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Ronan Bouroullec: design and the secret charm of objects

«The designer’s task is to create objects that speak to people. Like beautiful songs, they can release a charm, a careful balance of seriousness and lightness. To find it, without falling into the ridicule, I think of Jacques Tati». A conversation with Ronan Bouroullec.

Everyone loves Erwan e Ronan Bouroullec. Design companies compete to work with them (it’s not easy). Newspapers and magazines put them on their covers (recently they were on the New York Times Magazine). But, and that is much less obvious, the Bouroullec are also universally appreciated by fellow designers. No backstabbing behind their backs, no whispered acid comments. Not even the plunge into the universe of fashion (they have signed a collection of accessories for Prada) or in the world of electronics (they design for Samsung) has scratched their image of educated, refined and integral designers. For the past two decades, they have occupied spaces that represent every designer’s dream. They design for all the “cult” design companies, since last year even for Cassina, who has been courting them for 15 years. Yet their success does not bring about the jealousies that emerge in other cases.

Why does everyone like the Bouroullec brothers?

I have a theory. That Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec are appreciated because they are, like the things they design, silent presences. Testimonials against the current of a slowness and consistency that is considered precious in a chaotic universe of images, messages and information. Because the objects designed by the Bourouellecs do not scream, nor they wish to amaze. But neither are sterile, risk-averse repetitions of a tried and tested style. We look at what the Bouroullec do and we feel at home. Yet something (in their form, finish, the way these objects are produced or used) makes them special. It is an indefinable quid, like a soul … We talked about this with Ronan Bouroullec, whom we met at the Cassina showroom where he was presenting the Cotone collection, 2018 version.

Cotone collection by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec at the Cassina showroom, Fuorisalone 2018. Photo @lauratraldi

Ronan Bouroullec, how do you bring personality into an object without giving in to decoration?

«We know that we have the reputation of being perfectionists, which I do not deny. But when I design, I’m not looking for perfection, but charm. Because the soul of things does not stem from the accuracy of their execution but from their way of relating to what’s around them. Finding this charm and defining it is neither simple nor immediate. In fact I do not think it is present in everything we have done: sometimes it’s there, other times it isn’t».

How do you define this charm?

«As the balance between seriousness and lightness. Things can be important but must give an immediacy that makes them understandable and acceptable. Otherwise they become ridiculous. When I draw, to understand if I’m going in the right direction, I entrust myself to Jacques Tati. He understood everything about the paradox of modernity. So I look at what I sketched on paper and I wonder: what would he say? Would you make fun of me? But I also think of those who create songs, the ones that people want to whistle».

What does design have to do with songs?

«You design better if you think of objects as melodies that should work everywhere. Without protocols and instructions for use, without places created specifically to accommodate them, involving a variety of people emotionally. In the songs that last, there is a universality that derives from having been able to face enormous complexity on the part of those who invented them. And that’s what design can do: injecting things with a life and an energy that people can instantly capture. Successful projects are those that turn out to be sterile when they are put on a pedestal: in a showroom or in a museum. But they feel good at home amongst people».

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How do you inject energy into an object?

«I start with imagination. Which is like a tea bag immersed in hot water: what will it do? Which atmosphere will come out of it? The possibilities are endless and we human beings are able to lose ourselves in this thinking. If we allow ourselves to be captured, if we give ourselves the time to find something new and beautiful, we will get there. What I know for sure is that once we have defined the atmosphere and the quality of the charm of an object, I want to be able to tell it in the best way possible. That’s why we make all our photos and we think carefully how to present our designs. Also because often, especially at fairs, it makes me suffer to see the way others do it. The accusation of perfectionism, in this sense, is fitting».

Italian design brands often call the same designers. Is it a problem?

«We are among those that companies call. I’m aware of it. But I agree with those who criticize this situation and I hope that there will soon be space for new Italian creativity. Certain choices are made because the market does not have the courage to try something different. The space for risk in companies is reduced to a minimum and it is a real shame».

Maybe it’s because a large part of the furniture market is aimed at the contract sector?

«I think, rather, that it is because of a managerial style and an American approach to business. Which has, perhaps necessarily, objectives and methods that are dramatically different from those that have made Italian design great».

Alcova by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Wonderglass at the Fuorisalone 2018. Photo @lauratraldi

I can feel a bit of nostalgia in what you say …

«Yes. Because Italian design companies have been absolute leaders both in terms of technology and design. For the past ten years, however, this is no longer the case. Fortunately, the know-how has remained but the vision and design have been shelved. Italy still produces beautiful furniture, of incomparable quality. But at this moment it lacks the ability to grasp the new spirit of the time, to capture new movements, to translate objects into contemporary imagery. Many companies are paradoxically blocked by their own history of glory and the result is a soulless perfection».

What should we do?

«Invest in research. So now you will ask me if our chair for Cassina is research. And I would say no. But it tells the world about what still makes Italy unique. The absolute precision of the aluminum extrusion used to make it is the expression of a unique technical haute couture. The relationship between the parts and the composition are possible only in this world where there are hands that know how to cut, sew and assemble perfectly. That’s not what I mean when I talk about research. But doing projects of this kind, with a company like Cassina, also has a “political” meaning».

What do you mean?

«It explains that design is necessary for this know-how to continue to exist in Italy. For me Cassina was a marvel of the 20th century, as were Artek or Citroen. Cassina is the image of Italian haute couture with a unique know-how. But in the last few years they have lost two elements: the free spirit of Binfaré and Magistretti combined with the madness and intelligence of Pesce. It was this mix that made Cassina a radical but bourgeois expression, one of a kind. Of course today this mix should be different but with Patricia Urquiola as art director we believed in the possibility of creating a new imagery. And that’s why we decided to work for them. They had been asking us for 15 years …»

Elémentaire chair by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec for Hay. The installation, also featuring their dividers for Glas Italia, was on show at Palazzo Clerici, Fuorisalone 2018. Photo @lauratraldi

Speaking of research, your Elémentaire chair for Hay is truly low cost. Is this research?

“Yes. In this case, designing it was like running the 100 meters race. A chair at a low price (about 90 euros) but with extreme quality and precision. Because although it is made of plastic it does not have the aesthetic “ease” and the look and feel of low cost chairs made with this material. The design effort, in this case, was all focused on the quality and price ratio».

What’s special about Elémentaire?

«The production technique is injection. But the finished product is worked and painted so that the joints disappear. The continuity of the sign, in fact, makes the object elegant, emphasizing its harmony. Which is delicate and simple, not rowdy but not even shy. Because so many beautiful squares and streets are ruined by the presence of horrible plastic chairs. The idea was to show that aesthetic pleasure is not just a question of cost, but of design. I like to compare Elémentaire to Italian cuisine that has basic elements but the quality and the perfect mix of ingredients makes it universally appreciated. It is proof that something wonderful can be done even with little ».

You work for companies that are a dream for most young designers. However, no one seems to ever criticize you (as they do with other successful colleagues). Why?

«I do not know. What I know is that I am always full of doubts. The week of the Salone del Mobile is our moment of euphoria: the only one in which I feel I have managed to do something good. Then it ends and I fall back into uncertainty. I have zero self-confidence and I throw myself headlong into work. Because really the only thing I’m sure of is that I love my job and it’s to do this that I was born».

Do you have a tip for young designers?

«I would talk to small businesses, extra-sector, facing them with serious, ad hoc proposals. I would steer away from the road pursued by previous generations. It’s pointless because the world has turned upside down. When we started, the difficulty was mainly to get noticed: the only means were trade magazines and times were dilated. Companies, however, had more desire to risk. Now it’s the exact opposite. This is why it is perhaps more fruitful to look elsewhere».

Cover photo by Studio Bouroullec

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