The simplicity of Philippe Malouin's work is misleading. What really excites the London-based furniture designer is a tricky brief and the experimentation that eventually reveals a new way of doing things, whether he's making lampshades from industrial shrinkwrap or bowls from rolls of cash register paper.
Designers are practical people. They are problem solvers. But sometimes this trait has an unexpected, paradoxical outcome: it causes some designers to gravitate towards the impractical, the difficult, the experimental and untried. They want more problems to solve, so they go out of their way to find them.
Philippe Malouin is one of those designers. When I first met him, during the Portes Ouvertes design festival in Montreal in 2010, he was using industrial shrinkwrap – generally used to protect boats in winter – to make lampshades. This wasn't easy. The material was wrapped over a metal framework, then shrunk with a heat torch. But it split, or scorched, or shrank unevenly. The other designers at the event were making tried-and-tested signature products, and hummed with productivity. Malouin, like a benign version of HG Wells' Dr Moreau, was surrounded by the disturbing results of his less successful experiments. "It's better to show a process than a finished product on a plinth," he said at the time.
One of these lampshades – one of the later, more successful models – sat in a high corner of Philippe Malouin's former studio in Stoke Newington, north London. Just days after Icon's visit, Malouin moved to larger premises 15 minutes' walk away. He attributes his emphasis on process to his education at Design Academy Eindhoven under Li Edelkoort. "Processes were the basis of our education – Li stressed it again and again and it just kept banging in our heads."
So all around Malouin's studio are new processes waiting to be adapted to new products. A couple of his assistants – he has four, who help him three days a week – are hunched over a large quantity of wire, twisting it into coils with an electric drill, cutting the coils into pieces and then knotting the pieces together into chainmail. The outcome of this toil will be a rug for Beirut's Carwan Gallery, which will be shown in Milan; it will be named Yachiyo, after the assistant who led the effort to make it. Other experiments are nearby, in varying stages of completion. A box of sand has been used to make prototypes of a cast pewter tabletop for the NextLevel Galerie in Paris. Another project involves hammering metal into a mould to create a chair (see overleaf), and there are also the Thermal Till Paper Vessels, bowls made out of rolls of paper from cash registers – an experiment for an exhibition about paper at Vienna Design Week last year. These bowls are now subject to further experimentation, based on the property of going black when heated, and could ultimately lead to a product in porcelain.
The aim is, after all, products – even the lampshade is not dead, merely resting. Designing an object by starting with a conception of its final form is exhausted as a practice, says Malouin: "It's better to focus on how something is made and let that dictate whatever shape it's going to have in the end – or perhaps even its function." Besides, he adds, "You can't really do anything better than what was done in the modernist era. Why bother trying to replicate that way of working? It can't be done. I will never do anything better than Eames or Le Corbusier." He pauses. "Well, Le Corbusier, I don't know, but Eames, yes, they're number one in the world." And they, of course, worked through processes, experimenting with their splints and fibreglass.
Is there an element of theatricality here? Not just in Malouin's participation in live design events like the one in Montreal, but in making the making of a piece evident, giving it a story, an obvious origin? "I don't think I aim for the theatrical but it's nice when people understand how something was made," he says. "Lots of people are obsessed with those TV shows about how something is made, assembly lines, people always love that stuff."
This description of Malouin's practice as a designer might make his work sound somewhat fiddly, complex or laboured. The opposite is true. His work has consistently been marked by ingenuity wrapped in apparent simplicity. At Eindhoven, he was nominated for the René Smeets Award for the Grace dining table – a straightforward black oblong supported by ever-so-slightly-Eames legs. But its looks weren't what got the nomination – it was inflatable. Seating ten when blown up, it could fit in a backpack when the air was let out. The first Malouin project that won wide press attention was the Hanger chair (2008), a folding chair with a back shaped like a clothes hanger so that it can be stored in a closet. You can also hang your shirts on it.
Apparently simple, the Hanger has consistently vexed Malouin. He isn't sure it's simple enough. Although he feels people know they can store the chair in the closet, he isn't certain they immediately know they can hang clothes on it, even though that's a long-standing secondary use of the backs of chairs. And the structure of the chair itself, in plywood, has been a challenge – it bent when sat on, not dangerously, but a little unnervingly. The latest version has ironed out this bug. And it still doesn't have a manufacturer, despite its apparently obvious market appeal – he's hopeful that one will be in line soon. None of these complicating factors has him in the least downcast – it remains one of his favourite projects, and you can't help but think that's because it has kept him coming back to fix things.
The problem-solving streak – this drive to refine and refine a piece through numerous iterations – comes from Tom Dixon. Malouin was born in Montreal, grew up there, and began his design studies there. Between Montreal and Eindhoven came a stint at ENSCI in Paris and an internship with Tjep. After Eindhoven, in 2008, he went to work for Dixon. He also admires Dixon's model of producing his own furniture, rather than relying on manufacturers. "If you're producing it yourself, you're making money," he says. "It's smart, it's the way it should be. It's the way fashion designers work."
Broadly, however, Malouin isn't too troubled by the business side of his operation. "I have no business plan. People just call us and we say 'We'll do it'," he says at one point. When clients call, he is drawn towards the more difficult briefs – it's that hankering for problems again. "Nine times out of ten what happens is that they say 'Do whatever you want!' and that's the most boring," Malouin says. "Well, not boring, you can do really fun stuff, but that doesn't direct you."
The Dixon connection is one of the numerous things, beyond just geography, that unites Malouin with a broader network of young London designers. These designers – including Max Lamb, Peter Marigold, Raw-Edges, Okay Studio and others – mostly know each other, and although their work often looks extremely different, it is unified by a down-to-earth resourcefulness. Many of Malouin's projects, such as the Grace table and the Hanger chair, make efficient use of space. Others, such as the Standard lamps, which clip on to standardised shelving units, and the Allen key door handle for Droog, are about adapting an existing product to a new use – "reusing what's already perfectly produced", in Malouin's words. There's a nice low-key example of this resourceful thinking on his bike: a water bottle serving as a rear mudguard.
At first it might seem strange to see this kind of thinking emerging out of one of the richest cities in the world – but for young designers London is horribly expensive. "It's a London thing to do more with less," Malouin says. "Everybody does, you don't have any choice, otherwise we starve. You've got to adapt really and it's the harshest climate. You see so many new kids showing up every year in London and they disappear. It's really tough to live here and be a creative in London."
Who would Malouin like to work for, given the choice? He immediately names Established & Sons, a surprisingly ritzy brand. But he has a specific project in mind for them: an LED lamp, shaded by its own circuit boards. "LED lamps always require transformers, tons of wires and tons of things that you always hide and it's lame to hide it," he says. "These messy things could compose the outside of the lamp, fully functioning, and then it would have LEDs that are on the inside. It's super-simple because you always want to hide this stuff, but this board is beautiful. As a lamp it would be beautiful."
Beautiful, maybe, but simple? How would you stop people electrocuting themselves? "Obviously you'd need to spend a lot of time. But, as a thing, I think it would work, it's weird enough."
And his favourite project so far? "I really like the Allen key door handle, if it ever gets released. I really like it because it's so simple. It's really, really, really simple."
Simple? Again, he has just spent a fair deal of time laying out the nightmarish problems the design faces if it is ever to work. He ponders this paradox. "Yes, the simplest, most complicated project I've ever made."