Best known as the creator of cheery acoustic products for BuzziSpace – but he’s also unusual among his peers for having actually worked in an office.
Alain Gilles is an infectiously cheery fellow, but one can’t help but wonder if that was always the case. By his own admittance, the Belgian designer’s career began on the wrong foot. He studied political sciences and marketing, and began his career in finance, working at JP Morgan for four years, because, he says, “it’s what I thought I was supposed to do,” but always harboured a love for design.
“I was always taking pictures of stupid things that didn’t mean anything to anyone except me,” he says. “Anything that gave me an idea.”
One day, he says, he woke up and decided to finally indulge his creative side. His career U-turn began by studying industrial design at the International School of Design in Valenciennes, France, during which he interned for six months at the studio of well-known Brussels-based designer Xavier Lust. Then, while still a student, he took the initiative to get his career rolling.
“I wanted to produce something for somebody, so I called Quinze & Milan,” he says. “They looked at my website, and said, ‘oh you have a company?’ so I said, ‘um, no, I’m still a student,'” he says. Luckily, the chance paid off, and founder Arne Quinze hired him as a designer at the company’s Belgian headquarters.
After almost three years learning the ropes, from design to production to marketing, Gilles was ready to go it alone, founding his studio in 2007. “I didn’t have a plan really,” he laughs. “The only thing I wanted was to not just have ideas on paper or in my head, but to be able to create them. I just wanted to take the time to do the projects I liked, even if I didn’t earn anything for two or three years.”
He develops ideas on the computer, opting for 3D sketching and rendering programmes over sketchbooks or model making. He puts this down to his late arrival in design, and says it helps him to understand his ideas: “I can see exactly how it would be in reality.”
One of his first projects was the Translation chair collection for then-new French furniture brand Qui Est Paul? in 2008. Gilles developed the range to be made using the company’s rotational moulding machines, as well as helping to define the “brand DNA”.
In contrast, the Tectonic table design that Gilles pitched to Italian brand Bonaldo was selected for production just two months before Milan the same year. “I didn’t even get to see a prototype. It was a bit scary,” he says. Both projects were a successful debut for Gilles, demonstrating his playful use of colour and knack for putting together compositions of geometric shapes (seen later in both the Container sideboard for Casamania and Tension table for Galerie Gosserez). The following year Bonaldo launched its second Gilles design, the Big table, a bestseller that spawned an annual collaboration between the two parties (2014’s Tracks table being the latest). Featuring chunky steel legs in various colours and sizes, jutting out from the centre at different angles, the Big table shows Gilles’ flair for character and fun.
“I wanted to take the time to do projects I liked, even if I didn’t earn anything for a few years”
Fellow Belgians BuzziSpace started out at the same time as Gilles’ studio, and though it is now the most enduring and prolific relationship of the designer’s portfolio, things got off to a jerky start. “We met and we got on,” says Gilles of meeting founder Steve Symons, “but then it took three years. He didn’t want what I wanted to design, and I was not ready to design what he was expecting.” Eventually, their two ideals merged over problems in the modern workplace. Having worked in noisy open-plan offices at JP Morgan, Gilles had valuable first-hand insight to bring to the mix.”I don’t think most designers have ever worked in an atmosphere like that, but I know what it’s like. So that’s relevant experience I can use,” he says.
Since finding common ground with Symons, Gilles has gone on to design a multitude of products with the company, tackling workplace privacy and acoustics with design finesse. It started with BuzziHood, a reinvention of the phone box for the office, he says, that people use intuitively due to its instantly recognisable design language. Afterwards came the BuzziHive, a high-walled cocoon-like meeting pod; the BuzziBooth, a private workspace cubicle for tasks that require concentration; and BuzziBlinds, rotating sound-absorbent panels.
Latest is the BuzziPicnic, (officially launching at 100% Design) a shared desk akin to a picnic bench, which Gilles says captures and channels the relaxed feeling of social occasions, representing how the workplace is changing when it comes to meetings. “Nobody likes going into a glass meeting room where you feel like you’re in an aquarium, everyone looking at you,” he says. “Or when you’re in a closed room, you shut the door, and it’s scary. It’s not supposed to be scary, it’s supposed to be open and comfortable, and create stronger relationships.”
With so many people working away from the office, he says, modern workplaces need less space to work, and more to meet and interact in different ways. Gilles talks of the small-scale architecture of the office, creating varying perspectives, scenery and focal points. “I think [the office] was extremely open, and now it’s closing a bit more. It’s becoming more lively and homey; it’s not just about putting as many tables in as you can, it’s about crafting it into a living space.”
As the studio grows (it’s now Gilles and two design assistants) and gets busier, his aim is to stay true to the ethos that launched his business, allowing time to develop his own ideas. He is also cautious to cherry pick the interesting projects, and not take on too much too soon. Next, he’s developing a new product with solar products specialists O’Sun (for which he designed a portable solar-powered LED lamp, Nomad); chair designs for some of his existing clients; kitchen utensils for a new brand; and, bizarrely, a foosball table.
“One of my biggest fears is to do a bad project,” he laughs. “I know you always look back and think you could’ve done better, but if you think that at the time, that’s bad. As the speed of the projects increases you might go too fast and think, ‘why did I do this one?’
“I still want to have the time to be risky, not just respond to a brief, but experiment and design something nobody is expecting.”