Kerstin Zumstein travelled to French designer Christophe Pillet’s smoke-filled Paris studio to talk about doing away with office furniture, designs that inspire love… and 007
Christophe Pillet likes analogies. That’s how he designs, how he explains the world, how he understand his job. It’s only logical then to choose an analogy to describe the French designer. It was towards the end of our day at his studio in Paris on Passage Dubail when it hit me: the blown-up black-and-white picture of Ursula Andress’ famous bikini scene in Dr No behind the desk, the Rolex model Sean Connery wears in From Russia with Love, the 007 book on the shelf… Christophe Pillet is a big James Bond fan. In some ways he has the air of a Bond of the design world – suave, in control, understated, with a (design) style that seems invincible.
Once I mentioned James Bond, Pillet quickly clicks on his silver Apple laptop to play the Bond theme tunes as a soundtrack to our photo shoot– and with his “I’ve always been a Bond fan” my analogy is born. Ok, Pillet is a French interior and product designer, not a British secret agent. He doesn’t wear a tight-fitting DJ but a white shirt with jeans and trainers and presumably hasn’t killed any international villains recently or laid the world’s hottest accomplices – not that we know of at least. But he does smoothly shift from one project or situation into the next without getting stressed or sweaty and seems to effortlessly adapt his persona to any given challenge.
Pillet, born in 1959, graduated from the Decorative Arts School in Nice and Domus Academy in Milan and famously worked with Martine Bedin of the notorious Memphis group and later with Philippe Starck. He started his own studio in 1993 and has since worked with top French brands such as Moët et Chandon, Lancôme, Lacoste, Veuve Clicquot and L’Oreal on a multitude of projects, and with Italy’s high-end fashion and furniture companies like Trussadi, Ceccotti, Cappellini, Mazzega and Ycami. This year (as every year) at the Milan furniture fair Pillet seemed to be everywhere, launching the Meridiana Chair for Driade, which every one in his office is sitting on, a bed for Ceccotti and some products for Fraj. The Hillroad (see cover) for Zanotta is a perfect example of the curves and rounded designs Pillet is known for. One of my favourite pieces from last year’s show is the South Beach chair for Tacchini, which, although beautifully simple, gives the sense of sitting on an elegantly cocooned throne.
Pillet’s current designs bear no resemblance to the loud, flamboyant, rule-breaking designs of Memphis, the Ettore Sottsass brainchild that started a new design wave in the early Eighties. His products are clean, monochrome, with simple clear lines, conveying a sense of fluidity – probably like many other celebrated designs at this year’s show. So what makes Pillet different from the rest? “My designs aren’t unique. More and more design is becoming an interdisciplinary mix between art, architecture, fashion etc. In the past design was a science, which required a certain skill set. Nowadays an architect can launch a fashion range, a product designer will build a house. For me, I see a designer as an analogy to a writer,” Pillet tells me.
Pillet says the current design scene is not about shape or form, but a paradigmatic shift in the territory of design. “When I started 20 years ago, a client would come and say we need this or that,” he says. “It was about requiring your technical know-how. But today the client comes to a designer because of his way of telling a story. They want his perspective, his personal interpretation of a product. People have to love the chair – they are not going to need it.”
But hasn’t the Starck phenomenon made people suspicious of the actual skill involved in design – the idea that Starck has merely become a brand detached from the product? “I have a lot of tolerance for megalomania or egomania. It’s a counterbalance to the doubts we are all consumed by,” says Pillet. Is this a similar sentiment to Erwan Bouroullec (onoffice 05) talking about the pressure of clients expecting you to be 100 per cent sure about your design? Pillet smokes as he answers. “I mean more the inner insecurities and doubts we’re all consumed by. Maybe it’s good to say, ‘This is fantastic because I made it.’”
He is one of those calm smokers, old-school style, with an air of cool that miraculously seems to extinguish the smell. Everything in the room is black and white bar one pink blob of colour in the form of a prototype foam chair. “Signature design – well I personally, like many other designers, don’t care about having a style. That would be limiting.” But there is obviously a Pillet panache that gives a company the incentive to go to him specifically, as a designer. “To use an analogy, it’s like with actors. Do you like actors that always play the same character? Mostly, an actor is respected for his credible approach to a diverse range of personalities. The more diverse characters he plays the better he is at his job.”
Of course, Pillet is in the privileged situation where clients flock to catch a bit of his talent. Any Milan 07 launch product I ask about seems to have flown to his desk without a brief ever being expressed. “Brief? There is no brief. Like with Driade for instance, Enrico Astori called and said ‘I’m in Paris next week, let’s meet for lunch.’ Then when we met he asked, ‘So what do you have for me?’” So if designing is storytelling, what is the Pillet narrative? “My stories are always about two things: Firstly, what is the best way to live, continuously questioning how to improve myself, the product, the concept etc. Secondly, one layer deeper, to break with the archaic approach to furniture design.” Pillet places his cigarette in the ashtray and takes command of a pen. On a blank piece of paper he illustrates how most sofas are designed: a base with legs, a seating cushion, a backrest, two armrests. Essentially the same design, year in year out. “Applying that to architecture would mean we’d still be building houses like this… ” He draws a base, columns and a roof. “As if we still built houses modelled after the Greek classic Parthenon.” Again, I see Pillet is searching for an analogy. “Imagine, when talking about architecture we’re talking in contemporary English but then switch to Shakespearean English when discussing furniture design.”
For Pillet, the archaic approach to furniture is linked to a deep human reluctance to change when it comes to the domestic environment. People are slow in accepting change in the home. So how does he break with this dated design language? “Obviously, I am also influenced by past forms, I’m not claiming to innovate. But when I design I always start with a blank sheet.” He lights another cigarette. “I’m like a sponge. Absorbing every particle, then when you squeeze, this gunge comes out that forms into the product. Say if I am designing I chair, I don’t think of a chair, I think, ‘How do we sit?’ and then create a supported shape that will visually seduce.”
He tells me about a newspaper survey testing people’s perception of comfort. Essentially, people will find comfortable what they like and beyond that comfort is cultural, not logical. “Our products need to attract, because people need to like it. After all, when is the last time you went shopping for something you really needed?” I mentioned the similar conversation I had with Jean-Marie Massaud (onoffice 09) about the state of decadence we are living in and how he felt the end was near. Pillet is too much of a Bond fan to think so apocalyptically. “Our governments have systems in place to prevent such a trauma. But of course there is a sense of change.” While Massaud sees a radical change on the horizon, Pillet says it’s already happened. “Modern ideology, like capitalism, was based on the belief in no limits, tomorrow will be better and better, we’ll get richer and richer. But people are now becoming aware of limits, we can’t consume energy like this forever, oil supply isn’t endless etc. It’s a new period, quite scary actually. Nobody is talking about the future, we’re all looking back.”
That phenomenon is also influencing all disciplines of design, music and fashion, which for Pillet are all in retro mode. “I haven’t done anything radically new, not mind-altering like Punk Rock. At present it’s only technology that is innovating because it’s deeply transforming the way we communicate.” We talk about ways of working and how the days without mobile phones and email are barely imaginable now – in such a short period of time connectivity has become second nature, bringing with it the downside of being constantly available.
So how do you work? “With pen and paper, that’s all I need really. Ironically, my office is the worst place for me to work simply because it’s an office. It has all the elements I need for work which is why it prevents me from working: the phone that rings all the time, my assistants and employees because they talk to me, it breaks your concentration. But you still need to meet and speak face to face, that’s why we all need offices.” I want to know how design can solve this problem, but Pillet has always found office furniture, with its complex systems, utterly useless. In today’s working world, materials are becoming transformed into virtual, immaterial concepts – Pillet sees work-specific furniture as unnecessary. “Those big workstation systems are there to psychologically convey a sense of working. Essentially if I were to design a chair or table perfect for you, for instance, it would be the same whether for home or office, ergonomically and aesthetically. It’s the same logic, like with indoor and outdoor furniture. There may be specific requirements but logically you could design a product that works for both worlds.” The concept of a crossover product is becoming more dominant in the contract furnishing market, in Europe at least. But isn’t the Meridiana Chair everyone in Pillet’s office is sitting on an office chair? “No,” Pillet says, calmly smoking. “It’s a chair with wheels – which I guess makes it an office chair, just because it has wheels, but essentially it’s simply a chair.”
Pillet says he has no feeling of paternity when it comes to his products. His favourites may come from a certain time in his life or a particular memory, but they are seldom a favourite due to satisfaction or pride in the design. Although he does point out Agatha Dreams (Ceccotti 1998), a wooden chaise lounge, as a special piece because of its timelessness. Currently, his studio has a long list of international restaurant and hotel interior projects in the pipeline, but Pillet still prefers product design due to the speed. “Interior projects are mainly negative: one hour of fun followed by six months of stress. To be honest I’m bored of being busy.” Is he done with this way of working? I doubt it… as if James Bond would ever retire.