From their studio in Paris brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec are taking new ideas to some of the most powerful furniture houses in the world. Here Erwan Bouroullec and Leo Ryan discuss the emotional impact of design and its subconscious link to our past. LR: One of the things that stands out straight away is the variety and scale of your work.
EB: We are quite happy when we can step inside a field that we haven’t been really confronted by before. So some kind of unusual scale for us is quite interesting. In quite a simple way we have a kind of pure industrial design logic that is about understanding the required function and applying the right technology. Then after, what makes a good project or not, is a kind of strange story that is even difficult for me to explain.
LR: Do you think that is intuition?
EB: I think it’s really a strange alchemy of many, many factors that interrelate and I think a good project is one that is able to answer many kinds of points of view; our point of view, the manufacturing point of view. For some projects, some points of view are really difficult to answer and can create difficulty for a project to evolve to something stronger.
LR: What tends to be the more difficult to satisfy: the user, the manufacturer or your own demands?
EB: The most difficult thing is the right balance between all of these points of view. What is more difficult to achieve for example, is that we can have some really strong new ideas but sometimes these ideas are just not able to be applied. There can be some kind of lack of reality and other times it can be the opposite – there can be too much reality and a lack of magic inside a project. For me, what we are doing now, we are confronted with an incredibly nice brand and a company that has a lot of history and so our real goal is to bring in as much magic as possible, while continuing to bring in reality.
LR: That’s a lovely situation to be working with, the tension between reality and magic.
EB: This is one of the particularities of the design field, opposite to the arts field. One of our real goals is to produce something that exists within the constraints of factories. This for me gives a lot of opportunity. It’s like making a piece of art ‘in situ’, it just means that you have to understand where you are and why you do it in that particular case. To be able to keep the magic inside a space or a project is a great goal.
LR: Gaetano Pesce has a theory that designers have taken the role of artists in contemporary society.
EB: Well, as a designer what is interesting with our work is to design what I call ‘tools’. We don’t produce things that are to be looked at we produce things that have to be used. And it is true that from this point of view we can have quite a direct influence on people’s lives and the way they use things. The arts is in a way a much more intellectual way of acting whereas we propose a ‘XXX’ that people can really act with. In art, I’d say that there is still a lot of a primary language. I’d never say that design has taken the role of art – we have different kinds of rules and matters between design and art. Maybe design is becoming a more relevant fact than art.
LR: We talked about the tension between magic and reality in design. Do you think that there is also a tension between your urban existence and your rural connections?
EB: I think anywhere in the design question there is a lot of reality that interacts when you design something. For us it is also a relevant fact that the way people live currently is evolving quite quickly and we need to find some kind of answer between things that people know as a culture but are not adapted to where they live and how they live.
LR: One of the ways that I think you resolve that tension interestingly is something like the Joyn table that you modelled on the kitchen table at your grandparents’ farm.
EB: Yes – there is a real tension – on one hand there is a table for companies who are looking to organise their employees around this bench situation, which for many reasons is incredibly convenient. But this doesn’t mean that everyone is at his own desk. The structure of the company can be incredibly freed and doesn’t have to be as stable as it used to be in the past. So on one hand we proposed something that was really new and different, from a working point of view, and on the other hand we tried to bring in a lot of what we remembered of being a simple table having an incredibly simple function and not trying to put someone in front of a kind of futuristic work bench. So it is playing on one hand with memory and on the other with surprise. But if it had been a disturbing surprise it would have been more difficult.
LR: Do you find that this is something you consciously use in your work – referencing people’s emotional or tactile memory?
EB: Yeah – I’m really sure of it. I think that at the beginning we more or less didn’t even control or understand this. For example, when we made Lit Clos – the closed bed that is on feet – and presented it, members of the audience came up to me and said, ‘Oh it’s really nice, it reminds me of when I was young’. And everyone has a different answer: ‘It’s something like my grandfather’s shed he had in his back garden’ or, ‘When I was young I had my bed up in the room like this’. And this actually surprised me because it turned out that this bed typology was using a lot of memories that they had, which made it for them incredibly near and direct. On one hand they were surprised by this kind of bed and on the other they were already knowing it. We are becoming more aware of this and always try to understand what is already a remaining culture that has a lot of value in terms of making people at ease. Once you have people at ease it is a good time to try something new.
LR: Can we talk a little bit about the design process you go through with your brother?
EB: We have a process that is based in the studio as a discussion, which always happens in a design team. The way we work is quite simple – it’s kind of a ping-pong game – we are in front of each other drawing and the project just grows. The difference that we have is that as brothers we have already a deep common culture for shapes or colours for example. It is something that is written inside your brain when you are five years old.
LR: Are there any stages that you find more productive or exciting?
EB: I think it depends a little bit on the context. With Vitra for example, we have a lot of discussions directly with Vitra people. We make a lot of prototypes directly there. Let’s say that with Vitra projects, Vitra is also playing the ping-pong game. And this brings a lot of value to the design.
LR Are there any really interesting projects coming up that you can tell us about?
EB: We are constantly working with Vitra and Capellini and these kinds of things are incredibly interesting because with really long relationships, we know each other more and more and in a way we can go further and further. We really develop things. For me really to work with a manufacturer is always a love story that evolves over time.