From their studio in Belleville, Paris, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec are building an extraordinary reputation as Europe’s most original design team. It is a collaboration based not only on their relationship as brothers, but also on their distinct personalities. In Objectified, Gary Hustwit’s acclaimed 2009 documentary on design, the duo described themselves as a fox (Ronan) and a hedgehog (Erwan), employing philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s categorisation of intellectuals, which divides them into foxes, who know ‘many things’ and hedgehogs, who know ‘one big thing’.
It is an intriguing description of both the way they work and their complexity. ‘We are happy to read about our projects, to see what people suggest and to review comments from journalists that describe them. But as for characterising our work and our projects ourselves, we do not feel comfortable with that,’ says Erwan.
‘We grew up with the same background, and the same deep relationship with shape and colour,’ explain the brothers. ‘We have a very high level of understanding of each other, but still disagree occasionally. On our projects, we arrive at the same opinions, but it is not always clear-cut from the beginning. We comment and criticise if necessary, and often have very frank and animated discussions. When we disagree, we try everything possible to find agreement.’
Originally from Brittany, Ronan, born in 1971 and the older of the brothers, was the first to become a designer. Erwan, who is five years younger, studied art before working with his sibling, which brought obvious advantages, says Erwan. ‘We didn’t go to the same school or have the same friends, so we sometimes have quite different points of view.’ In 1997, the brothers presented their Disintegrated Kitchen at the Salon du Meuble in Paris. It was here that they were spotted by Giulio Cappellini, an encounter which led to their first major industrial design projects, including the Closed Bed and the Spring Chair. This was followed by a commission from the designer Issey Miyake, who asked them to create an interior for his new APC shop in Paris.
Their biggest breakthrough, however, was a decisive meeting with the chairman of Vitra, Rolf Fehlbaum, which resulted in their development of a new kind of office system, Joyn, manufactured in 2002. This was the beginning of a special partnership that has borne fruit in the form of numerous projects, including Algues, the Alcove Sofa, the Worknest, the Slow Chair and the Vegetal Chair. Since 2004, the Bouroullecs have also worked with Magis, designing two complete furniture collections, Striped and Steelwood.
Today, Ronan and Erwan design for numerous manufacturers as well as Cappellini, Vitra and Magis, including Kvadrat, Kartell, Established and Sons and Ligne Roset, and have built up close and fruitful relationships with each of them.
‘Working with collective intelligence is very important to us,’ Ronan reveals. ‘We do not work with compromise. Erwan and I question the project over and over again to be certain that we are following the best path, which will lead us closest to the best design.’ Erwan explains that the brothers’ daily concern is to find the right balance between the many variables that each object is made of. ‘Design is a multifaceted discipline,’ adds Erwan. ‘What drives us is the quest for harmony between all the parameters, which can be tangible things such as shape, colour, size, weight, or intangible, like sensuality and comfort. It is not just about the search for the right balance between form and function.’
Aside from their major themes of lightness, interactivity and imagination, Erwan is at pains when asked to describe their design process, almost as if it‘s a family secret. ‘What we feel makes a successful designer is his or her ability to hold the line with a project from A to Z, knowing that the process is highly complex and full of obstacles,’ he says. ‘The number-one difficulty for us is be able to integrate the many complex factors, while keeping the essence of the initial project. It is easy to have an idea, yet challenging to bring it into being. This is, in a few words, the complexity of leading a design project successfully.’
An intimate understanding of the idiosyncrasies of craft is central to the Boroullecs’ work. How easy is it for the pair to reconcile craft with mass production? ‘Furniture and product design sit exactly between craftsmanship and industry,’ asserts Erwan. ‘It is, or it should be, the perfect coming together of both disciplines.’
Last year, the brothers collaborated with Kvadrat on the Clouds project, a textile creation that blurs the boundaries between furniture and curtains. Clouds consists of elements that are either added or removed by the user, who can interact with the design to sculpt three-dimensional forms that reflect individual feelings and emotions. Each piece is made from Kvadrat textiles shaped into triangles, which are assembled to create different forms. ‘We actually turned Kvadrat down once, before going on to work with them, when they invited us to design their showroom in Stockholm, because we are not architects,’ Ronan tells me. ‘After several months, we agreed that it would be a great opportunity to try a new way of dividing public and private spaces with textile walls.’
Since 2001, the Bouroullecs have worked in an experimental capacity at Galerie Kreo in Paris, where they have maintained the momentum that has been essential to the development of their work. They have held five exhibitions, the last one this spring, where they experimented with lighting. The exhibition had a certain delicacy in terms of the materials used: leather covered the Lianes lamps’ electrical wires, their Roches shelving units were painted with a finish of matte, mineral-looking paint and the Conque lamps were mirrored to give a sense of mystery when lit up. ‘Our research is as much about magic as it is about use,’ says Ronan.
Their interest in industrial design is linked to the unlimited reproduction of objects, explains Ronan. ‘The gallery helps us to breathe between other projects. This unique context has often led us to compare our work for the gallery to using a sketch pad, a more instinctive form of research free from the constraints imposed by industry, the norms, weight, size or other issues more or less justified by mass production. Here, we give ourselves time to explore different media and unusual techniques that are rejected by the industry; to try out unique skills.’
The Bouroullecs were voted Designers of the Year at the Salon du Meuble in 2002. In 2009, the Vegetal Chair won the ICFF award for outdoor furniture. Their designs are part of numerous international collections, including the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the Centre Pompidou and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Design Museum in London and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. They have also expanded into several architectural projects including La Maison Flottante (‘The Floating House’) in 2006, Camper stores in Paris and Copenhagen (2009) and the Casa Camper Hotel’s restaurant, Dos Palillos, in Berlin (2010).