At the age of 42, french designer Mathieu Lehanneur is one of the most famous names in the design industry in France. Creatively, he combines design, science, art and technology like few. In order to create his science-inspired humanistic projects, the designer considers human beings as complex structures which need more than chairs, but need air to breathe, sustainable food, good health, and love to live better.
And though he’s inspired by nature, Lehanneur isn’t interested in biomimicry, but rather in the symbiosis between living and synthetic materials, often to solve environmental problems. Mathieu Lehanneur designs for many brands and he creates spectacular projects and that is why he means inspiration for so many people. In this exclusive interview, Lehanneur fans will know more about the fine line between one-off pieces and art, his influences and current projects and what are going to be his next steps.
What originally made you want to become a designer?
Most of the time we read or hear designers saying that they started to draw and design when they were kids. Frankly at the beginning, I was more focused on becoming a visual artist. So, I started to study art, but after five or six months I decided to stop, because it was quite open, quite inspirational in terms of feelings. In art, you are very free, very autonomous, and I was feeling that I was needing a kind of question, I was looking for a problem, for something to solve. I wanted a client to give me a question, to ask me to solve a problem. So, I changed my mind, and when I was around 20 I decided to apply to design school.
When I arrived there, I remember a big jury and they asked me ‘who is your favorite designer’, and I didn’t know even one. I was coming from art school and was not aware about design at all. So I said that I admired the designer / engineer who invented the escalator because it’s functional and beautiful, and I kept wondering how a mind could imagine a moving staircase. While I couldn’t give any name to the jury, my answer captivated them and they accepted me.
What particular aspects of your background and upbringing have shaped your design principles and philosophies?
I am the youngest of a family of seven children. I grew up in a micro-society in which the needs and desires of each one had to go after the group’s, the family needs. Whatever the city or country in which we live, we all live in this situation of frequent confrontation between our own desires and the common interest. I probably became a designer to try to find solutions for the greatest number of people while attaching myself to understand and take care of each individual.
To pay my design studies I went ‘guinea pig’ for the pharmaceutical industry. I tested drugs before they went to market. I could be hospitalized for several days or weeks, I had time to think. I saw at that time drugs as a beautiful design subject, but also as a perfect metaphor of design that I would love to produce: a magical and therapeutic object. An object that does not reveal its function immediately and remains mysterious. Finally, I saw an object that can be applied to the soul and spirit as much as it is for the body.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work to date?
The moment I was saved by an airbag. In one hundredth of a second, the airbag became for me the best object ever designed. It is totally forgotten, invisible, it is made mostly of air, but it knows you before you need it, and it saves your life without asking anything in return.
How would you describe your approach to design?
Better with. You can live without, but your life will be more beautiful with!
Could you tell us about what projects you are working on at the moment?
We are working on the Louvre café, where you continuously have to explain that you always need to respect the place, always respect everything of the existing building. So it’s kind of a paradox, the Louvre and the city of Paris; two places that always want to move forward, but also want to remain strictly historical, and exactly like it was. What is interesting in this project is the location because it’s located within a strategic point of the museum. On one side you have an amazing view including the exhibition rooms full of paintings and an amazing perspective; and on the other side you get the tuileries garden and the middle of that is the café.
The interesting project is to find out the few elements that make this café interesting, and one of the main points of the project is that the ceiling is quite high. You cannot touch anything in the Louvre, not the floors, walls or ceilings. There’s a big floor lamp just to feel the pressure of the void, three long elements made of brass that occupy this void that is quite visible from the exhibition rooms, three big balls of light can be seen, just to keep the perspective open. In terms of the chairs, we were on light and white elements.
What is your motto?
End my life by telling myself that I could not do more and I could not do better. End my life tired but glad and delighted to have lived so well.