Vous parlez chinois ? - Nous non plus !
Nous avons rencontré les designers Ronan et Erwan Bouroullec pour parler de Serif, une TV née de leur collaboration avec la marque Samsung. L'article est en chinois, alors pour ceux qui, comme nous, n'ont pas dépassé le stade de la commande de nouilles au restaurant, la version anglaise se trouve ci-dessous.
(Vous pouvez lire l'article original paru dans le magazine Modern Weekly sous cet article).
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec are what the French call “touche-à-tout” - jack of all trades. They like everything, they are interested in everything. Their work range from mass produced chairs to high-end sofas, drawings, jewellery, polypropylene vases, modular kitchens and museum shows. So it came to no surprise when they announced a partnership with electronic superbrand Samsung to create a new TV. The project took three years to mature, and after destroying many TV sets “just to see how they were made” the brothers felt confident enough to release their own version, named ‘Serif’.
We meet on a grey autumn day to discuss this new venture, taking advantage of the unveiling of their kiosque commissioned by Emerige, located in the heart of the Jardins des Tuileries in Paris. The airy structure, made out of powder-coated steel and glass windows, quickly transforms into a private bunker as Ronan closes the blinds to concentrate on our interview. Meanwhile, Erwan toys one last time with the ‘Serif’ TV, before the three of us seat down on Belleville chairs across from one another. This is the fourth time I meet with the duo, so while they are probably best placed to define their work, I can already foresee where we might disagree. A pretend bickering which we sort of all look forward to.
Maïa Morgensztern: Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, you are quite known for designing furniture. With the ‘Serif’ TV for Samsung, this is the first time you venture into the world of electronics. How did the project come about?
Erwan Bouroullec: Samsung initially came to see us expecting ideas, more than a finished object. They were looking for an outsiders’ perspective on their products. When you specialize in a field, you can get locked into that world sometimes, so they were looking for people with another culture of the object, its form and use.
Ronan Bouroullec: They didn’t say much to begin with. They started with “would you like to work on our new TV”?” and then everything happened quite quickly.
MM: You worked with many different companies, designing mass market products for international brands like Kvadrat, Ligne Roset and Vitra, to creating unique or limited editions pieces like the ‘Perles necklaces’ collection for Galerie Kreo or the ‘Gabriel Chandelier’ for the Château de Versailles. Every time, you had to adapt your work to the specificity of each project. The Samsung collaboration was brought to you by Yun-Je Kang, the brand’s Head of Design Team at Visual Display. What was the original brief?
EB: There was never a brief. We asked Samsung to send us screens, which we dismantled and reassembled by hand to understand how the machine works. It became clear they wanted to take advantage of our naivety, let us make beginners mistakes, but also discover ideas and directions they would not have thought of. Then we all looked at our mistakes and spoke about it. At some point in the process it ended up looking like a brief. But to be honest briefs are a little bit obsolete in our world now. They don’t really exist anymore.
RB: Usually big corporations take a long time to decide on a direction in terms of branding, shapes or feel. These then become the norm for a few decades for that industry. When we heard Samsung was interested in us, we hesitated because we didn’t know if we were legitimate or even able to bring something new. Slowly we got into the game, and pinpointed the fundamental questions related to TV: where and how to display it, what happens when you look at the back, how the cables come out, etc. We looked at it as an object, not as a piece of equipment.
MM: The name ‘Serif’ is a reference to the shape of the TV’s profile, which looks like the letter “i” written with that font. How did you end up with this very tactile and physical shape, quite removed from what televisions look like today? Was it an obvious decision or the result of a journey?
EB: Ronan and I talk and draw a lot, until, at some point, there is a spark. It always happens this way. We’ve looked at what was relevant for the television: the positive and the negative, our relationship to media, etc. People tend to have a compulsive way of consuming TV and electronic devices like tablets and smartphones. There are a lot of complex questions which come with this object. Maybe not when you use it, but certainly when you have to make one.
RB: We started with an intuition, the understanding that we would not go for a flat screen. Our feeling was that recent TVs – always thinner, flatter, longer - lost their sensuality and relationship with the outside world. They lost touch with their environment in the house and became “strange” objects in their own world, a bit like cars have their own logic. TV seems to have fallen in that same category and disturbs the space. We wanted to integrate it back into the house, so it would collaborate with and belong to its environment, instead of being a technological device forced into the house.
EB: Yes, this was our idea. Once in the studio, we started designing the object from the feet, so it would exist as a whole. It was important for us to be able to put the TV directly on the floor or on a piece of furniture. It needed to stand on its own and not be hanged on a wall. The “i” shape in Serif automatically creates a stand on the bottom, and a shelf on the top. It is also a quirky reference to old TV sets, how massive they were, and how people would use their TV to display their nicknacks, a remote control, a vase, etc. The first TVs were massive and by default used as a piece of furniture which belonged to the home. We wanted to get that feeling back.
As technology progressed, companies were able to work with smaller electronic components. One might have thought that flattening the TV would make it disappear, but it did not work at all, because in the end it is still a big black mass. It might not be very thick, but it’s still very much there. So for us, we preferred to give it the presence of a good object, or let’s say a domestic one. This is another reason why we tackled ‘Serif’ as we would a table, a chair, a sofa or any other object. We wanted to treat it the same way.
MM: This is what I meant by the “physical aspect” of the TV. It feels like a sculpture that happens to be a TV, rather than a TV first. You even added a special fabric on the back to hide the wires, so it can be appreciated in the round; its function is almost secondary. Unlike flat screens, ‘Serif’ is an emotionally charged object. Brands like Libratone or Vifa also work on giving a more integrated approach to Technology in the home. Do you think we have reached the end of a cycle, proving Technology can do amazing things, and that it no longer has to claim it so loudly? In other words, do you think your project is a one-off venture for brands like Samsung or that this is the way forward for Design and Technology?
EB: Well, to address the first part of your comment, I don’t think ‘Serif’ is a sculpture. It is a normal object to me. It might feel strange or odd because it is new and we didn’t want a simple screen on a stand. Ultimately, the shape derives from a will to let the object stand on its own. It can look abstract and monolithic, but it’s still built around its function. Also, we don’t pretend to have a universal solution and while ‘Serif’ has its own flavour, we like to think it can fit in a large number of homes.
RB: The bottom line is that there is no magical recipe. What I do believe is that over-expressing the power of certain objects like cars has become an industry or designer’s toc. The technological breakthrough doesn’t interest people so much anymore. I am 45 years old, so I have seen these TVs literally melt over the years. It was impressive, but now we need to move on. What becomes important is not the object, but what it conveys, the type of feeling that emanates from it– if I may say so without sounding too esoteric. It’s like a person changing the mood of a room by their presence. I believe that the right solution, the sensuality of the curve for example, can bring something surprising and different to the environment. So to answer the question, I do not know if this is the way forward for Design and Technology, but for our TV, we definitely wanted to move past its usual intrusive aspect.
MM: ‘Serif’ might look odd as a TV - as you say- but not so much as a piece of furniture. It seems to carry a strong 50’s influence, especially with the metallic tubular footing reminiscent of Charles and Ray Eames designs and other iconic objects of that era. This is something that is quite fashionable at the moment. Was that a conscious decision? Nostalgia?
RB: We started from the idea of the feet, then the tubes appeared to be the most economical, simple and aesthetic form to follow. If you don’t want to use the feet they are also easy to store. It was the choice of a technique and a media more than a conscious influence. For our new carpet, ‘Nanimarquina’, we recently used the kilim techniques, which are thousands of years old. For me the influence comes as much from medieval times or the 18th century than the 1950s. It’s really about the efficiency of a technique for a given problem, as well as common sense, regardless of the period it was used or invented.
MM: You mentioned treating ‘Serif’ TV as an object, but its function involves electronic components and user interface. How did you work on the TV’s interaction and relationship with its users?
EB: We worked on the interface and content from the beginning, while working on the shell of the TV. For us the difficult thing was that TV is a permanent object in the space. It’s not really mobile and doesn’t disappear at will. We are also all attracted to these moving images, it has this magnetic aspect to it. On top of this, we often look at TV waiting for something, a program, the end of commercials, etc. We created a “curtain mode” for these moments, using technology to distort and blur live images. It works a bit like a curtain closing on a window: we still know what’s behind but all vital information is lost. This was a way to help make the TV disappear, or at least recess in the background, and not always be the center of attention.
RB: We also looked at the Samsung system to establish our priorities. We removed what we saw as unnecessary functions to focus on the TV itself: the image, then the Apps - to include the future of content like Netflix or BBC Player and connecting the TV to the Web without having to instal anything extra. We also integrated a Bluetooth speaker, a function to view pictures, and at the end a simple clock. We tried to offer a strong minimum, focusing on the essential. Objects are part of our life but sometimes it can be disturbing to see so many added features. We can’t spend our life surrounding ourselves with gadgets, just because they might be useful at one given point in time. It is a bit futile, in my opinion. We have always been advocates of simplicity.
MM: You both mentioned ‘Serif’ having a strong physical presence and how this will change the feel of a room. You also designed the interface with a refined simplicity in mind. Were you aware or mindful of the fact that its shape will also color the programmes, that ‘Serif’, literally speaking, frames the content?
EB: What we created is a tool. This is also why we created the “curtain mode”: even when the image is terrible, you can alter it and make it beautiful...
MM: That’s quite interesting. I am asking about the content, and you offer a solution to hide it!
EB: Yes that’s true, but it’s like when you design a car, you’re not responsible for the stupidity of the driver! (Laughs). Personally I don’t own a TV, but it doesn’t mean I cannot design one. It was interesting to work on a solution that we think is appropriate. We also designed a platform to download films and created a frame for these images. Granted that the frame might alter the image, make it more delicate...
MM: Interestingly, the TV will not be sold in regular high-tech stores with other Samsung products, but in design and concept stores like Conran. Why is that?
EB: Both Samsung and we are taking baby steps. As you mentioned, it’s a different kind of object and we want to be cautious with it. There will not be a big campaign or anything. For the beginning it will be a bit of a confidential release. We’ll start simply. Then we’ll see.
MM: Ronan and Erwan you are very busy men. The TV is just out and you simultaneously unveiled a small pavilion in the middle of the Tuileries Garden in Paris, which you created for the company Emerige. It will stay here a few month before being offered to the city of Paris. You also just opened an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum in Israel. Can you tell me more about these projects?
RB: I would have loved to be an Architect, but I don’t have I have the skills for it. It’s a different approach to space. The project for the Tuileries, where we are right now, is closer to the shape of an object, it is a small kiosque, about 20 sqm. Because it was meant to be an office and become something else - we don’t really know what - it had to be simple, easy to move from a crane to a truck, and once in place, easy to adapt to different functions. The space can both opened to the outside world with glass windows, and can easily turn into a sort of safe, covering them. It’s Architecture treated like an object, just like everything we do!
MM: What about ‘17 screens’ for the Tel Aviv Museum? How does the exhibition –in an Art Museum- fit with the rest of your practice?
EB: The range of our work is very broad. We just spoke about Samsung, which is a big brand. Sometimes we work on small, handmade editions, and we are now sitting in something close to Architecture. We work with objects that range from a few millimetres to massive constructions like the chandelier we did for the Château de Versailles - the first contemporary piece to become permanent there.
RB: There’s no hierarchy for us. A cheap chair, an expensive chandelier: we like everything. It is important to have a wide scope. Speaking about the Tel Aviv Museum, they initially approached us to show our work, but we didn’t want a retrospective, we were tired and had done a lot of exhibits already. Having said that... we are quite sensitive you know, after the 25th request, we gave up and said yes, on the condition that it is something new. Then we did some research, a bit like at the beginning of our career when we were discovering the trade. We did not have a brief or requirements to make a series, or any real object. We started with a sensation, a feeling, and tried to forget about the rest.
MM: Erwan you were against calling ‘Serif’ TV - or anything else you created- a sculpture. Something bothered you with this label. You are now exhibiting screens with no apparent function, in a layout which can resemble an art installation, in the middle of a Contemporary Art Museum.
EB: Well, we are showing screens, so for me... it’s Architecture. Wooden, ceramic, glass, and knitted objects... all together they form a structure. This exhibition is a way of shaping the space. It is quite pictural as well, but there is a function there. it’s space.
MM: So it’s not Art?
EB and RB: No! It’s not Art. Definitely. No doubt we will get the chance to discuss this again...