Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec have been bringing a fresh perspective to their designs for over two decades with their innovative approach. They are said to be successors to the French design throne held by Philippe Starck, though they prefer to remain elusive on the matter. The duo approaches design with a similar attitude. Their work is characterized by a low-key and subtle tone whose message is clear without being imposing.
Made in Paris
The Bouroullec brothers grew up in Quimper, France. The elder, Ronan, was born in 1971 and completed his studies at the Parisian École des Arts Décoratifs. His five-year-younger brother also earned a degree in art and design, but from the ENSAPC. The siblings have been working together ever since they established a joint studio in 1998.
They attribute the success of their partnership to hard work, balanced by the challenge of their distinct personalities. While Ronan often acts as the frontman, behind the scenes, Erwan is more engaged in the technological side of their work. It may very much be the yin and yang force behind the united front that has kept Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec at the top of the design game since the turn of the century. From their secluded studio on the outskirts of Paris, the Bouroullec duo has been turning out all manner of objects ranging from chairs and tables to wall paneling systems and tableware. And it isn’t just the variety in their designs which sets them apart. The brothers have an extensive history of collaborations with leading design companies like Cappellini, Vitra, Magis, Alessi, Kvadrat and Flos to name a few.
Their career beginnings are tied to the creative hubbub of Paris in the nineties, a time of great freedom of expression in design. Contrary to the monotonous atmosphere garnered at school, with a focus on the precise, engineering aspects of design, Ronan has described the liveliness of Parisian culture found in places like the Centre Georges Pompidou as fueling their creative interests at the time. However, the rural landscapes of their childhood in Brittany hold a special place in the brothers’ hearts, having never quite fully submitted to the busyness of the City of Light.
Age of the Nomad
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec gained exposure in 1998 with their design for a modular kitchen system. The Disintegrated Kitchen (Cuisine désintégrée) incorporated ideas of flexibility, customization and mobility. “The kitchen presents a new typology in terms of a particular market. It simply suggests breaking away from both the idea of the made-to-measure and the integrated. . . . building simply, far away from the wall, like a table that you put down and then take with you when you move.” It provided an answer to the increasingly nomadic nature of contemporary life. Immediately capturing the attention of Giulio Cappellini at the Salon du Meuble in Paris, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec received their first industrial design commissions.
The Lit Clos bed designed in 2000 also straddles the boundary between furniture and architecture in direct response to the particularities of today’s lifestyle. Somewhere between a bed and a bedroom, the Lit Clos is an airy box that provides the comfort and security of sleeping spaces, while maintaining the flexibility of a piece of furniture. It frees the user of permanent commitment, allowing for greater possibilities in the way a space can be considered and used.
This freedom is also expressed in the Bouroullec brothers’ Joyn office system designed for Vitra in 2002. Essentially a gigantic table, it focuses on the dynamic and communal nature of the modern day office, allowing the user to adapt their workspace. It “lives and breathes” with the community at work around it, offering privacy or a platform for discussion depending on need. Featuring portable desk dividers and deftly concealed power solutions, it offers a practical solution to the ever-changing requirements of the contemporary workplace.
Regarding their first design for the office, Ronan expresses the advantages of a new perspective. “If you don’t have any fixed ideas about a particular topic, you can approach it entirely free from preconceptions. We can do something new simply because our view is not inhibited by established patterns.” It is with this mindset that the brothers frequently embark on new journeys, instead of falling into routines which allow them to be “branded”. However, their designs have often been labeled as minimalist for their pared-down aesthetic and clean lines. The brothers have assured that minimalism isn’t the aim though. Instead, it is a need for simple precision which delivers them to a subtly intelligent end product. “A good project is something you can explain by phone,” is the Bouroullec mantra.
Creating One’s Own Spaces
Joyn set the cornerstone for further collaborations with Vitra and in 2004 they came up with one of their more peculiar designs. The organic “grow it yourself” screen system explores ideas of uniqueness and repetition. It takes a simple component and provides indefinite possibilities of transformation. The non-definitive, transient nature of Algue makes it suitable for the home, as well as offices and public spaces. It can be built up or spaced out to regulate density and privacy. Algue represents a unique experiment full of contradictions, which are perhaps the reason for its undoubted success. Simultaneously a functional, adaptable interior element and a sculptural installation, it also toys with the contrast of its precise, mass-produced nature and the unpredictability of the DIY aspect.
More partitions follow, with the duo being well known for the Cloud bookshelf designed for Cappellini. Consisting of hollow modular elements which can be combined into a beehive-like structure, it is both practical and recognizable. In keeping with the modular, multi-functional theme set by the brothers in their exploration of an ambiguous zone between furniture design and architecture, North Tiles for Kvadrat was brought to life. With it, the Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec present a new way to form spaces with an assemblable system of folding textile tiles. This concept was revisited with the Clouds system some years later. Both North Tiles and its successor lobby for the comeback of textiles in interiors, enhancing the tactile and acoustic qualities, as well as the warmth of spaces.
Though all of these systems express similar ideas of flexibility and personalization, each time, they are created with a new twist in mind, resulting in different, exciting products. A new typology, as described by CEO of Kvadrat, Anders Byriel, for Dezeen. “The ingenious click system, combined with a couple of simple screws and strings makes it possible to create anything from a wall to a specific figure and expression to fit one’s taste. Clouds enables all imaginable uses, as it can be hung on walls or from the ceiling, placed on the floor or add colourful liveliness to railings and stairs. In other words, Clouds represents a new typology, or a new interpretation of the use of textiles.”
No designer profile can be complete without mentioning chairs. With a fair few elegant pieces under their belt, the Bouroullec brothers are no strangers to designing a tasteful seat. Careful consideration of quality materials, as well as a high degree of sculpturality characterizes each design. Among their most recognizable designs are the Belleville collection for Vitra, as well as the Palissade line created for Hay. Also for Hay, the duo recently designed the Élémentaire chair which sought to make good design as essential as a “white T-shirt or blue jeans”. At first glance, the Élémentaire can be considered the plain Jane of chairs.
But this is exactly the Bouroullecs’ intention: to seamlessly integrate a simple and functional object into a variety of contexts. To saturate homes and public spaces alike with subtle but highly aesthetic furniture. It is often the most simple designs that can be considered the most attractive, and for good reason. They provide, at their core, an underlying harmony to people’s lives. They enhance without overpowering. A silent revolution.
When considered, each project holds a valuable message, whether it is promoting teamwork, bringing back foregone values, or emphasizing the necessity of adaptability. Far from the madding crowd, in their creative Saint-Denis hub, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec continue to challenge the world with their experimental take on design. And it doesn’t look like their stream of inspiration is about to run out.
Featured image: Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec – Algae (2004) – Detail by cea + is licensed under CC BY 2.0