Between Brothers

In a world dominated by relentless self-promoters, the quiet, almost Zen-like understatement of Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec speaks volumes.

Young designers dream that what happened to Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec will happen to them. Imagine one of your earliest designs—a prototype really—grabbing the attention of furniture-world giant Giulio Cappellini. He gives you your first real commission (which is followed by jobs for Issey Miyake and Vitra). Then every design magazine in the world showcases everything you do. The Design Museum in London gives you an exhibition, Phaidon publishes your monograph, a second major museum gives you another exhibition. And all this happens within a handful of years, most while you’re still in your twenties.

What do the Bouroullecs have that everyone wants? When I meet them I realized that the answer wouldn’t be easily revealed since both are low-key, discreet (beyond the typical French standards), and modest—like their designs. Their art is not easy to “get.” Restrained and meticulous, it has been described as “the future of design,” “fresh,” “intellectual”—as well as “monotonous.” It’s difficult for most people to form their own opinion about them because few have actually encountered their work. Although they design everything with industrial production in mind, most of the 60 or so projects in their new monograph—which they designed—remain unrealized concepts or relatively inaccessible (small-batch or gallery) projects.

One must spend time with the designers to understand the power of discretion. They are the opposite of showy or precious. In the context of a design world dominated by puffed-up impresarios and publicity hounds, the Bouroullecs—down-to-earth and downright sweet—begin to seem exotic. Among their more endearing traits: they’re barely aware of their own press. (I alerted them to the existence of some of their own clippings; they have never had press kits and don’t have business cards.) They run their own errands (when Erwan realized the studio was out of coffee, he dashed to a nearby market to buy more.) They don’t look designy or own designy things. Their office is deliberately off the radar, in St. Denis, a colorful blue-collar suburb north of Paris, home to 90,000 people of 60 different nationalities. (I initially mistook their unmarked office, located on a small side street a few doors down from an auto-body shop, for a garage.) But perhaps the most undesignerlike of all is their sense of calm.

When I visited them in February I expected to find the Bouroullecs’ office in a minor frenzy, in preparation for Magis’s introduction of their new line of outdoor furniture at the Milan Furniture Fair in April, their retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in June, and the unveiling of a family of furniture to inaugurate Vitra’s new residential line this summer. Instead I found the studio—a bright open space, formerly a carpenter’s workshop—relaxed, even tranquil. Two young, charming employees were quietly pushing computer mice around with one hand, holding cigarettes in the other. Truth be told, it felt a bit like nothing was happening.

I sensed that the secret of their work was the impression that nothing extraordinary is happening—and the wonderful surprise that something actually is. Take, for example, the recently launched and much-hyped Joyn office system, which centers on a long white table that can be “zoned” with detachable components, such as low panels, desk blotters, lights, and storage trays. But if you take away all the details, you have…a long plain white table. Admittedly it’s a beautiful table. Monochromatic and materially uniform, it is closer to minimalist sculpture than contract furniture. The mix-and-match elements are perfectly detailed, if painfully simple. “If we made them strange shapes or colors, people would think, ‘Ooh, this is Design!’” Erwan explains. “We didn’t want that.”

Their work, they concede, is not about invention. It is more about evolution than revolution. “Natural selection,” Ronan says, to explain their faith in the self-organizing intelligence of materials and objects into shapes and functions. “We try to find the logic inside an object,” Erwan elaborates. “Some of that logic includes not showing too much, not using too much material, of trying to do the most with the least.” Adaptation, of course, is integral to natural selection. Their designs possess the basic instinct to be useful and endure. With Joyn they wanted to create, as Ronan says, “furniture that had to adapt to people, and not the other way around,” as is typical of contract offerings. Joyn is a response to the unpredictable and changing nature of work, which sometimes demands privacy, other times openness. Erwan says, “For us it was important that the system had the possibility to evolve with the number of people working, the type of project they’re working on, the time of year, and so on.”

“The Bouroullecs make things that are almost normal but in the end have a point of view, an edge,” says Vitra chairman Rolf Fehlbaum, whom the designers regard as a mentor. “They walk along this path, probably opened by Jasper Morrison, that leads toward normality rather than eccentricity or exaggeration—which you see so much in design—and still brings you to something that’s worth looking at, that’s surprising and special. True, their designs are not loud, but they become interesting in an environmental sense. Together with other things, they work.”

Openness and ease run through their portfolio, beginning with their earliest piece, the Disintegrated Kitchen, designed by Ronan in 1997 and exhibited at the Salon du Meuble, in Paris. Newly graduated from the École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs, the 26-year-old Ronan regularly brought in Erwan, then 21 and studying art at the École Nationale d’Arts de Paris-Cergy, to assist him with his design projects. The project posited the kitchen as a stand-alone piece of furniture. Disintegrated Kitchen was meant to offer liberation, allowing customers to buy it like an appliance and renovate their kitchen without hiring contractors, knocking down walls, or replastering.

User autonomy crops up again and again in their work, expressing their desire to “let the customer be the creator,” as Erwan put it. They have brought modularity and variability to everything from vases (Combinatory Vases, an eight-piece set that can be arranged in endless configurations) to shelving (Charlotte, which is assembled like a house of cards; Brick and Cloud, lightweight hot wire-cut polystyrene units that can be stacked to form fantastic airy walls) to carpets (Zip Carpet for Cappellini, a system of colored felt panels that can be zipped together to create any dimension or composition), and now even architecture (Polystyrene House, an easy-to-assemble home composed of polystyrene “ribs”).

The awards began flowing in from the start, including the Grand Prix du Design de la Ville de Paris in 1998, the New Designer Award at New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in 1999, a Compasso d’Oro nomination in Milan in 2001, and the “Creator of the Year” at Paris’s Salon du Meuble in 2002. In a short time the brothers have produced quite a bit. It’s difficult to comprehend how they manage, given the small size and unharried pace of their studio. At present they have about 20 active projects.

Perhaps, again, it’s their faith in natural selection that keeps the Bouroullecs from worrying about what they are doing and who they are doing it with. They hire employees, take on clients, and create their designs with an acceptance of the inevitability of things. “We know our office is out of the way, but it’s a good filter,” Ronan says. “Those who find us tend to be sympathetic personalities.” They like to participate in every stage of a project, beginning by sitting down with each other and drawing—always drawing—throwing sketches back and forth until a solution emerges. “It’s like a conversation,” Erwan says. “Or Ping-Pong,” Ronan says. The sparring continues to the end until it is photographed by Ronan.

The sketches that kick off their creative process are almost comically unrevealing, the picture equivalent of a Beckett play. In one stack I saw drawings of circles, ovals, and lines (the basis of their new furniture designs for Vitra), reminding me of the scene in Hudsucker Proxy when Tim Robbins proudly holds a drawing of a circle—the design of the product that will save his company (the hula hoop). One can see where the Bouroullecs’ simple drawings lead, however. The packaging they designed for a family of cosmetic products for Issey Miyake began with a clean line—that is, the idea that the edge of the packaging would be a thin line, a seam, with its center bulging out a little bit, like a piece of ravioli. The products tweak the dimensionality of traditional packaging (all boxes and bottles). They can’t say who came up with the initial idea, but they do know that, once inside a problem, they both have natural instincts about proportion, color, as well as practical issues such as manufacturability and cost. “We don’t know anything about cosmetics, and we didn’t spend days looking at existing products,” Erwan says. “I guess you could say we approach things naively, or rather, with an open mind.”

Since 1999 the Bouroullecs have signed all their pieces together because it’s impossible to discern who is responsible for what. Their closeness and respect for each other is evident when they talk, pausing constantly to let the other speak. Naturally they have their differences, and the process (like any relationship) includes plenty of fights. “Our only fear is to one day not care enough to fight, to agree to compromise,” Erwan says. Both have confidence and self-assurance, as well as “innocence and a complete lack of cynicism,” Fehlbaum says. “They’re not from Paris but from the north—they are very sound people, down-to-earth. They know who they are. They can take all this without being taken in.”

With this confidence the Bouroullecs have been able to turn down some big jobs. In the middle of our interview they received a call from the office of Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the French minister of culture, asking the brothers to design a conference table. They immediately started to fret about how to turn down the offer politely. “Why wouldn’t you do it?” I asked, feeling sure it was due to Aillagon’s political conservatism. “We don’t do one-offs,” Ronan replied matter-of-factly.

They also recently turned down a potentially juicy job from a well-known design-sensitive sports brand due to scheduling. The Bouroullecs are determined to keep their studio small and to remain involved in the design. Ronan says, “The first thing we say to clients is, ‘We need time.’” Erwan adds: “It’s not rising-star behavior. It’s just being practical about the fact that good design takes time.” Ronan says, “To us a job is not a one-shot deal. It’s a relationship. We must understand them, they must understand us.”

The Bouroullecs’ fast track to the top must be put in the context of what’s going on in the design world, which is always looking for new characters, new heroes. The old enfants terribles are decidedly no longer enfants. Stephen Todd asked Philippe Starck in the New York Times what he thought of the boys who were being proclaimed his heirs. “The media are always out to dethrone me,” Starck grumbled. “They have to in order to keep moving things along.” On the Bouroullecs’ trademark reticence, Starck said, “If you don’t speak, no one can tell if you are intelligent or not.” Their discretion, he noted, “is very intellectual but about nothing.” But the brothers couldn’t be more different from Starck or less interested in his throne. They acknowledge his role in popularizing design, but, Erwan says, “We don’t have a global theory about design, and we don’t want to. The world is a big jungle and should remain a jungle. There can’t be only one answer.”

Part of this attitude surely stems from the Bouroullecs’ rural roots. (They regularly retreat to their childhood home in Quimper, Brittany, where their family still lives and where Ronan recently bought a house.) “Country people mix everything: old plates from grandmother sit next to a mobile phone,” Erwan says. “You have to accept that we will always be surrounded by things from everywhere: from China or Italy, from the past or the present. It’s important for us to let these things coexist.”

When asked to create an installation for the Cologne Furniture Fair in January, they resisted the request for the Ideal House. “It’s a terrible idea, to have one designer create everything in anenvironment,” Ronan says. They used the opportunity to test a new product concept, which reflects the most baroque direction they’ve taken so far. It’s a way of making walls with small plastic clips that can be “knitted” together like textile. In Cologne these textured three-dimensional walls created flexible temporary rooms, which they filled with Thonet chairs and a Danish wood-burning stove.

The Bouroullecs designed the first clip for BETC, a French advertising agency that asked them to build a rooftop sun pavilion. Imagine the agency’s surprise when the brothers showed up with a cardboard scale model that fit in the palm of the hand saying, “This is the solution.” Always looking to create industrially produced, easy-to-use open systems, they came up with an angular clip that resembles a complicated clothespin, and later a more free-form green ‘vegetal’ clip that, once knitted together into a sheet, appears like seaweed or a wall of moss.

These plastic-clip wall systems will be part of Vitra’s launch of residential products, which includes other pieces by the Bouroullecs and by Jasper Morrison. “When we made the first drawings for [the vegetal clip] nobody could imagine what it would be, not even us,” Ronan says. “It wasn’t until they were done that it was clear they could be a product.” The other pieces the Bouroullecs are working on for Vitra (seating, lighting, tables) continue the “modern knitting” idea. Though still early in development, they are presently experimenting with an industrial technology that can create three-dimensional knitted shapes. Imagine a Noguchi lamp wearing a sock.

“Their work makes you wonder, ‘How did someone ever come up with that idea? It’s so odd, why would you do that?’” Fehlbaum says. “It’s work that emerges not in the spirit of necessity but opens a new poetic possibility. It makes you think, ‘Yes, why not?’”

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