Ateliers Saint-Jacques has four master workshops comprised of Metal, Wood, Stone and Bronze all part of the Fondation De Coubertin based near Paris which is dedicated to craftsmanship and passing along the legacy through apprenticeship programs (Discover their workshops here).  They educate the best workers in the world and prepare them to become the highest skilled craftsmen. They are often requested for the most incredible projects and construction sites.

Seduced by the idea of working hand-in-hand with different crafts and highly skilled French craftsmen, Ateliers Saint-Jacques joined the Par Excellence Collective in New-York City a couple of years ago. Since then, we had the chance to work with Pierre-Yves Guenec and discover his own universe that he kindly shared with us for this interview. From finding his vocation and his passion, to his aspirations for craftsmanship in general and for Ateliers Saint-Jacques, discover Pierre-Yves’ natural talent to tell stories and make us reflect on our world.

Could you tell us a bit about your path and career? Where does this desire to craft, forge and create comes from?

I went to craftmanship rather old considering that most of my friends started around 16. Back at university I studied fine arts, literature and philosophy and was far from thinking of a life in workshops. After a few years of those courses a special need grew in me. I wanted something more technical but also more real and I was struggling to give a sense to an artistic career. When I left school at 21, I had no idea of what I would do as a living, but I knew I had to work. It is at this moment that I remembered seeing my father blacksmithing on some old photography and thought that it would be an interesting mix of artistic creation and technical challenges. First, I decided to confront the work and the metal without any fantasize and went to work in an industrial factory. There, the welding, the transformation of huge pieces of steel and all the skills I was taught blew my mind. After graduating from a boilermaker school in western France, I decided I needed more, and I knocked on the door of the elite of European craftsmen: the Compagnons du Devoir. My course with them took eight years, traveling each year to a new city and a new workshop, meeting incredible masters that would transform my life forever. Since nearly 1000 years, the Compagnons teach crafts to young men and women along with ethic and spirituality through a course that’s unique in today’s world : brothers from 16 to 99 years old help each other, bounded by the same passion with no other interest than preserving the crafts and improving them. During 6 to 10 years, young people travel, live, and work all together to learn before starting their own duty of making the world a more beautiful place and teaching the next generation. At the end I worked at the Ateliers Saint Jacques and what I thought would be another one-year experience became a lot more. Last year I was given the opportunity to develop the Ateliers and we opened a USA branch that I manage. I am also in charge of the exportations worldwide and the communication.

What is the most common reaction you get when you tell people you meet about your job?

Most of the people are surprised that such old trades still exist today. We live in a society that is very disconnected from the realities of making and producing. People seem to imagine that things just appear during the night through a magical process so it is always nice to see a spark in someone’s eye when they realize that people are still working with their hands to transform stone, wood or iron into special creations. Right after this first reaction, there are always a lot of questions about the work, the training, etc. and I feel bad because it is like taking all the attention. I think people are craving for real things, things that have sense and give sense. I like to think that thanks to their passionate way of living their life, craftsmen can contribute to give a bit of hope to the world.

What is one of your projects you are the proudest of? Could you explain why you chose this one and how you felt when you were part of this project?

It is hard to chose one specific project because there have been many great experiences and I am only at the beginning of my career, so I tend to look forward rather than backward. If I really had to choose, I would speak about the restauration of the Royale Chapel of Versailles in 2018. I was still a business manager at the metal workshop at that time and was given the responsibility of this project. More than the building by itself -which is a masterpiece of architecture, it was my team that made me very proud. Those craftsmen dedicated more than two years of their life to restore the ironworks of the stained glass in very hard conditions. There was lead, asbestos, bad weathers, access difficulties and they did an amazing work while keeping a joyful spirit. I learned many things from them and consider myself a very lucky man to have worked with such people.

What is one building that strikes you every time? Could you describe it to us in your own words?

I love the remaining LU tower from my home city, Nantes. It is a crazy building, colorful and totally unexpected, build in 1905. More than the mad architecture, what I really love about this is that it was a factory. It remembers us that we need beauty, no matter what. Yes, a museum or an embassy need to be beautiful, but so needs a factory. People spend around 40 hours a week at their worksite, whether it is offices or production plant and I think that it is cruel to make them spend so much time in ugly premises. There is a strong message in this tower, and I believe in tomorrow’s architecture to make Beauty something for everybody again. Architects and craftsmen have a big responsibility and a duty to make the world a more beautiful place, for the wellbeing of every human, wealthy or not.

Another building that really strikes me by its proportion and its unusual architecture is Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco. It was finished in 1971 and designed by local architects John Michael Lee, Paul A. Ryan and Angus McSweeney, collaborating with internationally known architects Pier Luigi Nervi and Pietro Belluschi, then the Dean of the School of Architecture at MIT. If a temple ever looked like a temple, it is this one. It feels like it is out of time. It was futuristic for the era, yet it looks like a 10 000-year-old temple. You understand directly what the building is about when you first see it. It is a masterpiece in my opinion.

What is your favorite city in the world in terms of architecture?

I think my favorite city is Vienna. There something very special here than I can hardly describe with words. As an imperial city, it was build to show power and has amazing 19th century buildings but what makes it so special is how the Secession transformed what could have been a rigid, boring and “bourgeois” architecture into a masterpiece of artistic innovation. In my sense, the Austrians started this modern era we are still in today. They understood that the purpose of ornamentation was not to create a fake world nor to hide the bad proportions of a building but to highlight pure lines. To understand the roots of the architecture we are building today, Vienna is one of the places to visit I believe.

Could you talk about one of your favorite artist/designer or architects?

They are many creators that are very important to me, from Myron to Schiele, Vitruve to Nouvel, and I spend most of my time surrounded by the artistic works of others. If I had to choose one, I would pick Walter Gropius. Not really for his career but for what he wrote in 1919:

“When young people who take a joy in artistic creation once more begin their life’s work by learning a trade, then the unproductive “artist” will no longer be condemned to deficient artistry, for their skill will now be preserved for the crafts, in which they will be able to achieve excellence. Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts! For art is not a “profession.” There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, transcending the consciousness of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in a craft is essential to every artist. Therein lies the prime source of creative imagination.” – Walter Gropius

Can you disclose something about yourself that might surprise us?
Apart from playing in extrem metal bands you mean?

Passing craft techniques to the future generation and maintaining this heritage is a core mission at Ateliers Saint-Jacques, when did you realized that this was your vocation as well?

I think it answered a deep question I had since my childhood : what is my purpose to this world ? When going for an artistic career, I felt very self-centered and something was not feeling right but when I entered the Compagnons, it suddenly became very clear that I could devote my life to a greater good. What we do here gives a lot of sense to every of our action as each of us is a link of a great chain. We are powerless by ourselves but put together we achieve both temporal and spiritual things. Because craftsmanship is not only about the techniques or the trades themselves. Those are only a way to give every individual a purpose, a goal, a place, and the philosophy that comes with it. The real purpose of everything we do is to make people happy by giving them what others gave to us and showing them how free we can get thanks to craftsmanship.

What do you hope for Ateliers Saint-Jacques’ future and the next generations of craftsmen?

I want the Ateliers Saint Jacques and the Fondation de Coubertin to become a place of teaching and exchange for both designers and craftsmen. Nowadays, young craftsmen study in our school their techniques in order to improve in the workshop or in the office when answering engineering questions for designers, as well as studying art history, philosophy or literature so they can open to the world. What I am looking at is opening this to design student as well so they could learn the entire creating process. I am dreaming of a new Bauhaus and I think that the Foundation could be an amazing place to start this. For the next generation of craftsmen, my biggest wish is for them to have a better recognition of their work and lifestyle. Creation would be nothing without the dirty hands from the workshops and I hope that tomorrow’s world will understand this. Men and women who produce masterpiece thanks to their dedication deserve recognition and respect and their names to be written next to the others.

What projects does Ateliers Saint Jacques currently have in the work?

Our activities are currently divided in two big parts which are heritage building restauration and new creations. We are working on a few private castles that I am not allowed to talk about but for the buildings that everybody would know, we are still working at Versailles for the Royal Chapel and we work at Notre Dame de Paris. About the new creations, we are very proud to work on several projects for the French designers Joseph Dirand and Pierre Yovanovitch. I personally love both of their styles and it is a great honor to build their creations. we are mostly working at private residences, in New York, Florida, California as well as Japan, Switzerland, Qatar and France with talented people such as Andrew Skurman, Peter Marino, Toro & Lieutard, Studio Razavi, Noe Duchaufour Lawrence. Unfortunately, there is nothing that I am allowed to talk about specifically.

Dive into Pierre-Yves’ universe through his Instagram account

Discover Ateliers Saint-Jacques’ projects here

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