NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 43

Face To Face-II

Face To Face With Erwan Bouroullec; The Well-Balanced Design

Majid Abbasi

How do you work together? From study, sketches, discussion to concept, design and production?
Let me start by saying that this is the first time that we are in an Iranian magazine. 
We work both together and for other companies. The process in product design is quite interesting because there’s a constant need to add or remove parts of the initial concept. There is a strong motto in industrial production that the minimum is the best. 
Our methodology is to draw, sketch and make mockups and often we keep on repeating this process until we reach the desired outcome. The idea of repeating the process is to omit as many unnecessary details as possible without adding anything to it. I see this process as a mediation in a way: we both take time to think, discuss and put things into perspective until we reach the coveted end product. For the Bouroullec Studio practice is the key. We try to draw —both analogue and on the computers—, make lots of mock ups and most importantly we are not afraid to make errors, we strongly believe that through making errors you end up achieving interesting results. 
Over the past years with the growth of technology, Industrial design has lost a little bit of common sense, of course it’s more efficient and productive but at the same time it’s incomprehensible for the audience to, for example, guess the process of manufacturing a plastic toy, where as before with wooden toys, everything was a lot less intricate.

We believe in using a language that’s recognizable by the end user, we make and examine many solutions, create things that can easily be done and feel natural the against more complicated methodology of creating pieces that escape the common sense. That is why we are not terrified of making errors or working with normal people as apposed to more advanced experts. It’s our way of creating a universal language that makes sense to a wider range of audience.
Bouroullec’s designs such as screens, rugs, sofas, lighting are simple, friendly and humble, and poetic. Do you yourselves believe this poetry?
Yes. I think partially it comes from our childhood and backgrounds. Growing up in the countryside gives a tremendous amount of practice with construction. In a farm, if you needed a door you would simply make it. Of course it may be rough but that’s not the main issue, the main factor is to build it using limited resources.
We strongly believe that even by using limited supplies you can still achieve wonders. We are happy to input a lot of character into an object and to utilize a typology that’s unusual while avoiding any kind of hierarchy. Looking at our designs some may be very expensive and some are less so, but somehow none of them show any sign of this. You can never label those products for a certain audience, no matter rich or poor, old or young. Any one can relate to it. 

Your works have a common edge of art and design. Do you believe this encounter?
No! I believe in the full force of poetics. We make things for humans and they are much more clever than something else. Often, you could say design is about function. It would be function for machine, animal and etc… we need to input anything.
Of course, humans deserve much more and somehow I understand more and more how much of the function is also inside the poetry. If you design something delicate people will behave with more delicate movements, they will take more care with things. Then if you make a very artful core language, people might also behave artfully.
So the delicacy of something begins a conversation with your mind to that is a very important part of the function. It is not like it is useless, or that a proper shape it is not useless is very important. Honestly, I studied contemporary art, you just always need to read a piece in its own context. So what we produce is design so people could say yes sometime its become something that look likes art, but just remember it comes from our design background. There are many things and many pieces that I found very interesting design piece, and if you tell me they are pieces of art, maybe I would say they are not interesting as art pieces.
Sometime we make small movies, but I don’t say it is cinema! I think that where the practice comes from has an importance at the end, I mean one of the big differences between design and art is most of the time art is belonging to a world of unique pieces. There is a uniqueness behind art which is very strong. We are producing and it goes into the world of quantities somehow. So, some of them are large, some of them are very small but somehow it is never unique. So, as is not unique, and it goes into world somehow, we also want it to be accessible. That is very universal that it can fit in very different kind of philosophical context. So I believe there is a difference between art and design. I think art has a very complete message. And to me design has less of this issue of being a single message. It is not a message, it is medium. A starting point that people can grow from. Again as I told you at beginning, you believe in the full force of the delicacy of poetry and anything you can input… of course a good part of humanity yes of course.

As designers, you are most recognized from your multi-colored and multi-material felt tile’ screens. These are not only objects as partitions of space but also a kind of interaction between users and products. Anyebody can create whatever they would like. Please tell us more about theses flexible objects.
That is the story of our life, we have been working on this over the past years and still never feel we have succeeded completely. Having time and speed as parameters for our success, we live in a very paradoxical situation where long-lasting characteristics of a product are favorable—hat’s a believe coming from the 70s—that if you design and produce an object properly it should last for-ever. In the 70s there was quite a different lifestyle compared to our current way of living. You would get married once and live in the same house for most of your life without having to move between cities or countries. Whereas now we move quite a lot. We may get a divorce and remarry later on, live in different cities. We live in big cities but considerably smaller spaces, so there’s a constant need to fit everything, that contradicts the long lasting concept because sometimes it’s really difficult to move everything with you.
So for instance the core concept behind the Tiles, was to find a simple solution that could be applicable for different spaces whilst being lightweight. Not having to add tiles to the structure by drilling or using concrete or plaster. A long time ago we observed the strength of an interior piece through its ability to be part of the main building structure. This approach is still valuable for interior architects but we believe that simplicity in a product design could make way for accomplishing more without being an expert or having to go through technical or complicated installment procedures. However, this approach is not as favorable within the industry as we would like, which is a pity because it would have been very efficient.
So that’s the conceptual background, it’s not necessarily promoting a nomadic life style, rather it’s a solution for utilizing a design in various installments or spaces.
Another part of it is the magic of surface and the diversity in its structural material and the interaction with light and air. The surface has a lot of value in a time where we are confronted by the same materials almost everywhere. We also tend to live in small spaces with a limited number of materials. I am not trying to say they are all the same but one thing for sure is that they lack the diversity we had before.
That being said, we still haven’t reached a desirable outcome, like finding things that you could easily cover a room with, but we have succeeded strategically, for example numbers are growing for the clouds, it is permanent development.

What’s the difference between human-scaled objects such as chairs, vases, dishes and bowls, spoon, necklace, faucet and massive architectural screens which you said somewhere “There are pieces in the show that are huge and in big quantities and generate a real magic in a way – a scale people are not used to at all”.
I think Ronan and I have two different approaches. Of course, most of the work is to make things that are part of our normal life, a chair or a coffee cup but we also use exhibition and media to put a concept in a much wider context, so people could see a little bit further. So, yes when we make an exhibition it looks like you are going to a church, things are very long and symbolic and it engages a little bit more of your sense everyday objects.
We try to convince the industry that there are different possibilities present for everything. Exhibitions can happen like this, this part of the work is not exactly conceptual but it is to demonstrate what could happened if you would do something on a grander scale. Show things and convince people that things can happen and to convince them that while there’s a rational way in western countries that are more materialistic— we can still input some magic into our work. And if you look closely, there’s still a structure behind it, even if it is very simple. So the magic is there and things could really happen if you would like to put them into reality.

You mentioned that “Character is so important – If our designs don’t have it, they don’t work”. Please tell us more about the characteristic of your designs.
Well, we use character as a wide term which is somehow difficult to describe. When you walk into a room where every piece of furniture or light is in harmony with you and you feel at ease, as if everything is in its natural order, you might feel at peace. However, there are many spaces in which you won’t feel this harmonic character, there are so many places like hotels that you would go into and they have tried their best to demonstrate a higher level of social behavior but everything feels wrong, nothing really fits.
We all know that in cooking amazing things can happen, amazing experiences. Which is why I relate design to cooking. It’s because in cooking, at the end, everything is based on our memories, on many nostalgic memories. It’s a powerful factor because it reminds you of the life we have been living, and I think design is the same, everything can be new but have its own character. When you see someone, for some reason, from the clothes, to the way they walk, you can somehow read this person and start to speak with this person and they become something else. That is character, what you see first and what someone wants to show of him/herself: the way you walk, the clothing you wear, those are the signs you put out into society. Then, somehow objects in a room do the same thing. They say welcome, they say you are not welcome! It’s time to work, it’s to relax and actually that is the real role of design, giving this information.             Function is not real function. I mean a coffee cup means coffee is not leaking, yes of course! On a chair, you can sit, of course! Then the real function is behind the atmosphere that it is creating. And the atmosphere is creating a relation with the people. We consider that to be character. Something you can see, you can understand but which is not solved yet. 

You mentioned in an interview with Josephine Minutillo in Whitewall that “It’s not difficult to have a good idea. The real difficulty comes in making this idea exist in exactly the terms you want.” Is there anything you designed but never produced in mass production? Please give us some examples and the reasons for non production.
Many things we have failed at, because honestly there are very few factors that end in product design. If you look most of time once an object is made one, two, three or a multiple of times... it doesn’t have many shapes, so it is really condensed! We engage in product development with a lot of positive thinking.
In general, I consider that product development is also a very important role in the life cycle of an object. It means that the more problems you have and more you need address. Strangely, there is kind of Darwinism to process. When you are solving problems often you put many things into the object. There are a lots of details.
For example with pane of glass, the top is lightly rounded just around the edge. You know it’s due to glass production which is to make it as a bottle at first, cut and then fire, burn again to make sure that it will become soft again. Most of the time, it’s these small details that give meaning to everything and they haven’t been designed, it’s just a technical issue. What I’m really curious about is to see how many people would notice the change if you remove this rounded edge on a glass?
We engaged all the time in product development with positive thinking and politics, but sometimes things just explode because it becomes too expensive, something is wrong, or it is not strong enough or it gets to the point where the shape would becomes ridiculous.
So, Many things never succeed. Design is really about making a good balance.
It can happen many times that things become totally unbalanced. before many parameters because design can’t bear one error. I mean design at a large scale and you can’t have any errors, it make the things disappear at the end. It is a really nice process but it is why we need time, a very long meditational process to understand where the errors may occur. Errors can be linked and unbalance things and sometimes are very difficult to find. We also know that when we solve them, we’ll have a huge success. Why not and something that didn’t think that way of big success became success!!!
In design, there are parameters that at the end people buy, and of course that are very strong parameters of the same but which is something which is totally unexpected… you don’t know when it will come out.

You designed part of the works for the Swiss furniture company, Vitra. They sold millions of plastic Algue pieces as incredible expandable screens. Would you please tell us more about this product and your collaboration with Vitra?
This is something we have been looking at for a long time. Some pieces can be produced with industrial techniques and the same time can be very easily assemble for the people, making screens, and becoming a little bit transformed through the process. 
That was the concept behind it. What’s funny is that when we designed those nobody believed they would be a success. Originally, we didn’t exactly design them in parts. We make them for the exhibition and we showed the prototype. They said OK, that is interesting. I could just see in their faces that they didn’t get it… that they didn’t believe. Then, we built an exhibition and it was amazing. This thing that looks very conceptual, people just showed up asking if they could have it. It became a very long-lasting thing. Vitra is smart and has been selling lots of them. It is a part of our work that is functional and also quite conceptual. People love them because of the conceptual structure behind it. It is a strange result. Sometimes people make very nice set-ups and sometime very strange set-ups with them. I think because it is something special, they think they should do something special with it. 
We are doing many projects with Vitra, they are one of the older and larger companies that we work with.
What’s probably even more important is that things that have been working about public compartment, for office in general and then we learn a lot and are much more engaged. We start thinking about the ergonomics of a group instead of those of a single person. That is the real role of design is not to make something which is fitting one but more fitting a lot. We are doing many things because of our contact Rolf Fehlbaum has been leading the company for a long time and he is an amazing person. Many things that I explained today I have come to understand through him.
Designers sometimes are little bit like actors in the cinema, trying to fit into a context… we have a lot of respect for the companies we work with, we want to understand them, we want to make the right thing in a context that can change quiet a lot from industry to industry.
To us, respect means that we listen a lot to them. So how the Bouroullec’s work with companies because they are very important to the projects we are doing. They give us a lot of information and depending on the company we work with one way or another they have a lot of influence. Most of the time we have long relationship with companies and very strong connections with them. We speak a lot with them, respect them a lot… actually it becomes a very important in our life.

“It is a very flexible, organically composed structure that grows like a plant”. 1  This idea also developed with the same principals in your other screen projects made with different materials such as glass, aluminum, ceramics and textile mesh that you have shown in ’17 Screens’ in Rennes exhibition, 2016. Where did this idea come from, and why do you prefer this design system? 
There are two parts. First is the molecular part because we can reduce everything to a minimum and then resemble it. Sometimes it is one single element as in Algue and in 17 Screens. We try to reduce everything to a minimum unit and then built from it.
The second, is about growing like a plant. In many cases, in Algue or Cloud, we are looking for shapes that are somehow very structural but also not easily identifiable through the usual methods of thinking, which is very linear and very organized. For example in Algue or Cloud, if you look at many pieces, there is no left or right, top or bottom. It would be like going into space without respecting the rules of the space. A lot of things we have been doing is with screens. Screens are very creative, very strong and very symbolic. When you store the screen, it resembles a chimney in a place. The chimney is very symbolic form… i’ts so absolute. When you have drink, you go sit next to the chimney. It’s not about the warmth, it’s more of a symbol. Also, the screens that we make are very strong, but they are also very transparent. Maybe they are used to create a wall but they can also be a little bit strange in that respect, almost like a plant. If some people are in a park and there are some trees, they will all go under the trees at some points. That is growing like a plant, one way is to grow with freedom but it also has a kind of symbolism to it… of something special which is in contradiction with the space around it.
Another part of your question is about glass, aluminium and different materials. We are really concentrated on making a show using materials that are very true and that people can relate to.
Again because of the beginning of our talk, I was speaking about industrial techniques that lost a little bit of sense. There are a lot of fake materials around us these days. You see most of the things as surface treatments. Everything is done in plastic or ceramics... They try to say: I am stone, I am wood… When you look at cosmetic bottles, they want to say they are made of gold, so they are gold platted or made with plastic. I see more examples everywhere of things that try to be something that they are not. That is a big problem. Our eyes don’t recognize what things truly are.
People in the 70’s used to say, kids that are growing up inside the city, they will never know that green is coming from the color of plants. Instead, they think it would come from a can. It means that the more we have things around us that would help in our basic understanding of our surroundings, the more we will start to see.
McDonald’s is taking pictures of very nice pieces of beef but we know that is not nice beef. Everything is partially fake… there is a lot of fake news, more and more fake reality but not in a very political way. There is more fake reality in a subtle way, our eyes don’t distinguish the difference. You see from the window and you say OK, it must be very nicely done but maybe not …
So, our moleculars has also to show very clearly every material, every assembly… It is a screen but even in many things… you look at furniture, you would ask someone to build it and most of time they would be able to do so. Pieces are very clearly identified, it is like as an icon of what they are because we also want to be very clear in this language of building. So people just get what they see. It is not nothing to do with using luxurious or not luxurious materials we don’t mind working with plastic, we just want the things we make to be very clear.

Ronan said: “It was good to do something for students, not bourgeois people” 2. Please tell us about designed furniture for the remodeled University of Copenhagen. It is very unique, isn’t it?
In Denmark where it took place it use to happen a lot, 100 years ago they would ask a carpenter to make things for them. That’s how our collaboration begins. The important part that Ronan said, that is for students but also for the home, is that we work a lot to make things that are simple enough to make sure that you are not having too much of a pre-dictated components to it. So it means that most of the time if you are going school, you see these chairs that look like they’re for school. That is clear. And most of the time you would take those chairs to your home and they would probably be a little bit weird and feel wrong. We are not good at specializing the furniture because somehow you then have to dictate a little bit too of much what’s going to happen with them.
So, a project we did a long time ago, we made a working desk for Vitra called ‘Join’. This big desk for Vitra is like a working table. First we designed the table and said “maybe you’re gonna work on it.”
But it is not about making a ‘working table’ but to simply make a table. Not making a chair for the university but simply to make a chair. Do not make a kitchen chair but make a chair. So, you can always repeat that. It is very important and before our world used to be very specialized. Before you used to have a computer for work and a computer for home. Yes, it used to be different. We never believed much in specialization because it doesn’t exist most of the time. Time is moving quicker and people’s minds are also moving much quicker. We knew from Copenhagen, one of the issue that made the university say: “We have this issue with the students that is, they come to work but they don’t stay for life. We want them to stick around, to meet each other, but not to meet them in classroom… We need this to be what they call their home which is normal for students inside a university, so the university should be their home, they should spend most of their time here, stay late at night, joking and playing, exchanging.” I mean we all know life is nice like this… you make something which is identified but then on the outer surface other things are building.
The strategy behind specifying the furniture is if that if it doesn’t feel good for working, or don’t feel able to relax… you can concentrate or you cannot feel relaxed… That is the intention behind this collection.

For the last question would you please tell us about your last recent show at Milan Exhibition 2018?
We produced a number of new and original things for the Milan exhibition for 20 years. I think the level of design is growing. The only thing that we found a bit strange is that you see more and more design about pleasurable things and not enough about things that we would need. So you see everything from mirrors, tables, low-tables, small lamps to plug in iPads and iPhones and so on…
Somehow it’s like Airbnb… life you know. Everything is easy, everything is nice, just have a cup of coffee and relax. I feel things are less at ease and convinced by the direction they create because at the same time they feel out of this planet.
But in design the main point is to create some function and some surrounding in which you would put people in a situation and they can be active and not be passive. That is very important and design as role to play in that. 
One of the good example that is not exactly design related is all these organic foods you are getting now…people are becoming more active in consuming organic foods. They are somehow fighting against heavy industrial food and at the same time it is also activating the notion of seasonal eating because you can’t get organic food all the time. For example you can’t have tomatos in winter… so organic food is active. So also become more active in making things.
Design should have a little bit more of this role in putting people to action. Sometimes now I wonder if we put too little into things that invite people to take part and be active. That is it.
Thank you Ronan!
Thank you for the good questions.

 1  Silvia Monaco (Domus No. 922).
 2 ‘Made for a School, but Fit for a Home’, The New York Times, November 21, 2012

Majid Abbasi

is design director of Studio Abbasi active in the international community, based in Tehran and Toronto. He leads a variety of design projects for start-ups, non-profits and educational organizations worldwide. Majid actively contributes to the international design scene as an instructor, jury member, curator and writer. He has been editor-in-chief of Neshan, the leading Iranian graphic design magazine since 2010. Majid has been members of Iranian Graphic Designers Society (IGDS) since 1998 and Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) since 2009.

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