Ronan Bouroullec on design hits and disasters

The French designer gets candid about their most popular pieces and reveals which designs bombed.

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Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, the French brothers who have produced furniture and products for Vitra, Flos, Nanimarquina and Ligne Roset, regard their studio as a kind of research lab. They work in a very hands-on way, testing new materials and making up samples themselves. "I bought my brother a sewing machine for his 30th birthday, which people thought was funny," jokes Ronan.

Drawing their ideas and playing with the freedom of sketching is a part of their creative process. "We spend a lot of time drawing," says Ronan, and he punctuates his commentary on the pair's design journey with humorous and sometimes abstract illustrations. "Designing objects is a very frustrating process. It can be years and years between drawings and the finished product." The drawings, in some cases, become ends in themselves.

When it comes to the design of objects, the duo are interested in how to create discrete spaces within a larger space. It is a recurring theme in their career, which they have explored in the form of screens, walling systems, pagoda-like pods for open-plan offices and their now well-known and much-imitated couches that envelope the sitters in an upholstered cubicle. The latter he describes as "working very well but I do not consider it as something marvellous".

Their most successful design, called Algae, is a modular system of plastic pieces that fit together in limitless numbers to create a climbing creeper, part decorative sculpture, part screen. But Ronan reveals its success was unexpected. “No company wanted to produce it," he says, so they funded its manufacture themselves. It has sold around five million units. “What is interesting is that it is very popular in a lot of different kinds of contexts," he notes.

They prefer to keep their operation quite small. "We have very few clients, we don’t want more because we are a very small team and we don’t want to expand it," he says. In fact, he confesses, "we hope that we will do less projects in the future."

One of most important clients is Vitra, which tasked them to rethink what an office could be. It was an assignment that seemed an odd fit at first. As independent designers, "we had never worked with anyone else before," Ronan points out. They were not an obvious choice to design office systems for hundreds of people to use in a large open-plan office as they themselves had had no experience of working in one.

Nevertheless, their systems for Vitra went on to set new standards in office furniture.

Their North Tiles system of textile walls was initially created for Kvadrat's showroom in Stockholm. It is intricate partition walling made from thermo compressed foam and fabric, assembled together using an ingenious folding system. It is easy and quick to assemble, an alternative to building internal walls within a space. They discovered it had acoustic-absorbing properties and so have also used it to clad smaller spaces within a large room.

During their career, they have discovered that exhibiting their work in galleries enables them to test their products. The exhibitions are a kind of "sketchbook".

While they mostly design objects the Bouroullec brothers have done some interiors as well. They agreed to create a retail interior for fashion designer Issey Miyake because hey wanted to learn about the technology he used to knit his clothes. Years later came the Slow armchair for Vitra, which came out of their desire to make an chair out of one piece of knitted fabric. The material is extremely leightweight, stretchy and comfortable.

“It was an interesting challenge to produce comfort with nothing because this is basically a lot of air. There is some yarn but there is a lot of nothing,” quips Ronan. He dismisses the piece as unsuccessful, speculating that it was “too big or too expensive, I don’t know”.

As a follow-up to the earlier textile walling for Kvadrat, the brothers developed Clouds, which uses materials more efficiently and links the pieces together with an intelligent elastic system. "It is always a difficult thing to do more or less the same thing you have done before but in a cheaper way," Ronan admits. But their solution worked well and let itself to applications in both huge and small quantities.

A dream job of theirs was to design a very affordable chair. "The best way to do that is in plastic – if possible in one shot," he says. The result was the stacking Vegetal chair built using a geometric pattern of interlocking branches. It took four years of drawings, mock-ups, prototypes and a lot of investment from Vitra. "I have no distance about it – it was launched one year ago and it was a massive work, so it is very difficult for me to consider if it's a good project or not," says Ronan.

Clearly, doubt plays a constructive role in their work. "It's important to not be so sure and proud of what you do – it's a good method to continue growing in what you do."