One half of the very talented and rightfully celebrated Bouroullec brothers, Erwan, on the creative process, pushing boundaries and loving The Happy Mondays…
Did you make things together with your brother when you were younger? No, because there is a five year age gap between us. So we didn’t go to school together, or have the same friends, but did always depend on each other. I was quite influenced by him when I was younger, he’d send me to my parents to ask if we could do certain things.
We’ve heard you’re a big fan of Manchester music? Yes, I really like the Inspiral Carpets and The Happy Mondays. We used to play music in the studio, but it was a disaster. Sometimes we produce animated movies to explain some of our products, we made one for the Vegetal chair for Vitra and there’s one for the Axor Bouroullec bathroom collection [see May’s Livingetc] – you can see them on YouTube. For each movie we collaborated with a young composer to create the soundtrack and although I can’t play or compose music I worked very closely with him. I’m really proud of the music.
Would you ever try making feature films? No, but what I like about the current times, is that people are more open to the idea of someone being an artist. Before the artist was considered a dreamer, but nowadays people find it quite engaging, they realise that an artist can work across several disciplines.
You design with your brother, what do you feel you brought to the design of Ploum? Ronan prefers to sketch, he sticks to working on paper. I am perhaps more three-dimensional, I draw a lot but I also make maquettes and little models. When I was younger, in my parents’ house my mother had a sewing machine but I was never allowed to touch it in case it got broken. So I was always fascinated by it, as soon as I left home I bought a sewing machine and I have a real patience for stitching fabric. Ploum, started with this, the fabric.
Describe your studio. Messy, dusty and uncomfortable. There are pieces of our work around, but in strange, experimental conditions, like half-finished or half-destroyed. We make lots of three-dimensional maquettes, if we’re designing a chair we might make 15 models – sometimes to full scale. We also destroy parts of another chair to play with new designs.
How do your projects happen? There are two different ways. Our long-term relationships with companies like Established & Sons, Axor or Vitra, involve a constant dialogue and projects emerge from this. We really try to work with the existing body of their work but also try to push their boundaries – they expect us to create new things. A good example is Kvadrat and the architectural-like material Cloud, which was something very unexpected for them. Or, there are situations like the rug we’ve just designed for Nanimarquina. They approached us and asked if we’d like to design a rug. We mentioned our fascination with kilims and they explained they had specialist craftsmen, and so I kissed them and said ok!
How do you know when a design is a success, for example, Jasper Morrison says it might take one year before you know if something is truly good? We are perhaps a little less careful than Jasper, but most of the work we create is done by a process of discussion. So if there if project has any weaknesses then we really have to solve it, otherwise the project doesn’t leave the studio. Take Cloud, this was a new territory that we couldn’t compare with anything else. Or the Algue for Vitra, which is already an strong concept, but so strong that sometimes people don’t get it. They think they have to put them in a special place, instead of just on a white wall they twirl them around the stairs. They find the weirdest place to position them because they view them as something wild.
What’s your favourite piece of design by someone else? I really love Jasper’s body of work. I love the way he approaches design, you can always recognise his work, and although at first his pieces don’t look that special, they always warrant reconsideration. He’s highly respected and a lot of things have happened in contemporary design now are because of what he was doing ten years ago, he really opened the way to these cleaner lines.
Aside from design I’m pretty good at… Cooking, but I’m an everyday cook, not a chef. I cook without oil or butter, just nice simple vegetables and fish.
Describe your perfect weekend. Spending time with my wife and my 11-month-old daughter, and with friends. I never go to museums; I’m not a specialist of art and design. I love film, though. One of my favourite pieces of art is Into the Wild by Sean Penn. I think cinema is probably one of the most effective art forms, it’s so powerful. I am fascinated by it. In this perfect weekend I’d also like to have three to four hours of reading time. I read quite a lot of sci-fi and historical books, it could be something about the medieval period, Jacobean, or the history of the industrial revolution in England.
Which blogs do you like? I read Dezeen, because as I said, I don’t go to exhibitions enough, so that informs me. I just decided on Dezeen and I stick to it, for information about design and architecture. When we release a new product I always check blogs for comments. I do feel that in design there is a lack of criticism, or distance, so it’s actually quite refreshing to read. When you’re a design professional then you have an understanding of the product and process, which is in a way corrupted by knowing too much and maybe something that is not relevant for everyone. So sometimes I read the reaction of people for this, they don’t know the context, but why should they? They might say ‘oh what a crazy idea, that’s not going to work’, or something – it’s interesting.
What’s your home like? Quite mixed, my wife’s grandfather was an Italian craftsman so we’ve got old pieces of furniture that are not really beautiful but that we love. We’ve got one of my sofas in the lounge, a green Alcove from Vitra. A good house is one that has different layers of time and provenance – my home is a little bit like this. I’m quite good at conceiving design and being focused on making a piece, but when it come to my own home I’m not sure that I’m a good decorator. Often when I visit another person’s space I find it much better.
Do your parents own your designs? Yes, but it’s really funny, because of us they’ve been interested in design now for 20 years, it didn’t exist for them before, and they read lots of magazines, but I still don’t think they quite understand it. So they love all the pieces they get off us, but then my mother says about their Alcove sofa, ‘oh, the dog was making it so messy, so I just put a throw on it.’ In the future I think people will understand contemporary design more, the borders are breaking down. It’s a pity for some companies in France, some are still producing furniture that is a copy of what we had during Napoleon’s time, they will be left behind.
If your daughter decides to follow in your footsteps what would be your advice? To get an internship with a studio to experience the reality. And do a six-month apprenticeship with a carpenter, or glass-blower – some kind of a craftsperson. I don’t like the way contemporary education no longer involves the teaching of skills like cooking, or woodwork. There is so much satisfaction and understanding of the world that comes from these actions. When you cook something you have to learn quite subtle things. I think we’ve lost the sense of working with sensation and materials. When you do woodwork you have to look at the grain, weigh it up, and learn to respect the wood, because you love it and don’t want to throw it away. It’s sad that we are losing this. A century ago people would start crafts or trades at 16 years old. I’m scared that creative people don’t fit into the general education system, they might want to express themselves with their hands, or body, this would be a pity for my own daughter if the system doesn’t hear what she says because she doesn’t express it in the way people expect.