The French Brothers Who Have Designed Everything From The Champs-Elysées Bronze Fountains To A Samsung TV
At the time when Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec started working with furniture retailer Vitra nearly two decades ago, the brothers were still fresh faces in the design scene. “The relationship with Vitra has changed our lives,” recalls Ronan. “We were so young, all the other designers were old masters; we added a lot of freshness.”
The prolific French duo have come a long way from the days when Erwan (the younger of the two brothers) started as “family help” during the early years of their eponymous studio. To regain that youthful dynamism, the siblings seek to continually reinvent themselves through their work, while blurring the boundaries between art and design.
This year for Vitra, they presented a series of works-in-progress. Based on Ronan’s drawings, the studio created an array of prototype ceramic vases, with each piece cut from a slab of clay and joined together in whimsical compositions of colours, shapes and textures.
While their work may be diverse, the co-founders have opted to keep their practice small. “We are a very small studio; we are just six people. We are not running after money after 30 years of work,” shares Ronan. “We choose our projects when we feel a challenge, when we feel the passion in front of us; that is very important.”
Recently, the studio designed the bronze fountains at the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris; a project that also reflects Ronan’s growing interest in designing for public spaces. “It’s a bit of a frustration after 30 years that our work is dedicated to a certain part of society,” he says. “I would like to address it to a larger group of people.”
How did your relationship with Vitra begin?
Ronan Bouroullec (RB) First, it started as a relationship with Rolf Fehlbaum, the president-owner of Vitra. Since 20 years ago, we have been speaking almost every day on the phone about everything—politics, family and chairs.
It’s a very interesting company to work with. It’s a long process to do a good industrial product which is perfect for comfort, delivery and public spaces. We’ve got a lot of prototypes ongoing; very few of them appear in the market. We are an old couple with Vitra too; we need to keep the energy and the love.
What is the inspiration behind the vase prototypes created for Vitra?
RB As designers, we need to work in different rhythms. Some projects need three to five years to be developed. But it’s important to have more quick, dynamic research and subjects. We’ve done pieces as personal research, and one day I showed it to Rolf; I like to have his opinion on everything. And he said: “Why don’t we present it with Vitra?” It was my drawing, something personal that we decided to show and try to do within the next year.
In our cities, we miss the presence of flowers, the sensuality of nature. The vase is a beautiful object, an interesting subject with a freedom of expression. Ceramic is a marvellous material; it’s not synthetic, it’s a piece of earth that you cook. It’s one of the first materials that was used by humans and there’s the possibility of colour and depth.
We are in an interesting period where we are facing a lot of problems but at the same time we have so many possibilities of how to protect nature and how to do long-lasting projects. Being intelligent in the production is very important, although it is very banal to say that.
How has your design process evolved over the years?
RB There’s a lot of discussion and we’ve got a lot of subjects because we design TVs, ceramics and a lot of public projects. Erwan is very interested in new technology, whereas I’m interested in physical things; Erwan is able to concentrate on very complex subjects whereas I need to do many projects in the same year. We’re like an old couple now. After 20 years, our way of working has changed and is ever-changing.
The challenge is to keep a certain freshness; my biggest fear is that we repeat ourselves. So we try to reinvent ourselves, which is quite difficult, but we try to do it. The way to do that is to work with many companies, from the smallest to the biggest.
We launched the fountains at Champs-Elysées; the month before, we had an exhibition; then we’re also launching a new TV for Samsung. As an artist and a designer, I’m passionate about a lot of subjects and we are driven by our passion. That’s our way.
What would you consider as one of the recent milestones of your career?
RB When you are in a dream, you run after something that you can never touch. I feel it’s a bit like that. I think that I am doing a lot of projects, I run after the good projects that make me say, “Ah, this is a good one”.
I’m quite happy with the fountains at Champs-Elysées. It was a big project—250 people were working on it for three years. The fountains were first designed in the mid-nineteenth century, almost 200 years ago. There have been three fountains and we were chosen to design the new ones because the last fountain was destroyed 30 years ago. The goal was to create a sort of ballad, choreography; a sort of animation.
It’s a very interesting avenue because there are 300,000 people walking through every day; a melange of people, from the poor to the ultra-rich. The goal was to create a sort of pleasure and marvel for everybody—the pleasure of water, light and movement.