Man vs Machine: the drawings of Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s design work is the outcome of a fraternal meeting of minds that has lasted over two decades. In parallel to this collaborative work, the designers each have become known for their independently produced artworks. These pieces offer a glimpse into Ronan’s and Erwan’s intimate dimension, into their interests, thinking, and approach to life. We talk to the designers on what drives them to create this visual universe.
Designer Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec
Interview by Rosa Bertoli
ROSA BERTOLI: When did you start creating this visual language?
RONAN BOUROULLEC: Drawing has always been something I do; I started to draw when I was very young, as everybody of course. I think it was probably around 10 when I understood how much drawing was a language for me, it was clear that it was. I grew up in the countryside, and I was quite alone, even though I had a brother of course that was five years younger than me. So I played tennis and football on the wall, and drawing for me became what in French we call "compagnon", a sort of friend.
ROSA BERTOLI: I remember playing tennis with a wall actually when I was a kid. That's actually quite an evocative image that you just painted for me. So was drawing a form of escape for you?
RONAN BOUROULLEC: It was a form of escape, and I understood very quickly that it was a pleasure for me, a way to fight against nervousness, anguish. Drawing has always been a way to escape, and a pleasure. When I get up in the morning I start to draw and on the weekend my pleasure is to do that. Except the fact that I am claustrophobic, but if I was a prisoner, with enough space, if I get paper and pen I think that I can survive.
Drawings by Ronan Bouroullec created between 2018 and 2020.
ROSA BERTOLI: I was thinking about that. When I was looking at some of your drawings the first thing that I thought about was imagining the act of creating them, you working on them and to me they look like the result of quite an intuitive and meditative process. Did I get that right, and is it like creating a bubble to escape to?
RONAN BOUROULLEC: Yeah, it's spontaneous, that's why I don't know how to speak about them. It's really something that is not planned at all. When I start a drawing I never think of the end result. It's like using clay, it's always a line, then another line and step after step it builds like sediment. I speak about three dimensions, it's really like knitting. It's an addition of things that create something else and from that another line or another shape arrives and it's something extremely organic, it's very clear for me that there is no plan. And usually it's very complex to keep this naive aspect of it. I am more and more interested by Matisse.
Matisse has always been someone I was looking at but he didn't talk so much about his work. He was speaking about trying to conserve a certain naivety in his way of working and in my case this is the most complex thing to do after 40 years of drawing. And the same thing in design: you have to fight every day to keep a certain distance, not being a specialist at all about the technique. Because it immediately can become boring and lose the freshness. I didn't show my drawing before because I always as a designer have to explain myself why I was drawing. Because you know how much people like perimeter and when you do something you're supposed to respect quite precisely what your discipline is supposed to be. And then Instagram has totally modified the situation. I am very interested by Instagram, I'm someone very visual so I take pictures every day.
Instagram for me is an interesting media to show work, it’s like someone doing graffiti on the subway. Keith Haring was speaking about why he was laying graffiti in the subways and he was explaining that in one day, 300000 people could see his drawing and it's exactly the same on Instagram. There is immediacy, a possibility of sharing something to lots of people, this is more interesting for me than an exhibition in a gallery.
ROSA BERTOLI: And this is actually the medium that has taken your drawing from the intimate dimension into the world. Like many people, it gives me a lot of joy to look at them and so I'm not surprised at the interest that appeared from them being shown this way. But I can see if they are the result of a personal moment of escape, how that sort of expectation might mount up to some pressure.
RONAN BOUROULLEC: Sometimes I do a drawing and I might be drunk, I take a picture, I post it on Instagram, the morning after I am totally desperate because I find the drawing terribly bad. It’s interesting this opens a door to a world of 200000 people looking at something. But I think the interest in my Instagram account for some people is the fact that it’s not calculated. And I’m happy to do it, and I find a lot of pleasure in sharing a drawing or a prototype.
ROSA BERTOLI: Your visual work and your design work are quite separate, and they come from different places but do they ever overlap, or inform each other?
RONAN BOUROULLEC: Probably. But I don’t know exactly how to describe it. I'm very interested in design, in the fact that when you have a good idea, it should work deeply and you can share it in an interesting way at a good price. I come from a very simple family, my friends from school are not rich people and I'm quite happy to be able to design objects that they can have in their garden. But it's also a very frustrating process, design is very long between the first idea and the fact that it's in the front of the shop, so it's years and years of work. First I have to fight with my brother, and then I have to fight with the engineer, in a good way, I like this collective work. But it’s long, and I need everyday I feel a bit more calm when in a day I have done something I am happy with, it could be a drawing, it could be a mock up, a photograph. Something that can calm me, I am happier.
ROSA BERTOLI: An instant moment of creation.
RONAN BOUROULLEC: Yes. I need that. And drawing, of course, is the most...I won’t say pure, it’s difficult to do a good one, but it’s the easiest way to do something instant. I just need a bit of paper, I don’t care which quality of paper, I don’t care about which quality of pen, even a ballpoint from the gasoline station will be fine.
ROSA BERTOLI: Your drawings, they are abstract but if I look at them closely, I can recognize some textures, I can recognize some familiar shapes, some material folds, something that doesn't make them too abstract anymore. How do you see them, or do you ever think about whether they're abstract or they're figurative.
RONAN BOUROULLEC: No, I don’t care about that. It’s very interesting that people see things in my drawings and I’m very happy for them (laughs). Because it’s not planned, I do not want to draw a body or a flower or a plant, but you can see a plant, you can see part of a body, you can see something sensual, you can see mystery, you can you can see fear sometimes. So I don’t know if they are abstract or not abstract, some are probably more than others, but it's true that we can often see an object in it or volume, it’s open but again it’s not planned. Drawing is automatic, it's very often the repetition of the same thing. And Matisse said that he was very often doing exactly the same so it was his way to escape. And it’s the same for me, doing a drawing I totally lose myself and when the drawing is almost finished, and I do not remember what happened in those 20 minute or an hour.
RONAN BOUROULLEC: Sometimes they are finished because I need to cook for the family (laughs). What is quite interesting is that I draw in the middle of the family, I can be on a small table, because I don’t want to be afraid or to be in a situation where I have to do something important, I want to keep this freshness of something that is not organized. If I had an atelier I would probably become a specialist, I would organize my pencils and choose my colors, I don’t want that. Of course over the years I have made more types of drawings and there is a range of colors that I appreciate, but they are around me and it’s in a total mess, and I generally take the pen that is closest to me and then I start.
ROSA BERTOLI: I imagine people ask you a lot about your drawings, what is the strangest thing someone has ever said to you about your drawings or the things that maybe surprised you?
RONAN BOUROULLEC: I am someone quite solitary, and so there's always this medium which is Instagram, which is a way to show them. I did two or three exhibitions, just about these drawings. I didn't go to the opening and on Instagram I didn't answer the questions. Of course, sometimes I read the comment but I do not care so much. It's quite difficult to continue to draw with a certain simplicity. I do it seriously, it’s not that I’m not serious. But it’s complex too, because I don’t want to repeat myself, and that is a fear that I have in my work in general. But for the drawings, I just try to continue doing them and that’s it.
ROSA BERTOLI: What do you call your works, how do you define them?
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: For me, they belong to the world of pictures. What I mean by this is that they belong to a very simple expression of movement and colors. But in a certain way, they are connected to our design practice and the fact that I've been learning computer coding for a few years. Behind computer coding there are a lot of quite similar rules that you could find in design, because basically, you could say that design is about repeating a number of steps quite clearly, there is a way of designing a chair, or a lamp: you establish a very clear protocol. And computer coding is exactly the same, you have numbers and simple rules, because you don't ask the computer to dream. But what is amazing behind it, is the magic of numbers, I mean, you can ask a computer to work on a million phases and it will probably be done in a few seconds, or even less.
ROSA BERTOLI: Where did this interest in numbers and coding come from?
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: A long time ago, when I was studying, I had a course on the mathematics of chaos and read a book by James Gleick. I found something that was very interesting in his description: in the 60s and 70s, early computing revealed some hidden parts of science. There used to be a lot of mathematics that were unsolvable because they had unclear results. But step by step they started to use the computer and you could see a kind of structure in the result. And this is what happened to make scientists somehow understand the rules of nature through chaos. This stayed a lot in my mind. Behind these drawings there is a very simple pictorial inspiration, which is imposing a kind of protocol that is made by a software. I've been studying, and have always been very interested in conceptual art. You could take for example the work of Sol Lewitt: basically you establish some rules, and you repeat them. But, again, what makes the difference with Sol Lewitt is that is going to repeat these rules for a very high number of times, repeat the sequence over and over and over and over, and that's what I am doing with the software.
Drawings by Erwan Bouroullec created between 2018 and 2020.
ROSA BERTOLI: When you developed an interest in coding, how did you discover that you could use this method to create paintings?
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: I was trying to find a way to give an understanding of things like light coming from the sun, and there is a lot of very amazing information that your body can get just by seeing and understanding the movement of light, or wind or tiny noise to understand your surroundings. And these drawings, they totally hide any kind of information which is inside the drawing, they give you a clear sense of proportion and movement, the presence of some color. They are extracted from reality, something you can see by blinking your eye. That was the way they came. [In the dot drawings] you see there are some black circles that are making the drawing, and green dots, and what the black circle is trying to do is avoid meeting the green dot, it changes its direction. And this became the full story of these drawings. And this is one of the initial coding I’ve been doing, one of my first, then I have been re-working on them during lockdown, and it’s funny because what you can see is that when the line is trying to avoid the green dots, it’s also creating a little bit of attraction. And this to be done during COVID to me had a lot of sense. You wander around, you try to get out of a lot of your habits, but you are also permanently attracted to them.
ROSA BERTOLI: It’s mimicking human nature.
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: Yeah. But they also have a different
nature. I am permanently building a lot of software, and I feel very at ease now to be in this area. It’s time consuming, but nice to do.
ROSA BERTOLI: What does creating look like for you?
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: It’s basically about creating some rules. But in my original drawings [with the colorful straight lines], I extracted those lines from pictures that I had taken. So I know exactly what is behind each image, what is the feed for the information. So the software acts as a tool. It's not much different from the work of Jackson Pollock, when he decided to make the dripping, he just applied some rules: open the can, drip from it. What you need when you are doing something like this, you need to be very confident in the process itself. And by running the numbers, you will discover things that you don't know were there. The overlapping of the lines is really creating a nature that you have a lot of difficulty to imagine. And as the lines are crossing on top of each other, I believe they are reflections of what we are living now. That overlapping connection and creating a kind of materiality that we feel, but we are not very aware of. Somehow it could be like the wind in digital form, something that you feel but you can’t see. I believe it’s both a picture and also a bit conceptual work.
ROSA BERTOLI: It's interesting what you say about feeling but not really being able to see exactly. The more I looked at your pictures and the more I dug into them, I could recognize something familiar, in some of them I can find nature, some of them are flowers, some of them I can't quite tell what it is but I know it's something that exists in the world and then there's this abstraction, and it almost makes me doubt that what I'm seeing is what I think I'm seeing. So the images are playing some interesting tricks on the viewer and I don't know whether that was your intention or that was just the result - do you if you feel that way as well about the pictures?
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: As a designer, I am permanently watching people and the things around me. Because I really believe that one of the big roles of design is creating a culture. For sure it’s about answering some needs, like sitting, sleeping, drinking and so on. But we also all know that a lot of the practice is permanently repeating some archetypes, and one of the big goals that we have is to create and provoke a culture. What I’m doing through the picture, I try to find a different way of looking at the world and looking at the information that was given to me.
Some of the pictures come from a fish market in Korea, a gigantic fish market in Seoul, and it’s a mix of colour that belongs to nature, and colours that are totally artificial. And this fish market was all of this: fish, octopus, any kind of seashells, seaweeds, blues, grays, greens. But on top of that, there are labels, plastic containers, screens, people
working wearing orange gloves, all this is creating a visual environment which is not far from a jungle, where you see everything but there is no way to sum it up, you can’t make a definition or a drawing of it. What you carry with you is this kind of feeling of being inside something that is bigger than you.
So these drawings are trying to transport us, [give us a] feeling of multiple information around you and they actually create very strong sensations. When people are in front of them, they really dive into them. And what I like a lot is that as the definition is extreme, even when you are super near you still can’t read the number of lines, you can’t understand the weaving of it. Which to me is like the nature of reality. I like this conceptual reading, that is the way to digest reality. Or try to express all the overlapping information we have in our digital world. With the circle drawings, I am making so much social furniture with Bouroullec studio, and here in a certain way I try to even understand what a circle would be doing, what kind of shapes are showing, to find the shape of the nature of our movement.
ROSA BERTOLI: So there is a connection between your design work and your visual art.
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: Yes. I am very happy that people know that these are drawings coming from a designer. If I would be a fine artist, I am not sure I would do the same. I believe if you read through the design perspective, you can understand them, it’s the magic of repeating numbers, and repeating numbers is also the magic of design itself.
ROSA BERTOLI: Design is a very collective process, because you work in a studio with your brother, you work with clients, you work with people on the development of your designs. And art is a much more intimate dimension, do you find this duality in these two types of work that we've been doing?
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: I don't exactly find a duality, and I don’t find any opposition, and I can do all of it all together. It’s not like drawings belong to a certain time of my life and design another time. I don’t see any difference in the practice itself, but there is a huge difference in the medium itself. Some of these pictures, they can be even a little scary, they are not super gentle, they can be attractive, and I believe product design when you are doing everyday objects is not the best medium to express a certain type of sensations. So there is a freedom inside drawing which is about using structure, shades, colours. But I don’t see a different energy.
ROSA BERTOLI: What are the tools you use, and how important are they?
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: I am doing the initial coding, and I have been working with a professional coder, because some drawings have more than a million lines, you need very robust software. The initial thinking and the basic rules, I am doing them by myself. One of the things we have always been practicing at the studio is to learn the technique by yourself: nearly every prototype in the Bouroullec studio, every piece of furniture we have been doing, I am able to build them by myself. None of us are professional craftsmen, and when we learn we are able to make some details that are simple and clear. Because when you become a super high level craftsman you can make something marvelous but sometimes that totally misses a more easy, common understanding. So the reason I am doing the coding by myself is exactly to be at this stage of a beginner. I am not coding at a high level. I’m just trying to make some very simple things, you can easily decode how it was coded. The tools for me are super important to do by myself, but I am also a very bad coder, so I am permanently trying to go to a level of understanding which is simple. And this is what is connecting to art, because you can say that art is most of the time a practice which is very low key, everyone is able to understand this is made by someone, and is made for the others. And you don’t have any layers in between. Coding is the making.
ROSA BERTOLI: And when the pieces are printed, how do you transform them from digital to physical?
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: It’s very important to print them in a large size, so they become a panorama and you can be inside them. When you are in front of them you can really feel them and be inside the experience. I am spending hours in front of a computer to create these lines, but I am also happy with their conceptual background. So I am not living with the prints themselves, because for me they live in a digital world, when they are printed I see them for an hour before they vanish away, like air. I have always been attracted to canvas paintings, there are a few painters that have been important for me, like Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz. But sometimes I am also attracted by more romantic pictures, Caspar David Friedrich - it’s a big mess where I am [laughs]. In the past century, art has been looking for ways to represent reality, it’s where I come from as a child, I have been learning art practice as a kid, I have permanently been confronted by a lot of art, and in art I value emotion as much as conceptual thinking.
ROSA BERTOLI: I like the fact that you can be inspired by different types of art, and I guess the fact that you create visual art from a designer's perspective, this gives you also this freedom of not having to stick yourself in a box.
ERWAN BOUROULLEC: As designers we permanently need to step back from emotion, because the time frame is so long. I believe objects need to bring a culture, but they can’t be too noisy. This is one way of conveying something very different.