Patrick Jouin: MAD Man du Jour

Originally posted November 18, 2010 on

For Patrick Jouin, ascendant French design star and subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), exposure to the precision, rigor, and poetic potential of the machine came at an early age. His father was a technician and craftsman; in the family basement was a Roger Tallon “Gallic” lathe–a room-sized machine tool designed by France’s pre-eminent modern industrial designer. Jouin cites this circumstance, along with a trip to a Da Vinci exhibition, as formative influences. Da Vinci and Tallon: it would be hard to find two better avatars for a career spent relentlessly sketching and innovating, finding surprising beauty in pushing technical boundaries.

After studying industrial design in Paris, and an apprenticeship with Philippe Starck, Jouin opened his own studio in 1998. Some fifty pieces of product design from the decade-plus since are featured at MAD, in what is Jouin’s first solo show in the U.S. (He has had several elsewhere; most recently at the Pompidou Centre). Included are greatest hits, such as the One-Shot Stool, part of the Solid line of polyurethane pieces produced by 3D rapid prototyping (2004); Optic Furniture Cubes for Kartell (2008); the Alessi Pasta Pot, designed in collaboration with Alain Ducasse (2007); and the Chaud line of ceramic tourines hand-made by Vallauris potters (2002). Also included are current and forthcoming designs such as the Zermatt line of stainless steel cutlery for Puiforcat; the “Bloom” table lamp, also produced by stereolithography, that has a one-piece hinged “bud” that easily opens or blooms; G.H. Mumm’s champagne accessories; and a modular sofa for Bernhardt.

In discussing his work, eloquently, at a presentation last Thursday, Jouin referred repeatedly to simplicity and the role of gesture, obviously two keywords for him. By simple, Jouin means something like direct, honest, and unpretentious; less a matter of egotistic self-expression than a deep meditation on the program and the context. What appears simple or self-evident is the product of a long process of research, engagement with the problem or problems to be solved, technical experimentation, and endless sketching, often done at a favorite café. Beauty is often a byproduct of technical and formal inventiveness bumping into physical and economic constraint.
Gesture, for Jouin, apprehends the context in which design is used, and assigns to design a large social role as non-verbal communication.

Repeatedly, he likens design to dance. In designing the chair for the Jules Verne restaurant at the Eiffel Tower, for example, Jouin imagined a couple on a first date: the ritual or gesture of being seated at the table became an important part of the romance–the visual impression had to be memorable, the chair had to slide easily, so the lady could be seated gracefully, etc. So too with the Chaud turrine–taking the top off and putting it under the bottom saves the waiter a trip–and the Zermatt cutlery, which are curved so that only two points touch the (dirty) tablecloth. This type of attention to detail and usage defines Jouin’s work. His objects embody a rigorous yet graceful and intimate choreography that plays out hundreds of times a day as his products are used.

Jouin is a household name in France, for his product designs, his public commissions, and his architectural and interior work with Sanjit Manku. It is said that one of his designs is encountered in Paris every 340 feet. In New York, we are more fortunate–we can see one of his designs every 3 feet, but only by visiting MAD before February 6.

Trois Decennies of French Design

Originally posted on August 26, 2010 on

A funny thing happened on my way to Magen XX Century, my friend’s chic, and primarily French, design gallery on 11th Street. I stopped at the Strand—just looking, Joan—and found, to my surprise, a 300 page exhibition catalog published by the Pompidou Center in 1988. As a rule of thumb, anything published by the Pompidou Center is worth having, and often hard-to-find. This one, which I had not seen before, was no exception. Even better, it was in the paper bin, priced at $3.50. The catalog, called “Design Francais, 1960-1990, Trois Decennies,” tracks French graphic, furniture, interior, and product design both alphabetically and chronologically through this creative and tumultuous period. In addition to a lot of captioned pictures of familiar and unfamiliar French designs, there are a series of essays in the beginning, with English translations. Can’t ask for much more for three and a half bucks.

A glimpse through the essays reveals a defensiveness or diffidence on the part of the authors, at least vis a vis Italian design. The lack of French counterparts to Archizoom and Superstudio in the 60’s, and Alchimia and Memphis in the 70’s, is lamented: “Why does God’s furniture always come from Milan and never from Paris? (Olivier Boiessiere).”

Most authors point to a lagging industrial aesthetic consciousness in France, from the public but also pointedly from industrialists. Still, what is lacking in structure is compensated for in eloquence. Paris may not have been a design hothouse like Milan, but it was the city of Derrida, Saussure, Barthes, Foucault, and their protégés, home to deconstructive and structuralist philosophy and criticism. And where Milan had Memphis, Paris had individual creative genius.

Thus, in a way, the catalog itself serves as an apologia-it states a case for French creative brilliance and relevance, in the critical texts and in the images presented. Catherine Millet makes the point that French artists, epitomized by Francois Arnal, who founded Atelier A in 1969, turned their hands to design after the events of 1968 in an effort to reach a broader public. That this failed was not surprising-“an object impregnated with a creator’s strong personality can only appeal to a few devotees”-but Millet points out that increasing media attention provided the circulation that the design itself did not. Advertisements and museum catalogs became the vehicles for disseminating avant-garde design ideas. An example in conjunction with the essay is the promotional image for the aluminum and rubber chair by Arman, produced by Atelier A, and shown here.

Of course, the French being the French, there was recognition that they might be protesting too much. So, in discussing the role of plastics in the 1960’s, Francois Kneebone noted that France was not far behind Archizoom in exploring this material, citing Marc Bethier, Marc Held, Olivier Mourgue, Pierre Paulin, and Christian Germanaz. Again, eloquence and individual éclat rather than structure. Shown here are two pieces from the acrylic “Kaleidoscope” series by Jacques Famery, produced by Steiner in 1967.

Of the many compelling images in the catalog, I selected four others to show here: Andree Putman’s project for the French Minister of the Interior (1985); a Pierre Paulin electric shaver for Calor, from the same year; the witty “looseleaf desk” of 1983, designed by Pierre Sala, who studied semiotics and stagecraft; and an image of paint cans designed in the late 1960’s by Jean-Phillipe Lenclose.