Fifteen years ago, as a student of Fine Art, Erwan Bouroullec began helping his elder brother Ronan with his first few product design projects. From then on, the partnership naturally progressed until they found themselves working together more and more consistently, forming the design studio for which they are now internationally famed. "I don't remember a day in which the status changed," Erwan reflects. "Maybe once we had our first interview we said okay, now we are together!"
It is perhaps in part this unorthodox starting point that makes their work so unconventional; their seemingly contradictory disciplines have merged harmoniously to create a body of truly original and thought-provoking design. "A lot of [being a designer] is about having a certain empathy to the situation, to the way people live, and of course a strong empathy for the people we work with", says Erwan. It certainly shows; whilst having an overt sense of playfulness, it is apparent that each piece has been sensitively thought through in terms of its future existence as part of someone's daily life.
When asked if this is a factor that drives their design process from the beginning, Erwan explains in detail the conceptual stages that underlie each of their projects. "It's a simple but strange process; most of the time when we start a project we are obsessed by three factors." Essentially, it is from the three anchor points of functionality, originality - 'a real difference from that which exists already' - and craftsmanship that the subtle character of their work stems. "They are simple rules that could be taught in any design school, but if you focus on them there is a certain quality that grows... or that's what we manage to make grow."
This kind of alchemical process results in a 'natural language' that makes the Bouroullec brothers' work identifiably their own, without the need for a contrived style. "Some people work with a picture in mind, or they want to provoke a kind of remembrance of something, or they want to tell a story - we don't. The only story we want to tell is the way it's built and the way you're going to use it."
In forming their initial ideas, a desire to express the quality of the people who are involved in its making is integral for Ronan and Erwan. For instance, their 'Losanges' are handmade in Pakistan using a traditional Kilim technique: "We didn't try to make them invent a new way of weaving, we didn't tell them they should change the yarn... I think the rug itself emphasises a lot of that part; we really try to reveal what people do."
Their website is replete with drawings, maquettes and photographs of their products in elegant installations. Their work is often displayed in exhibitions and documented in books, away from the commercial sphere and its intrinsic restraints. "Drawing is the ground of everything, so sometimes it's wonderful to draw, and sometimes it's really painful. Drawing [occupies] most of my time," says Erwan.
Despite his protestations that these drawings are utilitarian translations of his passing thoughts - a simple way of recording and documenting ideas that would otherwise be lost - his monochrome, geometric studies and detailed mock-ups are as appealing in isolation as they are useful in the context of the design process. He explains that rather than intuiting ideas through the process of mark-making, his drawings are a means of documenting moments in his continual train of thought. "To me the creative process is elemental; everything happens through the brain, but we always forget - we forget a vision we had 30 seconds before because our minds are evolving. In a way, in my case, drawings are often transcriptions of what happened, so as not to lose the process and be able to go backwards."
But Erwan is careful to distinguish his own practice from the realm of fine art. He admits that there are 'quite a lot of things in the studio that are really on the borders, and are not about product design every time' - and there are aspects that overlap, especially in terms of the environment in which the drawings are experienced. Yet he maintains that they are 'just some drawings made by a product designer, and they have to be understood from this perspective.'
However, presenting their work in an exhibition rather than a commercial context allows for ideas to be pushed and explored with fewer constraints. "Product design most of the time is in front of the market, it's in front of the reality... but in a way that brings a lot of limitations, so it's important to have some activities in which certain strange and bad rules of the market don't have to be respected. It might be that sometimes these pieces have access to a freedom that provokes a real surprise, and people have the tendency to think that it's starting to be art, but it's not - it's just product design."
To Erwan, importance lies not in the unnecessary categorisation of creativity but in the meaningfulness of the product to its user, whoever that may eventually be. He refrains from analysing the consumers that buy their products, preferring to think of furniture as something to be passed down, re-used, reinterpreted. "As soon as you design something and you produce it properly, in a way it's endless; a chair, if you take care of it, can last for fifty or a hundred years, and for all different kinds of people."
One of their latest creations was on display at the Domus showroom where we met with Erwan on the last day of Clerkenwell Design Week. The 'Pico' tiles embody the traits that the Bouroullec brothers have cultivated; of cleverness in craft and cleverness in simplicity, which results in something surprising - something discreetly different. "To a certain point, it's finding a certain cleverness in the very building of the element; the way it's manufactured, the way it's assembled." Based on a respect for the irregularity of natural minerals, the concept of the 'Pico' tiles derives from the composition of a handful of sand. "Everything about the ceramic tile most of the time is fake wood, fake stone, fake this, fake that - we just tried the opposite..."
Media and Arts Correspondent