Mathieu Lehanneur has made quite an impact on the international design scene over the past twenty years. In 2001, his graduation project, the “Therapeutic Objects” (which aimed at transforming our relationship to medicine) was quickly integrated into the MoMA’s permanent collection. Lehanneur’s interest in science, though unexpected for a designer, is at the center of his approach. It led him to create iconic objects such as ‘Andrea’, a living filter absorbing toxic compounds from the air around us. Combining advanced technology and handcraft, Mathieu Lehanneur seeks to represent our own complexity by creating a hybrid space where technology and nature meet, like his ‘Liquid Glass’ and ‘Pocket Ocean’ series, which uses a unique treatment of materials like ceramics and marble to recreate the movement of the waves.
You opened a space in New York a year ago. Can you tell us about the genesis of this project and how you articulated your work between Paris and New York in the context of 2020?
This project came about naturally. We inaugurated it in February 2020, before the world shut down. For the past three years, we have been designing, developing, producing and selling our pieces on our own, even if we continue to collaborate with galleries. We tried to think of ways we could present our work in an optimal setting, and given that our clients are mostly in the United States (in New York especially), it was only logical to settle there. As a result, we opened two spaces in the East Village: the first is a 300m2 gallery-like space with big windows to the street, and the second is located on the eighth floor of the same building, in a penthouse that allows us to show the pieces in a more “domestic” setting. The inauguration went very well, but it was at that moment that the world decided to take a little break… I haven’t been able to go back to New York since March, but we continue to organize viewings remotely even if things don’t necessarily go as we had planned. Paradoxically, the year 2020 went very well. All interior design and architecture projects, especially for brands, have been postponed but our traditional business, on which we have total autonomy, is still going very well. Lockdown has certainly had an impact on demand!
Does your creative process always start with drawing?
It usually comes in mid-process. I avoid sketching too quickly because the hand tends to draw the things it likes to or is used to do, like a violinist who would play the same melodies out of habit. I avoid making the hand work right away so as not to repeat myself. I wait for the idea to develop in my mind – especially since the brain is fast and has the ability to change scales, shapes, materials… Once the concept is established, the hand can take over and render the idea planted in your brain.
Handcraft is important, but technology also seems to play a major role in your creative process.
We do work on both ends of the spectrum! Most of our pieces are produced by hand by craftsmen in France, Italy or Switzerland in particular. Nevertheless, we often use complex softwares to design them. We sometimes have to create bridges between machines that work with marble and the softwares we use to develop the shapes we want. In a way, we are translators of the digital algorithm to the real world.
I am thinking of your ‘Liquid Glass’ and your work with ceramics in particular.
Exactly. For these pieces, the process starts with a specific software that creates the liquid surfaces, and it ends in a traditional marble workshop – machines and people who are not traditionally used to working with this type of raw material.
You exhibited your ceramics at Christie’s in Paris two years ago.
That’s true. There was another dimension to this exhibition, since all the colors (all shades of blue – editor’s note) came from real colors of the seas, oceans or great lakes around the world. We started from satellite pictures from which we were able to extract the exact color, while simultaneously developing the liquid surface, to finally glaze on this surface the color coming from the satellite image. This project was emotional because it brought together people who usually would not have had the opportunity to work together. The craftsman in front of his ceramic kiln rarely has the opportunity to collaborate with the aerospace company that develops the satellites taking the photographs.
Your approach shows a great interest in science, especially your early work, the ‘Therapeutic Objects’. Where does this interest in science come from as well as your desire to integrate it into your designs?
I have no scientific background. I graduated in literature and studied art and design. What interests me about science is its ability not to stylize things, not to interpret or simplify reality. Even the greatest surgeon lives each operation as a new experience, a new body with its specificities, its uniqueness. This singularity interests me, especially in a world where design produces in large quantities and standardizes its offer for the mass. Faced with standardization, science is there to remind us of the uniqueness of things, their complexity. In our projects, this interest has taken the form of proposals for the medical and pharmaceutical industries, of more experimental projects on studies on air pollution, on the visible and invisible parameters that act on us and for which science develops systems that can be integrated into our lives.
It seems to me that your work is more oriented towards our relationship to nature nowadays. Is this true to say so?
There are several branches to my work, and my long-term goal is to bring them all together. The projects initially evolve in different fields, but I am convinced that they are all linked. First because they come from the same people, but beyond that because the person who owns a smartphone, who takes their medicine in the morning, who visits a gallery in the afternoon, is the same person. We are this complexity, we need both efficiency and wonder, rational and purely transcendental things. Personally, I don’t want to only choose one part of the human being: I try to create objects and solutions that encompass the rational and the irrational all at once. Gradually building our independence as a company and being able to design, conceive, produce and market ourselves, is what will allow us to extend our field of action.
How long does it take to design an object like the ‘Liquid Glass’?
My work on liquid reliefs started between ten and fifteen years ago. It was based on a rather simple premise, that of the particular impression we all had faced to the sea or the ocean. As if something was happening, pushing us to seize the moment. We made many attempts to see how we could recreate this sensation. There were many tests, we bounced from failure to failure until we found the sensation of the waves through an object that touches our internal vibration. Other steps in the design process can move faster, as was the case for the ‘Inverted Gravity’ series with the marble pieces placed on glass. I have been working with glass for several years and then one day I got tired of putting heavy things on the floor and light objects on top. I wanted to invert, and I felt that glass had the capacity to support the load. The glassmaker I’ve been working with for twenty years shared my intuition. We did the test with a bubble of blown glass, which ended up supporting 250 kilos. It reminds me of Picasso who was dismissively asked how long it took him to make certain works. He was 52 years old at the time, so he answered: “52 years”. The question is not so much the time spent creating, but the time spent gaining experience, trying, failing, and meeting the craftsmen to study their know-how.
You’ve collaborated with luxury brands such as Audemars Piguet and Cartier. Do you plan to extend your work to accessories, fashion, or other fields?
I’m interested in all disciplines, but I don’t necessarily want to work with everyone. What interested me with Audemars Piguet, for example, is their century-old history. It is a company that has developed its own systems and mechanisms, as well as a unique craftsmanship. But working with a brand that doesn’t have any real expertise doesn’t interest me. Nevertheless, there is no field that doesn’t interest me in the absolute.
What are your references in design or the inspirations that have influenced your work?
I attended a very good design school by chance. I remember I was asked the same question during the interview back in 1994. I realized that I had no references, that I didn’t know any designers at all. I improvised and answered: “the designer who designed the escalator”. Thinking back, I could still quote that reference today because it makes sense. It is a technical, complex, totally surrealist and poetic object because it allows a staircase – the most inert thing there is – to become mobile. It’s wonderful and functional, and it has potentially revolutionized the way buildings are designed, and ultimately it doesn’t matter who designed it. I finally found out about it when I found the first patent years later. It was actually an attraction in an amusement park! Today, even if I know more about design, I couldn’t really name any mentors because I don’t use design as a primary source of inspiration. Designers and artists feed on raw materials. Their talent is to take this material and transform it. Nevertheless, people like Richard Buckminster Fuller interest me a lot. In the 1950s-60s, he was a researcher, a philosopher, a mathematician, an engineer, and a designer at the same time. He created geodesic domes and never questioned the limits of his field of activity. I share his vision in the most humble way: to observe the things of the world and to transform them.
In 2019, you were president of the jury of Design Parade in Hyères. What was this experience like for you and what’s your take on the new generation of designers?
It’s a great human experience: the weather is beautiful, the Villa Noailles hosts are thoughtful and generous, and you get to see a large number of projects by young designers. Compared to my time, I find that young designers are very liberated from the history of design. When I started, we learned by doing, we didn’t really have “masters”. Then, when design became fashionable, designers began to feed a little too much on what had already been produced. Today, young designers freed themselves from that. They want to embrace the issues of our world. Their proposals are authentic. Gregory Granados, the winner of the 2019 edition of Design Parade, showed percussion instruments in relationship with the body. It was both very candid and very accurate. If you think about it, the choice to install pianos in train stations completely changes the relationship to the object’s function, to the efficiency of a place, and to what could happen through the object.
Interview: Maxime Der Nahabédian
Portraits: Jean Picon