They are as innovative as they are restrained and understated. They can also, it would seem, turn their hand to just about anything. The Bouroullec brothers – Erwan and Ronan – may be contemporary design siblings of world renown, but there’s little that’s homogenous or uniform about the work they produce together. They aren’t in the game of being a globally recognisable brand by way of an obvious, recurrent finish or silhouette. They are motivated by notions of excellence and perfection, and embrace modernist principles more than showmanship or developing a signature style. As Erwan says: “If we have a visual language, it comes from our methods rather than a deliberate attempt to apply the same look to every idea.”
Since joining forces in 1999 – and catching the eye of Issey Miyake, who invited them to create the interior for his A-POC store in Paris a year later – the Brittany-born brothers have become masters of highly considered, stylishly articulated design. Their work ranges from simple Ovale cutlery for Alessi (from £3.50) to the 12m-high Swarovski-crystal Gabriel chandelier that they created for the Palace of Versailles, which weighs half a ton and hangs like several linked strands of supersized, brilliant jewellery above Ange-Jacques Gabriel’s monumental staircase in the château’s north courtyard.
Their latest work is typical of how they take something simple and elevate it to new levels of sophistication. They were invited by Artek – the Finnish design company co-founded by architect Alvar Aalto in 1935 – to create a 10-piece collection, including updates to iconic Artek stool and table silhouettes. The resulting Kaari Collection (price on request, Tall Shelf) is strong, graphic, simple and coherent, and features a triangular metal loop at the foot of each piece; wall shelves use half of this component as a bracket. “Their Kaari Collection, which translates as ‘arc’ in Finnish, is based on a simple yet intelligent component,” says Artek MD Marianne Goebl. “The Bouroullecs have a unique ability to think in terms of systems, but the beauty and functionality of the individual objects are never compromised by the higher logic of the system.”
There is a similar, seductive simplicity to the new range of Ruutu vases (from £79) that the brothers have created with Iittala. The diamond-shaped pieces work individually, or as an assemblage of different sizes and colours. “Transforming the idea into the product was challenging,” says Iittala’s design director Harri Koskinen. “Glass is a material that does not like sharp edges. The hot glass likes curves. We were able to make the vase even, fluid, yet strict in shape.” The Ruutu range looks like an effortless piece of great design, but it actually took two years to develop.
The Bouroullecs relished both these recent projects, and working for companies that create state-of-the-art products for a broad client base. “It’s the modernist ideal of making objects that everybody can use,” says Erwan. “Artek was founded on the principle that everyone can have the same object, whether they are a taxi driver or board director.”
Many of the brothers’ exceptionally niche projects share the same qualities as their recent forays into the wider global market. The laminated and thermo-welded-glass Diapositive desks created for Glas Italia (from £2,250) incorporate wood and felt detailing and have the same restrained, colourful, jewel-like appeal of their Ruutu vases. They represent something practical and cubicle-like, but also irresistible to the eye.
“Their work is the stuff of dreams,” says Didier Krzentowski, founder and director of Galerie Kreo, who has worked with the Bouroullecs on concept pieces and editions since the early days of their studio. When he showed 150 vintage lighting designs at his galleries in Paris and London earlier this year, one of the standouts was an early version of the brothers’ Piani lamps, which comprise two flat horizontal elements, the smaller upper plane illuminating the lower. It’s still manufactured by Flos (£172), as is their instantly recognisable AIM LED suspension light (£488), which Krzentowski showed in an earlier incarnation at Kreo in 2010. “It is an incredible piece of design,” he says. “It can be horizontal or vertical, you can touch it, and you can elevate or lower the spotlight without any mechanism. And it makes a visual point of the cable, rather than hiding it.”
Krzentowski is one of the kingmakers of international high-end design. And he has an emotional attachment to the designers he works with. Kreo is a hothouse environment for next-level design – from Martin Szekely to Jasper Morrison. “I can never show a piece that I do not want to live with,” he says. “And when I saw the Bouroullec couch we showed at Kreo in 2008, I wanted to live with it. It’s like a small house.”
The Galerie Kreo exhibition was one of the first times the brothers showed some of their plush assemblage panels, while the edition-only couch riffed on the Alcove Highback sofa (from £4,042; three-seater example, from £6,104) they created for Vitra. Like many of their pieces, the design stems from notions of privacy and protection. You feel as secure as you do comfortable. “Ergonomy and comfort are often the real points of the design,” says Erwan, “and we try to let these elements emerge naturally.”
It’s reasonable to consider the Bouroullecs’ 2007 Slow Chair for Vitra (£1,990) as a contemporary reworking of the Eames Lounge chair. It looks extraordinarily comfortable, and it is. Its form is modern and sculptural, but instead of the wood and leather of Eames, there is a knitted high-tech translucent weave. “When we start to test out ideas, we are very informal,” says Ronan. “When we were developing the Slow Chair, we started by looking at fishnet tights.” Similarly alluring and soft to the body is the Ploum sofa designed for Ligne Roset (£2,404), which – like the Alcove couch design – looks inviting and conjures up a warm, embracing environment. Consider it a miniature version of their large-scale gallery interventions – typified by Textile Field, which filled the floor in the Raphael Gallery at the V&A in London in 2011 with huge, soft, blue, green and grey sloping fabric panels. For the duration of the installation, the gallery was populated with delighted visitors sitting, lying and lounging around the space. “It was playful, imaginative, inviting, fun and at the same time functional,” says Victoria Broackes, head of the London Design Festival at the V&A. “The colours in Textile Field mirrored those in the Raphael cartoons, and the installation made it possible to dwell comfortably in the space and take in all the detail.”
Textile Field was a sensational event and represented the brothers’ interest in changing the way we engage with familiar spaces. “I am very critical of museums,” says Ronan. “I went to see the Jeff Koons show at the Pompidou recently, and with so many visitors in the room, and the alarms going off every time someone went near a work of art, it was an awful experience. You should be able to enter the space and contemplate it, as if you are on a beach or in a park.”
You can create your own Bouroullec-conceived playroom environment at home, using the Algue wall installation sets designed for Vitra (£57 for 25 pieces), which fit together to create a potentially infinitely sized wall or screen of organic seaweed shapes. You can also buy sets of their Clouds (from £350), a Tempo and polyethylene-fabric 3D tile concept, in nine colour combinations, which can cover parts of walls – changing the shape and perception of elements of a room, as well as softening the acoustics of a space.
Their installation pieces could be seen as modular, ready-made, interactive art pieces, and much of what they do blurs the ever-eroding line between art and high-end design. “They have a sketchy, fine-art, emotional, loose approach to product design that is very different from the stringent, orthodox and conservative manner of industrial design,” says designer Sebastian Wrong, who started working with the brothers when he was at Established & Sons, launching the Bouroullec-designed Quilt chair (from £2,330) in 2009. He now sells their abstract prints (from £325), available with Bouroullec-designed frames, via his online platform, The Wrong Shop. The images allow the brothers to indulge in something purely creative, and at speed. “I usually like to spend four years developing a chair,” says Ronan. “But I can do a drawing in one day.”
While they approach each new project on its own merits, and shun superfluous styling, there is still a distinctive Bouroullec look, albeit a highly nuanced one. The way the brothers communicate and create has honed their aesthetic. “Part of our relationship is based on confrontation,” says Erwan, “so we study and question everything.” When that filtering process has taken place, there are some common denominators – the work is directional, ergonomic, and the shape of the components can be gently futuristic, but devoid of any retro-futurist notes. It is frequently modular, such as the Osso chair (from £696), in natural oak or stained ash, for Mattiazzi. The back and seat panels are made up of four pieces, each shaped like a rolled-out pebble. It is at once organic and industrial.
There is also their continued innovation with materials and technique – the sculpted wood, held in place with bent metal rods, of the swivel Uncino chairs (£890) for Mattiazzi, the traditional artisanal weave of the Nanimarquina Losanges rugs (from £3,870), or the paper-like Ready Made Curtain designed for Kvadrat (£346), which can be cut to the correct length, and comes with two easy-fit connections to a wall or ceiling. They interrogate each potential material and colour at the start of every project. Their Vitra Vegetal chair (£355) incorporates a plant-like weave, but is produced in plastic, a material that the brothers embrace, but find intellectually awkward. “It lacks an inherent common sense,” says Erwan. “It’s not something you can explain to a child, as you can metal or wood. Stitching and weaving are easy to understand. Plastic isn’t. The common wisdom of it is that it really shouldn’t exist. But it has its reasons.” In working on the Vegetal chair, the brothers laboured over the colours. “We had to use green,” says Erwan, pointing to the organic nature of the graphics in the chair, “and we used red as an obvious sign. Then there was the aubergine one, which is essentially black, but with warmth. We never do a pure black, we always bring a depth to it.”
As part of an introduction to their mid-career retrospective monograph – Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Works (Phaidon, £59.95) – design writer Anniina Koivu captures some of the qualities of their work in an essay entitled “Don’t Kill The Butterfly”. “The designs of Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec bring to mind the lightness and delicacy of butterflies,” she writes, “powerful and expressive, yet magically detached from the received ideas of functional everyday objects.” There is no denying the intellectual gravity of their approach, aesthetic and output. But the amusement they invite us to have with the work shouldn’t be overlooked. Consider the Cloud shelving (from £744) they created for Cappellini – a cartoon-like set of round holes set into a white cumulus shape. Or consider also those soft-floor gallery interventions and Alcove sofas (from £3,602) – essentially a sophisticated take on the child’s love of building a “fort” within a living room. A recent new range of their Quilt chairs in strong single colours, released by Established & Sons, references comic-book superheroes, including the brash red and blue of Superman’s caped costume. The Bouroullecs may not go in for jokes very often, but they have a sense of humour that is as highly developed as their designs. Their work is restrained and beautiful, but it’s also a lot of fun.