Bringing an Industrial Vision to the Home
Paris Exhibit Shows Bouroullecs’ Subversive Style
Published: April 28, 2013
PARIS — Hanging in the sumptuous Grande Nef, or Great Nave, of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris are nearly 1,500 spindly strips of black plastic slotted together to form a gigantic screen. Each one resembles a short strand of seaweed, which is why its designers, the brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, named it Algue, the French word for seaweed.
Unprepossessing though an Algue looks on its own, when several pieces are combined they create a gently surreal visual effect, which is doubtless why Vitra, their Swiss manufacturer, has sold nearly 8 million pieces of that algaesque plastic in the past nine years. Not bad at €63, or $125, for a pack of 25. It seems apt that a giant ensemble of Algues is among the first things you see when walking into “Momentané,” the retrospective of 15 years of the Bouroullecs’ work, which opened Friday at Musée des Arts Décos and runs through Sept. 1. Not only is it one of their best-selling products, Algue embodies the defining qualities of the brothers’ designs. Formally elegant, technically ingenious, disciplined, yet flexible, it has the air of something that belongs to the present, and could only be the result of the latest technology and design thinking.
Like many bastions of the decorative arts, the Paris museum has traditionally seemed ambivalent about technocratic objects like Algue, and has rarely addressed industrial design on this scale. Yet it chose the subjects of this exhibition wisely because Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, 41 and 37 respectively, are the most important French industrial designers of their generation, and among the most influential worldwide. Even if you haven’t slotted a couple of Algues together, or used any of their other products, there may well be traces of the brothers’ work in the contents of your home and workplace.
Several exhibitions have been devoted to the Bouroullecs in recent years, notably at the Art Institute of Chicago and Centre Pompidou Metz in eastern France, but “Momentané” is their most ambitious show so far. The Musée des Arts Décos gave them carte blanche to present their work as they wished.
It is tempting to interpret their response as a subtle commentary on the historic frostiness between the decorative arts and industrial design. Having been given temporary custodianship of the Grande Nef, the brothers chose to disguise its ornate interior behind a translucent white tented structure and the ceramic floor tiles they developed for Mutina in Italy. They then divided the space with giant screens constructed from Algues and Clouds, the interlocking felt tiles they designed for the Danish textile company Kvadrat.
Gently, yet deftly, the Bouroullecs have transformed the western wing of what was once France’s royal palace into a neutral, modern setting. There is even a quietly provocative subtext to the exhibition’s title. “Momentané” translates into English as “momentary,” which alludes to the speed and frenzy of contemporary life, rather than the monumentality traditionally prized by historic museums like this one.
Not that there is a hint of aggression: that isn’t their style. Before the Bouroullecs, French design was dominated by the Post-Modernist prankster Philippe Starck, whose work is as showy and boisterous as theirs is restrained. Yet their designs are more subversive than his. Rather than devising new versions of existing objects, they question what sort of things we need at a time when digital technology has wrought dramatic changes in the way we live and work, and then develop them.
Brought up in Brittany, both brothers went to college in Paris, where Ronan studied design and Erwan art. Ronan opened a design studio after graduating, and Erwan joined him, initially just to help out. After a brief period of working independently, they have since signed everything jointly, and only ever release a project if they both agree to do so.
Even when Ronan was working alone, he produced objects that could be customized by their owners as their needs changed, typically by adding different components to, say, a series of vases or a kitchen unit. He and his brother have since applied a similar principle to a dazzling range of other products.
Recognizing that workplaces now need to accommodate constantly changing casts of employees, interns and visitors, executing diverse tasks, they have designed desk systems for Vitra inspired by the multiple activities carried out on the kitchen table in their grandparents’ farmhouse, where a child might be doing homework at the same time as other people ate supper, and someone else did the farm accounts.
Their products for the home are equally versatile. Rooms can be divided into different spaces by constructing screens of Algues or Clouds, and then dismantling them. While anyone living and working in the same place can create an enclosed area for a bed, without sacrificing sorely needed floor space, in the elevated Lit Clos sleeping cabin.
“Momentané” shows how the brothers began by developing such objects on an experimental basis, and have since deployed the technology and engineering resources of manufacturers like Vitra and Kvadrat to make them more sophisticated. The show is organized thematically with monumental projects, like Algue and Clouds, clustered in the Grande Nef, while their work for offices, schools and other public spaces is in another gallery, and their designs for the home in a third.
The brothers offer glimpses of their thinking and way of working by displaying the rough sketches from which they develop their ideas, and photographs tracing their work over the years. Seeing Erwan groaning over a glitch in a project, the mammoth machines that shape their products, and Ronan’s daughter Mette toddling around their home brings the Bouroullecs’ designs to life by reminding us of how challenging it is to create something that seems so calm and refined, and how pleasing it can be to live with.