Philosopher come anthropologist come artist come fill-in-the blank – yes, Mathieu really does seem capable of just about anything – has quite literally revolutionised the design market.
The youngest of a large family, with six siblings, some of whom have also flirted with design, Mathieu attended the famous Paris design school ENSCI-Les Ateliers, where, rather than the usual five-year course, he spent over seven years, describing it as ‘a great place to experiment and learn’.
He quotes his family as a great inspiration: ‘A big family like mine is just like a tiny society. You can see that even if all of you have the same DNA, everyone is so different. They can be considered the target market; they are impermanent, always changing. It was a great inspiration for me when trying to make products and designs for people like them.’
His unbelievably perceptive view of humankind and our needs is apparent throughout his work. Worthy of the musings of Sartre himself, Mathieu says of humans: ‘I don’t consider them consumers but deep, complex machines. This is the reason I am in collaboration with scientists, to help me understand the human way of living, thinking, hearing, seeing and feeling. I want to connect to the reality of human beings … this is why I don’t design chairs. I ask myself, what do humans need? Maybe they need pure air to breathe, sustainable food, or just good health.’
Although humbly admitting he’s ‘no scientist’ himself, he has worked closely with scientists from around the world on a number of projects. In the past, Mathieu would approach them with ideas, inviting and hoping for collaboration, but now he is fortunate enough to be the one who is approached. He describes it as a somewhat daunting but proud moment when a talented neurosurgeon asks for partnership. Mathieu is in awe of multitalented individuals: ‘I’m inspired by the 19th-century German, Ernst Haeckel. He was a biologist, naturalist, physician, philosopher and artist all in one. He was an amazing person, able to do all of these things at the same time.’
Essentially Lehanneur’s influences come from outside the design world. ‘Inspiration for my work does not come from designers. It comes from people such as Stanley Kubrick, a film-maker able to create very different films all from the same brain. Compare 2001: A Space Odyssey with A Clockwork Orange, for example; it’s amazing to see one person create such different work.’ He consciously avoids reading too many design magazines. His main advice to students is to avoid them altogether, and try to get inspiration from their surroundings. ‘If you work with a design magazine, it is so difficult to be focused on your ideas, your first and very fragile intuition. If you are inspired by other designers you are too late; the products are already out there.’
Designers have always had to consider a multitude of variables in their quest to innovate and create new products. They must be forever conscious of the state of the market, pricing and the acquisition of suitable materials to ensure profitability. It is vital to ascertain whether an innovative idea will indeed prove fruitful and satisfy clientele. Sustainability is the essential 21st-century ingredient for designers to consider. ‘We have to react and change many things. In this century and the next, sustainability will become all the more important. It’s just one more variable,’ he explains.
Mathieu does not set out with the sole intention of creating sustainable design in his projects. After all, he believes: ‘The best way to be sustainable is not to produce.’ He would not go as far as saying that the desire to be sustainable fuels his inspiration for new design. Nevertheless, he does rise to the challenge.
‘It’s like the sea. If it is just flat, it is so boring, and you have to play with the waves if you want to surf them and make it more interesting. Sustainability is one more wave in the sea.’
Sustainable design is, in Mathieu’s view, an achievable aim in the near future. The main problem is when designers aim just for the visible. Sometimes clients push for more obvious sustainable design to be incorporated. ‘Usually the more invisible aspects are the most sustainable. For example, the weight of a product is very important in affecting its carbon footprint, but weight is invisible. The client wants to make visible sustainable changes to communicate the message clearly, but sustainability is not always about shape, colour or material.’
Andrea, Mathieu’s air purifier, was designed in collaboration with scientist David Edwards from Harvard University to counteract the side-effects of traditional design. The air we breathe in our homes and at the workplace can be up to ten times more toxic than the air from outdoors, in large part due to the products in the room. ‘You decide to buy a plastic chair because it is red, glossy and beautiful. But the chair has side-effects; it will emit toxic elements into the air. As a designer I wanted to work on these side-effects, and after researching ways of absorbing indoor pollution I found some plants that were able to do this. The main problem is that they can’t do it alone; the air won’t go by itself through the soil and roots, the efficient locations for eliminating toxins.’
The Andrea air purifier – initially known as Bel Air – is able to increase the efficiency of the plant and help eliminate the toxins. Mathieu knew that the idea was at risk of appearing rather fanciful, and admitted underestimating the reaction from the general public. He expected that it would take a while for the public to understand his concept and assumed people would believe either it would not work, and accuse the design of being too futuristic, or deny the existence of indoor pollution altogether. Nevertheless, Lehanneur was impressed by the positive reaction the prototype received. Initially, the prototype was valued at a hefty 15,000 euro, when in reality the plant inside cost only seven. The day after the opening, Mathieu was inundated with emails from New York to Tokyo, asking him where one could purchase his product at a reasonable price.
‘The general public is more reactive, open-minded and faster-moving than marketing departments. At first I thought I was being avant-garde with my design, but a day later I realised it was me that was late. The general public was ready, but I wasn’t ready to meet demand.’
For the Local River project Mathieu was commissioned at the Artists Space Gallery in New York. He was offered carte blanche, and was drawn to the wave of interest in the US at that time in locavores. This is the name given to a person who only eats locally produced food, within the radius of 100 miles.
This is a sustainable approach to reducing the negative impact of transportation on the environment, while supporting local communities.
Mathieu wanted to create something that was both aesthetically pleasing – an object people would want to display in the living area – but also serve a purpose and send a message about the importance of eating locally produced goods. You can’t get much more local than your own living room! The design uses symbiosis – the plants clear out the waste from the tank, keeping it clean for the fish, while the plants in turn benefit from the minerals and nutrients that the fish waste provides. Together the two kinds of living organisms are able to flourish interdependently in a home environment.
Rather than go as far as revolutionise our eating habits altogether, in this project Mathieu demonstrates that it is feasible to eat fish and vegetables produced in your own home. The main aim is to generate awareness, noting that it is unlikely owners of the installation will want to survive only on the produce created in their living room.
‘It’s just like a river. You can sit in front of it and see part of nature, or you can fish for yourself and then cook the fish. The plants growing on top can be salad, herbs or tomatoes … It doesn’t aim to replace the fridge, but maybe just one meal a month or even a year in order to be in contact with nature.’
The project stirred conflicting responses around the world. It was generally harder to convince those in the West, mainly France and the US, than it was people in the East.
‘In China, the idea of choosing your fish live before you eat it is socially acceptable, to know if the fish are healthy and fresh. But in the West it is more challenging to convince people … At the opening, I asked the director of the gallery if we could get a chef to make sushi from the fish in the tank, in front of the visitors. The director said that it was impossible, explaining that we were in New York City, and people were not ready to see this.’ Although at first glance it is a seemingly sustainable design, a big problem is the size and weight of the installation. Made from blown glass in Switzerland, it is rather expensive to produce, but Mathieu is working on improving it to make it lighter and hopefully counteract the admittedly large carbon footprint it creates.
Mathieu is proud of the diverse products he has had the opportunity to work on, and has no particular favourite. ‘I am working on industrial designs, research projects, a very old church and for cosmetic companies … I am always happy when a client far from my approach asks me to design a product for him. He says he doesn’t want a plant- or science-related design, but that he wants the brains that are able to make his product. This always amazes me, and I’m thankful for the client’s confidence.’
He is currently working on around 30 different projects. The next one will be a mineral diffuser, a product to be displayed on the desk emitting elements and minerals that have been extracted from the sea through a process of filtration. ‘French biologists have discovered hundreds of minerals and elements that are good for human health, and found only in seawater.’
Another big project is for a large electricity company, designing a small electrical product able to monitor consumption at home, helping people to reduce and optimise consumption.
Mathieu is also working on a design on a new space at the Centre Pompidou in Paris where teenagers can be in contact with artists and musicians, a space where they can sleep, rest or meet with friends. He hopes this will be an inspiring location for the younger generation, and they hope to open the area by September 2010.
Public response to Lehanneur’s projects is not limited to the world of design. Andrea has appeared in a variety of magazines, from teen and garden magazines to technology, science and design publications.
‘People are not just interested in the design itself, but in what is behind the design. One person can see it as a design, another as a small garden, someone else as a therapeutic object and others may view it as a gadget. I like it when a product is able to move far away from the design world.’