While France praises Bouroullec bros. from every corner of the Hexagon, we question them about inspiring Mother Nature, encounters that change our lives, survival strategies, and the passionate character of Italians, who are the privileged partners on a job-mission to gently blaze a trail for a better world.
Their creations are part of the permanent collections of the Centre Georges Pompidou and of the Museum of Modern Art of New York, but France made them wait for its approval. However, things are now changing, and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Bretons naturalized Parisians, are presenting their exhibitions in Bordeaux at the Arc en rêve and will soon do it at the Centre Pompidou in Metz.
Winners of the New Designer Award at New York’s ICFF (1999) and elected creative of the year in 2002 at the Salon du Meuble and at Now! last January, since 1997 they have never stopped designing and above all they continue being produced by the larger design houses. In 2002 London devoted them an exhibition at the Design Museum, and before that, Hedi Slimane and Issey Miyake asked them to design spaces for their collections.
The Bordeaux exhibition is a tribute to the slowness, composure and grace of these two young designers (born in 1971 and 1976) who in 1997, at the Salon du Meuble in Paris, inaugurated the flexiscape style: modular units, reversible objects and open spaces thanks to their Disintegrated Kitchen. On this same occasion, the ‘supernatural’ encounter – as Ronan defines it – with the ‘mythical’ Giulio Cappellini, accompanied by the oracular sentence of an Italian journalist: “from now on, your life will change…” But “having a good idea is not an automatic reflex” – Ronan explains, and for this reason one of his major concerns is the documentation of their work: drawings, sketches, models are part of their work, as evidenced by the appreciation received by Arc en rêve.
After this premise, the work Clouds, created for Kvadrat, and Algues for Vitra, as well as the jug Torique, all made me think about the brothers of French design and their relationship with the supernatural: in their works, in fact, there is something magical and ethereal, even though they do everything to have their feet planted, gracefully, on the ground.
For this reason I have decided to interview them, challenging their well-known reluctance to speak. The eldest brother Ronan is willing to reply to my questions.
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, A north tiles walk for kvadrat, © Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec
DROME: Does the supernatural have to do with your works?
RONAN BOUROULLEC: Yes… I don’t have a precise answer to your question, but I can tell you that in our objects there is something extraordinary and magical: we create useful objects that often take a surprising direction.
D: In the shapes and lines of your creations I can see the representation of a tamed nature that does not exist in a city, a nature that is humanized and harmless. Do you recognize yourselves in this?
RB: Yes and no. First of all, the existence of an analysis that is different from ours does not pose any problem to us, because this is not our task. Nature is something we like because we grew up in the countryside and we spent the first 20 years of our lives in Brittany (the Bouroullec brothers were born in Quimper, EN). The issue concerning the natural environment is very important to us; our works are made of geometric shapes, although we do not mean to create a natural geometry – as in the example of Algues or of the chair Vegetal (for Vitra, EN). We have not asked ourselves how algae could be translated into a plastic object, but in retrospect we can perceive some similarities: I mean to say that nature is not a form of direct inspiration or a starting point.
D: How were “Algues” born?
RB: Initially, for a pragmatic reason: for ten years we have been creating several different types of walls and our aim is to create partitions that are not fixed; in other words, we want them to interact extensively with the architectural space, unlike a straight line that creates a well delineated form. The starting point is to find a principle that separates the space gently and with a transparent structure, but without being tied to a linear geometric approach. It’s like a beautiful tree inside a house: it plays a role in space and its physical presence is related to architecture, but it can be perfectly integrated without having to follow, for instance, the ceiling height.
D: Do you have a utopian vision of the world?
RB: Yes, definitely. Maybe it is an old fashioned approach but, as a designer, and like all creative people and scientists, we all participate in the development of a better world, each with a specific skill, and starting from our own dimension. We know for sure that the environment in which we live influences our mood and, consequently, we aspire to take into consideration a better quality world. We prefer a homeopathic approach: we suggest painless, soft ideas, instead of radical solutions that, with a medical metaphor, could be compared to a violent posology.
D: Can we say that in your objects there is a critique of the Western lifestyle?
RB: Yes, but it is not a radical critique. If I think an idea is good, I like to share it with others. We could have been artists, but we like design because there is an extremely interesting relationship with reproduction and a relationship with objects that I would define ‘popular’. The word ‘designer’ encompasses several fields and we have decided to have a critical position by working for the industry. We are participating to this big structure that is questionable, but we move through the system, so as to give solutions. I believe in a sort of positive evolution that spreads gracefully and subtly.
D: What kind of relationship do you have with your objects?
RB: Design is a discipline we have been passionately practicing for a long time. In fact, we have a passionate relationship with the objects we create but, once the objects become real, this feeling disappears. We do not live “inside the objects”.
D: You are collaborating with important brands in different countries… Considering that DROME was born in Italy, I would like to ask you whether you can notice a difference between the way Italians and French work.
RB: We owe our success mainly to Italy, because we have been discovered by Giulio Cappellini – and we also owe our success to the president of Vitra, Rolf Fehlbaum. We usually work for small and medium companies guided by one man. Giulio Cappellini and Rolf Fehlbaum – but Eugenio Perazza, too, president of Magis – have peculiar personalities and they have all been significant to our work. I often compare the activity of a designer to that of an actor: a good actor should be himself but, at the same time, should be ready to adapt to the different directors. One day he must be funny and the day after is asked to be tragic: in other words, he must be willing to propose a series of different characters and multiple solutions. Moreover, we have to adapt to various projects because our field of action is very wide: we can design boats or jewels, we can be asked to create either items that will be sold in millions of copies, or more singular objects.
D: Will you tell us about your first encounter with Giulio Cappellini?
RB: It is appropriate to say that it was a supernatural encounter!! I was only 25 years old and was presenting my works in an exhibition in Paris that now does not exist anymore (Salon du Meuble, 1997, EN). Giulio Cappellini, who was accompanied by the journalist Roberto Palomba, found my works interesting and asked me whether we could meet the following day, to talk about some projects. The design and architecture expert Palomba told me: “From now on, your life will change”. I was too shy at the time, and I did not reply, and moreover this kind of situations make me smile because they might seem outdated but… it was true. From that moment my life has really changed.
D: Giulio Cappellini must have been a charismatic person…
RB: Belonging to the Cappellini team is like being part of the A.C. Milan, the best football team. Ten years ago, this was the benchmark society and Giulio Cappellini gave design a major boost thanks to his ‘visionary’ character. Being discovered by him was really important.
D: Your collaboration with brands from several countries gives you the opportunity to compare different cultures… do you think that in Italy there are techniques that are no longer in use in France?
RB: Italy is the country where I prefer to work, even though relationships are rather complicated. Italy is like a beehive: in its economic structure, craft and industry manage to coexist. There is still an extraordinary range of manufacturers of different sizes. For us designers, it is a pleasure to work in Italy because it is a country where we can find a true culture of the object. In the past thirty years, in France, there have been either big manufacturers or small craftsmen – there are no medium enterprises that have the advantage of being flexible. When I make a comparison with other North European enterprises such as Vitra, for example, I realize that in Italy human and professional relationships are very ‘theatrical’ and therefore a bit complex. But since I usually spend a long time working with Italian teams – because the conceptual phase of a project is long -, I can say that the Italian way of being gives objects a great sensuality. You need luck and a supernatural soul, and being in a theatrical context plays an important role. Some of our best projects have been made in collaboration with Italians: our works have to do with emotions and Italians work first of all with their emotions.
Decisions can be taken coldly, but this never happens in Italy. As a consequence, we create some projects that carry with them a strong emotional charge.
D: Do you mean to say that the development of a project follows this kind of philosophy?
RB: Yes, but the other side of the coin is that, as happens in all passionate relationships, there can be overheated situations.
D: This means that at the beginning of your career it must have been difficult to adjust to the passionate characters of Italians…
RB: At the beginning we were young and shy and have accepted situations that sometimes were incongruous. We were driven by our love of design, and we had the chance to collaborate with passionate people. Moreover, financially and contractually we did not care: we were so happy to work with Cappellini, that nothing else mattered.
D: Today you know much more about codes of conduct: did you get used to their ‘highly inflammable’ reactions?
RB: It’s strange, because we have been working with them for 15 years, but relationships are still a surprise… it’s like a well-matched old couple.
D: Gareth Williams, professor at the Royal College of Arts and former conservator charged of design at the Victoria & Albert Museum, said that your work contains a balanced tension between absolute control of your medium and a total disrespect for convention. Do you agree?
RB: This sentence means everything and its opposite. I really believe in a kind of delicacy and refinement that is a bit old-fashioned for our complex society. I think that objects have their own character and we try to reproduce it in our objects, in the deafening noise of our times. To most people our works can seem weak and without temperament; in my opinion our situation is extremely difficult, because in the end the most delicate things are also the most complicated.
D: I have decided to interview you for this issue of DROME because I think you well represent our generation. Can you define it?
RB: My brother Erwan and I are 5 years apart: it does not seem a long time, but it is. I’ll be 40 this year and I have a less instinctive relationship with computer science, while Erwan knows very well how to deal with it. We belong to a transitional generation: I was bad at school, but in spite of this I know a lot about the history of the Italian movement and design. I have an academic background too: 15-20 years ago we used to find our answers in books. Today my students do Internet searches and they get lots of information. Internet is very interesting, but I was lucky enough to have a rigorous culture of the object of the past century, of the Industrial Revolution and of Postmodernism – in other words, well-defined values. I have the feeling that the education of my students derives from the great quantity of data they elaborate, but the selection of their knowledge is chaotic and less structured. I do not feel I belong to a generation in particular.
D: Walls such as Algues and Clouds seem to correspond to the nomadic nature of our generation: a generation that has been mistreated by AIDS, euro, crises, unemployment and, at the same time, made flexible by these events, by technology and by an easy mobility.
RB: Yes, definitely. For me it’s hard to say whether or not we represent our generation, but what seems fundamental in the creation of our objects is precisely the flexibility you mentioned. In our projects we always think about what makes life complex and different. When we propose a shelf, we think that it should be easy to assemble and disassemble. The question of mobility is present in our objects; I myself have moved so many times…
D: In an interview, Erwan has stated that you consider concentration an extremely important aspect. You don’t want that inside an object materialize millions of details and ideas because your creation derives from a form of elegance and of true plastic beauty.
RB: Obviously, we are interested in the creation of a certain aesthetic form. The Bordeaux exhibition is a kind of overview of objects and media that we use, and it is evident that the question of design is very important to us. Design has become popular and today many media deal with this discipline that is spreading like… tea. The way we talk about it is very important too: there is not only the object in itself, but all that’s around it – notes, drawings, sketches, models and, in particular the photographic representation of the object. Beauty and elegance mentioned by Erwan are enhanced by photographs. We document our work in great detail through different media. The only media we do not master is that of writing, but we would like to add it to be complete and in order to explain our projects in a clear and appropriate way. We tried, but it didn’t work…it is so frustrating…
Published on DROME 19 – the SUPERNATURAL issue
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