French design star brothers bring their work to U.S.

CHICAGO: French design stars Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec strive to bring simplicity, elegance and function to a world cluttered with ugly and unnecessary objects.

Americans who may only have seen their work in magazines will be able to experience their experiments with materials and moods at their first major U.S. show in nearly a decade.

Bivouac, a retrospective of the past 15 years of their collaborations, opened Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and will run until Jan. 20.

“For me, the most important question of design is to create an atmosphere,” Ronan said as he sat on the lip of Textile Field, a remarkable piece which invites play and relaxation with its yards of blue, grey, green and white stripes.

“So I hope the atmosphere produced here has the sensuality and softness that is at the root of our different studies ... objects that are sometimes extremely functional and sometimes magical.”

The exhibit was first mounted at the new Pompidou Center in Metz, France, but is a completely different show. Instead of encountering the entire oeuvre in a single room, Chicago visitors can explore the evolution of their work in large and small galleries.

Large scale pieces, which the brothers have dubbed micro-architecture, partition the galleries even further, separating work spaces from dining tables and creating alcoves in which to explore smaller pieces like vases and floating shelves.

The collection shows how good design does more than just “tantalize the eye,” and why the Bouroullec brothers are seen as a “barometer of where the design field is going,” curator Michael Darling said.

“They’re not trying to trick us with crazy shapes and colors just for the sake of wowing us,” Darling told AFP. “They’re really trying to bring something new to the table in terms of how we sit and work and read and eat ... there’s something that might inspire us to think more artistically about our everyday life when you see this show.”

Sketches used to develop their work line the walls of one gallery and give visitors a look into what Erwan described as a lengthy and sometimes torturous design process.

“The way we design is still somewhat an enigma to me. Because, the real challenge when designing something is that you have to have good functionality, you have to have find the right production techniques but it’s also something a bit magical,” he said. “When something is beautiful and also right, what it contains is often a very particular balance.”

The brothers do not have a particular method; rather they explore materials and techniques ranging from the artisanal to the industrial.

Their constraints are to find the most rational approach to production and often look for “hyper concentration” so the object is not made with thousands of details or materials, Erwan explained.

“The functionality, the technique, that’s the minimum,” he said as he sat in a supple couch designed to be “the most comfortable possible.”

“The most difficult question of design, what we strive foremost to achieve, is to create the culture that surrounds us ... how do we shape the visual environment,” he added.

For the Bouroullec brothers, the design process can be a bit like trimming a tree – looking at what they can take away while still maintaining the form and function.

Erwan said his inspiration often comes from his fascination with the mechanics of production, how the various companies they work with use machines or materials and how these techniques can be adapted to new forms and functions.

Ronan is also motivated by the practical aspects of a project – finding an attractive yet ergonomic solution to open plan offices – and draws inspiration from the elegance and simplicity of both primitive tribes and highly functional objects like the iPhone.

He also said he rejects a culture which values quantity over quality and overwhelms the senses with images and clutter.

The typical family of four has thousands of objects in their home if every book, toy, and crayon is counted, he noted with disgust.

But it is not a more simple world he seeks – “it’s a less ugly world,” he said with a smile.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 23, 2012, on page 13.




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