He has won numerous awards, is famous all around the world and has a very personal approach to his job. Mathieu Lehanneur tells us about the links between design and the environment.
"We live at a time when above all it's about producing ideas and solutions, and not necessarily about the materials."
- Design involves the object and its manufacture and production, which logically runs counter to the circular economy and eco-responsibility. Do you think it’s possible to resolve this conflict?
That's a very big question! In my job it’s always a dilemma. In fact, every object that is produced somehow represents a failure, in the sense that we didn’t manage to avoid it.
Although historically the idea behind designing is to produce material things, it’s not always the case. As far as I’m concerned, I am not excited or particularly fascinated with the amount of material that I produce daily. Compared to previous generations we have to aim to reduce the “seventh continent of plastic” instead of making it bigger. Our job is to make sure that everything we produce is useful.
- So is the issue of usefulness central to all your designs?
Of course, I systematically consider it! Especially since potential buyers - whether they are concerned about it or just vaguely informed - ask themselves the same question. "Will the product I am about to buy be useful?" In addition they are increasingly asking themselves the question for environmental and not just economic reasons. In this respect, we are living at a time when it is first and foremost about producing ideas and solutions and not necessarily things.
- In your opinion, what role(s) can design play when natural resources are shrinking and the environmental impact of all the things we produce must be reduced?
At the outset the object is not defined purely by need. It is also about the desire we have – and that desire is part of the need. It is not a cold, rugged and purely functional concept. Producing an idea, object or instrument is primarily based on my own desire to do it, and then the urge or desire of the person commissioning it (a brand, a place, etc.). But we have to keep in mind that this is not just for our own pleasure. And that’s what is both complex and exciting nowadays. For every object made, we have to project ourselves into the brains and hands of its potential users because they are rightly conscious. So I don’t design objects merely to be beautiful. They must also produce something that is interesting in your hands and your brain. This idea is also incredibly optimistic, because nowadays consumers are better informed. That said, developing consciousness is a rather slow process...
- Perhaps we are more naturally inclined to tradition?
Absolutely. I'll give you a concrete example. Let’s take a major brand of kitchen appliances I’ve worked for. The feedback from consumers about their filter coffee machine was rather disappointing - because it was light, consumers thought it seemed too fragile and wouldn’t last long. People are naturally attracted to heavier objects, since for them weight is synonymous with strength - despite the fact that a coffee machine doesn’t need it! In the end, the manufacturer in question weighted its filter coffee machines with completely useless metal particles in order to reassure the customer. In this sort of situation, as a designer, you have two options: either let the manufacturer sort out this type of issue (producing the unnecessary material, along with transporting it by plane from one end of the world to the other for example), or decide to update consumers’ “cultural software”. This process operates within the designer / brand / consumer triad, and is created in terms of the object, its function, and education. Shape is vital because through it we can show people that objects can be simultaneously lightweight and reliable. The design itself can therefore play an educational role in the long term.
- Let’s talk about upcycling. In your opinion, is it just a fad or is it the real way forward for design?
The best example is not a recent one. Picasso reused the handlebars and seat from a bicycle to make the famous Bull's Head. I don’t think we have done any better since then. Things have been done under the banner of "look - we're full of good intentions", but it all seems a bit simplistic and sometimes produces poor results. In my view, we shouldn’t be looking at demonstrative reuse but at the molecular level. There are materials which after a second, third or fourth life develop aesthetic qualities that are more interesting than they were to start with. Interesting things happen to materials. They become richer, more complex, and improve. I am more skeptical about immediate, binary reuse.
- The environment has played a central role in your accomplishments. Does it make you a "green"?
No, it's more subtle. In itself my relationship with the environment is fundamentally like that, but not in a protesting or demonstrating sort of way. It is something that is part – and what’s more not always visible or communicated – of the process of designing an object, but without making it a vehicle for an ethical approach or a "green" philosophy. These issues are included as additional parameters and new technical and technological constraints focusing on giving the object an enhanced life. I make sure that its life is no longer just confined to when it is being used and that its physical shell is no longer a limit. The object is fed by the air around it and in turn feeds the air.
- In the context of your designs, you make use of the natural properties of microorganisms, employ principles such as the symbiosis between organisms, and use unprocessed materials... In a world that seems to be constantly planning the future, isn’t going back to nature the new innovation?
Let’s say that as beings, we develop along two separate lines. On one hand, there is our environment, made up of communication, technology, continuous progress, a trend towards the virtual, etc. And on the other hand, there is us as physical beings, endowed with perception, and sense. We cannot do without contact at a physiological level. It is a question of finding a balance between the two. Of course, new technology makes a lot of things possible, but our bodies have not greatly evolved for millions of years. Temperature, color, the coarseness of the material, etc. are all essential to us... If as human beings we were to undergo major changes, then we could reconsider our relationship with our environment and how we interact with it. But that’s a long way away! More than being just an innovation, the trend of going back to nature is quite simply necessary for our survival.
- To what extent can designers today influence the way their objects are manufactured? Do they have any leeway in terms of reducing the environmental impact?
Of course! They have it simply because they are central to the process of designing and manufacturing the objects around us. We hold the reins. But there are several of us on that particular boat. Any maneuvers have to be collective, and have the support of the manufacturers that approach us. It is about using education and the right arguments to convince them that together we can profoundly improve the process of creating objects. We owe it to ourselves not respond slavishly and without thinking to any requests.
- But are they easily convinced?
No, practically speaking it isn’t simple. We have to be strategic, smart and design every detail of the project from start to finish (materials employed, means of production, etc.) so that we can get them to accept that yes, our solutions may cost them more, but will also produce higher profits.
- Finally, what are your plans?
We recently opened a place in Boston along the same lines as the Laboratoire created in Paris in 2008. It is an intellectual and creative platform with several parts: an auditorium, an art gallery and a restaurant… The location is highly strategic, we are not far from the very top American universities (Boston, Harvard) and are in the center of an investors’ district that is home to numerous kinds of innovation processes. For example, in the restaurant lots of the usual parameters have been re-examined, for example with the aim of reducing unnecessary containers. Other similar initiatives will emerge through science and the arts, in particular focusing on the environment.