Ah, to be young and living in Paris, especially if you’re a designer with a taste for taboo.
You might, like Olivier Peyricot, 38, get to fill a gallery niche at the Centre Pompidou—that colorful snarl of post-industrial ductwork—with a bizarre platform full of seeds and noodles meant to support life after the apocalypse, part of a 2005 show called “D.Day, Design Today.” Or you might get to unfurl a parachute of white neon bubbles across the ceiling of Christofle’s Paris flagship as Mathieu Lehanneur, 33, did last summer. The little rings cast reflections like random sparks in the 177-year-old company’s silver tureens and picture frames, clashing with the store’s stodgy dentil moldings and checkerboard floor.
These under-40, still somewhat under-the-radar designers are helping to position France as a hothouse of new talent, though you may be hard-pressed to find anyone in the country who accepts that point of view. If local tastemakers lack appreciation for their own, however, it’s because this young generation defies stereotyping and preconceptions and refuses to be herded like moutons into a movement. Forget whatever you picture when you picture French design: haute couture, or the luxurious veneers of the Art Deco ebenistes, or the cold dogmatism of Corbu and Charlotte Perriand. And above all, forget Starck. His cult of personality, and his frequent lofty insistence that he’s not actually interested in design, have discouraged would-be successors from competing for his throne.
“But he did help decomplexer French designers. I don’t think there’s a word for that in English—you would say maybe something like ‘lose their inferiority complexes,’” says Catherine Geel, a curator at Villa Noailles, a 1920s modernist house museum in Provence designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens. Each summer for the past two years, the museum has hosted the Design Parade festival, showing furnishings and room settings by a dozen young designers. The fare has ranged from 26-year-old Sylvain Rieu-Piquet’s neo-surrealist pens made from dried fruit to 27-year-old Benjamin Graindorge’s nubby hyperactive foam robot, which can run around scrawling pen trails on paper or carving tracks into sand.
In fact, none of the two dozen experts interviewed for this article would venture to characterize the work of the young ’uns. “There’s no French style. It’s an international style, it’s part of the globalization of everything, and the collectors are from everywhere now, too,” says Dominique Chenivesse, owner of Galerie Peyroulet, which helped launch the careers of the Bouroullecs and Matali Crasset a decade ago. (This fall, it is presenting a solo show of Corian vessels by Joachim Jirou-Najou, 27, who filled the Peyroulet gallery in 2005 with wall-mounted shelves and chairs made of bright-colored folded steel.) This generation, says Anthony van den Bossche, an independent curator and founder of resetdesign.com, “doesn’t want to be one-liners. You can’t say ‘French design is like this or that,’ the way you can with Dutch design.”
Ah, Dutch design, an oft-repeated sore point and source of some jealousy. “Everybody is fed up with Dutch design,” Van den Bossche says. “Milan is like a Dutch design contest now. The Dutch government pours so much money into it.”
The French government does, however, fund some design scholarships, travel grants, and exhibits; Villa Noailles’s Design Parade, for instance, relies on assorted local and regional government bodies and national ministries. It also channels tax revenue from furnishings manufacturers (including producers of lighting, textiles, floor coverings, tableware, even coffins) into a 28-year-old nonprofit like no other in the world: VIA, short for a French phrase meaning “valorizing innovation in furnishings.”
“We scout and help young talents, and we finance their prototypes,” says Gerard Laize, VIA’s director. “We’re missionaries, constantly putting together professional designers and dynamic manufacturers. We encourage innovation in the new companies and also in the famous, long-established ones like Baccarat or Sevres.” VIA publishes books about design trends and maintains an easily searchable list of designers on its website. It also sends booths full of new prototypes every year to Milan. The 2007 crop included a thermoformed desk with built-in paperwork slots and electrical sockets by Eloi Chafai, 28 (already a two-time Design Parade winner, he runs a year-old partnership called Normal Studio with eminence gris Jean-Francois Dingjian, 41); an unfurlable Trevira-and-LED mirror called Light-Up Curtain by Amandine Coffin, 25, and Delphine Gauly, 26; and Rieu-Piquet’s Mezzanine Entreciel, a cane-covered loft bed that could partition a room while evoking ’60s wicker pod chairs.
VIA shows often lead to real contracts, Laize says: “We supported, early on, people like the Bouroullecs, Arik Levy, Patrick Jouin, Patrick Norguet, Francois Azambourg, and Christian Biecher, who’s working with Bernhardt now. And the managers from Ligne Roset are often here, scouting for prototypes they can use.” In September, at a new adjunct of London’s 100% Design trade fair called 100% Futures, Ligne Roset and VIA filled a booth with potential product launches, including a sintered-polyamide honeycomb chair by Ammar Eloueini, 39, and Francois Brument, 30.
VIA also funds prototypes that have no obvious immediate market value; for a 2006 Milan display, it spent $55,000 on a set of devices by Lehanneur—a jar of oxygen-generating microorganisms, a white-noise emitter, an infrared heater, a clump of optical fibers—meant to keep room atmospheres healthy and comfortable. NASA is now exploring production of a version of his air-purifying system, currently a centerpiece at Flood, the Paris cafe he was commisioned to design this year. “The VIA exposure was great,” Lehanneur says. “And so many companies contacted me afterwards for totally unrelated products: Artemide for office lighting, Paco Rabanne for perfume packaging, Yohji Yamamoto for store furniture. I was amazed they didn’t consider me too avant-garde.”
The foundation’s headquarters and gallery are tucked under a former railroad viaduct near Place de la Bastille, not far from showrooms for Artemide, Bulthaup, and Cascade Design. But the city’s design scene certainly has no epicenter, and anyone wishing to get to know it has to work. Bastille is one of a half-dozen mini-districts scattered around the city, each home to its own design stores with funny, punning names like Two Be, Ugly Home, Persona Grata, Lieu Commun, and If Home. Browsing the major galleries and makers of limited editions—Galerie kreo, ToolsGalerie, Galerie Peyroulet, FR 66—would require miles of trekking. So, too, would studio visits: The designers work in former factories, stores, warehouses, or their own apartments, situated as far afield as the eastern suburb of Montreuil.
They rarely work together; there are few brainstorming sessions or designer retreats where great minds bubble with synergies. “French people are very individualist. Collaboration never works here,” Peyricot says. Nor do the designers gather for school alumni functions—although most of them attended ENSCI (Ecole Nationale Superieure de Creation Industrielle) or ENSAD (Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs)—or congregate at any particular cafe or bar. The scene, says Van den Bossche, “is everywhere, and nowhere.”
But if you did make the grand tour from store to store, atelier to atelier, and peered into some apartments along the way, you would see les jeunes slowly changing the way Parisians live. “The apartments are still very classical,” says Chenivesse, “but more people are introducing modern pieces within the classical bones. There’s a new sense of life to our long tradition of design.”
You might even spot whole interiors gone mod with the new generation’s latest mass-produced products. A Parisian could now light a living room with the bell-shaped translucent glass ceiling fixture that Rieu-Piquet just designed for Ligne Roset, and top a folded fiberglass table by Cedric Ragot for Cappellini with the 34-year-old designer’s seemingly windblown porcelain vases for Rosenthal. Ragot runs a two-person firm (him and his wife, Anne-Lucie Crosson-Ragot) in a former cork factory in Montreuil. They just took on some as-yet-undisclosed projects for Swarovski and have handled everything from motocross boots to cell phones and robots. “My own dreams for what I would want to do next are very simple,” Ragot says. “One day it could be to work on a hi-fi system, a watch, or sunglasses; the next day it could be to draw a heavenly hostel. Paris, with all the galleries here, the exhibitions, the range of influences, and the people with a lot of curiosity who are talking about design all the time—it’s a really good place to open your mind.”
Eve M. Kahn is a contributing editor at I.D.