“I remember taking a client to a gallery in New York,” says Richard Petit, “and on the way out I left my business card, which has my email address on it. And before I had gotten down to the sidewalk, the gallery guy came racing after us to ask, ‘Are you The Archers?’”
It’s probably not the kind of encounter most of Petit’s contemporaries have had to deal with. As principal designer of The Archers — a Los Angeles-based interior design firm that specialises in sophisticated modernist homes — he’s spent over a decade building his business the old-fashioned way, through word-of-mouth recommendation and photogenic projects for well-connected clients. But it’s the kind of story that he’s had to get used to telling, thanks to The Archers’ Instagram account, which has taken Petit and his work to a global audience.
“Working in the private sector, particularly on houses, you seldom get to photograph or publish your work,” he says. “So for us, Instagram has been a really useful means of communication. It’s become something that allows people to reach out to us and give direct feedback. It’s opened so many doors. It introduces us to people.”
People like the daughter of Italian modernist Paolo Rizzatto, who got in touch when Petit posted some pictures she’d never seen of her childhood home. Or Luigi Caccia Dominioni, another Milanese design legend, who died in 2016 at the age of 102. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to live like this’,” Petit says of Dominioni’s work. “And I got the chance to meet him and speak with him.” Or that gallerist who chased after Petit on a New York street, and with whom he’s still in contact. “We shared so many likes, so many of the same design interests. He felt like he knew who I was.”
Richard Petit, Principal designer for The Archers, photographed in Los Angeles by Alex Polillo, December 2017
At base, @the.archers.inc Instagram account is a stream of the images that inspire Petit and his team, grouped in rows of three. But it’s the way it manages to combine style with content that makes the feed so consistently interesting, showcasing and celebrating masterpieces from the obscurer reaches of modernism’s history.
There are some familiar names in the mix — Alvar Aalto, Gio Ponti, Le Corbusier — but even they tend to be represented as part of lesser-known projects, such as Italian architect Carlo Scarpa’s interior for a house in Zürich, forgotten for half a century but recently rediscovered.
And the account is just as likely to feature exquisitely gilded art deco book covers by illustrator Pierre Legrain, brutalist sculptures by contemporary Canadian designer David Umemoto, or a rainbow-tiled office interior from interwar Frankfurt, by the German architect and designer Peter Behrens.
“It took a while to figure out,” says Petit of the feed’s format, which began in 2015 with a painting of a female archer, followed by two snaps of a dog wandering around a Maison Margiela store, but then found its feet: meticulous rows of shots categorised by repeating themes, in topics ranging from furniture to fine art to tableware; and by designer, broken only by the occasional portrait of Petit and his photogenic staff.
“I was thinking of something like Franco Maria Ricci’s FMR magazine [a lavish Italian art title that ran for 27 years until 2009] — that was just the coolest thing, and which showcased his personal obsessions. So I just posted the things I liked.”
By February 2018, Petit’s page had amassed 42,500 followers, a substantial audience by most standards, but nothing compared to some of the design world’s heavy hitters. But accounts such as Design Milk (two million and counting) are heavy on aspirational lifestyle, while The Archers is first and foremost a celebration of beautifully conceived, gorgeously crafted objects.
Its most popular post is a set of Iittala vases from 1954, by the Finnish sculptor Tapio Wirkkala; not far behind is a garden armchair by the French metalworker and architect Jean Prouvé, its swooping green acrylic seat framed in varnished steel. A typical triptych might focus on teapots: one produced by Marianne Brandt at the Bauhaus workshop in Twenties Germany, placed in a timeline next to an Eighties Malevich-inspired example by Rossi & Arcandi, and a striking Victorian object by pioneering Scottish designer Christopher Dresser.
It’s an extraordinarily catholic vision of design history, with projects scattered across the world: rugs by Roberto Gabetti and Aimaro Isola; Lebanese architecture by Sami el Khazen; ice-cool Eighties Manhattan interiors by Joe D’Urso; Danish furniture by Hanne Kjærholm.
Petit makes connections across time and space, from the thematic to the cheerfully coincidental — such as illustrator Mary Blair’s designs for Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride, which sit a few rows above images of the stunning house the modernist architect Harwell Hamilton Harris designed for Blair and her husband two decades earlier.
“Doing research was always so fascinating to me,” Petit says. “Our clients are often very fluent and informed, so each commission evolves into a personal research project. Education on that level, that’s the greatest luxury: introducing people to new things and getting them to delight in these weird relationships.”
As you’d expect, many of Petit’s followers are also from the design world, whether it be iconic mid-century names — Achille Castiglioni, Jørn Utzon, Fritz Hansen — or international contemporaries like Jasper Morrison or Maarten Baas. Designer heads at fashion brands including Hermès, Ermenegildo Zegna and Raf Simons are also fans.
“Instagram has become the social media platform for architecture and design, as it has been for fashion for years,” says Armand Benezra, a wholesale director at Dior and an Archers fan. “What The Archers show is a discovery for most of the audience, and a reminder for the aware.”
Petit began his career in theatre design. “I soon came to realise that I wasn’t a great fit with that culture,” he says. “Then circumstances led me to pursue fashion. I had an avant-garde clothing line for a while [the label Betes de Couleurs, which enjoyed some success in the late Eighties]. And that did all the things that I suppose avant-garde clothing lines are meant to do, show crazy ideas and lose money. But through that, I had all these industry contacts, so I started a design showroom in New York. And eventually an interior designer saw something I’d done for Ralph Lauren and invited me out to the West Coast. So I came out to Los Angeles and fell in love with the city instantly. The architecture, the lifestyle. I worked for a while here for [interior designer] Brad Dunning, who’s a zealot about mid-century modernism. But after some time a client came to me and said, ‘You should do your own thing.’ So we started our own studio. And it has, really, become a proper collective. We’ve got people who’ve done photography, fine art, architecture. There’s an English major.”
The Archers’ rise has coincided with a wider renaissance in LA, kick-started around 2012 when Hedi Slimane relocated his Saint Laurent studios there, knocking fashion’s traditional New York-London-Milan off-kilter. The emergence of DTLA, the city’s revitalised downtown district, is now firmly underway, with projects by major international architects such as BIG, OMA and SOM all in the works.
“What happened in 2008 here was a devastating blow to the industry,” Petit recalls, thinking back to the impact of the last recession. “And so we all have to work harder to make ourselves more necessary. There’s a migration underway here, for sure. Like many movements, it begins in the art world. But the fundamentals of LA are always going to be the same: the gloss, the new money, the darkness underneath.
“It’s the most extraordinary city. Driving down Wilshire Boulevard, it’s like Mussolini’s EUR in Rome — the travertine, the shadows, that mixture of the processional and the ridiculous. It’s a ridiculous place!”
In addition to the stylish homes it has been designing around Los Angeles for over a decade, The Archers has started to branch out, from the spectacular Central Park West apartment for designer Tyler Ellis, daughter of designer Perry Ellis, to the cool, Zen interiors of Mare Salon, a West Hollywood hairdressers. Meanwhile, The Archers’ Instagram account continues to grow in size and influence. You can see how the threads of its research feed into the studio’s work. At Mare Salon, pale glass-block walls and cool marbles sit alongside sculptural mid-Seventies ebony-and-walnut furniture by Maxalto, while a starkly rustic new-build home in Toro Canyon features a pair of rare Thonet chairs originally designed for the Czech Embassy in Stockholm.
Increasingly, though, our relationship with social media has become darker. In the era of fake news and Twitter bile, where Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg calls for “meaningful social interactions”, Instagram remains a bright, escapist corner — a mirror to the world, not as it is, but as we might like it to be.
This article was first published in Esquire Big Black Book UK, Spring/Summer 2018.