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Formations in the Sky
by Sandra Hofmeister | 6/12/2009
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec

In the large warehouse in the harbor, built according to the Bouroullec brothers' design concep, large cloud structures are ballooning up the walls. Simulating merging weather fronts or dividing rooms into different entities, they create an intense sensual atmosphere. This textile modular system is called "Clouds" - a new typology that is neither furniture nor screen, neither acoustic panel nor purely decoration. And yet it contains elements of all of them: a wall element, a partition - a jigsaw made of textile fibers, for which the brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec drew inspiration from the structures of nature. In the interview Erwan Bouroullec explains what these structures are all about.

You designed Clouds, Algues and the Vegetal. What is it that fascinates you about natural structures?
Erwan Bouroullec: We are very keen on the structure of nature and the logic inside the structure of nature. There are two interesting points: First, the ability to be flexible that natural structures have. They can always adapt to changing circumstances - growing towards the sun or where there is less wind, for example. To us, this flexibility is an essential property of a wall element. After all, you are never familiar with the spaces you are going to live in and the needs that will come in the future. The second interesting aspect in nature is the structure of self-repeating, simple knots and connections.

You mean chaotic and structured at one and the same time?
Bouroullec: Quite often, nature proposes a certain rule. The same logic applies to different parts and holds everything together. If you look at trees or roots, for instance, they are more or less like the branches. There is an overarching unity and different scales. You can even take a rock and a mountain. It's the same thing. Looking for a certain unity in our work, these self-repeating patterns were extremely interesting. Human logic proposes several solutions for combining walls. The problem is, however that those solutions easily lose the purity of the whole. Buckminster Fuller, for example, was interested in finding logic he could apply everywhere. Of course this kind of logic has a special meaning in industrial processes: Repetitive structures mean a certain kind of freedom.

So it's not the pattern you are interested in?
Bouroullec: No, not at all! Our aim is not at to make furniture that want to be nature. Some of our designs are indeed inspired by the structure of nature, but we are not interested in a natural look. Our furniture is not meant to be an imitation of nature. You can laugh, but I'm being serious here: It could well be so! But in our case it's definitely not.

You transfer the structures of nature into an industrial and urban context. What impact does this have?
Bouroullec: We try to provoke a contrast to architecture. Our designs are often the opposite of architecture, which is part of the logical and rectangular world. This is the reason why people respond in such an emotional way to the Clouds. To a certain extent they belong more to the outdoor than to the indoor world. They are to do with nature and not about architecture - therefore they can have a quite symbolic role. I can well imagine a two or three-year-old kid immediately understanding the significance of the Clouds because children's logic has an imaginative power. When we get older we approach things in a far more intellectual way and try to fathom the meaning of things. Of course there is a meaning, but what is far more important is that Clouds trigger a different, sensual experience.

The idea of the Clouds would appear to be straightforward, based on a complex concept.
Bouroullec: It is a kind of hyper-simplicity, which combines easiness and technology. Even a kid knows what to do with Clouds - there is no way it can make a mistake. To my mind, however, simplicity also means being unable to control the system as there is no possibility of right angles. If there were squares and rectangles everybody would immediately try to give combinations logic. The Clouds, on the other hand, exclude this kind of logic and have concepts that are future-orientated. They propose a new typology that as yet does not exist. For some people this is maybe so strange that they are scared. Some people are unable to handle the philosophy we propose.

Talking about new typologies - the Clouds are neither furniture nor pure acoustic panels nor exclusively decoration. How do you define them?
Bouroullec: The Clouds help you design space as you wish. They divide up space. They can focus on a specific area, or a wall, they can make a mark, give space direction, a front and a back. This is one aspect. And the other aspect is that the Clouds can give structure to spaces. In the case of living space they can separate different areas, purely psychologically, without putting up new walls or converting the house, which in most cases is not possible. In other cases they can cover walls and, give given their soft material, enable different physical sensations. It is important for working and living areas to be made humane with aids such as these.

Getting back briefly to the urban context for the Clouds: Self-repeating structures can be generated with digital helpers as well - the question is therefore also how to develop structures such as these.
Bouroullec: In this kind of project I am interested in exploring new paths that provide different information in the jungle of life. In this respect the Clouds are even more challenging than an ordinary urban context.

When it comes to the urban context you have been experimenting with different materials - fabrics, plastics etc. Did you have to start from scratch each time?
Bouroullec: Many of our experiments began with exhibitions. When we designed shelf modules entitled "Clouds" with Capellini at MUDAM in Luxembourg we worked with polystyrene. We then scored success with the Algae for Vitra. We settled on plastic because we wanted to make our designs more affordable.

Nevertheless, fabric fibers are something quite different from plastic.
Bouroullec: Yes, but there is never only an answer, but rather proposals and qualities. We already have Algae and Clouds and we are going to continue our work in thist field. There are many aspects to the impact, including a psychological one.

Many of your designs have a suggestive and imaginative power. Is that an aspect you insist on?
Bouroullec: Yes, definitely. Basically the Algae and Clouds just help you think about your own environment. They ask the user so many questions - such as: What are you doing to me? This question really has to be given some serious thought, you have to define your needs beforehand and then come up with a suggestion for solving the problem yourself. Let us try to remember when we were kids! I once worked as a children's teacher during the summer. And one incredible day - the kids were five years old - we made a simple kite out of plastic bags. I had to make sure that there was a certain symmetry and space, of course. I prepared everything, and then, after an hour-and-a-half later, we went outside. There was a strong wind that day - and all the kids were really astonished that their kites could fly, even if they were not exactly the nicest they had ever seen. Throughout the entire process they knew they could do it. With the Clouds and the Algae, users can experience the same - and decide for themselves how to combine and use the components.

I recently read somewhere that your ideas are pretty much "slow-design". Does that correspond with your view of high-tech?
Bouroullec: I don't trust technology. Most of the time technology is badly used. Projects frequently use high-tech without offering a new typology, a new use, a new shape. For example, a long table made of carbon fiber! That doesn't interest me at all - all this about being thinner and lighter... every year everything gets lighter - that really is of no interest whatever. There are so many senseless new technologies, especially in the world of computers and mobile phones! If you take stock, with furniture there are not that many. Where things really are improving is the weaving technology we used for the "Slow Chair" for Vitra. In general I am quite happy with the term "slow design" because I think furniture's function ought to be capable of surviving last at least 50 years. It is important to design furniture whose concept is so simple it can adapt to different situations. The more you specialize, the more it becomes useless, because you are proposing a solution for just one situation, but situations and environments can always change.

As a designer you have to find suitable partners for new typologies, partners with the courage to design and market them.
Bouroullec: That is why we put a lot of effort into our exhibitions and documenting our work. And we are fortunate in that we work with companies that have a certain awareness of innovation. When we designed the North Tiles for Kvadrat's Stockholm showroom we had no idea the experiment was going to lead to an industrial product. We just had an opportunity to design something new instead of repainting the walls, for the same price. We always try to find the right context for experiments and new proposals. In the industrial process developing design in this way is hardly affordable.

You have been working with your brother for over ten years now. From a distance the idea of collaborating so closely seems a bit strange.
Bouroullec: It's very peculiar.

Is there any daily routine in your collaboration? Have you divided up the duties?
Bouroullec: Working together has its good and not so good sides. We both love our work and as we are brothers we can really get stuck in. At the same time we are very much dependent on each other. There are just the two of us, we have no other brothers or sisters. The idea of living our life together is peculiar, but I'm not sure working with someone else is that different. You always strike up a very intense and bizarre relationship.

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec