Ronan + Erwan BouroullecProduct + Furniture Designers (1971- + 1975-)
Selectors for 25/25 - Celebrating 25 Years of Design
29 March - 22 June 2007
RONAN and ERWAN BOUROULLEC, the Breton-born brothers, are the rising stars of European design and the most promising industrial designers to have emerged from France since Philippe Starck in the 1980s.
At first glance, it looked suspiciously like a giant gerbil cage. Only on closer inspection did it become clear that the white and green metallic structure standing in the middle of Cappellini’s exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair 2000 was a bed or - to be precise - the Lit Clos sleeping cabin.
The Lit Clos was the work of Erwan Bouroullec, a French furniture designer in his mid 20s who shared a studio in Saint-Denis, one of the scruffier outer suburbs of Paris, with his elder brother, Ronan. Together with the light, compact Hole and Spring Lounge chairs designed by Ronan, also for Cappellini, the Lit Clos was the most talked-about piece in the Milan Fair.
With a bed hoisted up on steel supports and reached by climbing a ladder, the Lit Clos evokes childhood memories of sleeping in a treehouse or on top of a bunk bed. It is also a very modern, practical way of creating a private sleeping area for the growing number of people who live, work – and often sleep - in the same open-plan spaces. 'Some people said the Lit Clos looked crazy when they first saw it in Milan," admitted Erwan Bouroullec. 'For us, it’s a practical response to the way that we and our friends like to live.'
This combination of romanticism and functionality runs throughout both brothers’ work. Like all truly talented designers, the Bouroullecs have defined a distinctive visual style, which Jasper Morrison (one of the designers they most admire) described as 'thoughtful and disciplined, with a real spirit and poetry.' The brothers also have an extraordinary ability to reinvent traditional types of furniture or products by recreating them in a way which is peculiarly appropriate to their generation of peripatetic 20-somethings, who often move from place to place, ideally taking their furniture with them.
Nothing in the Bouroullecs’ childhood in a quiet village near Quimper in Brittany suggested that they were destined to become designers. Ronan was born there in 1971 and Erwan in 1975. No-one in their family had any knowledge of design. Both sets of grandparents worked on the land and their parents in medicine. As kids, they rarely left Brittany. 'I didn’t do well at school,' admitted Ronan. 'And when I came to Paris to study industrial design, I didn’t do very well there either. It was only a few years later, when I enrolled on another course (in furniture design) at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, that everything came together.'
After graduating, he eked out a living from French government grants, which enabled him to produce and exhibit protoypes of furniture and ceramics. Even at this early stage, Ronan had developed a distinctive approach to design. Clean and uncluttered in form, his work was also extremely flexible. His 1997 Vases Combinatoires consisted of eight white polypropylene vases, each of which combines with the others to form larger vases. 'There are hundreds of different ways of combining them,' says Ronan. 'Erwan and I both like the idea of giving someone an object and letting them decide how they’ll use it.'
To this end, his 1998 kitchen unit was designed to be customised by its owners, who can add drawers, worktops, hooks and shelves to the basic frame. Usually when people move home, they leave the kitchen behind, but Ronan’s was always intended to be disassembled and taken with them. It caught the eye of Giulio Cappellini, president of Cappellini, at a trade fair in Paris. He offered to put some of Ronan’s old designs into production and commissioned new ones from him. Realising that he needed an assistant, Ronan asked Erwan, who had recently left art school in Paris, to come and work with him. Erwan agreed. 'Design offered a discipline and pragmatism that contemporary art, certainly in France, seemed to lack,' he said later.
From their cheap studio above a set of lock-up garages in Saint-Denis, the brothers designed lights and ceramics for Cappellini, as well as vases for Authentics in Germany and jewellery for the SMAK collection edited by the British-born designer, Michael Young. They shared similar design influences in Morrison, Konstantin Grcic and the older Italians, Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi and Gaetano Pesce. The brothers also had a similar style, described by Erwan as 'deliberately very simple with an element of humour'.
This humour was evident in their first joint pieces such as their 1999 SMAK necklace in the form of a stainless steel band spiraling into circles at each end like Sony Walkman headphones and the grey felt replicas of loudspeakers they created as prizes for an Hermès-sponsored photography competition in France that year. 'If you’re a winner, you want to shout about it,' said Ronan.
Everything the Bouroullecs designed in 1998 and 1999 went out under both names, but their 2000 projects were signed individually. 'We hadn’t fallen out,' explained Ronan, 'but some projects reflected Erwan’s ideas more than mine, and vice versa.' They soon reverted to signing their work jointly. The 2001 Glide system of light, compact, interchangeable sofas and daybeds - complete with shelves - which Cappellini launched at that year’s Milan Fair was ascribed to both Bouroullecs. 'We realised it was pointless to credit one thing to me, and another to Erwan, because we both contribute to everything,' said Ronan. 'And it’s impossible to identify who does what. You could say that I’m stronger technically and Erwan aesthetically, but that would be an over-simplification. We don’t always agree, but we do have a similar sensibility.'
He and Erwan were lucky in beginning their careers at a time when French design was ripe for revival after a fallow period in which the search for home-grown stars to succeed Philippe Starck had proved fruitless. Moreover, a new breed of manufacturers and retailers - both in France and abroad - was eager to snap up talented young designers to emulate the commercial success of the reigning superstars such as Starck, Jasper Morrison and Marc Newson.
The Bouroullecs’ emergence coincided with a renaissance in French fashion, architecture and design, and with the rise of a group of young Paris-based designers including Christophe Pillet, RADI and Matali Crasset, but their star rose fastest. After Cappellini, they won commissions from other design-led European companies including Iittala in Finland, Habitat in the UK and both Ligne Roset and Domeaux & Pères in France. They also designed furniture for the offices of Hedi Slimane, the acclaimed new men’s wear designer at Christian Dior, and a Paris shop for Issey Miyake’s APOC label.
Both brothers contend that they benefit from working together: not least because every element of each project is analysed more rigorously. 'There’s always team work in design,' observed Erwan. 'For most designers, the first time they have to explain or justify their work is to the manufacturer. By then, we’ve spent weeks, maybe months, arguing over the tiniest details.'
Yet the Bouroullecs also argue that their most successful design projects are generally the toughest, most contentious ones. 'Usually our work is strongest when we disagree, because that’s when we push each other to go further,' said Ronan. 'If we’re in agreement, it’s often mediocre.'
Visit the Bouroullecs' website at bouroullec.com
© Design Museum
1971 Ronan Bouroullec born in Quimper, Brittany.
1976 Erwan Bouroullec born in Quimper, Brittany.
1997 After graduating from Ecole Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, Ronan develops the modular Combinatory Vases in ABS plastic.
1998 Ronan wins a grant from the VIA to complete work on his multi-functional Cuisine Desintegre. He is then commissioned to develop products for Cappellini.
1999 After graduating from Ecole Nationale d'Arts de Cergy, Erwan joins Ronan in his design studio.
2000 Erwan exhibits the Lit Clos sleeping cabin at the Milan Furniture Fair for Cappellini.
2001 TV Vases and Honda Vases developed as a limited edition for Galerie Kreo in Paris. Development of the Glide Sofa for Cappellini and of the Cabane as a portable shelter.
2002 First museum exhibition at the Design Museum.
2003 La Grande Bouffe, a futuristic eating and cooking unit developed by ronan with his students at ECAL in Lausanne, is exhibited at the Milan Furniture Fair.
2004 Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the Boijmans Museum of Art, Rotterdam.
2005 Designed Facett seating collection made from foam, giving flexibility and comfort without any visible structure.
2005 Exhibited in The European Design Show 28 May 2005 – 04 September at the Design Museum. Exhibition tours.
2006 Developed a new tiling system for the walls of the Kvadrat showroom, conceived using an ingenious folding system.
2007 Selectors for 25/25 - Celebrating 25 Years of Design at the Design Museum 29 March - 22 June.
© Design Museum
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