The Art of “Art de Vivre”

Jean-Marie Massaud’s subversive take on French opulence

If you’re a French designer today, chances are you loathe the expression art de vivre. If a critic were to use it to describe your work, you’d be insulted—stigmatized as someone whose creativity is hindered by tradition. And yet try as I might, I cannot avoid the dreaded term when it comes to Jean-Marie Massaud, recipient of the Cré­ateur de l’Année of the 2007 Paris Salon du Meuble. Massaud’s main concern is to propose a new art de vivre, which he calls scenario de vie (“lifestyle script”) to distance himself from this burdened phrase.

“As far as I am concerned, the role of a designer is not to design objects but to propose life-enhancing strategies,” the 40-year-old Massaud says. “I was raised to be an engineer. I was fascinated by new technologies. But I never wanted to use technology to design what would be, in the end, nothing but complex ‘prostheses.’ I consider my job as being at the service of progress—yes—but the progress of our way of life.”

For Valerie Guillaume, design curator at the Centre Pompidou, “life-enhancing strategies” in France are often associated with luxury, a concept she believes is so insi­d­ious in the culture that it should be viewed as a near disability. But that same art de vivre, so unpopular with contemporary designers, is nonetheless such a reality in France that it has its own mausoleum, the recently refurbished Les Arts Décoratifs. Splendidly housed in the Louvre’s Pavillon de Marsan since 1905, the museum, after undergoing a six-year renovation, gives the full measure of what contemporary French designers are up against: 800 years of jubilant artifacts totally lacking in humility, 6,000 of them on display, all competing to “make our lives easier, happier, and more beautiful,” to quote the museum’s president, Hélène David-Weill. And so it goes in France: objects can make you happier, particularly if they’re sculpted, painted, and gilded; made of silk and gold thread; or ornamented with exotic finishes like amaranth veneer, patinated bronze, or straw marquetry.

No wonder a new generation of French designers goes out of its way to avoid this opulent legacy. Rather than promoting happiness, their creations deal with life’s little miseries. Daily nonsense is their field of predilection. Florence Doléac, for instance, has designed a lampshade that fits over a TV set and a folding table you wheel around like a suitcase. The prolific collective 5.5 Designers has a series of reinvented “ordinary” objects, including crossword-puzzle wallpaper and a chandelier system made of electrical sockets. Laurent Massa­loux flirts with Dadaism in a candlestick skewed by a table lamp and a modular sofa that looks like the San Andreas Fault.

Massaud is, by choice, in a different league. His objective is to foster a sense of well-being—which these days is a delicate affair. It is no longer enough to be ergonomically correct, aesthetically pleasing, and/or conceptually provocative: design now must offer social responsibility as well. While other designers gear projects toward solving problems like water shortages in poor rural areas or sheltering homeless people, Massaud tries to deal with social issues in affluent countries. “I am the product of a bourgeois culture,” he says. “I cannot pretend otherwise.”

For the average middle-class urban dweller, social responsibility is often muddled: it gets lumped together with concerns over sus­­tainability, fair trade, and human-rights violations. For the French cultural elite, however, social responsibility is first and foremost “social” indeed. At the Centre Pompidou, Guillaume is more likely to promote designers who contribute to the “regeneration of the social fabric than to the reduction of environmental impact.” To short-circuit what could be a very tedious soul-searching process—tedious for him, anyway—Massaud defines social responsibility in broad humanist terms, as a celebration of the dignity of human nature.

The artifacts he designs—whether a faucet or a resort hotel—focus on “feeling alive,” an emotional state he describes as being in harmony with nature. According to Chris Younès, a French anthropologist who specializes in the philosophy of architecture, this particular form of hedonism, which she says is popular with designers and architects today, is more Apollonian (quietly sensual) than Dionysian (wild and spontaneous). “Feeling alive, for this new generation of architects, is a physical sensation involving our sense of touch, smell, hearing, sight, and taste,” she says. “It’s about lying down in the grass, feeling the wind, taking a long shower, or enjoying the warmth of the sun.”

Case in point is Massaud’s bathroom hardware for Axor: the faucet is a small rectangular chrome shelf that looks like a gleaming shrine under which the water flows as if from some invisible source. The sight of this elegant spray—Yellowstone Falls in miniature—elicits a physical reaction, something like a tingling, a quiver, a quickening of the pulse. And water again is the main component in Hotel Mahn, a project for a spa resort teetering atop a reflective pool, which Massaud designed in 2003. He harnessed the evoc­ative power of all things liquid to wring out of visitors as much emotion as possible: mirror effects, cascading veils of water as room dividers, and watery patterns bounc­­ing off walls and ceilings.

“Recently among French intellectuals the binary opposition between good and bad is replaced by that between beautiful and bad,” Younès says. On a panel discussing Massaud’s work, she congratulated him for being one of the first designers to use the word beauty unabashedly. “No,” he told her, “I don’t like the word beauty, I prefer wonderment.”

Wonderment! As in Massaud’s In Out bench for Cappellini, a 10-foot-long canoe-shaped backless sofa that could be mistaken for a UFO; or his Out­line collection, also for Cappellini, which features an ethereal daybed slung like a hammock over a shiny shell resting on a spidery frame; or his Truffle armchair, for Porro, a wide seat as light and spongy-looking as a nest. But unquestionably his most successful exercise in wonderment is the Manned Cloud hotel project, a 700-foot airship, cruis­ing at a speed of 80 miles per hour and accommodating 40 overnight guests plus a crew of 15. Identified as a nonpolluting floating resort for travelers weary of trekking to luxury hotels in Thailand or Brazil, the ship would appeal to peo­ple eager to delight in the simple contemplation of the Earth from above. The Jules Verne contraption has attracted the attention of engineers at ONERA (Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Aéro­nau­tiques, the organization that engineered the Airbus), who are studying its feasibility.

“When it comes to Massaud, one does not expect objects, but projects,” says Michel Buisson, of VIA (Valorisation de l’Innovation dans l’Ameuble­-ment), a group that helps furniture designers develop their talents and find prospective sponsors. VIA recently chose Massaud for a major retrospective in its gallery because “he is both a utopist and an optimist, a rarity today.” Indeed, the VIA show looked at first glance like a reconstitution of a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bathed in blinding whiteness, the exhibit had stark futuristic lounge chairs, some of them hovering overhead in suspended immobility like so many spaceships waiting for permission to dock. It felt like I was walking on the moon among the few samples resting on the floor of the showroom: the Auck­land armchair for Cassina, as ergonomic as a pilot seat; the Aspen sofa, also for Cassina, a slim upholstered fuselage; and the lounge system for Time & Style, a series of flat cushions strewn around to create a lunar landscape.

But somehow these sci-fi creations, with their “back to the future” ethos, manage to avoid looking retro. The reason? Massaud’s design references are not from popular culture but from the world of applied sciences. He is the product of the École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle, a design school that favors practical engineering solutions over abstract considerations—an exception in France, where design is usually taught as a discipline rooted in theory. So in spite of his allegiance to humanism, Massaud cannot resist the lure of innovations. He often brainstorms with Jean-Louis Frechin, an architect and IT specialist whose firm, Nodesign, helps clients strategize novel ways to exploit existing technologies.

This tension between art de vivre and technology is central to Massaud’s work. He wants to put the latter at the service of the former. But even though his design solutions give the impression of being oddly virtual, almost ethereal, they’re the result of a congenial meeting of minds between the designer and his clients. “When Massaud meets someone who has a social conscience, there is chemistry between them, and then he can produce very interesting work,” Guillaume says as a veiled criticism of the slightly fuzzy quality of Massaud’s design philosophy.

His most ambitious project to date—a stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico, that he designed with his longtime partner, architect Daniel Pouzet—is an example of this messy approach. But listening to Massaud tell how he came up with the “volcano” concept for the 45,000-seat, $120 million sports arena, scheduled to open in spring 2008, gives a pretty good idea of how the serendipitous methodology works to his advantage.

“The stadium project was a total fluke,” Massaud says in his bustling colloquial manner. “Because of my busy sched­ule, I had missed a couple of appointments with this Mexican guy, whose name I could neither remember nor pronounce. When we finally sat down, he told me that he had just decided to hire Jean Nouvel to design his stadium. So anyway, we decided to have a little chat. Mind you, I never thought about stadiums—I am not even a soccer fan—but I arrogantly gave him my opinion about Nouvel’s proposal. Okay, I was free-associating as I went along. I took out a piece of paper and began to draw. I got carried away—and before I knew it, I was on a roll.” An hour and an half later, the Mexican developer, Jorge Vergara, had bought Massaud’s breathless demonstration: no deserted, urine-smelling, drug-dealer-infested parking lots surrounding the stadium! The arena would be buried inside a lawn-covered mound housing rings of underground retail spaces and parking garages. The hill, with the profile of a volcano, would sport a hovering donut-shaped roof—almost like a smoke ring floating above a crater.

“People who think Jean-Marie’s architectural projects are about architecture are clueless,” Frechin says. “He does not design buildings; he designs ecosystems.” This irrepressible tendency to turn simple assignments into elaborate programs is typically French. Witness the frequently quoted aphorism “Don’t ask a French designer to design a bridge, ask him how to cross the river” (which Americans translate as “Ask a Frenchman what time it is, and he will tell you how to build a clock”). Or as Massaud explains, “When a client asks me to design something, I always ask, ‘Why? What made you decide that this was the right thing for you?’”

Massaud takes pride in being an inspired visionary, someone who asks questions rather than proposes answers, even though it gets him into trouble with some of his clients. In 2003, in collaboration with Benjamin Trigano (whose grandfather started Club Med), Massaud worked on an ambitious concept for a resort community in Palm Desert, California. Part Burning Man, part Esalen, part Taliesen West, part Club Med, the hotel complex was supposed to be a meeting place where rich guests could hobnob with local crafts­men and artists-in-residence. “It was going to be a cultural ecosystem,” Tri­gano says. “Jean-Marie is a pragmatic dreamer. With Daniel Pouzet, he came up with a solution so radical that the real estate promoters got scared.”

Other “revolutionary” projects Massaud and Pouzet have collaborated on that are still on the drawing board include a “life reef,” two twin residential towers in Guadalajara; the Tanabé villa, in Fukuoka, Japan, a luxurious bunker tucked under a lawn; a Tribeca condo; and a project for a hotel complex on the Ile Seguin, in Boulogne Billancourt, near Paris, on the site of the former Renault factory and millionaire François Pinault’s ill-fated museum.

Rather than compare his projects to ecosystems, Massaud prefers to assim­ilate them into brands. Like the products he designs, brands are purveyors of “lifestyle scripts.” In the course of his career he has had the opportunity to do branding exercises for the likes of Renault, Sephora, and Lancôme in the form of store prototypes and trade shows. “The major brands are today’s opinion leaders,” Massaud says. He is careful to design “branded” furniture for the various Italian furniture manufacturers that feature his work in their collections: Cappellini, Cassina, Por­ro, Poltrona Frau, and B&B Italia. For example, Mas­­saud’s Poltrona Frau chairs have a corporate sensibility, whereas his Porro products are attuned to contemporary architecture. “Designing furniture is like creating a vocabulary,” he says. “People as­­sem­ble pieces in their home as they would words to write the novel of their life.”

According to Benoît Heilbrunn, a design critic and professor of marketing, this ability to turn objects into subjects—into things that drive the action—is characteristically French. In contrast to Dutch design, which is influenced by a pictorial heritage rich in still lifes, the French discipline is influenced by the theatrical past of a country steeped in thespian culture, from Molière to Sarah Bernhardt. Objects are not only designed, they’re staged, expected to play a role, given “lifestyle scripts.” It’s one of the reasons French design (in­cluding Massaud, Patrick Jouin, the Bour­oullec brothers, Christophe Pillet, Patrick Norguet, and of course Philippe Starck) has recently attracted the attention of Italian manufacturers. “Objects today must acquire a human face to offset the fact that commercial transactions are dehumanized,” Heil­brunn writes in an essay on French design. “The func­tion of the complex narratives used by French designers to explain their creative process is first and foremost a way to personalize their production.”

From this perspective art de vivre can be construed as a French brand, and a hardy one at that. It has survived centuries of changing tastes, period styles, and decorative trends. In the tradition of Hector Guimard, Pierre Chareau, and Roger Tallon, Jean-Marie Massaud is one of its brand managers.

Recent Programs