Published  21/04/2015

Mathieu Lehanneur: ‘If you say, I’m an industrial designer, a chair appears in people’s minds ... I would like to push the boundaries’

Mathieu Lehanneur: ‘If you say, I’m an industrial designer, a chair appears in people’s minds ... I would like to push the boundaries’

Paris-based designer Mathieu Lehanneur talks about combining nature, science and technology in his creative practice, which ranges from a Wi-Fi station in Paris to a rather unusual cafe in Massachusetts, to working with Huawei, the world’s third largest mobile phone company


Mathieu Lehanneur is a French designer, who creates modern products for everyday life, at the forefront of the international scene. Whereas designers of the 1950s were driven by the need to provide simple comforts, tables and chairs, in the years after the second world war, Lehanneur strives to carve a new path in an ever-changing world. He steps lightly across different fields, ranging from architecture to interior design, the art world to mass-market production. He collaborates with chemists, scientists and psychologists on innovative solutions to problems that affect wider society. His star began to rise in the global design community in 2008, with his inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind in New York.

Attuned to the ecological imperatives of the age, he has created an award-winning air filter and a river plant aquarium. His creative practice combines nature, science and technology in such designs as his Wi-Fi station on the Rond Point des Champs-Elysées, a connected oasis in the heart of Paris. Always interested in bringing people together, Lehanneur has teamed up with David Edwards, a Harvard bioengineering professor, to design the Café ArtScience in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which not only serves food, but acts as a meeting place for scientists, students and startup executives to brainstorm ideas and share fresh perspectives. He has recently been named chief designer of the Chinese technology giant Huawei, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of smartphones.

Lehanneur spoke to Studio International at his light new studio in Paris.

Nicola Homer: How did you start your professional career as a designer?

Mathieu Lehanneur: I started to think about being a designer very late, actually. I’m not this kind of creative person who has said I want to be a creator of things since I was five. I first thought of being a visual artist when I was 15 or 16. I started to go to art school in Versailles, very close to the Château du Versailles and, frankly, I stayed for six months because I felt that I needed to make an impact on everyday life, on the real world. Of course, artists do make an impact, but in terms of process, they work in an autonomous way, disconnected from the reality of production, economics and everyday life. I felt at this time that maybe design could be a good compromise to work with a kind of freedom that I wanted to achieve, but within the constraints of the real world. I applied to a very good design school in Paris, the École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle – Les Ateliers. I was supposed to spend five years there, but I spent seven because I started to work on my own projects with my own clients while I was a student. After design school, when I got my diploma in 2001, I was not rich, I was not a huge networker, but I wanted to start my own business. I was feeling a great enthusiasm and a great energy. So I tried. It took some years to succeed.

My first project, which was my diploma project, was a strange one for the design field, in that it was a project on the design of medicine. I remember that the director of the design school told me the pharmaceutical industry is not a field for a designer. I said, medicine is an industrial object and it speaks about everyday life. For me, it is a project that a designer is supposed to be able to do.  So I started to do that, and it worked. I designed around 12 different types of medicine, from antibiotics to asthma devices. The main idea was not only to consider the chemical and therapeutic effects of the medicine, but also the relational effect. You can design the ritual, you can design the medicine, or you can induce the behaviour, not in order to sell more medicine, but to try to solve the problem that one in two medicines are not taken correctly. This is what happens in our very civilised, rich and developed countries. You will go to the pharmacy to get them, you will pay for that, the government or the health service will pay for that, and you will not take them correctly. So they will not work efficiently. It is a huge issue.

NH: Why did you decide to pursue a creative career?

ML: It is difficult to answer. It is probably a question of trust, of feeling that many things could be improved. Many things could be created, even though in the history of our civilisation, many objects, products and artefacts have already been done. The great chance I have is that we are living at a moment for our civilisation where many things are happening in very different fields: technology, for sure, but also politics, economics and business models. It was definitely more difficult in the 1950s or 60s. In the 50s, it was just after the second world war, so we had to design some tables and chairs, and more tables and lights, just to provide the minimum of comfort for people to enjoy. Today, the question of comfort is not the main issue. We have enough seats to sit on; we have enough tables to eat on; we have enough lights to be light with. Today, because this world is in permanent and quick mutation, this is an amazing moment for designers to say, where can I find the holes? Where can I find the path, to try to develop some new ideas in this context?

NH: So it is an amazing moment for designers to create new ideas?

ML: Yes. In terms of scientific knowledge, this is a great moment as well, for maybe two reasons. The first one is in terms of knowledge about the brain. This is a moment in brain research when there is an exponential improvement in knowledge. So we learn new things, new aspects of the human brain. Every day, new things appear. This is the first, very good news. The second one is that, if I need to get information about new research, new discoveries, new scientific systems, in terms of therapeutic approach, in terms of psychology, I can get them on my tiny laptop. It was not the same context in the 50s, 60s or 70s. If you wanted to get information from Nasa, or from the huge laboratories in the US, or somewhere else, it was quite complex. You needed to get a very smart network with people who said, maybe we are going to discover new things and it could be interesting … Now, everything is in a kind of permanent exhibition, so the main difficulty is being able to filter all this information because there is too much of it. So you have to build your own filters to be able to quickly and efficiently see that maybe this new information, this new patent, could be relevant to inventing something new. So a few decades ago, the main issue was gathering information; today, the main issue is filtering information.

NH: It is amazing to consider the automated technology and the digital technology that enable us to connect with ideas and to investigate neuroscience.

ML: Yes, and we are in a moment of our history where, basically, technology can do what we want it to do, so the technology is not a problem. Of course, it is quite complex. Of course, we need a lot of engineers, a lot of smart guys to develop this, but if I have a good idea, including technology, and even if the technology is not yet available, it is not too complex to imagine what technology could do in the next couple of weeks. So we are no longer fascinated by technology. Technology is just one more tool, one more material in a way.

NH: I wonder if you could talk about your most significant works to the present day, maybe with regard to technology?

ML: It depends on days; it depends on my mood. But it is probably Andrea, the air filter I developed a few years ago, including a plant. It was a very important project for me. In the first years of my career, I led many experimental projects. Making therapeutic objects was an experimental approach, because it was in a prototype stage, or a conceptual step. So all those projects could be produced tomorrow, but it was a question of being able to convince the marketing departments, or getting enough money to develop them. Andrea is a kind of proof-of-concept product, transforming this experimental approach into a real and quite affordable product. It was a blend of the smartness of nature and the smartness of humanity. If nature can provide me with an efficient process, why would I spend my money, my energy and my time, to try to develop the same object or system? It uses the efficiency of the plants and the knowledge and the efficiency of a kind of fan system to allow circulation of the indoor air to clean up the indoor pollution.

NH: So, essentially, Andrea is a kind of air purifier for indoor space?

ML: Yes, absolutely. It is a project that cleans up the indoor air from what we call the VOCs (volatile organic compounds). The VOCs are all the indoor pollutants coming from cleaning liquids, paints and plastics, all the materials that we use continuously. All those materials and objects are emitting a totally odourless, but quite toxic substance that we are breathing continuously. The idea of Andrea was to find a way to provide a solution to this invisible pollution. This object was interesting for me because, in 2009, it won the best invention award of Popular Science magazine. The project Therapeutic Objects is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

NH: Could you tell me about the Wi-Fi station, Escale Numérique (Digital Break), which you designed for the Rond Point des Champs-Elysées?

ML: Yes. The city of Paris commissioned me, in collaboration with the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux, to design a dedicated space to give tourists free Wi-Fi access. Many cities can provide free Wi-Fi, but the main problem is, because we are human beings and our visual sense is one of the most powerful senses, we need to see the point where we can get the service. The idea was to build this kind of shelter, including free Wi-Fi access, with chairs around, because I wanted to make a public space. I didn’t want to make it too techie. It was important for me to make this installation inviting for people. I wanted to design an open place. And it works very well. The day after we installed it, I was watching all the people interact with the installation, and they said it was natural in a way.

Older and young people would stay, take a seat, get a phone call, read a magazine and talk to each other. Afterwards, they would discover that they had free Wi-Fi here, and there was a screen where you could interact with the city to get historical and transport information. For this installation, even though the brief was to bring technology into the public space, I wanted to take a low-tech approach. I did not want to create a sci-fi installation, but a new object in the city that everybody could interact with in a natural way. To enhance this idea, I transformed the roof into a kind of garden. I researched the plants that existed when Paris was countryside and we reintroduced these historical plants into the roof, to pollinate the city with this past.

NH: How do you combine art, science and technology in your practice?

ML: By being focused on the user and the human being. If I need to use art to reach the goal, I will use it. If I need technology, I will use it. If I don’t need to, I will not. To give you a concrete example: a few years ago, I designed an object that could be considered an art piece, which is a big black ceramic jar. It is one of a set of jars and urns called The Age of the World, each of which has been designed by using an “age pyramid” of a given country. Every country has this data so that it knows the age of its population. My idea was to transform this mathematical, statistical, cold, flat, graphic data into an object that could be considered more emotional. It is a kind of box, but for me it is like the French word mappemonde, which means a globe or a map of the world. It gives you the ability to get a global view of the Earth. It is more a kind of metaphysical experience, to be able to view, and to touch, and to feel that you can control this Earth. For me, The Age of the World is working in the same way. So, of course, it is a kind of art piece, because in terms of function it is not so clear, but, for me, it makes you feel that you are living in this country with all those people. If I count all the layers, I can see where I am, so I can feel the life I have already lived, and the life I will probably live if I go to the end of my life. So maybe the function is the metaphysical function.

NH: That’s a lovely idea. Could you tell me about the Café ArtScience that you designed with a scientist?

ML: It is a great adventure for me, because this is a project that I made for Le Laboratoire in Paris, founded a few years ago by an American scientist, David Edwards, who is a professor at Harvard University. This is a laboratory for science, culture and art, a place where the main idea is to encourage people to meet and try to brainstorm ideas. The air filter Andrea was a project that I did first with Le Laboratoire. I collaborated with David to build a project around the efficiency of plants to solve this problem of indoor pollution. First, it was an experience, then a prototype, and after that we decided to transform it into a product. This is exactly the concept of Le Laboratoire, starting with an idea, an intuition, and transforming it into an experience. If the experience is a success, it is transformed into a prototype, and if that makes sense (which is not always the case), it is transformed into a product for the real world.

The Café ArtScience in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is also designed in collaboration with David, so it works through the same approach. But it also includes a place where people can meet, have a drink and dinner. It is a more welcoming place in comparison with Le Laboratoire, which is a bit dark and strange for many people in Paris. The Café ArtScience is a way of being in the middle of the best universities in the world [Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], to be very close to the most powerful capital riskers and the most powerful startups, and to build in the centre of this ecosystem a place where people can come, take a seat, have a drink and meet together. I mean scientists, students, capital riskers, chief executives of startups, and just take a drink and take a dream. It is a space with an art gallery just beside it, where you can share some experiences. And if the meeting works, OK, an idea can arrive, this idea can become an experience, and this experience can become a prototype, and a prototype can become a product, a startup or an invention.

NH: That sounds wonderful. I think that is a great example of connecting people.

ML: Absolutely. Yes. I had a meeting with David in Paris and he told me: “We are currently in contact with very different museums, and science museums especially.” They are very interested in this model because science museums are specifically talking about knowledge and pedagogy, but they are not always the best places to invent. So the idea of Le Laboratoire and of the Café ArtScience is to create the best platform, the most welcoming and efficient platform, for people to invent objects.

NH: It is a great project. The idea of working with a scientist is typical of the emerging practice of social design. Why do you think design is important for society in that respect?

ML: For me, society is part of the definition of design. Design is not a question of beauty, it is not a question of form, it is not a question of aesthetics. It is a question of creating a link, some creative food for society. So it is, by definition, totally blended with society.

NH: I see that you have worked internationally and the readership of this magazine is an international one. How do you relate to readers who are very international in spirit?

ML: It is a fact that we are living in this global world. We have the same desires at the same times. So, it is not a question of my nationality, it is not a question of my localisation; it is a question of clearly understanding the uniqueness of each human being: their hopes and fears. We live in a state of flux. My knowledge of industry, the market, the process of making things, gives me the opportunity to be able to analyse that and to provide a solution. If I get an idea, I can find the right people and facilitate an interaction to make this.

I will give you a good example. I have a new role as the chief designer of the biggest technology group in China: Huawei. Today, Huawei is number three in terms of sales of smartphones. There is Samsung, Apple and Huawei. They asked me to become their chief designer. During one of our first meetings, I asked them: “Why are you asking me to do that?” They said: “We want you because you are not afraid of technology, and you can design architecture, interior design, art pieces, experimental projects, conceptual projects and mass-market projects. For you, your focus is the human being and all the continuous, tiny mutations of human beings on this Earth.” As one of the biggest technological groups in the world, the problem is not technology; it is not a question of patents. It is a question of clearly understanding what is continuously happening on this Earth and being able to say, we should design this object, we should change this identity. To always be moving the piece on the chess playground.

NH: That brings to mind your design for chess tables in Paris. What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

ML: I hope that in the coming years, when you say to someone, I have met an industrial designer, people will not be thinking about chairs, but thinking about how designers are supposed to design projects in every type of field in this world. Today, if you say, I’m an industrial designer, a chair appears in people’s minds. Of course, chairs are a part of that. But I would like to push the boundaries, even in the minds of people on the street.

NH: What are your sources of inspiration in your creative practice?

ML: There are two main sources of inspiration for me. The first one is the context I interact with in my work. I love the fact that my clients are so different. The context and my clients as a group is the first source of inspiration. Another source is my kids, who are nine and five years old. For me as a designer, kids are guinea pigs of this world. They are not yet so affected by the traditional typology of things. For many of us, part of our brain is coloured by all the objects that we have already seen. But kids have more freedom in that sense. So when I design something, I observe them interacting with things. You can put different objects on a table and you can include toys or technological devices, and you can just observe how they interact with these, because the way they interact is not so far from the instinctive way in which the rest of us, older people and young people, will interact with this piece.

So I would like, in my future projects, to be closer to this instinctive culture of human beings. When we were living in prehistoric caves, we were not so different from who we are today. We have an instinctive way of understanding and interacting with objects. I’m definitely more interested in this instinct than in the history of objects. I can buy books about the history of design. In this global world, where we share desires, the instinct is roughly the same, even if the culture is different. So if you want to talk with Chinese people, American people and European people in the same way, you do not have to talk about culture. You do not have to invent a medium that could be a consensus of all those cultures, but to talk about the instinct of people.

NH: What are you working on at the moment?

ML: I will start working at Huawei in the upcoming weeks. We are designing boats and electric bikes, and we are working on a café at the Louvre. I won the competition to do all the interior designs of the Grand Palais in Paris. And we are working on a sustainable and low-energy concept of lighting in France.

NH: That ties in with your ethos of green design, which is fascinating.

ML: Yes. We must take care of our environment.


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