Bouroullec Brothers

Defying categorisation and straddling the worlds of art, architecture and consumer culture, the Bouroullec brothers open their first mid-career survey at MCA Chicago this autumn.

The world of design is one of constant rebirth and renewal. Each year fashion insiders descend on the freshest new clothes swaddled in their winter coats, and fan sites devoted to murmurs and whispers speculate over rumoured new products from Apple. Every spring comes with innumerable lifestyle magazines providing home makeovers for their readers’ spring cleans and the glossies release increasingly weighty tomes for their September issues, accompanied by the pre-requisite “back to school” ambience. This constant need for the new, the perpetual thirst for the extraordinary, has created a consumer culture that has come to rely on a certain ineffectiveness of its own products: the DVD player with its in-built obsolescence and the diet industry with its avoidance of revealing the cold, hard facts of permanent weight loss. But accompanying these unsavoury side effects is an engagement with the changing realities of everyday life, and a striving for innovations to make living more comfortable, economical, environmentally friendly and, most importantly, adaptable.

For over 15 years, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec have been at the centre of this zeitgeist. Rather than assuming an unmistakable “look” or identity, their designs have as their raison d’être a real malleability at the hands of the consumer. Flexibility is their number one draw and their work enables collaboration between designer and end user. The final form of pieces will vary just as their final destinations vary, as their users adapt them to their everyday needs.

Adaptability of living space is integral to the brothers’ practice and Erwan, the younger of the two, first gained acclaim for the Lit Clos, a stark, white, tree-house-style structure designed as an area of sleep and privacy within an open-plan living space. The 1998 creation Modular Kitchen followed, and furthered the user’s interaction in a way that has become mass-produced with each of Ikea’s homeware ranges, with hooks, shelves and worktops to be built and redistributed to meet the user’s current needs. Joyn Office System was the brothers’ first official collaboration and allowed workers to partition their stations to suit their everyday needs, providing privacy from colleagues’ prying eyes.

Bivouac is a major exhibition of this spectacular (and ongoing) 15-year partnership at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and, in collaboration with the Pompidou Centre, is a sign of the growing influence of Ronan and Erwan’s designs. Chief curator Michael Darling acknowledges that now is the right time for this exhibition because of the continuing momentum of the Bouroullecs’ career: “They have built up such a substantial body of work that it is hard to ignore them any more. Plus, it has been eight years since their last show in the USA and their work has grown enormously in sophistication since then.” The exhibition is part of an increasing engagement by MCA Chicago with design in all its forms, although the museum has “a history of doing architecture and graphic design shows … furniture and other types of design has not been a part of our profile yet, but seems to be a natural extension. With the Bouroullecs, the work is so contemporary, so sculptural, that it is a natural fit for our audience.” With the exhibition’s title directly referencing a temporary encampment, the concept of flexible modern living and a “more nomadic people” is central, with Darling adding that “even some designs are made with the idea of re-skinning them for the new context.”

Despite their background in industrial design, and a notable willingness to experiment with new and manmade materials, the Bouroullecs nonetheless take significant inspiration from nature. The organic, undulating forms of pieces such as the Nuages, Algues and Clouds, echo the imperfections of nature while allowing a flexibility which isn’t always true to it. Darling explains, however, that this relationship with nature extends little beyond aesthetic inspiration: “The Algues obviously come from studying nature but, when one starts to use it, you can see that it is highly engineered and thought-out, and combines with other pieces to make a screen that isn’t the first item we think we might need.” The fluctuations and general living of human life are the most integral influences on both design and aesthetics. “Their Joyn desk system, too, is highly contemporary in look and materials, but is based on the various activities that might take place around a large family dining table. This deeply human-centred quality is what makes their work so approachable and timeless. You can immediately recognise the use or reference in almost all of their work, even if it is something that doesn’t conform to a common typology.” This philosophy, prioritising human rather than purely aesthetic satisfaction, extends right down to the pieces’ production processes and supply chains: “They care a lot about how things are made and invest a lot of time with engineers at the companies they work for, scrutinising the production process so that they understand it themselves and can bring new ideas to bear on it.”

But while Darling emphasises that “nature itself is perhaps not always the answer for them,” he recognises this common vein through much of the work and its implicit appeal for the everyman user. Their work is successful when it inspires familiarity, becoming a part of the furniture, and “nature is one of those very recognisable touch points that they utilise.” Furthermore, nature is the system of disparate parts working in harmony made manifest: “When we think of nature, we also think of systems and interconnectedness, and these are modernist principles that you see the brothers working with a lot too.”

This idea of the adaptability of design, and the emphasis on daily life, extends throughout the show to the very curation of MCA Chicago’s space. Cultivating the white cube of the galleries naturally posed a challenge to both Darling and the Bouroullecs because so many of the brothers’ most successful works are created with domestic (or professional) interiors in mind. Consequently, the brothers orchestrated the layout and had “very strong ideas about presentation”. Together they and Darling “segmented a lot of the gallery spaces so that they are more room-like, providing the sort of context where these items operate at the right scale.” But Darling also argues that the grandeur of the Bouroullecs’ pieces could easily hold its own in larger spaces: “The works are so graphically and sculpturally sound that they can easily stand alone … and still command attention.” In many ways the nature of the works means that they created these segmented living spaces themselves. The Bouroullecs have made substantial variations on separation devices; in addition to the Nuages and Algues, the North Tiles further the possibilities for bespoke space creation with lightweight, fabric elements interlocking while still creating a completely opaque screen and the privacy and muffled sound that accompanies it. These contrast with the ethereal, lighter touch of Algues and highlight the brothers’ experimental use of varying materials to the same ends.

Room separation devices are complemented by the Clouds, foam and cloth petals which form three-dimensional constructions hovering intimately above the heads of their users. The effect of much of the Bouroullecs’ work is the realisation of a sort of safety zone; a softer area of calm, muffling and protection away from the galleries’ stark white walls. Retreating even further into a personal space, Alcoves envelop their sitters like a Zittel sculpture, but the difference here is how much more realistic and approachable the Bouroullecs’ pieces seem in contrast to the fine art sensibility of much of Zittel’s stark, often uncomfortable-looking work. Alcoves have seen the Bouroullecs’ influence extend to open-plan offices internationally, and many an open-plan layout will now employ similar devices to create an area where employees can withdraw from the hectic pace of the workplace, conduct semi-private meetings, and generally soak up the feeling of calmness that accompanies such a restrained space. The piece is an important example of the “microarchitecture” that the brothers increasingly refer to which “is important because it gives furniture a grander ambition and purpose, without taking on all of the headaches and financial commitments of architecture,” while simultaneously adapting to the open-plan tendencies that building construction has assumed in the late-20th and early 21st centuries. Furthermore, the concept of microarchitecture continues to emphasise the role of the user: “It is inherently user-driven, unfixed and modular enough for the purchaser to deploy as they best see fit.”

The hosting of this exhibition at MCA Chicago illustrates the unique place of product design, straddling the worlds of art, architecture and consumer culture. Product and furniture design occupy an interesting middle ground between art and architecture because they can be whimsical in a way that architecture cannot and yet must also have commercial concerns. This combination of freedom and restriction “fuels the innovation of the Bouroullecs. They are constantly trying to marry the concerns of the companies for ease of production, lowered costs, and conservation of materials, to comfortable, attractive products. By understanding the production process, they don’t have to be sceptical of it or dismissive of the number-crunchers, but can try to own it and make those concerns part of their design.”

Other works highlight the Bouroullecs’ exploratory use of materials – the abstract constellations on Losanges utilise traditional Persian crafting techniques used to create woven kilims for a modern take on these rugs which are ubiquitous in the Middle East, and have usually stuck rigidly to conservative designs. The Bouroullecs’ four pieces inject a contemporary note to the craft, but the geometric shapes and vibrant colours have been created at the hands of northern Pakistani carpet weavers who have filtered hundreds of years of tradition into an eye-catching, contemporary, geometric piece. Slow Chair is another example of taking a traditional material and using it in unexpected ways, all for the ultimate user experience – its knitted body offers a surprising degree of sturdiness and support while maintaining a breathability and softness to enhance the sitter’s comfort. With one single cloth pulled taut over tubular steel, the brothers engage with the modernist visions of Eames, while retreating simultaneously backwards with a very old, well-established fabric put to innovative new use. This innovation is of great interest to Darling, who comments: “They show a real interest in fabrics and new approaches to upholstery. I think they are doing things in that area that nobody else is doing and I look forward to other chairs that continue the successes of the Slow Chair, the Facett series and the Quilt Chair.

Darling’s other highlight is the general ability of all of the pieces to work together as they would in everyday life: “I think the interplay of colour and texture as you look down the long vaulted galleries will be spectacular … there is one room with 300 framed drawings that will completely encircle the space which will be very intense too. We will be treated not only to the beautiful Bouroullec objects, but also to their particular approach to scenography.”

It is rare for working partnerships to be so coherent over a long period of time but Erwan and Ronan have created a singular vision based on flexibility of space, with both admitting that Ronan contributes more to the analytical side of design while Erwan handles the artistic sensibilities. But Darling warns us not to “short-change the aesthetic sensibilities of Ronan as well as the clear vision and responsibility that Erwan has to the end-user of their products.” The continued fruits of the relationship illustrate that Bivouac is not a retrospective because the brothers are constantly evolving with a dynamism and momentum which is essential to today’s design world. It’s important for a designer “to avoid being just a stylist,” and Darling critiques that “many famous designers churn out products that have a certain look associated with that person, which may build brands and sell products, but doesn’t penetrate all the way down to the way the object was made or how it contributes in a new way to the use of space or the function of things. The Bouroullecs are continuously searching for ways to think differently, use technology differently, and find new applications for materials both old and new.”

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec: Bivouac opened on 20 October and ran until 20 January 2013. For further information visit

Ruby Beesley