Objects you understand

read in english »

Objects you understand

Interview with Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec




In 1999, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec created together a design studio and since then they have become most recognizable designers in the world. Their work spectrum is very wide, from small objects to architectural design, nevertheless their main field of activity is a product and interior design.


They fight against ugliness and badly made objects as Erwan says. Their work is a symbol of our times, Bouroullec brothers wish that people felt they’d been living in the right century. Their studio is located on the ground floor, in the Belleville district, in Paris; hidden in an inconspicuous backyard of the Chinese district. There is a big table at which they work on your left and a few  young designers’ desks on your right. The atmosphere is cosy. The mezzanine is full of prototypes and materials.


Malgorzata Mozolewska: Your studio isn’t big, is it on purpose?


Erwan: The way we run the studio corresponds with our lifestyle. Our independence is of the highest value to us. We can develop in any direction we feel like, we can rearrange the studio easily and nothing will prevent us from quitting this line when we don’t feel like doing it any more.


Ronan: I’m fascinated with functional art. I can spend hours deliberating on an object. One needs to devote all the necessary time to a project one is doing to really feel satisfied with it. I like working in complete silence, when nobody disrupts me. I don’t want to manage a big team. I prefer to be surrounded by a small group of trusted people. There’s no sense in managing a big studio and working on several projects at one time. I’m not a talkative person, I prefer to be silent, I’m not very keen on having appointments which is necessary when it comes to running a big company.


M.M.: You design a few objects each year – what makes you choose particular subjects you devote yourselves to? Why is it still worth designing new objects?


E: There is a very good reason for it. Our work consists in our involvement in cooperation with companies that form Europe and its value. Cheap mass production is a real threat to small business. The only way for them to stay on the market is to invest in design. Each company is a  living organism just like a human being: it may fall ill and cease to exist. It’s worth to struggle.


R: We have many reasons for dedicating us to it. It’s the sum of various factors. The context of each object we are designing plays a significant role. The same object will look different according to the space it is placed in – it may look great in here, while it may fail over there. The longevity of each object is also crucial to us, we take responsibility for what we create.


E: We feel the need of constant modifications and adjustments of products to the new ways of production. The Thonet’s chair may serve as an example. Back then this method of industrial production was the best; now it would be a sophisticated craft. Over the centuries the objects themselves also change. When an article appeared a few centuries ago that we now associate with a sofa, it used to look different at that time. The way we live and our culture have changed and along with it the production methods also have. The construction of a sofa was becoming lower and deeper. Once people would be sitting up straight on it, nowadays they would rather lie down. It’s because the relations between people and the way they behave have changed. A common user may not notice this change but the statistics show it. As designers we have to take into consideration tradition, production methods as well as customs and current lifestyle.


M.M.: Do you broaden your knowledge of psychology and sociology or you rather try to observe and rely on your intuition?


E: The trouble is that there’s not much written on that subject. It seems to me that both – character and meaning of the objects surrounding us – is a result of their function and production methods. There are many elements that seem to us “natural”, that we recognize automatically. We all love wooden chairs for its clear design and visible connectors which make us understand it. Whatever you see, you refer to your previous experience, for instance a chair will remind you of wooden toys from your childhood. One doesn’t need to study this, it’s a common knowledge. Once we get used to one pattern, we feel comfortable with it, since now on we would see in it classical proportions. We tend to look for something of a new character but with recognizable values so that people could easily understand the object they are faced with. One of the crucial issues is how to save this clarity in mass production.


M.M.: What do you exactly mean by that?


E: A purchaser isn’t aware of the way the object was constructed and by whom. The same purchaser might have known it fifty or sixty years ago. People would buy stuff produced on spot. They would bring a previously bought fabric to a tailor and if it wasn’t suitable for a chosen style, the tailor would inform the client about other possibilities. In this way they would build a relation based on mutual agreement and respect. Things have changed since then. This is why it’s so important to create objects easy to understand. It’s always easier to “make friends” with someone you understand and know who they are and where they come from.


M.M.: You work a lot with the help of craftsmen. Is it because of the reason you have already mentioned?


E: This kind of approach may concern any kind of production method, both mass and craft one. Craft and industry complement each other very well. Just as it is in nature – things coexist next to each other; high trees grow next to small plants. While working in crafts requires patience and attention to detail as it is a technique which may soon disappear.


R: I’m fascinated with objects and various production methods. I enjoy designing machine-made objects that are produced in a quick and effective way but I also like spending my time with a craftsman in his workshop. All methods are like colours. There are no pretty or ugly colours – they may be only wrongly used ones for a wrong context.


M.M.: How can designers prevent craftsmanship from disappearing?


R: We should use a critical approach to understand its future and people who live from it. Every item produced in a craftsman’s workshop is more expensive than the one produced in an industrial way. I see though how our eating habits have changed, design culture will change too as consumers’ awareness is growing. People will be curious to find out where this particular object was created, who made it and what materials where used to its production. When we are asking about craftsmanship we are in fact curious to know how our world is constructed and reconstructed so that people respect it in all of its aspects and as its habitants they understand the need to have a global picture of it. We tend to hear that there is a necessity of protecting the craftsmanship but I don’t see the point in maintaining it at all costs. We need to look at things from a new perspective.


E: We’ve tried to do this but generally we failed. Craftsmen don’t have clients and shops, and the price for their work is too high. We designed lacquer lamps made by Japanese craftsmen. Production cost was very high. Over four or five years around fifty lamps were sold. You can’t sell more when one item costs around 3000-4000 Euro. Products of high quality are one of the solutions and reasons for their production. This is what Hermes does. It takes two weeks to produce a bag. The leather used to its production is of the top quality. Even though such bag costs 1500 Euro, people order it. These kind of products will never be sold on a large scale.


M.M.: What is the essence of design to you?


R: There are many ways for a designer to answer a question concerning an object – looking at it from a point of view of craftsmanship or an industrial production. All the ways are interesting. We like diversity – we enjoy skipping from one subject to another. Design, at least in our case, isn’t a field reserved only to experts. We all study different fields of art: ceramics, painting, photography. Our projects are shaped by all of them.


M.M.: Do you find time for all this?


R: Everything depends on the relations we have with other companies and on their ability to support our creative freedom.


M.M.: How do you build your relationship with employers?


E: Companies that come to us, don’t pay us for the project, we receive royalties later. We don’t earn at this stage, admittedly, however the company we collaborate with also incurs costs while working on prototypes. Working in this way requires the same amount of energy and willingness from both sides. We are not hired to design something that happens to be necessary at this particular moment but rather to invent something completely new. It gives you freedom which moderates the actual technology. There is a constant risk that the ideal object we have in our mind might be moderated according to recent accurate production principles and all the magic may be gone. We need to build up together new ways of action which often involves making risky decisions which in turn requires trust. By saying this I mean a small group of people which takes great responsibility. And I need to admit I can’t stand consumer tests.


M.M.: Do you think consumers don’t know what they really need?


E:  Everyone refers to their own experience which is often limited to the reality they live in. People aren’t able to assess novelties as it’s often inconceivable for them. The company itself and we, the designers, we all need to be brave enough to propose new solutions. Only later consumers will get interested in them and finally they will accept a new product.


M.M.: How is it that your products are selling so well?


E: Maybe because they are so easy to understand, they account for themselves. We want the potential user know at once how the object is constructed and how to use it. Let’s take the Algues [algae] for instance: although they are complex and intricate, their construction is in fact simple and everybody knows how to use them.


R: We work for big companies so we are recognizable, we have reliable distribution channels. It’s crucial when it comes to industrial design as it’s not only about brilliant ideas but also about a good selling chain, a good press and a good photo – they are all of great importance. All that makes up a successful business. I’m still surprised at consumers’ taste though. Many times I was sure about the product while it didn’t achieve market success and vice versa, the unexpected success would surprise me. The Algues are the biggest amount of our product items that we have produced so far. We had to invest in the beginning in the production of their moulds as nobody believed in this project. Nevertheless we made it as we were curious to see our ideas put into effect and we completely hadn’t expected what happened next. But there must be something unique about them that draws your attention. In some way the success itself isn’t the most important thing to me as it doesn’t really mean that the product is fine.


M.M.: The Algues is a beautiful project, I’m not surprised at its success.


E: Indeed, yet many people who bought it, they keep it in a box. They are afraid of this freedom hidden inside.


M.M.: Designers find creative freedom appealing and they tend to forget that it’s not appealing to everyone.


E: The bathroom collection we designed for a German company called Axor may serve as an example. It turned out that we equipped it with too many possibilities and people weren’t interested in it any more.


M.M.: Would it be true to say that your work is inspired by nature?


E: At some stage of our career we started looking for different structures from geometric or symmetric ones. We wanted our objects look a bit irregularly. The Algues was our first attempt in this direction. The joint components are distributed like the vertices of a triangle, only the inner lines are irregular. Lots of our products seem to be inspired by nature but it’s because of their irregular shape. We called them algae or clouds just because these words described them the best. The product itself wasn’t inspired by some specific alga or a phenomenon – their resemblance came afterwards.


M.M.: And last but not least, what was the biggest life lesson for you related to design?


E: We were very lucky to have been working with outstanding people who manage well-known companies, like Giulio Cappellini, Issey Miyake, Rolf Fehlbaum from Vitry, Eugenio Perazza from Magis or Michel Roset from Ligne Roset. Thanks to them I’ve learnt that design can be amazing but at the same time it may be deceptive or disappointing. We have a creative and unlimited imagination which is moderated by the reality and possibilities of its realization. All these people are visionaries which makes them a bit frustrated. Thanks to having met them, our work became better than if we had worked on our own. At the moment when we start collaborating with new companies, finding such personalities is a priority for us. These people have some kind of inner tension within themselves. We live in rough reality and they need to manage.


R: I was surprised, I got scared or I was happy – I can’t tell what the biggest lesson was. Maybe the fact that after 20 years of this career I understood there was only one way to create something interesting. You have to be demanding with yourself. I was sure that maybe along with experience there would come a moment when I would be able to come straight to the core of the issue but I’m not. The fact that I’m less naïve than I was, doesn’t have to be an advantage. It’s really hard to create something that would be at the same time: new, balanced and fitted well in the context. A major limitation is also the need for market success.


M.M.: So how is it possible to be a constantly original and inventive designer?


R: It’s important to remain critical of yourself and not to feel too satisfied with yourself. With time passage one may appreciate their projects but not at once.


M.M.: It means that usually we should tend to feel unsatisfied with what we have done.


R: Maybe this is common for me, Erwan tends to feel more satisfied. Sometimes we feel pleased with an idea too early and when we wake up the next morning it turns out that it wasn’t that brilliant at all. It’s about putting aside self-satisfaction until later. One needs to wait patiently and incomplete satisfaction stimulates further work.





Bouroullec brothers were born in Brittany (France); Ronan in 1971, Erwan in 1976. They have been working together since 1999. They design furniture, accessories, jewellery; they also work in the field of interior design and architecture. They collaborate with such companies like: Vitra, Kvadrat,

Kartell, Axor, Alessi, Issey Miyake, Cappellini, Mattiazzi and most recently Hay. There are albums dedicated to their work titled: Works and Drawing.