Industrial designers (and brothers) Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec are known for elegant, minimalist style, but the human touch is evident in everything they do.
The Bouroullecs’ creative spirit and lively design sense inspired the title of the exhibition—a metaphor for the fantastical experience of the circus, and the roles of their works as performers within. While their aesthetic is minimal, the brothers are well-known for the playful aspects of their designs. In their work, this lighthearted approach often takes the form of a reference to the natural world, or appears in the flexible, open-ended uses they imagine for their creations.
The Bouroullecs’ practice is also about empathy and making their designs a source of comfort—or joy—when you encounter them.
Readers who love contemporary design might be familiar with their iconic Algues (Algae) screen divider system (shown above), or covet their elegant, typographically inspired Serif TV for Samsung (shown below). Or you might have visited their architectural works like the Nuage Promenade in Miami’s Design District, or perhaps have seen their compelling exterior treatments at the new Bourse de Commerce–Pinault Collection in Paris, which opened in spring 2021. These and related objects—and more—are featured in the museum’s exhibition.
In Search of Imperfection
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Bouroullecs’ work is their fascination with and feel for the materials from which their designs are made, and their concern for how textures, both visual and physical, make an impression. As Ronan recently put it: “I’m really interested in making objects that produce a vibration.” This methodology is reflected in the brothers’ frequent rejection of sleek, machine-made finishes, favoring instead handmade, imperfect looks for their objects as a way of enlivening and humanizing their designs.
This aspect of their work is an important theme in the museum’s exhibition, which includes some of the most beautiful examples created from this approach. One of my favorites is the Alcova collection, a series of geometrical forms and vessels hand-cast by Italian glassworkers for WonderGlass. For this project, it was significant that the brothers were, as they’ve described it, “working with the thickness of the material and letting the process guide us, seeking to preserve all the magic of the ballet of molten glass manipulated by master glassmakers.”
The intense alchemy of their manufacture can be observed in the video below, which demonstrates how the process leaves impressions, bubbles, and flaws in the finished glass pieces. The rippling texture of the objects lends a watery quality evocative of the Venetian home of the manufacturer’s glass workshops. The final arrangement of the Alcova elements is open-ended, allowing their owner the freedom to make intimate juxtapositions of shapes and color.
Highlighting the Handmade
Glass is a particularly rich field of exploration for the Bouroullecs, who also established a partnership with the Iittala glassworks in Finland, made famous by the designs of Alvar Aalto. This relationship led to the creation of the Ruutu (“diamond” in Finnish) vase and the Erkkeri (“bay window”) vase, which are mouth-blown in steel molds by master glassblowers and take many hours to successfully produce. A charming group of pieces resulting from this collaboration is a set of glass Fleurs (French for “flowers”), which the Bouroullec studio has lent to the museum. They’re made from a bowl-like blown-glass shape attached to a simple iron rod, recalling the iron pontil tool used by glassworkers. The flowers are a wonderful fusion of references to nature, minimal abstract form, and a deep appreciation for the craft process.
The Bouroullecs’ enjoyment of irregular finishes and visible traces of handmaking is not only present in smaller objects or any single medium but also appears as a strong thread in much of their work. Some of these areas are less surprising, such as the wonderful carpets made to their designs by Nepalese weavers for the Danish company Kvadrat. But it is also visible in less obvious areas of activity, like their designs for ceramic tiles—for example, the Pico series, designed in 2011 for Mutina in Italy. These have a matte texture that emphasizes the earthy constituents of the ceramic material and are enlivened with colored raised or sunken dots.
The Officina furniture series, designed by the brothers and manufactured by Magis S.p.A. in Italy, is another favorite that showcases their focus on materials and manufacture. Officina is composed of the structural building blocks of a range of furniture made in wrought iron, one of the oldest techniques used by humankind to make objects. A system of delicate, geometrically formed legs created from red-hot iron and shaped by hammering can be partnered with finishing elements into complete objects. As the Bouroullecs describe it, “the surface of wrought iron is alive and imperfect,” but it all comes together in a deeply satisfying whole.
A focus on the nuances of material processes, handcraft, and texture might seem counterintuitive for industrial designers. But what’s most remarkable is the seamless integration of these ideas into the brothers’ elegant styling and concern for the successful function of their designs. Both poetic and pragmatic, the special “vibration” of the Bouroullecs’ work resonates widely and accounts for their importance in the field of contemporary design.
Jack Hinton is the museum’s Henry P. McIlhenny Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture. Having written this article, he would desperately like to make a post-pandemic trip to Paris with his family.