At 43, Patrick Jouin is one the biggest design stars in France and also one of the least assuming. He has created restaurants for the culinary demigod Alain Ducasse, designed public bicycles for the city of Paris, and experimented with 3-D printing well before it became the technology du jour. Yet his aesthetic is so simple, it often feels effortless, and by his own admission, he has “no ambition” to design; he’d be just as happy painting or sketching.
Now, Jouin — who got his start working for the spectacularly ambitious Philippe Starck — has his first solo exhibit in New York at the Museum of Arts & Design. Design and Object is dedicated entirely to Jouin’s product design, and it features everything from a futuristic selective laser-sintered chair to an Alessi pot with a built-in handle. The theme is meant to highlight the twin beauty of form and function. It also manages to reveal Jouin’s greatest asset: a sophisticated understanding of technology. By pushing the boundaries of manufacturing, Jouin has mastered the art of making complex design look easy.
Here, he talks to us about the new exhibit, the poetry of technological innovation, and why he is not Philippe Starck’s protege (even though the museum’s signage says otherwise):
Co.Design: What’s the story behind the theme of the exhibit?
Patrick Jouin: Well, just to show objects is a little bit dry. For me, it’s important to show the life around the objects. I had a show at Centre Pompidou, and I really focused on the process and technology of the design. To invent anything very well you have to understand the processes. We are using technology that was invented centuries ago or more — a thousand years ago. And we develop and develop and push hard to make something new; it can be like poetry. So here I wanted to show that, but also the gesture of an object. Functionality is important. But design goes deeper than that. I’m looking at the pleasure and beauty of gesture — like a dancer. Pleasure is itself a function.
You got your start with Philippe Starck, right? Did you learn that from him?
The beginning starts much earlier than that. I?m from a humble background. My father was a craftsman, a technician. So I was surrounded by objects, material, technology, processes since…. ever. At the same time, I loved to draw. So design was very natural. I went to school in Paris [Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle-Les Ateliers]. They were interested in this idea of industry. There are so many ways to design but it’s more interesting in the narrow field of industrial design, with various rules and constraints of production. When you can achieve something in that context it’s better, right?
So when I came out of school there were not so many interesting studios in Paris. Of course there was one, and that was Philippe Starck, where I was lucky to be taken. Immediately I was working on interesting projects. And I learned how the world of design worked — through his eyes, of course. I had no ambition to not be there. But at some point, I said, ‘I’ll try it on my own. It’s also better to try.’ So I started my own studio. It was a bit scary because of course I had to reinvent myself and forget the Starck methodology and find mine. It was a lot of work. But it went very, very fast. I had my first project, which was for [Alain] Ducasse. At the same time, a car company asked me to design a car.
So you never looked back.
It’s very funny because people always say I am a protege of Starck. I’ve never seen him since. I’ve never talked with him since. You can imagine, he had so many people in the studio. We were a good team, but I was not his protege.
And your work is obviously completely different from his. How do you characterize your design aesthetic?
With every assignment we try to do something different. I don’t want to repeat myself. But of course we have some obsessions: sensuality, elegance, and fluidity.
What is your basic design process?
Always I?m looking for the medium between technical constraints, usability, and drawing. And then I come to a point where everything is resolved. So, for example, Kartell came and asked me to design something that’s plastic. So I ask, “What is plastic” What is transparency? How can we push the limits of the aesthetic of plastic?? So we made a storage unit, which is very very simple. You can put books on it. Or a bottle of whiskey if you want. Whatever. But how it was made was very very hard.
I wanted to play with the thickness of plastic. I wanted it to have a crystal effect, which you can only have when you vary the thickness of plastic. But when you inject plastic, it always has to be the same thickness. So when you show a project like this to someone who has injected plastic, 99 percent will say no. But there is always someone who can do it. So we worked with an engineer and found a way to do it. For the Thalya chairs [also for Kartell], it’s the same idea. It’s injected gas, which is also theoretically impossible to do. Because gas burns plastic.
One of the pieces in the exhibit is a pasta pot for Alessi with the spoon built in. That’s pretty clever. How did you come up with it?
I was cooking risotto and the idea came to me. It’s very simple but it was not easy to make. It’s a sandwich of materials, including aluminum which spreads the heat very, very well. But it’s designed so the heat doesn’t spread to the handle. The spoon is Bakelite so it never gets hot. And the shape of the pot inside is exactly the same as the spoon, so you can scrape everything out easily.
Then you have work in the show that’s completely different; that seems like it’s less about finding smart design solutions than experimenting with new forms, like the C1 chair [see slide 11]. How did that come about?
I discovered this technology. A laser produces the objects. Usually, for a chair, you’d use a mold. And molds are a huge constraint. But here, you can do whatever. You can make the pattern of the seat so intricate, you can’t even fit a hand in there. You cannot do that with a mold. It’s done entirely in one piece. It’s the first one of its kind ever made.
How did you discover the technology?
We were using a rapid prototyping company for our prototypes. And at one point, I just had an idea of designing something that can only be made with this technology. It’s a big break in the industry. If you look through history, every time you have a new aesthetic, it’s because you have a new break in fabrication. That’s what you’re seeing here.
Do you ever have some great idea, sketch it, then test it out, and realize it’s just not technically feasible?
No. Never. I know the processes and technologies well. We push, but to a limit so that the risk is not too great. But sometimes we take big risks.
How do you convince companies to take big risks?
They trust my knowledge but they are also risk takers. Italian companies are big risk takers because it’s the only way to be ahead of everyone. Yes, they will be copied. But so what? In France, unfortunately, the last thing we have is innovation. Compared to Italy, we are so small. We have centuries of knowledge. But we are just a point on the map.
Why do you think that is?
Everything is made in China. We let it go.
Do you ever decline work?
If someone is asking me to design a classic, I just go away. They say, “Can you design a chair or a sofa” And we would like it to be a classic. Now.? Do you think Mies van der Rohe, when he was doing the Barcelona chair, thought he was doing a classic? It became a classic. And Le Corbusier’s sofa — it was designed for one house. They tried for years to produce it. Nobody wanted it. It took 50 years before Cassina bought the drawings and relaunched it. Now it’s a classic. So we have to innovate. It’s our every day life to draw and design. So if we do a nice classic with nice proportions, then we’re doing something that has been done before. It’s boring.
What’s your ideal project?
It’s not something, it’s someone who’s coming with a lot of trust in me. It happens some times. I don’t have any ambition to design anything. When I am all by myself, I prefer just to draw or to paint. I need someone to give me rules, to ring the bell. If not, I will not do it.
[Images courtesy of the Museum of Arts & Design]