A technical idea to begin with

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec discuss the ideas and inspiration behind their new sofa and chair design Quilt. They talk about the processes that lead to their celebrated designs and their thinking on everything from tailoring to stretch fabric.

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As I arrive at Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s Parisian studio the brothers are discussing the name for their newest design. Should it be called Quilt or not? Does this fully articulate the upholstered honeycomb-like structure that gives the chair its character and is it representative of the idea of comfort that is key to this design? The brothers are yet to see the first prototype of the chair and are debating the potential outcome. This is a design that, by its very intention, is in contrast to the rigid, strict forms of other sofas and so there is an unknown, as yet not fully experienced, quantity to their design. The studio is littered with many sketches of the Quilt chair, upholstered sections complete with the innovative foam inserts in various shapes and sizes are lying around. Scale models of the chair are collected on the window sill. The brothers sit down to talk. Erwan keeps one eye on his computer screen whilst Ronan sketches throughout our interview, every few minutes turning a page of his notebook and beginning another illustration of another abstract, strong form. He fills, he tells me, at least one notebook a day this way.

EST: What are the key features of Quilt?
Ronan:
The material is like a glove and it has many pockets. In each pocket we insert an individual piece of foam. Then there are two layers of fabric, sewn together in a honeycomb fashion.
Erwan:
And then this ‘quilt’ sits on top of a fibreglass shell. [Ronan] It becomes like a big burger. Because there is this first elastic fabric, with foam pieces inside, we close it and then there is a fibreglass shell with another layer of foam beneath it. The idea is to have a quilt with some kind of tension that when we put it onto a structure it will stay in position by itself.

EST: How did the idea for the chair begin?
Ronan: It is always very difficult to explain what was the beginning of a project. It was very much a technical idea to begin with, there were issues we wanted to explore and solve. We wanted to make a very comfortable piece. To create a comfortable effect, unstructured and welcoming. Something between a quilt and a blanket. We don’t know what will be the exact thing. There will be two versions: a sofa and then an armchair where the scale is one and a half. And the stretch fabric is a new textile from Kvadrat.
Erwan: Stretch fabrics aren’t so common in the upholstery area.
Ronan: Although there were lots used in the 1970’s and 1980’s
Erwan: Like in B&B collections…
Ronan: Or by Artifort and Pierre Paulin.

EST: This idea of a molecular, cell structure. Is this part of your aesthetic at the moment?
Ronan: Basically, we are researching the idea of comfort, both visually and physically. The idea of making the big blanket was the starting point for this. After that we followed several roads. This cell situation was a very interesting expression of a new type of skin, it’s not a common blanket or a quilt but it is something new. It is a bit vague, but the character and the spirit of a blanket are important; It is a little like a turtle’s shell or even a deflated football.
Erwan: The cell structure gives it a three dimensional shape. Very much like a football that, even with no air in it, keeps its spherical shape. Right now we are making the shell inside quite small and giving a lot of free reign to the quilt so that the support is little in comparison. We still have the choice to keep the blanket open or folded and when folded, the design goes in another direction. We had a clear intention at the beginning that by using these sewing techniques we would have certain properties that we could explore. This is quite typical for all our work; Most of the time we start, lets say, with the logic of the material itself or the logic of the way you transform the
model and then you follow the shape. In the end this way of tailoring the pattern is a kind of origami because each line becomes a fold. We believe that those directions will bring us to a nice result. Through the contemporary ages we use some production methods where a machine is making everything. In a way you can make everything on a white sheet of paper and launch a production and see what happens. But of course this project is so much different to that of a plastic chair where you can control so much more. Here we have to wait until the end of the process to see what the result is.

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EST: This is a great feature of the chair is it not? That it is so far removed from that kind of ‘tooled’ design and has its own character?
Erwan:
It is impossible to even render this. It would be like producing a 3D rendering of bamboo blowing in the wind.

EST: Does Quilt follow a particular path of thinking for you?

Erwan: We have been working a lot with the question of transforming fabric, of finding an interesting way to stitch. I have the impression that within the furniture area tailoring (what I mean by tailoring is making the right marks on a piece of paper) is so poor in comparison to areas like fashion. There we have people making shirts that perfectly fit the body, it is incredible. For quite a lot of time we’ve been trying to, lets say, to upgrade the level of tailoring in furniture design. Projects like Facet for Ligne Roset were going in this direction. And then Tiles for Kvadrat. Although there it is not stitching. It is a pressing of the fabric, but still it has this logic of origami, of folding lines. And then, I think we are trying to achieve some special comfort. I don’t think the term is exact as to me the idea of ‘what is comfortable’ has evolved quite a lot. There are many different ideas of comfort and no one is better than another. All these things are linked. And they all, maybe, follow the one extremely comfortable chair we did for Vitra; Slow Chair. Though this is the opposite as you are lying on a fabric that has much more reaction to your body. Everything is transparent and there is air everywhere. Quilt is the opposite. It is like a ‘winter seat’.
Ronan:
It has very good visual comfort. It is clear that it references comfort.
Erwan:
As long as it is something better than a Chesterfield, this is a concrete base of a sofa! A big frame and little upholstery.

EST: What is your process of working?
Ronan:
It is a mess of different inspirations. Sometimes an idea comes from drawing, sometimes from an atmosphere we want to reach or a technical discovery.
Erwan:
What is more important than the fabric or whatever, in my point of view, is the transformation of all this. Like a stitching process, for this [Quilt] it was a starting point.

EST: It is almost an engineered approach. Is that typical of how you work?
Ronan:
We start like a carpenter would when building a house. There are really a lot of different starting points. Sometimes we are constantly turning around ideas. We are like birds flying around an idea [Ronan draws his finger through the air in quick, short circles]. There are different circles: sometimes they are short circles and the solution is clear, sometimes it is a long, long, long flight to arrive to the idea.

EST: You seem to have good, solid relationships with manufacturers. How important is that for you?
Ronan:
We need to have a close relationship and to be sure we will be in front of a strong person who has the same goals as us. It is very complicated to do new things, so we need to be surrounded by enthusiastic people.
Erwan:
In design, the one major issue is dialogue. And of course it is why we keep on working with Vitra and Magis. Because after a certain number of projects and a certain number of years, you just reach a level of understanding that allows you to cross some more borders and to be more precise. In design it is really a common project, a common child.

EST: What is your design philosophy. What are you trying to do with your work?
Erwan: We never start a project with a general concept. We always understand what we do because we are always within the context. But I suppose what is important for us, in some more general terms, is that we try to come out with some popular proposition. The term is not right in English, but sometimes we say popular or democratic. Trying to propose some furniture that can be addressed by a wider market.

EST: Do you mean democratic in terms of commercial?
Erwan: Yes, as wide as you can go and as low a price as you can go. We are quite happy with this. But at the same time we always try to push something: some element of research. We try as much as possible to always confront ourselves with different contexts and try not to provide just one solution. Maybe part of our philosophy would be to have an interesting balance of all these things.

EST: So there is always more than one innovation being attempted in each single piece?
Erwan: We try as much as possible. If we take the Clouds for Kvadrat, it is a research that has taken a very long period of time. It is about how society can draw inside architecture with a certain amount of freedom. What was funny was that when we showed the Tiles in Paris we took over the Galerie Kreo, just for three days. A lot of people came in and when they normally go into Galerie Kreo, they see incredible things. And they said ‘wow, its so nice because I thought at first I was looking at gallery pieces but then I found that these were normal pieces’. For this I was really happy. It shows that sometimes we have the opportunity to come out to the real market, that we have some really strong propositions.

EST: The idea of spacial division as explored through your work Clouds and Tiles, where does that come from?
Ronan: What is important here is that our starting point is very normal, we are reaching for a solution to a very basic question. It was clear for us that this idea of dividing spaces was an eternal, ancestral question.
Erwan:
Its been explored in Japan, for centuries — the use of paper to divide and create spaces.
Ronan: So we just continue with this familiar question. In a way there is a philosophical point of view here but then in another way there is a practical question. We are just like carpenters: Always trying to find another way to build a structure, whether for chairs or anything else. It is very clear for me that the starting point is a clear question and that we dream around this very clear product.
Erwan:
On the one hand there is an incredible easiness of assembly and because it is simple it opens your imagination, you are not scared of making mistakes. The second thing with these designs is about making things that are incredibly light; the weight is light but the decisions that you take are quite light also. It is not something for your full life, like you are having to change something structural in your house. This is related to making products for the right time. Ronan and I were always moving flat to flat, we moved six times since we left our parents house. I get the impression that this is the norm. These designs are a contemporary approach, considering contemporary needs.

EST: Do those observations of contemporary life translate to this piece?
Erwan:
There are two kinds of sofas: there are the Italian sofas; the design sofa which is quite often not so comfortable with a low back and flat surface. It is incredibly clean and it is for the white cube apartment. And then you see the local sofa; it is more comfortable, usually the form and the padding is bad quality but it will have a high back, a good profile. I think in the design world things can became a little too formal and lost. We are more interested in bringing a particular comfort and creating something that at least will hold a lot of the body. You can lie inside Quilt, you don’t need to hold your head up, you can rest and the sides are wide enough to support your arms. We sit quite a lot more than we used to. The chair lets you float a little bit and because the seat is one and a half size, you can turn within it, you can use your computer, your kid can sit there with you. In most sofas you don’t get this kind of freedom, they are flat and they make you hold your body in certain positions. As we end our conversation Erwan adds; ‘Quilt is like a superhero, you can see its muscles exposed through th stretch fabric’. I agree. Both the form of the chair, but also the quiet, consistent efforts of these designers to create new design landmarks is superhuman.

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Words by Laura Houseley
Photography by Tung Walsh

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