The Bouroullecs have spent ten years designing for Kvadrat, but they've never before done a textile for the Danish company. At their Paris studio – where they sit daily at desks facing each other – Ronan and Erwan explain how they got to grips with textile design for their latest project, Knit.
ERWAN BOUROULLEC Me, I'm fascinated by textiles. My home is full of plaid and such things, but all this time Kvadrat never asked us to design one.
RONAN BOUROULLEC Because they know how we research, that we need to do things ourselves in order to understand them, and they were probably afraid we would lose ourselves in the world of textiles because it's really a world by itself.
EB If you see Kvadrat's catalogue, there are hardly any textiles designed by those who aren't pure textile designers. Its range is incredibly clear. It's not about pattern; the aesthetic of the textile comes from its construction.
But we'd been pushing them for a while, saying: "You need a knitted fabric." Knit is rarely used in furniture upholstery, but it's everywhere in fashion. The big difference in the nature of a knitted fabric is that it is stretchy and soft, while woven fabric is flatter and stronger.
RB It's really based on the architecture of it. Knitted fabric is made with yarn going in three dimensions ...
EB ... with loops of yarn as wide or as close as you want. When woven, yarn is moving in one plane, so it has no real possibility for expansion. So Kvadrat found a supplier that has a knitting technique.
RB There's just a few in Europe that are able to make knits for upholstery purposes.
EB Yes. Knit in fashion is fascinating – all the patterns are incredible – but soon it becomes clear that they aren't strong enough for furniture.
RB So the challenge was to work on a stretch fabric that was a mix of polyester, which is the base of it, and wool.
EB It's a circular knitting machine that produces it. It has layers of needles, one doing the front layer, and another the back. Between the two is a "volume yarn" that has no real structure, but brings a quilted effect to the material.
The pattern is decided by thinking about where to link the front and back layers. It comes from a set of rules we gave ourselves about not making the pockets between the layers too big as to be weak, but also making enough of them to give the fabric some freedom to stretch.
There's a wonderful regularity but also irregularity to it. It looks like the layers are put together and then punched through, but really the machine does it all simultaneously. Some needles are pulling one way, and some the other. It's wonderful to watch.
RB Normally as a designer you want to perfectly understand a technique – it's the only way to do something intelligent. Here, we had to be satisfied with just understanding enough, or it would really have been a hole we couldn't get out. It really is complicated.
EB I mean, Ronan and I, we're not like Jonathan Ive, spending ten or 20 years in one company and getting into all the parameters.
RB We can explain the machine in a general way, but we do not understand it all. We have to work through touch, between yarn and colour and pattern, weight and geometry. It's been almost three years of very frustrating development.
EB We wanted the nature of the material to generate the look and feel of the fabric, but it wasn't to be.
RB So the random patterns were eventually done using the computer, but we took care to not make it look like a computer-generated design.
EB There are a lot of designs that are too flat. Too unified. We ended up with three scales of the design [Canal, Gravel and Moraine]. The different densities suit different sizes of upholstered area, whether a sofa or a chair.