project, in which I ask every artist I meet to write something by hand on a Post-It Note, which I then post to my Instagram account – a kind of protest against the disappearance of handwriting and doodling in the digital age. His post was: ‘A room without books is like a house without windows’ – a quote from the late American education reformist, Horace Mann.

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Karl Lagerfeld, drawing for the Serpentine Summer Party with Chanel, 2018. Courtesy: Hans Ulrich Obrist and The Serpentine Gallery  

Lagerfeld extended his passion for paper into a vast collection of around 300,000 books, which stretched between his numerous houses: ‘My paradise is a library,’ he told me. He knew he was excessive – ‘crazy’, as he put it. ‘I was not interested in anything else but books, books, books – and drawing paper.’ As a child, he found a rare, early 1900s edition of the German weekly magazine Simplicissimus (1896–1967) in his attic. He loved the caricatures by the Norwegian Olaf Gulbransson, as well as those by Eduard Thöny and, above of all, by Bruno Paul, who would become a huge influence. Not just a famous caricaturist, Paul was also the director of the Deutscher Werkbund [German Association of Craftsmen] and then later became an architect. Lagerfeld went on to furnish one of his many houses with early Bruno Paul furniture. 

Books were a passion. From the paper, the author, the imagery selection, to the dust jacket, Lagerfeld paid attention to every minute detail as if it was a couture gown. He was a long-time collaborator of Gerhard Steidl, the German master printer and art book publisher, with whom he created the LSD and 7L imprints. He also told me he’d written hundreds of prefaces for poets in English.

We connected over Aby Warburg, the great German art historian who, in many ways, brought me to art – Lagerfeld had grown up in Hamburg near to Warburg’s superlative library (before the rise of Nazism forced both Warburg and his books to emigrate to London). I grew up near Lake Constance in Switzerland and went to high school in Kreuzlingen, the site of Otto Ludwig Binswanger’s clinic. As a child, I asked about the history of a particular house and was told that it was where the famous art historian Aby Warburg was treated by Professor Binswanger (on whom Michel Foucault wrote his thesis). In fact, it was during his stay at the clinic that Warburg wrote his famous lecture on Hopi serpent rituals.

Another hero we shared was Harry Graf Kessler: the editor, diplomat, curator and biographer of turn-of-the-century Europe, WWI and the Weimar Republic, who reinvented the theatre and designed a model of the United Nations. Throughout his life, Kessler was a traveller – a foreigner wherever he might be. In 1908, he was made director of the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Weimar. But for him, being a curator was about more than simply staging exhibitions: he brought not only works of art into dialogue with one another, but theatre and literature, too, and above all, people. Like Lagerfeld, Kessler was a publisher and founded the famous Cranach Press. With nationalism again flourishing in many European countries, amid economic crisis and discord, Lagerfeld stressed the urgency of remembering Kessler, a model bridge-builder and a cosmopolitan.

Karl Lagerfeld at home in Paris, 2009. Courtesy: Paris Match via Getty Images; photograph: Philippe Petit

Karl Lagerfeld at home in Paris, 2009. Courtesy: Paris Match via Getty Images; photograph: Philippe Petit

Lagerfeld’s insatiable appetite for books revealed his broad consumption of culture: he was an impresario, a junction maker. ‘Everything is possible,’ he said, when I once asked if he had any unrealized projects too big to achieve. He took work seriously – he claimed to only need 35 hours per week to rest and wished to work the rest of the time – but he was also never content, always seeking the new. He knew Honoré de Balzac by heart and described himself as a ‘fanatic of [Richard] Strauss’, while also loving the playlists created by the sounds designer Michel Gaubert for his Chanel shows. He’d taken up photography in the late 1980s, when he began to shoot his own fashion campaigns (many later published by Steidl). Lagerfeld had no masterplan, he just let his career evolve – an approach I respect. He loved to be independent and was happy to revive a heritage fashion brand, as he did at Chanel: he was keen to invent the future with fragments of the past.

Lagerfeld opened up so many fresh approaches. He was one of the first designers to do popular collaborations, including with Coca-Cola (he hated alcohol and famously only drank Diet Coke) and H&M. He told me how Freddie Mercury of Queen’s song ‘I Want to Break Free’ (1984) inspired him. He was like an antennae on a roof or energy from a waterfall.

My last contact with Lagerfeld was last year, when Yana Peel, Jo Allison and I were working on plans for the Serpentine Summer Party with Chanel. We invited him to make a sketch of our space; after a few weeks, a drawing arrived – in his characteristic and multi-layered silhouette style. He also wrote the the word Serpentine in his inimitable handwriting: we used it as a logo for the party, in the tradition of Robert Rauschenberg’s handwritten Moderna Museet from the 1960s.

In 2014, during an interview we did for System magazine, Lagerfeld told me: ‘I was born with a pencil in my hand, I have been drawing all my life. For me drawing is the same as speaking and writing. I was born a paper freak.’

Main image: Karl Lagerfeld, Haute Couture Paris Fashion Week, 2017. Courtesy: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images; photograph: Victor Virgile

Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director at the Serpentine Galleries, London, UK.

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