words Marcus Fairs
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec work in a studio in Saint Denis, a gritty northern satellite of Paris that smells of piss. When icon's photographer suggests they go outside to pose in the street, they express concern that the cameras will get stolen.
"We are interested in reality, in everyday things," says Erwan, the darker-haired one with green eyes. "Maybe that's why we're here in Saint Denis, because people are really strange, it's messy and there is a lot of different behaviour here. There's a lot to look at."
The Bouroullec brothers' rise has been rapid. It's just five years since Ronan, the blond one with blue eyes, was discovered by legendary Italian furniture manufacturer Giulio Cappellini; his younger brother was still at college at the time. Now, aged 32 and 27, they are probably the most feted young designers in the world. Their work - which includes jewellery, office furniture systems and conceptual pieces of architectural scale - is remarkable in its ability to invent new typologies, new forms, new uses for materials. "We try to propose new ways, new ideas," says Erwan.
Their studio is in a back alley and is unmarked. They do not even have a business card: "When Giulio Cappellini met me for the first time he asked me for my business card and I went totally red and said I'm sorry, I have nothing. And so he said you don't need one; maybe the day you have a business card will be the day you run out of ideas."
The brothers speak very quietly and smoke a lot: Erwan's brand is Marlboro gold; Ronan has SG Gigantes from Portugal. There is a rustic simplicity to their manner. They grew up near Quimper in rural Brittany and frequently go back. Ronan has recently bought land there. "I need to be near the sea," he says.
They inhabit two worlds: the urban and the rural, the industrial and the artisanal - embracing and responding to the realities of technology, distribution and retailing, but approaching projects - in their words - like virgins, unencumbered by expectations of how a chair, a vase or a desk should be. "It's important for us to be a virgin about a project," says Erwan. "The [Joyn] office system [for Vitra] for example; we'd never worked in an office before; we were na•ve. As soon as you become really aware of something you're already driven into some kind of reality and it's quite difficult to escape from it."
Joyn is more an office landscape than furniture, consisting of broad, communal desks that users can customise with slot-on partitions and other accessories to vary the degree of privacy they have. The brothers compare it to the large kitchen table in their grandparents' farm, where people ate, talked and worked. Joyn, released last year, has been very successful. Ronan: "Companies interested in the system are not interested in the design; they are interested in new ways of working. We are not surprised that journalists and architects like the project; what is interesting is the first two orders in France were from a very glamorous advertising company in Paris - as you might expect - and a tractor-engine insurance company in the south of France. The spectrum of the companies interested is very wide."
They very much like the fact that the insurance company bought the system. "It's perfect because I've got a tractor," says Ronan.
The first book on their work has just been published by Phaidon. Ronan and Erwan wrote and designed it. "We have finished the book - we are very happy," says Erwan. "We wanted to work like craftsmen, we did everything, we did the pictures, we did the text, so it was a very long process."
On book signing tours, they sit and draw unique sketches in each copy, taking their time, carefully applying blotting paper to the wet ink. This is how they always work: they sit together at a table, responding to each others' sketches. "We discuss a lot, we sit at the same table and draw in front of each other and we sort of ping-pong," says Ronan. "I draw something, he draws something around my drawing and I draw something around his drawing. Maybe if we were working alone it would be more difficult to take your drawings and do that; to look at them with a different eye."
"And then Ronan will use the computer," says Erwan. "And after it goes into the computer, quite often it comes back to the table and we redraw the computer drawing. It's always moving."
"It's pen, computer, paper," says Ronan. "We are not geniuses; when we've got a project it's a very long process. We play with different media, sometimes we do models, it's like a tree that grows year after year."
"This long way of working is very important to us," says Erwan. "To arrive at something really new you need time."
Do you fight? "Yes sometimes! Doing a project is not easy," says Ronan. "It's a lot of work." "We fought about the text in the book," says Erwan. "We don't have some kind of smiley life."
There were two pieces of work that first captured Cappellini's attention, and which both reveal the Bouroullecs' fascination with new typologies. Ronan's Disintegrated Kitchen was a system that rejected the standard fitted, made-to-measure kitchen and instead proposed something more flexible: skeletal units that could be reconfigured like furniture and taken with you when you move. And his Lit Clos concept was an example of what the brothers describe as micro-architecture: a raised, covered sleeping platform that is like a kind of indoor treehouse.
"We are working a lot with what we call micro-architecture," says Ronan, "which is a way of dividing space and finding new ways to build inside things. It's between a room and a bed. It's a box you can move. It's the idea of the flexibility of interiors; it's more like an alphabet. It's very important for us, this flexibility."
Several of their projects verge on being architectural, including their Brick and Cloud shelving systems, both of which are composed of repeating elements which can be stacked to occupy large volumes. Their Polystyrene House is a concept by which homes are assembled from foam sections that slot together; their Floating House project for an island on the Seine consists of an elongated timber trellis mounted on a barge. Yet they deny their intentions are architectural; they are simply designers applying their knowledge of furniture at a larger scale.
"We've developed quite a lot of big pieces that are like tools to organise your home or your working space," says Erwan, "but every time we do a project is we do it from our point of view. We are not interested in architecture like an architect is; we don't have that knowledge. When we do micro-architecture we do it with a knowledge of product design." He points to a photograph of their Cabane an open structure, like a shelter, made of criss-cross fabric-covered struts and designed for the domestic environment. "For example, this green hut is made of wool; it's a fabric, the same as you have on this big sofa here. First you have an aluminium structure which is covered with Velcro, then you just add all the straps. This is a kind of technology you usually find in furniture, but not in architecture."
Ronan adds: "Maybe this is the way we step into architecture; by trying to make things quite easy to install and use. But we still keep a quite formal approach; this means anyone can use it. It's not something that dictates how you use it and behave. We try to stay at a simple level. This hut, you can have a desk under it, a TV, children playing, someone cooking; its function is quite open."
At the other end of the scale, the brothers have just designed a corkscrew and bottle opener for Tefal; these will soon go on sale in French supermarkets. "They will be in supermarkets without our signature," says Ronan, bringing over the prototypes from a shelf. "It would be a pity to have Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec on the side."
But why are they designing anonymous kitchen implements when they could be working on signature pieces for big Italian manufacturers? "We refuse quite a lot of things," says Erwan. "We don't design ten chairs a year. After Cappellini we've not done furniture for any other Italian companies. We are waiting for good opportunities."
"In a sense we are virgins but in another sense we know exactly what we want," adds Ronan. "The guy who designs 100 chairs is not the guy who will find a new way."
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec is published by Phaidon, £29.95