1. In your work, research and scouting are fundamental, whether to design something completely new or to re-design everyday objects. How does this scouting process take place? How do you structure your creative method?
My work as a designer is at the crossroads of artistic, anthropological and social practice. The first step in each project is to analyse the context and to explore the principles of the client in order to define the contours, the expectations in terms of social contribution, local anchoring, reflection and perspective and to determine the innovation slide of the project: social innovation, artistic innovation, ecological innovation… For each project, I develop a tailor-made methodology with tools adapted to the specific situation. I carefully analyse the client’s resources as well as its ecosystem. The use of local talent, the use of communal workshops, the participatory approach, the integration of vocational rehabilitation workshops or the creation of workshops with schools… All these possibilities are developed within the limits of the project, the deadline and its requirements, making each project a particular and singular collective adventure.
2. Your creations are exhibited in “sacred” places for design, such as the Pompidou Centre, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris and MoMA, and are defined by many as true “icons”. What do you think defines the iconicity of a design piece? When can we talk about an iconic piece?
If products such as “Quand Jim monte à Paris” (a column bed created for french publisher and manufacturer Domeau & Pérès) and “Digestion” (a pouf published by Edra) have been exhibited in museum collections, it is undoubtedly because these are projects that move away from the stereotypical or standardised representation of a simple object, be it a guest bed or a pouf. Jim belongs to the “friends of matali”: a range not of object-friends but of objects “of” or “for” my friends. This research was developed in 1995 in parallel with my work at Tim Thom, the integrated design centre of Thomson multimedia. At the time, I was rather reticent about creating furniture. Form is not my main concern: my furniture is based on new concepts and not on games of double functionality. They investigate new habits of use. While our “wardrobe” has changed over time, our furniture is in many cases still the same as that of our grandparents. So the questions that motivate me are: how can we rethink the living environment from scratch? How can we integrate hospitality and generosity into our environment? How can we think about small spaces? I decided to take the opposite approach to my “daily” practice, which was to develop products for global markets; I therefore decided to create a series of objects based on the specificities of my real or imaginary friends. For example, I wanted to propose an alternative to the sofa bed. The convertible sofa is an unacceptable idea for me because most of the time it lacks “generosity”. I wanted to create an object that was really designed for my friend Jim, that was not just an object for the short time of his visit to Paris.
3. After many experiences, you opened your own studio, located in the heart of the Parisian district of Belleville (I would like to visit it). As an entrepreneur, how did you organize your studio?
In 1996 Alain Juppé, prime minister of Jacques Chirac’s government at that time, proposed selling Thomson Multimedia for a symbolic franc. The contract of Philippe Starck, who was art director of Thomson multimedia, for whom I worked, came to an end. I worked within his agency on exhibition projects and the Good goods catalogue, but after managing a team of 25 people at Tim Thom of Thomson multimedia, the energy was no longer the same. At that point I decided to move on by myself and, strange as it may seem, proposals came in in fields that are not mine, such as set design, interior architecture… Bold clients, seeing in “Jim” [see previous answer] my ability to understand a space, they trusted me… and then my husband Francis accompanied me on this adventure, freeing me from the administrative burden.
Dar Hi, 2011, eco lodge, Nefta, Tunisia. Ph. Marina Denisova for IGNANT
4. You are described as a keen observer of customs, questioning them and overcoming them in the best possible way. After all these years of work, what is it that continues to intrigue and amaze you, today as on day one? What is one anecdote, in this area, that you remember most vividly?
My design has often been described as “applied anthropology”. It is design that intersects with real life. I observe and translate my feelings and intuitions into scenarios of use and life. What intrigues me is life and the way we live it. And I can only see that developments are slow. As early as 1952, Nanna Ditzel pointed out this anachronistic institution that is furniture design. “One day, when Jorgen Ditzel and I were at work, we were talking about possible ways to move forward, away from conventions. Could a piece of furniture that consists of a sofa and two armchairs be the end of a furniture line? We counted the number of legs supporting the furniture in our modest living room and came up with about 50. Then we climbed onto the kitchen table and, from that perspective, everything looked completely different. Changing your point of view, seeing things from the outside and having another perspective, isn’t that the strength of women in design?
5. You have worked with many product design brands. If you were to design something in a different field (such as fashion or jewellery), what would you like to try your hand at? What would be the result?
I have no dreams, I let myself be carried away by those of my clients, who are often exceptional people. But then again, without them, how could I have imagined creating a mobile museum of contemporary art, a dovecote tower [a kind of pigeon tower, ed.] with an educational function, a hotel on the edge of the desert, houses in the woods, a project with Peter Halley or a set design with Germano Celant or Piere Lapointe? Beyond functionality, which is a minimum requirement, thanks to the projects I am working on, I imagine this work more and more like that of a midwife. It is less and less a question of shaping the material – the aesthetic – but rather of bringing out, combining and organising links and networks of skills, complicity and sociability around common intentions and values. Most of the projects I work on emphasise this dimension of collective and collaborative work. I am thinking of the “Maison des Petits” project at 104 in Paris, the houses in the woods for the “Vent des forêts at Fresnes au Mont-la-Meuse“, the “Le blé en herbe” school at Trebedan, in Brittany with the Fondation de France, the “Dar’hi” in Nefta, in Tunisia or the future “HI bride” farm. So there is an increasingly local dimension that interests me very much. It is clear that contemporaneity is no longer the exclusive preserve of the urban world. Of course, I also design objects, but objects are neither the centre nor the end of the creative process: they are one possible actualization, among others possible at a precise moment (an architecture, a set design, an exhibition…) of a broader system of thought.
6. You have met many people in your life (friends, professionals, artists, musicians). Which ones have most influenced your approach?
I am close to artists who are not engaged in the practice of design, probably because design is a field where competition is the rule. Unfortunately, designers don’t work together very often. But that doesn’t stop me from working with a singer, a writer, a design theorist, a ceramist… Independence and freedom are values I love, that’s the lesson I learned from Bruno Munari.
7. What social battles are you passionate about? How do you approach them?
I’d rather talk about problems than battles, but the list is so long… The question of poverty, as we can see here in France with the queues of students and young people with the pandemic at soup kitchens, the reception of political refugees and climate issues are crucial issues that affect coexistence. As a designer I can only put myself at the disposal of the community.
8. What do you think are the macro-trends that contemporary society is presenting to designers and creatives? Which are you most passionate about?
I am not a fortune teller, but the themes of rurality are very interesting, where the inhabitants of the megacities are rediscovering nature, their relationship with the land, with the soil, or with what is left of it… For the “Places to be” exhibition at the Martell Foundation, I wanted to talk about our relationship with food, with the land, with our microflora… The kitchen becomes the place of transition and the place of our will-necessity to build a new relationship with the world, and more precisely with the earth. The soil is, in fact, a super-organism that eats and breathes. Just like our digestive system that makes our food assimilable by our cells. If we take care of the soil, growing healthy plants, they will in return protect our microflora.
9. Caleido was born as a diary. Do you usually write down thoughts or memories, perhaps in a Diary? What kind of thoughts do you write down? What are the 3 thoughts/lessons of life you would like your children to read?
Recently, during the first pandemic, I kept a kind of diary of my thoughts through drawing. I found myself drawing thousands of notebook pages… I learned to cultivate my own “fields”, not the ones my parents cultivated in my childhood, trying to find new methods of “cultivation” without “tools”, without machines to dig up the earth, or damage life… I cultivated the fields in my head, without realising at the beginning that the main tool was there. So I rejected pre-packaged tools and distrusted drawing itself as a way of materialising ideas. A drawing that, in the end, can block you. In fact, in order to draw, you have to choose what to sketch beforehand, whereas I prefer to let my thoughts wander free and maybe come back to them later. The drawing does not vanish, it is difficult to tear it up and go in the opposite direction. A drawing often becomes a dead end. I have developed a gymnastics of thought around projects, the more you do, the more different they are and the more agile you are. It’s a job where you can take time to think, to let things settle, to take yourself out of the picture to see the whole thing better, to let an intention arise from within, depending on the context and who is involved. I do the same job as my father, as my mother, but in a different way… it’s still about people’s lives, only the ecosystems change. It’s the logic that drives people to settle down, to find their own dimension, because despite the differences, there is always something common that binds us. The only lesson I want to teach my children is that of autonomy.
10. What is one object in your home that you would never give up? What is the memory attached to it? Would you send us a photo taken by you?
The “object” of my heart is Francis, with whom I have shared my life for 35 years.