Jean Nouvel

by Branka Bozic

Jean Nouvel

If they can’t figure out who it is, that means it’s me.”  Jean Nouvel is an architect and a designer whose pieces of work don’t resemble each other. He considers this approach to be crucial in the world of shaping the space. Whether it is an object or a piece of furniture, it needs to have a character. If it looks good in one space, it doesn’t mean it looks good in some other space. The philosophy of his work makes us think: Is the concept on which the work of other great designers is based always right?

An Artist and an Engineer in One

Jean Nouvel was born in 1945 in Fumel, a small town in the south-west of France. His parents were professors, mother Renée taught the English language and his father Roger History. Their wish was to see their son as an engineer or a lecturer, to study languages and Maths. But when Jean was 16, his high school teacher taught him basic drawing principles. His tendency towards it was recognized immediately. During this period, he enjoyed reading about Art which would impact his later education. He wanted to study Art or something similar but his parents opposed this decision. They considered it to be risky and that he should do something more practical. The Architecture, being the junction of engineering and Art, was the compromise.

Nouvel signed up for taking the entrance exam in Bordeaux at first, within famous École des Beaux-Arts. As he was rejected, he moved to Paris. His next step was taking part at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts competition. Jean won the first prize this time, thus starting his education in this city. While he was a student he took a job at the bureau of a famous French architect Claude Parent. Parent, being a modernist, had a significant influence on Nouvel’s early works, together with the theorist Paul Virilo. Although he worked at the bureau in order to get funds for his education, he was promoted soon. After only a year he got a more responsible job, becoming a manager of a residential complex.

Architectural Rise

At the very beginning of his career Jean Nouvel collaborated with famous names like Gilbert Lezenes, Pierre Soria and Jean-Francois Guyot. He earned his fame with the project for Arab World Institute in 1981. The building’s facade was the symbol of smart technology considering the period in which it was built. The elements of the outer layer are both traditional and modern. They were made so that, with special sensors’ help, they react to light and heat. Arabic geometrical motives would act in accordance with nature, thus enabling a pleasant stay to the users of this space. This was one of the reasons why the project won the first prize at the competition and numerous international acknowledgements afterwards.  

In the period between 1985 and 1994, he founded a bureau on two occasions but the collaboration with colleagues wasn’t very successful. Finally, in 1994, together with Michel Pélissié he founded the current Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Today, this Company has over 100 employees and has offices in some of the leading world centers like Paris, Geneva, Barcelona, Madrid… So far, Jean Nouvel has done a vast number of projects, among which the most significant ones are Agbar Tower, Copenhagen Concert Hall, Louvre Abu Dhabi. 

Even though projecting buildings brought him an epochal success, we should not neglect his furniture designs. Jean Nouvel stepped into this world in 1989. The piece which started this opus was a sofa made in the honor of famous Jean Prouvé. Inspired by a plane’s wing and Prouvé’s engineering approach, he solved the seating “problem” in practical way. He attached sponge material to aluminum foundation and covered it with polyurethane sheath. 

Simple, unique collections marked his further career as a designer. Among them were Elementaires armchairs from 1991, gracious Luzern chairs from 1998 as well as the Simplissimo series from 2011. Nouvel’s opus as a designer is many-sided, besides chairs and armchairs he designed tables, shelves and lamps. Sometimes we would find unexpected pieces such as bracelets, clothes or cutlery.  If someone stands as a symbol of diversity, it must be Jean Nouvel for sure.  

Timeless Collections

In Nouvel’s work we can often notice his return to the old works to find inspiration in them. Elegant Mass armchair, designed in 1992, in striking red color is an example. Although it was designed for a waiting room of a marketing agency, its lovely form gives totally different impression of a waiting room. It freshens up the ambience with its shape, turning a dull waiting room into a vivid place. Besides casual contour, comfort is also something that distinguishes it. After 15 years Nouvel complemented this collection with Moroso sofa, an elongated version of an already existing armchair.

Series got richer for one more armchair that had an ottoman. They could be moved simultaneously and stack modularly. Atelier’s latest is the Louvre Abu Dhabi Line from 2017. Obviously inspired by the Mass series, this collection was made for Nouvel’s popular Louvre. Elegant, covered with black leather, these pieces give the sophisticated impression. They move easily through space and are perfectly adjusted to human’s body. Poltrona Frau, respectable Italian company, produced them. 

The Less collection furniture development could also be seen through a certain time period. The series from which everything developed was originally made in 1994. Office assortment was made for Fondation Cartier, where Nouvel had an unusual goal. He wanted users to become more familiar with the way of making furniture so they could understand the constructive connections between its parts. Purified collection appeared as a product of this intention, the first forms of contemporary furniture in his career. Material became almost imperceptible and form became clear and strict. 

Less Less, series of tables from 2012 was an improved version of the old ones. This time it was adjusted to new technologies and modern man. After only four years, Nouvel changed character again with the Less Less Colour collection. Colored with carefully chosen palette, they brought serenity into office space. Nouvel described this series as a product of twenty years of research, adding: „In short, color is more fun“. 

Unmistakable Choices

Touch armchair from 1999 reminds us of the authentic Modernist furniture. Rounded forms and vivid colors would enrich the formal spaces for which this armchair was made. The fact that Nouvel added an armrest on one side shows how big was his wish to make ones stay in an office comfortable. „Hand contact, but also bodily contact with our objects is what makes them familiar and pleasing to us. It’s what allows us to domesticate them.” He didn’t experiment with materials; it was always a combination of leather fit on aluminum construction.

The “weightless” Super-position shelf is one of the currently popular pieces. With its lightness and emphasized horizontal lines, it fits modern interiors unmistakably. MDF Italia Company has recognized harmonious aspects of this shelf and has put it on market since 2018.  

Finding the balance

Nouvel is one of the rare talented people of today who is equally present in so many different areas. Besides designing furniture and projecting, he brilliantly manages interior design and scenography. What makes him even more special is courage to experiment. Frank Gehry summarizes Nouvel’s characteristics: He tries things and not everything works. There’s a mixture of things that are extraordinary, things that are experiments, things that don’t come off aesthetically. But Jean is willing to jump in and take on things and try. That’s a great quality.

Acknowledgments that he got in his career so far are something that set him on the very top of artistic scene. Some of them are: Royal Gold Medal given by the Royal Institute of British Architects, a prestigious Pricker Award in 2008 and Japanese Praemium Imperiale. Undoubtedly Jean Nouvel rules with what he does but what can we learn from his creative opus? Playing with forms is an essential part of artistic opus. However, what characterizes Nouvel is that he is equally skillful in satisfying both users and aesthetics. Besides numerous awards, what brings him among the extraordinary ones is the harmony of experiment, client and beauty.

Featured image: Jean Nouvel presenting his projects at Odeon, Vienna, September 2009 by StoffeliX is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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