Brothers in arms

Brothers Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec burst onto the scene in 1997, when their Disintegrated Kitchen debuted at Salon du Meuble in Paris and caught the attention of Giulio Capellini.

Today, the brothers collaborate with some of the biggest names in the industry: Vitra, Kvadrat, Magis, Kartell, Established and Sons, Ligne Roset, and Issey Miyake, to name but a few.

Voted Designers of the Year at Salon du Meuble in 2002, the Bouroullec brothers have garnered countless industry awards and accolades, including the Finn-Juhl Prize in 2008, and have had numerous exhibitions and books dedicated to their work.

CID caught up with Erwan Bouroullec in Istanbul last month, at the Middle East launch of Axor Bouroullec, the brothers’ latest creation. A collaboration with Axor, the designer arm of German bathroom manufacturer, Hansgrohe, the new collection took six years to develop and represents the Bouroullec brothers’ first real foray into bathroom design.

The new collection is defined by a sense of freedom, with a total of 85 elements that can be configured in countless different ways. “The advantage of the open system is that we force people to ask themselves what they really want. This collection is going to be a catalyser of dialogue,” noted Philippe Grohe, head of the Axor brand. “No longer do mixers only have to be placed in the centre of the rear rim of the washbasin.”

Instead, fittings can be freely arranged almost anywhere within the washing area – on the integrated shelves, in front or next to the wash basin, or on the wall.

The wide, sturdy, white shelves play a central role in the collection, forming a consistent element in terms of design, functionality, serviceability and convenience. Smooth, simple, organic shapes make this a warm, uncluttered and intuitive bathroom solution. “The collection is made of simple building blocks. It’s not a Ferrari, just something really well done. A certain poetry comes out of it as the different elements come together.

The beauty is in the combination,” said Erwan Bouroullec. “I think sometimes the error in contemporary faucet design is that things are too complicated. If everything is over-designed, in the end you get a very noisy environment. We take a very different approach.”

CID sat down with Bouroullec to find out more about this approach.

How is designing a bathroom different to designing other products?

We were really focused on the question of how to find a language that would bring quality to every element in the collection, without needing to reinvent the idea every time. Because of this, during the development, I think we probably designed three or four full collections but we kept having to change direction because we realised that while some elements were strong, some were very weak.

It is very difficult to find a DNA that you can apply across an entire collection. Also, we were really obsessed with the idea that it should be designed well, with beautiful lines, but on the other hand we really wanted it to be quite sensual and warm.
Design is sometimes too cold. And especially in the bathroom, where the body is exposed, we really didn’t want to create a cold atmosphere.

Were there things that you wanted to do but weren’t possible technically?

Actually, it wasn’t technically that we had problems, it was more culturally. There are some things that are too wild for the market.

Is the bathroom an area that you’d like to work in again?

For now we need to let this collection live, and we need to understand people’s reactions. We have to see what works and what doesn’t. It might be that giving people so much choice is an error. They might not be interested in playing. But in principal, yes I would.

What other projects are you currently working on?

There is a tableware collection that we designed for Alessi, which we will show in September or October, so we are just working on the very last details. There are some companies that we always work with, such as Magis, Vitra and Ligne Rosset. The other things are a bit more of a secret!

Are there any companies that you haven’t worked with but would like to?

I would love to work with Flos, the lighting company. Also, I would be quite interested in working in electronics but this is quite a conceptual interest because I know that the reality of this work is not easy.

One of our qualities is being independent and we also have quite a small studio – seven people including me and Ronan – so we are not really in a position to do that kind of work.

How difficult is it to stay independent and small?

Actually, it is very simple. But you need to make your choices accordingly. For example, we are quite often asked to design hotels or things like that, which we more or less always refuse, because the scale is probably too big for us. We couldn’t control everything, so we prefer to say no. It’s not that we are not interested, it is more that we get the impression that it wouldn’t be the best working conditions for us.

You refer to yourself as a control freak. Is that part of your success?

Yes. Firstly we like to stay in control but also, we like to be responsible for shooting the products once they are ready. Nearly all our products are shot by us, as are our promotional videos. I spoke recently with someone who asked if it was normal for us to do everything and I said I think so; because at the end of the day, we are the ones that conceived the element so we are quite keen on trying to explain our point of view.

Sometimes the concept, and the Axor Bouroullec collection is a good example, is not straightforward. It is not usual to encourage the consumer to play with things, to move things around. And it’s really important to explain it properly because if you don’t, people can become a little afraid of it.

I think it’s part of our success to offer a strong conceptual proposition, but at the same time Axor Bouroullec is still quite simple for people that are not highly interested in design. It’s not something complicated. My mother could work it out!

What are the greatest challenges facing designers right now?

I think the design world is fighting against big manufacturers that make products that shouldn’t exist. I think that there are too many companies that make things that are not done very well. For example, if you take electronic accessories for the kitchen, coffee machines and things like that, most of them are built to last for one or two years.

They are not done well enough in terms of quality, and that’s just to reach a lower price point. I think we really have to make people understand that it is important to buy the right product because behind the act of buying lies a really important politic. When you buy something it is really quite a strong political act.

In France, some of the most interesting products for me are organic food products. When you buy organic vegetables or meat, I think there is a really good deal between the producer and the customer, and vice versa.

It shows in the fact that the customer is happy to buy better vegetables, but at the same time doesn’t mind that they are not all the same size, or maybe aren’t clean and will need to be washed, or that you can’t get tomatoes throughout the year.

This is how things should be in the future. People should understand the reality behind a product and when they buy, they should do it consciously, so they know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.

But doesn’t design essentially feed into mass consumerism?

I think, on our side, that we have never really addressed mass consumerism because we have never been asked to. I would quite like to. If I was asked to design something by Ikea or someone like that, I would with pleasure.

What I find quite interesting in the world is that things can travel – pictures, concepts but also products. When we design, we think with a certain universality. At the same time, I know that there won’t ever be millions and millions of pieces produced. We don’t need one company making all of the world’s taps, after all.

What’s your favourite interior space?

It’s quite difficult to say. I think my favourite space is still my flat in Paris. Just because it belongs to me, and so I feel at ease. It’s my private place for myself and my wife and daughter. It’s for us. And I would do anything inside that space to build a better life for the three of us.

But then, I definitely love spaces that have a connection with the landscape – water, for example. I think it is a great quality that you can also achieve in a city. In Istanbul, for example, where you have the Bosphorous, or in Copenhagen where the sea goes right into the city, you get a lot of perspectives and very wide spaces.

I like those kinds of spaces. Where I live in Paris, unfortunately, I don’t have those kinds of qualities.

What is the best thing about working with your brother… and the worst?

I think one of the best things about working with each other is we challenge each other and we discuss things a lot. I think it’s quite difficult when you are alone to get distance from what you do. Because there are two of us we have this ability to question ourselves, which is more challenging but produces better results.

One of the problems is that what we do is really important to Ronan and me. It’s a really big part of what we are so sometimes disagreements can be quite painful to live with.

Maybe that’s part of being creative.

If we had a company that dealt with truck logistics, perhaps I would be less engaged and it would impact my personal life less!

Philippe Grohe, head of the Axor brand, on working with the Bouroullec brothers.

Why did you choose to partner with the Bouroullec brothers?

They have a unique approach to design. This was the first time in ten years that I wasn’t addressing a product designer who was also involved in interior design and architecture. If you look at what the Bouroullec brothers have done over the last few years, you realise that with their product designs they influence spaces. If you look at the Alcove sofa, which they created with Vitra, you can say it’s a nice-looking sofa, and you either like it or you don’t. But if you put two of those together, you make a meeting room. You influence space.

What sets Axor Bouroullec apart?

We stopped the project twice. Once it was a mutual decision and the other time it was me; I didn’t feel comfortable. And we were right to do so because in the end they came up with something incredible.
Axor Bouroullec is not a modular product. It is a product that can react to architecture; a product that can be customised to how the user wants to handle water. You can optimise your choice between functionality and aesthetics, or between functionality and originality.

As Erwan says, the advantage of an open system is that you make people ask themselves questions about what they actually want. So they start thinking. And that’s one of the best services we could offer them. Obviously, the freedom to compose is also the freedom to make mistakes so there are a lot of challenges with this, but you also know that it is real innovation.

At Milan this year, you could see that there was a new seriousness. Function is becoming more important. Total craziness has totally disappeared. Something human, with meaning, is becoming important again. That is all evident in this collection.

Is this level of customisation something that people are demanding?

This has been one of the so-called mega trends for about two years now, but we recognised it six years ago when we first started working with Erwan and Ronan.

People have been saying for 30 years that the consumer is king. Before industrialisation, products were made by craftsmen. And those craftsmen made your product, for you. This came at a very high price and at very uneven quality. It came with lots of problems but also produced fantastic results. Industrialisation gave us an enormous gain in quality and an enormous efficiency in price.

This is why it worked so well and for so long, and obviously we needed it. But now, more and more, we are looking at (and this is what Ronan and Erwan are the first and the best at) how with industrial quality, you can give people the freedom and the choice to reinvent the product for themselves. Because then you have the best of both worlds.


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