“I have a problem staying within the frame,” says the French Hungarian artist Mathias Kiss. We’re standing in his bedroom on the second floor of his home and studio in Paris’s 19th Arrondissement looking up at “Supersquare” (2013), a 130-by-100-inch woven artwork that hangs above his double bed like a dark, graphic headboard. It’s one of a series of rugs he created in collaboration with the prestigious Robert Four atelier in the French weaving capital of Aubusson, in the tradition of the ornate carpets beloved by European royalty since the 16th century. And while its botanical-motif border and rich tawny palette are characteristic of the heritage craft, its shape calls to mind a configuration of Tetris blocks. “I needed to liberate the form and make it asymmetric, so it felt more organic, and then it came back to life,” he explains. “And I don’t put a rug on the floor.”
Such irreverence is typical of Kiss, 50, who is dressed today in a white shirt, loose black pants and his signature Nike pool slides. Over the past two decades, he has developed an artistic approach that challenges the codes of French classicism by using many of its techniques — including glazing, gilding and trompe l’oeil — in new and unexpected ways to create surreal site-specific environments. “I’m not interested in decorative objects or art,” he says. “I like the idea of total art.” Accordingly, his jutting, crystal-like sculptural mirrors and vast painted skyscapes — which he’s installed at such Parisian cultural centres as the Casino de Paris, the Palais de Tokyo and the Mobilier National — are intended to become part of the architectural vocabulary of a space, rather than discrete pieces to be marvelled at within it.
And here, in his home — a decade-old four-story industrial building — he is entirely immersed in his body of work. The windows of his bedroom are coated in a film, which he developed in partnership with the Parisian design studio Beauregard, that makes the panes resemble stained glass with a modern marbled motif. Two prototypes for angular mirrored bedside tables flank the bed, which is covered in a simple white cotton blanket. And a pair of 1940s oak and wicker chairs by the French designer Charles Dudouyt sit facing each other on one side of the room. The effect is monastic — but with a touch of the psychedelic.
Born in the Paris suburbs, Kiss began working as a tradesman at 15, after being kicked out of boarding school in the nearby Essonne region. At 19, he joined the Compagnons du Devoir, a French organisation founded in the Middle Ages that offers artisans a traineeship with posts all over the country. He spent 15 years in the program, during which he worked on the restoration of Parisian institutions including the Louvre and the Opera Garnier, eventually earning the equivalent of a doctorate in decorative arts. Today, he employs the skills he learned during his apprenticeships — meticulous to-scale sketching, model making and prototyping among them — in his artistic practice, carefully finessing the form of each work before embarking on its creation, despite his near-constant impulse to transgress. “If I’d been a baker, I would have made bread in the shape of a Smurf,” he says.
His 1,400-square-foot live-work space, which he moved into in July 2021, is defiantly untraditional and a marked change from his Haussmannian former apartment in the 10th Arrondissement, which also served as a canvas for his imagination. There, he worked with the interiors’ existing volumes and decorative flourishes, painting gilded frames and cornices on the walls and ceilings that veered wildly off course. But here he has no limitations. “I do things more Pop,” he says, standing in the guest bathroom on the top floor, which has a mirrored mosaic that appears to run down the wall like rivulets of water. It was based on the shape of a real leak that came through the skylight. “At nighttime, it’s super sexy,” he says. Next door is the guest bedroom, with a bed draped in an oversize, irregularly shaped duvet whose cotton cover is printed with a hand-drawn grey marble motif Kiss made for the fabric house Pierre Frey. The comforter spills out onto the floor, its unusual offshoots interlocking with a custom wooden planter box filled with pale river stones and a single cactus.
Kiss’s studio is downstairs, on the entrance level of the building, occupying a large atrium with a vaulted skylight onto which the living quarters on the upper three floors look out. Although this is his full-time residence, there is nothing resembling a conventional kitchen. But there is ample room for entertaining: Kiss has converted the former cellar, which is reached by a dimly lit black-painted staircase, onto which he has drawn marble veins using glow-in-the-dark Posca markers, into a den for parties. It includes a sink, a coffee machine and a fridge with a freezer, “for vodka,” says Kiss, who almost never prepares food at home.
His office is on a mezzanine that sits just below the skylight, giving it the best vantage from which to take in one of the more recent works in his series of painted skyscapes, “Besoin d’Air” (“Need for Air”) (2022): a trompe l’oeil that covers the entire studio floor. Consistent with his training, Kiss likes to paint directly onto walls and ceilings using large brushes. In his previous apartment he worked in the negative, using the existing white wall paint as a base and working blue-grey tones into the upper section of the wall to suggest the nuances of a sky. Here, the artist mounted a wooden platform over the tiled floor and built up his ombré hues with white, grey and blues and, in this case, a dash of pink to suggest the blush of sunrise. He welcomes the idea that guests will walk over the piece, leaving scuffs and marks. Eventually, he will finish it with varnish, preserving not only the clouds but also traces of the people who’ve admired them.
Unlike the grandiose painted trompe l’oeil skies that grace the soaring ceilings of heritage sites, Kiss’s versions tend to be moody: He likes to reference the grey of Parisian zinc rooftops and he dulls sky blue hues by watering them down. He is strategic, too, about the placement of each work so that it responds to the waxing and waning of available natural light; as always for Kiss, the art and its environment are inseparable. But perhaps more than any of his other recurring motifs, the sky — which he has rendered over the years in collages, murals and printed fabrics, and which he plans to represent in future works in mosaic form — allows Kiss to break away from the exacting techniques of his training. “It is the only moment I can express myself,” he says. “Marble must look like marble, so there are limits, but with the sky I can do what I want. It’s always different.”