Matali Crasset (courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg, photo by Philippe Servent)
For Matali Crasset, all design is social. Running through her work – from furniture to hotels to a beach library near Marseille – is a determination to introduce people to new things and to transform their experience of the everyday
Matali Crasset has reached for my pen and notebook, but instead of drawing the sketch I'm rather hoping for, she writes a neat sequence of abbreviations and adjectives, connecting them with arrows where appropriate: CNOUS, CROUS, Mini M, Mini R, global, fringale, vitale.
Crasset is explaining the structure of her latest commission: a canteen and supermarket concept for the French student housing organisation, which is divided into national (CNOUS) and regional (CROUS) divisions. The first supermarket opened in Toulouse the day before and a canteen will open later the same week in Orléans, at an unveiling to which all the heads of French universities have been invited.
The Mini R canteen with turquoise tables, orange chairs and orange light fittings; the Mini M supermarket with lime-green floors, turquoise shelves and orange and yellow accents – both fit into the expressive colour palette of many of the designer's projects. The Mini R's heavily subsidised meals will cost students the usual flat rate of €3.50; Crasset hands back the pen and notebook and says, "It's very French in a way. It's social, but it has to be very contemporary."
credit Mini M supermarket in Toulouse, Philippe Piron
Crasset has combined the contemporary with the social ever since she started working for Philippe Starck in 1993, and headed up the team working for the then state-owned French electronics company Thomson. In her 20-year career she's been a notably flexible designer, creating ingenious systems in some surprising environments.
These include high-profile commissions such as the Hi Hotel in Nice, which has nine different room concepts, none of which are designed to fake the feeling of being "at home" (the same principle applies in its Paris branch, the Hi-Matic, which opened in 2011); to limited editions for the gallery, such as Infrasons (2011), an exquisite range of bowls designed to look like musical instruments.
Crasset has had a typically varied year. In Milan she launched a modular sofa for Campeggi and a lighting system for Fabbian Illuminazione; in July she had an exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac, in Paris. The year's most appealing project, however, is another French civic project.
As part of Marseille's City of Culture programme, the commune of Istres commissioned Crasset to design a beach library, from July until mid-September, when the municipal library is closed. Crasset created a steel structure covered in tarpaulin, which holds 350 books. The "extrovert" space consists of blue beach mats under a cream awning, where you can sit and read; behind this is the "introverted" space, covered by a deep orange canopy, where most of the books are shelved, and where you can consult a public librarian.
Crasset says, "The idea was that the beach is one of the best places to read, so when you want to borrow a book, you have to go there ... And then if you want to talk to someone, if you want advice, you go inside." Crasset makes a gesture of gently nudging an invisible object, or perhaps a person, with a stick: "We know sometimes people can be a little afraid of books ... I wanted to do more than a library, more than a bookshelf on a beach; it's a living space."
credit Beach library in Istres, Philippe Piron
Crasset also chose five books that are important to her to form part of its collection, the rest of which is regularly rotated by the local librarians. "I offered the idea," she says, "because it's like an artist's piece, so that I could have a connection." The books she chose were Pride and Prejudice, Zola's The Ladies' Paradise, Agnès Desarthe's best-selling novel Mangez-Moi, Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space and Georges Perec's 1967 novel, Things.
The latter is a quietly vicious account of consumer society, in which a pair of market researchers drift aimlessly through the days as they get more bogged down in their material surroundings. It's an intriguing choice for a designer. "I discovered Perec when I was studying design," Crasset says, "and when I discovered him, I decided to orientate my design towards looking at scenarios of life. Life is more important than objects."
This belief is at the heart of Crasset's practice of creating environments and systems in everything she does. Concentré de Vie (2013), the modular sofa for Campeggi, can also be used as a bed; the cuddly, rounded seats can serve as armchairs, poufs, armrests, footstools, or even a side table. "Doing a chair ... giving one function is not enough. It's not generous enough," Crasset says. With every project, she wants to "enlarge the function", to expand the possibilities of an object or a space, to change people's expectations of it, too. "Life is taking decisions every day, not big decisions, but also small ones. So if we don't give people choice, little by little they lose consciousness; they become passive."
Crasset tempers the didactic aspect of her work with a good dose of encouragement, in the form of friendly shapes and her trademark use of bright colour. "Colour is a universal language," she says. "You feel colour, so that's why it's more direct. Colour helps me to welcome people, so that they're not frightened of new things."
And Crasset is determined to introduce people to new things. In a phrase she uses often, her job is "to guide them towards the contemporary" ("accompagner vers le contemporaine"). Concentré de Vie is a particularly satisfying project, she says, because "it really reveals my intentions, the things I wanted to do from the beginning [as a student]. Now what is really interesting is that companies are coming to me, to ask me to do that."
credit Voyage to Uchronia, courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg, photo by Philippe Servent
Voyage to Uchronia, Crasset's recent show at Thaddaeus Ropac in Paris (in the gallery's space in Pantin in the north-east, beyond the périphérique), is a rare foray into the abstract – "I felt very free to do something very different from what I do normally," she says. "Uchronia" (it means "no-time", or the "good time", a counterpart to the place-making fantasies of Utopia) is a term coined by the 19th-century French philosopher Charles Renouvier.
Crasset created grey felt figures, which stood on a floor marked out by long, jointed lines which also run up the gallery walls (painted bright orange for the show). The hooded figures, called "Permanents", are "more mysterious than sinister", Crasset says. They conceal orange chairs or floor mats, and can be used as shelters for sitting or cocoons in which you can lie down; a third group of figures stands around, as if in conversation. You could regard them as sculpture or furniture.
In the white cube of the gallery, the figures do indeed seem timeless, a sense heightened by the short companion film Crasset made with her friend Juli Susin. A tribe of tin-foil clad individuals, played by a cast of actors including Crasset herself, performs rituals in a forest, and there's an eerie shot at the end of a pack of wild boar milling around the wreck of an airplane covered in filmy white fabric. The ending seems like a nod to a personal ritual; Crasset spoke to Le Monde in August of her family's yearly holiday habit of putting down melons in the Vienne forest (in south-west France) and hiding to watch the wild boar come out to nose around.
credit La Maison des Petits, Centquatre, Paris, Jerôme Spriet
La Maison des Petits reveals the social side of Crasset's work in a very different kind of Parisian art space. The House for Little Ones is a play area at the Centquatre, a 19th-century funeral parlour in north-east Paris, which has been converted into a municipal arts centre. The mushroom table structures are in a cool blue ("I wanted the space to breathe," Crasset explains) and surrounded by orange stools; a large orange hub contains a kitchenette, nappy-changing unit and shower room, among other functions.
The split-level seating is arranged to allow parents to be on the same level as their children as they sit, and eat, together. The centre is close to where Crasset lives in Belleville; it's a project close to her heart. "It's a poor area," she says, "and there aren't so many cultural places because the museums are in more central places, and in the west." But there's no escape from firm but friendly didacticism: "It has to be contemporary, it has to show kids that it has been designed like an art piece, because we are in an art place ... the world around them is made by somebody and maybe they will remember it afterwards and think about this."
In the opening chapter of Perec's Things, there is a description of the passive protagonists' dismal apartment: "It would all be in browns, ochres, duns and yellows: a world of slightly dull colours, in carefully graded shades, calculated with almost too much artistry, in the most of which would be some striking, brighter splashes ..." It's a parody of muted French "good taste" that epitomises everything Crasset has been working to change during her career. With every project, and particularly in her civic work, her campaign to overhaul everyday life seems to be advancing steadily.
Beach library in Istres, Philippe Piron