September 16, 2011

Designing Sensibility for Users – an interview with Erwan Bouroullec

The design world of the brothers Bouroullec is equally loved by users and numerous manufacturers who choose their unique language of design – functionality free of decorations, but nevertheless personalized with poetic details. Their sensual design modestly approaches the hearts of the users, made to enrich the primary living space of an individual.

Slow chair by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec. Photo: Paul Tahon and R. & E. Bouroullec © Vitra

While designing they avoid known typologies, and imbue a contemporary, personal  spirit to old forms, often with a dose of humour and playfulness. Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec share the same approach to design, but emphasize that their best works are a result of their disagreements. This way they have extended the borders of the conventional. At the beginning of the century they have shaken out of complacency French design, which didn`t have a real national star since Philipe Starck.

Giulio Cappellini was the first to detect the particularity of their design, and after that they have been hired by Iittala, Habitat, Ligne Roset, Issey Miyake, Vitra, Magis, Kartell, Established and Sons, Axor Hansgrohe, Alessi, Kvadrat and recently Flos and Mattiazzi.

From the collection Feel Free to Compose (Axor Hansgrohe). Photo: A-H.

Feel free to compose - Bouroullec for Axor Hansgrohe


By designing a bathroom for Axor Hansgrohe, you have innovated and created a new dimension of bathroom use. Tell us how you’ve developed this intimate world and what’s its main design concept.

Erwan Bouroullec

To me, the important thing to do when you imagine a bathroom, when you imagine your own bathroom – is to respect and take the best of the space that is already there. You buy a flat or a house, and you have to put the bathroom into a space which is given. A bathroom is something that lives, not forever, but for a really long time, it accompanies you through different stages of your life, from being a kid to becoing someone else. So, the main thing was to find  the DNA that can be applied to the collection.

Collection Feel Free to Compose (Axor Hansgrohe). Photo: H-A.

One of the particularity of the bathroom collection is that you really have to make a collection that is coherent. This was probably the most difficult thing for us. Usually we think object by object and we find the reason for one object. In the bathroom you really have to have a coherent design for all the elements that create a coherent space. That is why the question of DNA of the collection was probably much more important. The collection is based on an alphabet that people have to compose by themselves. So, that’s why we chose the title Feel free to compose. The collection was made during a period of six years and contains more than 80 elements that can be combined differently.

User centered design

We explored the space we were in and concluded that the shapes weren’t soft enough for the body. They were not sensual enough. It was not something that was worth touching everyday. And it should be. The bathroom is a place that we use during the day which is really particular. You are naked, sometimes you are cold, sometimes you are warm. And the bathroom really needs to provoke a certain sensuality.

Developing the product's shape that provoke a certain sensuality.

We tried to concentrate on, let’s say, open minded shapes. They create that kind of landscape in which you quite instincively find the function you need, but you don’t have the feeling that you are in front of a robot that tells you what to do. For us, there was no sense of saying – most of the control should be mono command or two command. Because it really depends on the person’s taste and desire. We prefer to make an alphabet that people can adapt. Because, I don’t like the idea of any defined and finished solution.

Designcraft by the Bouroullec brothers


How would you define your approach to design? What would common sense and sensibility in design be for you?

Erwan Bouroullec

Me and my brother, we are engaged in contemporary research and some of our projects are probably on the border of what is considered a traditional product, traditional function or traditional reality. You are right that we avoid designing clear typologies. I think in good design you have to take as much consideration of desire as of reason. Of course, taking care of the production is fundamental. It’s about the needs of ecology, the needs of economy, about what we are feeling… about craft, and what the intelligence of mankind can offer. And on the other end, the end user is someone that has desires, wishes for comfort, for certain beauty, for certain prizes.

Ploum sofa (Ligne Roset) by R.&E. Bouroullec. Photo source: Ligne Roset.

And I think, the fundamental thing is to balance all this and to put it together. And, of course, if you apply only the rules of the industry, you end up with products that lack a certain generosity. But if you apply only the rules of the end user, you loose a certain rationality. Most of the time this can be explained in detail in good design, but for this you need a clear example.

Tatjana Bartakovic

Tatjana Bartakovic

Editor in Chief of Design Agenda. Works as Design curator and writer but mostly living from the work in public relations, branding and content marketing.

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