A Discreet Charm

Interview with Erwan & Ronan Bouroullec

Quimper, France, c. 1982: The Bouroullec brothers’ first collaboration is launched into the world. It is a football goal frame, produced over a weekend while their parents are away. “We started with a plank of wood, and then set to nailing it—but we didn’t have the right nails; the wood was too hard,” says Erwan Bouroullec. He was perhaps six at the time; his brother, Ronan, who dreamed of becoming a professional footballer, maybe 11. They’ve figured out a few things since then.

A guest feature by Freunde von Freunden.
Ronan und Erwan Bouroullec's studio is midway along a notably undramatic street in northeastern Paris, a few minutes’ walk from the Place de la République. Inside, the three level space hums with activity; it is part office, laboratory, library, wood shop, and archive, with examples of the greatest hits from two decades of collaboration with brands like Vitra, Cappellini, and Samsung, mixed in with the tools of the trade: an antique sewing machine, power tools, a 3D printer. The harmony of their portfolio belies—and perhaps capitalizes upon—two different approaches to the primacy of design. A quartet of exhibitions covering a huge range of work—from product design to urban planning—is on view in Rennes, the administrative and cultural capital of their Breton homeland, through late August; here, they (separately) discuss the ongoing tension between mass versus craft, the problems with a 100€ spoon, and why they never formed a band.

What’s it like being the younger brother in such a durable collaboration?

Ronan started alone. At 15, he decided to go to applied art school; he made a number of decisions that led to design. I never experienced the kind of fright that he did, the fear of not having a job or not knowing what I would do. Ronan can sometimes be harsher, more difficult, because he’s more of a fighter than I am. I never needed a super fighting spirit to exist in the world. The beginning of the studio was established when I joined; our first project was with Cappellini. It’s like you start to play football and you’re playing for Liverpool.

So he was set, as a teenager, on a life in design. Were you?

At that point in my life I was more interested in music—all this indie music from England and America: Pavement, The Stone Roses and many more. None of them could play music properly, and none of them were professional—they were just doing things on their own and with a lot of independence. I was living near Quimper, in the countryside, and once a week going to the record shop. There was only one.

Why not have a band instead of a design studio?

It was a different kind of energy. By the time I joined Ronan, I was 22 or 23. What was similar was that those bands were, most of the time, making the sleeves by themselves, recording by themselves, finding a way by themselves. And Ronan and I were doing the same, by ourselves.

How does that practically translate into the way you create work?

I think we feel quite at ease and try not to conform to the idea of “professionalism.” If we’re making a video, we do our best, but we’re not going to hire someone to finish the coloring. We like the challenge of working in a new field, testing, exploring and trying things out.
“We’re in a time of science and engineering. But they’re not necessarily making the world more clear or more simple.”
Erwan Bouroullec

What are the advantages of this approach?

Our relaxed, product driven, and autodidactic approach is one way we connect to something more human. That’s a method we’ve always had. We’re in a time of science and engineering. But they’re not necessarily making the world more clear or more simple.

How does this connect to the Serif TV for Samsung?

Serif came from a different process. What is the future of screens? Can you design a screen like a piece of paper? But we’re not technological enough. One of our starting points was: Please bring us some screens—any size, even if they’re broken. We just want to play with them. We took them, dismantled them, and rebuilt a body around them. We broke so many of them. We trusted that in being slightly rough with these screens, and not being afraid of breaking them, that we would discover something. In time, the TV had a body again—usually, the TV is a set on legs. The Serif frame goes around and gets slightly deeper and makes a base. We didn’t say, OK, it would be nice if a TV could be a shelf—the top just became a symmetry of the base, to make a uniform frame. And now it connects to the idea of a frame, which is even older than the TV itself: framing a picture.

Did you find yourself fighting against other conventions, beyond “a set on legs”?

I think many Televisions put the picture as much to the edge as possible — as if there were only a picture and no volume to it. Which is always partially fake. There is a body, there is an edge. The world in which we live now is always pretending to be shiny-shiny. How many gold surfaces are around us, which obviously are not gold? How many things try to pretend to be something they are not? How many surfaces pretend to be wood but they are not? They are not exactly the image of what they really are.

Ronan, why don’t you do interviews alongside your brother?

Our ways of speaking about design are not the same.

How did you come to work together?

It happened in a very simple way—a family way. Like moving apartments, and you needed some help. I knew very early on, at 15, that I wanted to be a designer. When I was 19, I made a small table, which had a certain interest among the press. Then, very quickly, I needed some help, and Erwan started to help me, when he was 19 and I was 24. It was a family situation, not a decision.
“We speak more about efficiency, about systems, when I want to speak about beauty, and charm.”
Ronan Bouroullec

Where did that desire come from, to work in design?

I don’t know. Our parents are not linked to architecture or design or art. They do not care about it—which was lucky, I think. But when I was five, I went to the fine art school of Quimper, every Wednesday for a few hours, and this was extremely important to me. Otherwise, I was not good at school. By chance I enrolled at an applied art school in Quimper and it was a rebirth. We did 20 hours a week in photography, graphic design, furniture, fashion, drawing. It was marvelous. It was like getting on a train, and it kept going. I am still passionate about all of these things, from the photography of our work, done by us, to this television, and now the urbanism project. I want to do architecture. I want to build a city.

Where will you build this city?

I don’t know where. But the urban project in Rennes is full of research. Lately I’m a bit frustrated as a designer. I’m interested in design because of the idea—a good idea—and to reproduce it and share it in a certain way is the most important thing for me. A company has to fight to produce an object at a certain price, which sometimes means that we design objects for rich people because we didn’t find a platform to generalize an idea in the widest way.

How do you manage the desire to produce a beautiful, and perhaps expensive, object, with the desire to influence our daily experiences on a large scale?

Each one interests me for different reasons. Plastic can be interesting if used in a good way. At the same time—perhaps there is a specific glaze, which people need to be paid for. There are craftsmen with extraordinary savoir-faire. This is one of the treasures of the world, this savoir-faire, and some people are trained in it, and it’s produced in small quantities at a certain price. The price is fact—I can do nothing about it. I don’t want a world in which everything is built by robots or machines. However, in my kitchen, I need a spoon, and I don’t want to pay 100€ per spoon because it was made by a specific craftsman. It should be produced in a very efficient, machined way—and it is a way to change the world, to create beauty in mass production. I do not see these as in opposition. This is what I learned from Italian designers: the wish for a better world in mass production, and the wish for a world of diversity from craft, and how to find the treasure in all of this. The robots could be a treasure.

The robots will probably murder us.

The question is how we use them.

Are you tempted by the freedom of presenting design as art—when price points and economics are no longer important?

We have a gallery for which I’ve designed some objects—but in general I don’t think creating objects for a gallery produces interesting things.

I’m sure you have colleagues who sidestep many challenges by presenting a piece as a work of art.

Because they are lazy. It’s easy to do a piece for a gallery. In design you have to deal with 200 people. It’s like making a movie. Very often, I see an interesting object that could have been produced in quantity, but was not because the thought behind it was lazy, or there wasn’t enough intensity in the research. Part of the mission of design is to make things exist in quantity: How can you charm someone every time? Of course, there are marvelous things which we see in the context of the gallery. Ultimately, I care more about being touched. I don’t care if it’s art or not art, a book, a scientific discovery. We speak more about efficiency, about systems, when I want to speak about beauty, and charm. The most interesting objects are charged with a certain power. I’m not mystical at all, but it’s true.

Publication Date: 22.08.2016, first published on 5 June 2016 at Freunde von Freunden.
Author: Diane Vadino
Images: Thomas Chéné

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