I am still inside the exhibition ‘Bivouac’ as I start writing this review. As part of the brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s mise en scene, dotted around the 1,000 square metres of the Centre Pompidou-Metz’s third-floor gallery are a number of usable examples of their furniture. Choosing from a clutch of sofas and chairs, I’ve installed myself in a small version of the Alcove Sofa, designed for Vitra in 2007. Made of a stiffened padded quilt held in a metal frame and filled with cushions, this iteration includes a small leather-covered writing surface that is perfectly positioned for my computer. According to the caption, the Alcove’s unusually high back and sides allow ‘the user to withdraw physically and psychologically from surrounding activity’, and I am doing just that. I am sufficiently tucked away that when the odd visitor peeks his or her head around the side of my chair they start and retreat, embarrassed that they have invaded my privacy.
Only the second exhibitors ever to occupy this space, the Bouroullecs have eschewed structural devices and props in favour of showing a selection of their designs, drawings and prototypes. The result feels light, both in physical heft and luminosity. Shaped like a long, narrow rectangular box, the gallery has a glass wall at either end, and both views – downtown Metz on one side and a construction site on the other – are visible from every point in the room. In front of the window toward the town side there is a structure made of Polystyrene portholes (Cloud Modules, 1999) that lets you line up Metz’s landmarks – its bulky Gothic cathedral and neon-lit Ferris wheel – in its circular frames. From where I’m sitting, looking toward the other end, I can see a lorry beetling around a large muddy plot, presumably in pursuit of culturally driven regeneration.
Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec have been working together in Paris since the late 1990s. Alongside their ongoing collaboration with Vitra, they have designed for a number of major manufacturers including Alessi, Ligne Roset, Kartell and Magis, and they also make one-off or limited-edition pieces for the Parisian design gallery Kreo. They are the most internationally visible and inventive French product designers of their generation, and the Centre Pompidou-Metz’s decision to grant them the museum’s first solo show is a statement of institutional intent.
Among the earlier works shown in this exhibition is a bed on legs called Lit Clos, produced as a ‘prospective work’ for Kreo in 2000. Light on its feet, it is a sleeping cabin that aims to promote intimacy without claustrophobia. Of the most recent pieces, the most spectacular is Textile Field, a version of which was installed in the Raphael Cartoon Court at the V&A in September 2011. A large, low, multicoloured tilted surface made of textile and padding, it promotes both lounging and low-key acrobatics (its sides are at the perfect angle for a forward roll). Common to both these designs, and a thread that runs through the Bouroullecs’ work, is a sense of hovering – a subtle detachment from the world around. As implied by the exhibition’s title, ‘Bivouac’, the designers have a bent toward the unfixed that lends their pieces a disarming formal tentativeness. In the best possible sense, their entire oeuvre feels prospective.
In keeping with the idea of the impermanent interior, over the last decade the Bouroullecs have designed several different modular screens, the most successful of which are Algues (Vitra, 2004) and Clouds (Kvadrat, 2008) – the former made from injection-moulded polyamide and the latter from thermo-compressed foam and fabric. Both are based on a single, simple form that can be multiplied and combined to make endlessly complex structures, a method of expansion inspired by plants and minerals. Within the exhibition, the Bouroullecs deploy their screens to divide the gallery and create moments of drama. Not only designers of these systems, they are also the best advocates for their potential practical and theatrical uses.
In an interview in the exhibition guide, the Bouroullecs offset the Modernist mantra of form and function with the more forgiving concept of comfort and the prosaic notion of cost. They talk about grasping ‘the quintessence of the “profession”’, by which they mean making products that are part of the culture of design but at the same time test its conceptual and technical limits. In addition to a wall of sketches and a handful of prototypes, the show represents their process in a 12-minute three-screen film. Slightly slowed and silent but for the sounds of the scrunch of scissors or the scratch of a pen, it is a meditative affair. Design is shown as a protracted business of thinking and making. The film rejects back-of-the-envelope brilliance, but it suggests heroism of another kind: it has a touch of the triumphant nerd about it.
‘Bivouac’ makes it possible to fantasize about a different relationship with stuff, a life in which things can be endlessly rearranged to better meet your needs. Sadly, however, the show’s surroundings – not least the execution of architect Shigeru Ban’s design for the museum – bring you down to earth. From a distance, the Centre Pompidou-Metz’s canopy appears to float like a handkerchief in the wind, but up close, the nuts, bolts and metal struts make it look more like a folding umbrella. For all its appeal, the quality of lightness proves extremely elusive.