OTHR

USEFUL / AESTHETIC / UNIQUE

MEET ALAIN

Located within Brussels’ "bois de la Cambre"—what Central Park is to New York or Jardin du Luxembourg to Paris—is the Châteaux d'eau: one of the European oldest remaining early 19th century water towers.

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Quick Facts

Taught at La Cambre from 2003-2013
Refurbished artist residencies on Lake Como in Italy
Focuses on eco-friendly solutions

 

 

 

 

CREDITS

Written by Sarah Rowland
Photographs by Yves Bachmann 

In Collaboration with Freunde von Freunden

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"As a kid, I was always curious about both nature and technology. Every weekend in the country I couldn't help myself, collecting and dissecting insects to understand their anatomy."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"To be successful and widely adopted by consumers, ecology needs to be integrated, appealing, uncompromising and effortless."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"As I was expanding my life in those ways, I was becoming more coherent with my idea of what I thought was beautiful. I was putting that on paper and applying it to design."

 

As a kid, I was always curious about both nature and technology. Every weekend in the country I couldn't help myself, collecting and dissecting insects to understand their anatomy. I was also fascinated by airplane fighters—amazing machines—and by computers. My father was a Belgian military officer working for NATO and was, among other things, a computer engineer, so I remember the early suitcase-sized laptops with tiny amber screens that we had at home—which wasn't that common in the late seventies and early eighties.

So yes, I was drawing, computing and building scale models all the time. I soon became good enough at drawing to convince my father to attend fine arts college and later study architecture instead of polytechnics like him.

I was also surrounded by friends with various cultural family backgrounds like comic books, music, and—of course—architecture, so it was a stimulating environment with the typical Belgian mix of Roman, Nordic, and German culture.

I’ve read you’re a trained architect. Where did you go to school and how has it shaped your design work today?

I attended Saint-Luc and then La Cambre in Brussels, a post-Bauhaus school of arts in which I was later a professor teaching furniture design. During my early architectural practice, I was in a constant fight with the then-ultra-conservative Belgian administration. So, I soon focused on my product design activities. These I found much easier and much more open to creative innovation. I really dove in and was quite successful from 2004, beginning with great clients like BULO.

Still, I enjoy design in various scales. Working on buildings and interior designs, buying furniture and equipment for clients, and understanding the way that each is chosen, placed and priced helps a lot in designing.

Looking at your work, usability seems to play a very important role. Do you tend to design things for yourself, first and foremost? Can you elaborate on your process in general?

Well yes. It might be obvious—I’m afraid it's not—but I do try to design objects I would always be proud of and happy to use myself. My own good and bad user experiences are an easy and permanent source of inspiration to guide the development of the client’s requests.

Otherwise my creative process is relatively simple. I never have preconceived ideas about the result, but the path is always something that can be described as a fight against vacuity or obsolescence. Trying to identify the essence of things and finding new relevance is a very uncertain but interesting trip. The whole process is more about trying to improve objects instead of just reshaping them again and again in a meaningless or narcissistic way.

I have a taste for self-explanatory objects gently packed with smart details and convenient ergonomics. Simplicity can be genuine or just apparent (look at your smartphone), but I feel like my daily life is already enhanced when I get more comfort, pleasure or visual poetry while reducing the mess that surrounds me.

How important is sustainability in your work?

I always wanted to promote integrated ecology, in order to make sure it wasn't perceived by the user as a compromise or an obligation. I don't consider myself as a genuine environmentalist, but I try to use clean processes and materials as much as possible. Since 2002, I’ve tried many unusual techniques such as moulded recycled polyester felt for acoustics, bioplastics shells replacing plywood, mono-material products, compostable fabrics, glue-free and foam-free products, and—of course—always-cool, no-waste package-framed products such as our Cover stools.

To be successful and widely adopted by consumers, ecology needs to be integrated, appealing, uncompromising and effortless. That's part of our job, and everything is yet to be done.

To you, what is the most enjoyable part about designing a piece of furniture or an object?

It can be when a client challenges you with a difficult request, or when you visit factories and discover nice production capabilities. Pushing tooling to the limits is quite enjoyable but not often successful.

Probably the best moment is when you finally find a solution after having decided to go unexplored ways. At the office we have a lot of potentially super cool developments that are 90% solved. So they're not good ideas yet—they're just unfinished prototypes. It really is nothing until the problem is fully solved.

What was it like working for OTHR and how did you come up with this piece?

I’ve been in contact with Joe (Doucet) for a while now. He’s one of my Brooklyn friends and colleagues I meet sometimes in NY or during international fairs. He's part of that small group of people doing a fantastic job reinventing the American design scene.

I have to say it’s hard to imagine a collaboration smoother than the one I have with OTHR. We just talked about it a few months ago in a wine bar in Milano, then I shared several ideas, and they picked their favourite design. A completely natural process, and a rapid one indeed.

The WELL concept was developed as an alternative to the “heavy pots” we use most of the time as vases. It reduces the typology to its essential function. It's a lightweight, frame-like open container, just big enough to be really stable and very versatile because it can host both large bouquets and tall flowers. Thanks to the open sides, watering is fast and cleaning is easy. The resulting object has a structural, graphic decorative quality, and hopefully a simple timeless presence.

Where do you see 3D printing’s place in the future? Is it something you’d come back to in your designs?

Designing for 3D printing allows you to consider radical solutions and shapes that would be impossible or very difficult to do with traditional production. And since you don't need any moulds or special tooling investments, the main limits are printers, production time, and physical dimensions. So the technology itself encourages you to use just the right amount of material to solve the problem, which is a meaningful rule I like to apply in general, not just with 3D printing.

The future of 3D manufacturing looks a lot like OTHR. It can't be about open source. I don't believe in that at all unless is powerfully curated. In product design, added value is created by intensely focused and cultured innovation. So with their super clear curation, and the way they build their comprehensive catalog of iconic objects, OTHR has the right strategy. The high quality of these numbered editions contrasts with the depressing disposable plastic gadgets you usually get online. And when the 3D manufacturing processes will become more and more affordable, their catalog of durable designs will be an established reference. Turning their customers into smart pioneers of this new B2C direct channel is already an interesting achievement.

Do you consider yourself a “traditional designer”? Do you feel that labels can be restricting in your line of work?

I guess that, if a focus on new, functional solutions is now considered as part of a modernist tradition, then I really embrace the idea to be seen as a traditional designer.

But I’m not sure about labels, it is quite negative, it's too easy to qualify items produced by today’s “visual” design scene as “another funny arty concept” or “self-indulgent neo-vintage redesign”, etc... If I have a label in this industry it’s probably something like, “versatile eco-friendly functionalism”? But you can tell it sounds immediately like a rather negative caricature.

Most of my clients are looking for innovation—or at least, evolutive solutions. They want long-selling original products. We are already super busy trying to deliver that, from jewelry or furniture systems to buildings. It's not easy: it is real life and it's very exciting, so honestly I don't worry too much about labels. I just try to grow an intense and honest approach.