People assemble pieces of furniture in their
home as they would words to write the novel that is their
If you are a French designer today, chances are you loathe the expression
“art de vivre.” If a critic were to use it to describe your work,
you’d feel insulted — stigmatized as someone whose creativity is
hindered by tradition.
And yet, try as I might, I cannot avoid the dreaded term when it comes to Jean-Marie Massaud.
Recipient of the Prix du Créateur for 2007 at the Paris Salon du Meuble,
“As far as I am concerned, the role of a designer is not to design objects but to propose life-enhancing strategies,” the 40-year-old Massaud says. “I was raised to be an engineer. I was fascinated by new technologies. But I never wanted to use technology to design what would be, in the end, nothing but complex ‘prostheses.’ I consider my job as being at the service of progress — yes — but the progress of our way of life.”
For Valerie Guillaume, curator of the design department at the Centre Pompidou, art de vivre is associated with luxury, a concept so insidious in French culture it should be viewed as a near disability. Yet that same art de vivre, so unpopular with contemporary designers, is nonetheless such a reality in France that it has its own mausoleum, the recently refurbished Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Splendidly housed in the Pavillon Marsan in the Louvre since 1905, the museum, after undergoing a ten-year renovation, gives the full measure of what contemporary French designers are up against: eight hundred years of jubilant artifacts totally lacking in humility — 6,000 of them on display — and all competing to “make our lives easier, happier and more beautiful” to quote Hélène David-Weill, the museum president. And so it goes: in France, objects can make you happier, particularly if they are sculpted, painted and gilded, made of silk and gold thread, shaped in biscuit porcelain or green antique marble, or ornamented with exotic finishes like amaranth veneer, patinated bronze, or straw marquetry.
No wonder a new generation of French designers will go out of their way not to confront the legacy of this opulent art de vivre. Rather than promoting happiness, their creations deal with life’s little miseries. Daily nonsense is their field of predilection.
Florence Doléac, for instance, has designed a lampshade that fits over a TV set and a folding table you wheel around like a suitcase. Cinq.cinq (5.5), a prolific design collective, has reinvented a series of “ordinary” objects, including a crossword puzzle wallpaper and a chandelier system made of electric sockets. Laurent Massaloux flirts with Dadaisme, with a candlestick skewed by a table lamp and a modular sofa that looks like the San Andrea Fault.
Fostering a sense of well-being
Jean-Marie Massaud is in a different league. His objective, on the contrary, is to foster a sense of well-being. But well-being, these days, is a delicate affair. It is no longer enough to be ergonomically correct, aesthetically pleasing, and/or conceptually provocative, design must now offer social responsibility as well.
While other designers embrace social responsibility in projects geared toward solving problems like drinking water shortage in poor rural areas or shelters for homeless people, Massaud tries to deal with social responsibility in affluent countries. “I am the product of a bourgeois culture,” he says, “I cannot pretend otherwise.”
For the average middleclass urban dweller, though, the issue of social responsibility is often muddled: it gets lumped together with concerns over sustainability, fair trade, human rights violations, and environmental damage. For the French cultural elite, social responsibility is an ideological more than a political issue. At the Centre Pompidou, for instance, Valerie Guillaume is more likely to promote designers who contribute to the “regeneration of the social fabric than to the reduction of environmental impact.” To short-circuit what could be a very tedious soul-searching process — tedious for him, anyway — Jean-Marie Massaud defines social responsibility in broad humanist terms, as a celebration of the dignity of human nature.
The artifacts he designs, whether a faucet or a resort hotel, focus on “feeling alive”, an emotional state he describes as being in harmony with nature. According to Chris Younès, a French anthropologist who specializes in the philosophy of architecture and is the author of books and articles on the topic of nature and the urban environment, this particular form of hedonism, which she says is popular among designers and architects today, is Apollonian—quietly sensual — rather than Dionysian — wild and spontaneous.
“Feeling alive, for this new generation of architects, is a physical sensation involving our sense of touch, smell, hearing, sight and taste. It is about lying down in the grass, feeling the wind, taking a long shower, or enjoying the warmth of the sun,” she explains.
Case in point, Massaud’s bathroom hardware for Axor whose faucet is a small rectangular chrome shelf that looks like a gleaming shrine under which the water flows as if from some invisible source. The sight of this elegant spray—Yellowstone Falls in miniature—elicits in the viewer a physical reaction, something like a tingling, a quiver, a quickening of the pulse.
And water again is the main component in “Hotel Mahn,” a project for a spa resort hotel teetered atop a reflective pool, which Massaud designed in 2003, and for which he harnessed the evocative power of all things liquid in order to wring out of the visitor as much emotion as possible: mirror effects, cascading veils of water as room dividers, and watery patterns bouncing off walls and ceilings.
Beauty versus wonderment
“Recently, among French intellectuals, the binary opposition between good and bad is replaced by the binary opposition between beautiful and bad,” remarks Chris Younès, “It is part of the current discourse about the need to re-enchant the world.” Asked to join a panel to discuss the work of Jean-Marie Massaud, she congratulated him for being one of the first designers to unabashedly use the word “beauty.” No, he told her, I don’t like the word “beauty,” I prefer to it the word wonderment.
Wonderment!? Wonderment like in his In/Out bench for Cappellini, a 10-foot-long, canoe-shaped, backless sofa that could be mistaken for an UFO; or his Outline collection, also for Cappellini, that features an ethereal daybed, slung, like a hammock, over a shiny shell resting on a spidery frame; or his Truffle armchair, for Porro, a wide seat as light and as spongy as a nest, even though it is made of a hard thermoplastic material. But unquestionably his most successful exercise in wonderment is his “Manned Cloud” hotel project, a 700-foot-long airship, cruising at a speed of 80 miles per hour, and capable of accommodating forty overnight guests plus a crew of fifteen.
Identified as a non-polluting, floating resort for weary travelers tired of trekking to luxury hotels in Thailand or Brazil, the ship would appeal to people eager to delight in the simple contemplation of the earth from above. The Jules-Verne contraption has attracted the attention of the engineers at ONERA (the Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Aéronautiques, the organizations that tested the Airbus www.onera.fr), who are studying its feasibility.
“When it comes to Massaud, one does not expect objects but projects,” says Michel Bouisson of VIA (Valorisation de l’Innovation dans l’Ameublement), the organism that helps French furniture designers develop their talents and find prospective sponsors. They recently chose Massaud for a major retrospective in their gallery because “he is both an utopist and an optimist, a rarity today.”
Indeed, the VIA show looked at first glance like a reconstitution of a set from the film 2001, Space Odyssey. It was a vast sitting room bathed in blinding whiteness, with nothing in sight but futuristic lounge chairs, some of them hovering overhead in suspended immobility, like so many spaceships waiting for permission to dock. One felt like moon-walking among the few samples actually resting on the floor of the showroom: the Auckland armchair for Cassina, as ergonomic as a pilot seat; the Aspen sofa, also for Cassina, a slim upholstered fuselage; or the lounge system for Time & Style, a series of flat cushions strewn around to create a lunar landscape.
The irresistible lure of innovation
But somehow, these sci-fi creations, with their “back to the future” ethos, manage never to be retro. The reason? Massaud’s design references are not from popular culture but from the world of applied sciences. He is the product of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle, a design school that favors practical engineering solutions over abstract considerations—an exception
in France where design is usually taught as a discipline rooted in theory. So, in spite of his allegiance to humanism, Massaud cannot resist the lure of innovations. He often brainstorms with Jean-Louis Frechin, an architect and IT specialist whose firm, Nodesign, helps clients strategize novel ways to exploit their existing technology. Their conversations were the inspiration for what Massaud calls an “intuitive object,” the prototype for a thin black box — a Beam-me-up-Scotty, universal communication device.
The tension between art de vivre and technology is central to Massaud’s work. He wants to put the latter at the service of the former. But even though his design solutions give the impression of being oddly virtual, almost ethereal, they are in fact the result of a congenial meeting of minds between the designer and his clients. “When Jean-Marie Massaud meets someone who has a social conscience there is chemistry between them, and then he can produce very interesting work,” says Valerie Guillaume.
His most ambitious project to date, a stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico, which he designed with his long-time partner, architect Daniel Pouzet, is an example of this messy approach. But most people agree that Massaud’s quirky mannerism only adds to the already considerable charm this large and voluble man with the sweet face of a Buddha. Indeed, listening to him tell how he came up with the “volcano” concept for the 40,000-seat, 100-million-dollar sports arena, scheduled to open in the spring of 2008, gives a pretty good idea of how his serendipitous methodology works to his advantage.
“The stadium project was a total fluke,” he says, in the bustling, colloquial manner that is his trademark. “Because of my busy schedule, I had missed a couple of appointments with this Mexican guy, whose name I could neither remember nor pronounce. When we finally sat down, he told me that he had just decided to hire Jean Nouvel to design his stadium. So anyway, we decided to have a little chat. Mind you, I never thought about stadiums—I am not even a soccer fan — but I arrogantly gave him my opinion about Nouvel’s proposal. Okay, I was free-associating as I went along. I took out a piece of paper and I began to draw. I got carried away—and before I knew it, I was on a roll.”
An hour and an half later, Jorge Vergara, the Mexican developer, had bought Massaud breathless demonstration: No deserted, urine-smelling, drug dealers-infested parking lots surrounding the stadium! The sports arena would be buried inside a lawn-covered mound housing rings of underground parking garages. The hill, whose profile would be that of a volcano, would sport a hovering, donut-shaped roof—almost like a smoke ring floating above a crater.
“People who think that Jean-Marie’s architectural projects are about architecture are clueless,” says Frechin. “He does not design buildings, he designs ecosystems.” This irrepressible tendency to turn simple assignments into elaborate programs is typically French. Witness, the frequently quoted aphorism “Don’t ask a French designer to design a bridge, ask him how to cross the river” (which Americans translate as “Ask a Frenchman what time it is, and he will tell you how to build a clock”). Or, as Massaud explains: “When a client asks for me to design something, I always ask ‘Why? What made you decide that this was the right thing for you?’.”
Massaud takes pride in being an inspired visionary, someone who asks questions rather than proposes answers, even though it gets him into trouble with some of his clients. In 2003, in collaboration with Benjamin Trigano (his grandfather started Club Med), Massaud worked on an ambition concept for a resort community in Palm Desert, California.
Part Burning Man, part Esalen, part Taliesen West, part Club Med, the hotel complex was supposed to be a meeting place where rich guests could hobnob with local craftsmen and artists in residence. “It was going to be a cultural ecosystem,” says Trigano, echoing Frechin’s remark. “Jean Marie is a pragmatic dreamer. With Daniel Pouzet, he came up with a solution so radical, the real estate promoters got scared.”
Other “revolutionary” projects that Massaud and Pouzet elaborated and that are still on the drawing board include a “life reef,” two twin residential towers in Guadalajara that pay homage to Oscar Niemeyer’s 1959 building in Belo Horizonte; the underground villa Tanabé, in Fukuoka, Japan, a luxurious bunker tucked under a lawn; a chic condo in Manhattan’s TriBeCa; and a project for an art gallery complex on the Ile Seguin in Boulogne Billancourt, near Paris, on the site of the former Renault factory and of millionaire François Pinault’s ill-fated museum.
But rather than compare his projects to ecosystems, Jean-Marie Massaud prefers to assimilate them to brands. Indeed, like the products he designs, brands are purveyors of “lifestyle scripts.” In the course of his career, Massaud has had the opportunity to do branding exercises for the like of Renault, Sephora and Lancôme, in the form of store prototypes and trade shows.
“The major brands are today opinions leaders,” he says. He is careful to design “branded” furniture for the various Italian furniture manufacturers who feature his work in their collection: Cappellini, Porro, Cassina, Poltrona Frau, or B&B Italia. For example, his Poltrona Frau (www.poltronafrau.it) chairs have a corporate sensibility whereas his Porro products are attuned to contemporary architecture. “Designing furniture is like creating a vocabulary,” he says. “People assemble pieces of furniture in their home as they would words to write the novel that is their life.”
Designing as "scripting objects"
According to Benoît Heilbrunn, a French design critic and professor of marketing, this ability to turn objects into subjects (into things that drive the action) is typically French. In contrast with Dutch design that is influenced by a pictorial heritage rich in still lifes, French design is influenced by the theatrical past of a country steep in thespian culture (from Molière to Sarah Bernhardt). Objects are not only designed, they are staged. They are expected to play a role. They are given “lifestyle scripts.” And it is one of the reasons French design has recently attracted the attention of Italian manufacturers (Massaud, but also Patrick Jouin, the Bouroullec brothers, Christophe Pillet, Patrick Norguet and of course Philippe Starck have contracts with Italian brands).
“Objects today must acquire a human face to offset the fact that commercial transactions are dehumanized… The function of the complex narratives used by French designers to explain their creative process is first and foremost a way to personalize their production, [to brand it]… to anthropomorphize the objects that must speak for themselves to become their own salesman,” Heilbrunn writes in an essay on French design.
In this perspective, art de vivre can be construed as a French brand, and a hardy one at that. It has survived centuries of changing tastes, period styles, and decorative trends. In the tradition of Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, André-Charles Boulle, Jean-Baptiste Goudin, Hector Guimard, Paul Iribé, Pierre Chareau, and Roger Tallon, Jean-Marie Massaud is one of its brand managers.