How do you put 15 years of work from two of the most sought-after designers into one book? Selina Denman finds the Bouroullec brothers put the same lightness, simplicity and style of their oeuvre into this latest venture.
"It is built like a song; something fluid," says Ronan Bouroullec of Works, a new book celebrating the iconic designs that he and his brother, Erwan, have created over the course of their remarkable career. "Design books in general can be boring. They are missing that sensuality. We wanted to show our work in a certain way: simple, sensual, based on real things. We wanted to do it like a ballad - not too didactic."
The 304-page monograph is published by Phaidon and was launched earlier this year. It is a retrospective of the career of the French duo, who are widely regarded as the most exciting designers of their time. Since they first started working together in the 1990s, the brothers have created everything from carefully crafted chairs and sofas to carpets, lamps and tableware for design stalwarts such as Ligne Roset, Flos, Vitra, Magis, Alessi and Established & Sons.
Reducing such a varied and prolific career into 304 pages was a challenge, Ronan admits on the phone from his studio in Paris. "It is difficult to look at the past and condense 15 years of work, but it was a good exercise," he says. In the aftermath, he has felt "very light", as if the slate has been cleaned and he is free to focus fully on the future again.
The book's co-author, Anniina Koivu, acknowledges the difficulty of creating a definitive guide to the Bouroullecs' body of work. There is an intangible, almost ethereal quality to their creations that is impossible to define. Instead, the book attempts to capture the essence.
"Powerful and expressive, yet magically detached from the received ideas of functional everyday objects, their designs manage to embody a kind of freedom in a way that makes them hard to pin down," Koivu says in her introduction to Works. "This book is neither a complete archive nor a manifesto. It is not meant as a manual for aspiring designers, nor as a hunter's trophy ... It is a snapshot in the continuously changing and evolving career of two of the most talked about designers of our day: Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec."
That said, there is a lightness and simplicity to the book that is entirely in keeping with the brothers' work. Whole pages are often dedicated to a single product, ensuring that it is given space to breathe and express its individuality.
All of the favourites are there: the Algues partition system for Vitra - intricate, arbitrary and organic; the cheery and intuitive Self Shelf, with its brightly-coloured translucent shelves; the deceptively simple Zip carpet, with its colour-blocked wool felt panels that can be zipped and unzipped at will; and Ploum, one of the most comfortable looking sofas of all time.
While Ronan knew that he wanted to be a designer from the age of 15 and first exhibited his work when he was 18, it was a chance meeting with Giulio Cappellini of the Italian design firm Cappellini in 1997 that is widely credited for kickstarting the brothers' meteoric rise to design stardom. Cappellini commissioned the Bouroullecs' first industrial design project and laid the foundations for a long-standing working relationship. In 2000, another landmark commission came when Issey Miyake asked the Bouroullecs to design a space for his A-POC shop in Paris. Then came a decisive meeting with Rolf Fehlbaum, the chairman of Vitra, which led to the conception of the Joyn office system and, since then, such design classics as the Alcove Sofa, L'Oiseau, the Vegetal chair and, most recently, Corniche. The rest, as they say, is history.
The brothers have now worked with the crème de la crème of the design world. "And all of those companies came to us," says Ronan. It's not difficult to understand why. There is an honesty and integrity to the brothers' work that obviously appeals. "We try to understand things simply and propose something new. If I'm a good designer, I have an answer for everything."
Erwan is the calm, positive one, while Ronan is more passionate, he says, "but you need a certain tension to do what we do".
They both remain incredibly selective about the projects they take on and which companies they work with. "It's like a love affair. When we work with companies, we try to find a long-term way to achieve a certain level of work. We try to find companies that we feel we can share a passion with."
Despite their success, the Bouroullec studio remains a small, low-key affair, and Ronan and Erwan are still responsible for designing all of the projects that they take on. "We are a very small studio, able to take on about 20 projects." says Ronan. "We prefer to do fewer projects. We have a very specific situation - we refuse a lot of work but it is more honest to work like that. It's not the only way to do it, of course. Some designers work with a huge quantity of assistants.
"Design is a very complex discipline and there are lots of ways to do it. I don't like the idea of method and of being too systematic; for me the process should be very free. I am passionate about what I do. I like, every day, to draw and to think about things - not to fly around the world or to manage."
The brothers have granted themselves the freedom to pick and choose the projects they work on and have the flexibility to accept jobs that will inspire them.
At present, they are designing a chandelier for the Palace of Versailles, which Ronan says is "a great honour". The new chandelier will light the palace's Gabriel staircase, which was first built in 1772. "We like to jump between different types of subjects," Ronan concludes. "But to do something different is not difficult. To do something good is difficult."
Works is available on amazon.com; products by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec are available from Ligne Roset, Sheikh Zayed Road, or Aati, Zabeel Road.