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Jeff Rian caught up with Matali at her home/studio outside of Paris.
JEFF: Your work is remised on the importance of functionality.
MATALI: Yes. The basic facts the purpose and the context determine my materials and the shape of my designs. I'm not driven by aesthetics it's more a matter of logic and methodology. When I designed my guest bed, it had to be as compact as possible I imagined having to store it in a very small space. So I designed a mattress that can be folded up into a vertical column. The bed also needed to be lightweight and easy to move, so I used cotton and high-density foam.
JEFF: A lot of well-known designers don't consider the realities of everyday life.
MATALI: Designers often don't address the way we actually live. There is fluidity among all our everyday actions, but the organization of our homes is still very compartmentalized. The office is for working, and the kitchen for cooking. But many people work at the same table where they eat.
JEFF: In 2001, you designed an armchair with built-in foldout bookshelves.
MATALI: I designed it for my friend Hugo. He likes to relax with a drink and a book, so I made him a chair with a place to rest his things. When I'm designing a home for a client, I try to make sure that the layout is adaptable, to ensure that it can accommodate the unexpected changes in life an out-of-town guest, for example, or a baby.
JEFF: You yourself work from home. In fact, you designed your own house.
MATALI: My studio and living space are separated by only a door. It makes sense for the two areas to be connected, because for me there is little distinction between living and working. If I come up with an idea at home over the weekend, I can immediately go to my studio. And I can also spend more time with my children.
JEFF: You have two young kids. Have you designed anything specifically for them?
MATALI: No. I don't design separate pieces for adults and kids. I really hate miniaturized adult furniture. But I do like to hear what kids have to say about my work. There's no hypocrisy, you know?
JEFF: Adults can't always distinguish between what they really like and what they think they should like.
MATALI: A lot of people are more concerned with status than function when buying furniture. They want a beautiful home with expensive carpeting and curtains. They'll buy a fancy leather couch, and then forbid the kids to play on it! What's worse, a sofa isn't even used for sitting down to talk anymore people just use it to watch TV. There's no conviviality.
JEFF: But spaces and furniture can inspire social interactions.
MATALI: Yes. I recently designed a shopping area for teengers on the basement level of a BHV store outside of Paris. It's called L'Annexe du BHV. I wanted the design to make shopping a more personal, interactive experience. I designed the area so that it breathes with life. It's a huge open space divided into four sections. Usually, stores have solid walls lined with products. Here, each section is delineated by a hexagonal frame, open on all sides. The center of the room where the customer enters is like the heart from which everything circulates.
JEFF: BHV is a big chain department store. They sell home improvement products, like Home Depot does in the States.
MATALI: But L'Annexe du BHV is really different. It's a place where teenagers can go to browse or just hang out. Nowadays, stores are no longer places in their own right, they're merely warehouses for brands. I wanted to shift the focus from the brand to the relationship between the shop, its location, and its customers. L'Annexe has a strong connection to the community. Local designers sell their wares there, and community organizations have a presence.
JEFF: You chose vibrant shades of green for the walls, ceiling, and floor of L'Annexe to appeal to teenaged consumers. Why did you use bright orange for the pigeon house you designed for a public park in Caudry in northern France.
MATALI: Buildings in Northern France are traditionally built of dark orange brick, but the client wanted to portray bird-training as an exciting contemporary activity. I imagined the pigeon house as a capsule that had landed in the park. So I took the orange color and made it more vivid. I liked the way the bright orange contrasted dramatically with the green of the grass and trees.
JEFF: Was your client pleased?
MATALI: I don't see the point in working on a project if no one is going to like it. When I started my own design studio in 1998, I showed my first collection of furniture at the Milan Furniture Fair. I wanted to gauge the public's response to see if I could pull off. That week, I watched as people looked at my work and they were smiling! Their positive reaction encouraged me to keep making furniture. In fact, I'm going to open my own store soon so I can get direct feedback all the time.
JEFF: It will be in Paris?
MATALI: Yes, on the Rue des Filles du Calvaire. When I worked on the Hi Hotel in Nice, two DJs, Laurent Garnier and Eric Morand, curated the music for the hotel lobby and rooms. We realized we all wanted a place to display our work for the public. They wanted a store where they could sell all of their CDs, not just the current ones. And my distribution is, let's say, a bit shy. So, we started planning our new shop together. It's called Lieu Commun, which means "shared space" in French. But it's more than that. Lieu commun also implies that everybody is welcome.
JEFF: You initially studied marketing, not design, at the École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle in Paris.
MATALI: That's right. I was working on a group exercise a perfume launch and, on a whim, I volunteered to design the bottle and the packaging. That's when I realized I was much more interested in design. It was a revelation.
JEFF: So you changed direction and began to study design.
MATALI: Yes. The École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle is a unique school. It encourages students to be creative independent thinkers and develop a personal style. Nowadays, when I lead workshops at design schools, I'm always amazed at how students aren't encouraged to think about a concept. They jump on to the computer and begin working on an animation before they've engaged the idea itself.
JEFF: After that, you moved to Milan to work for the noted Italian industrial designer, Denis Santachiara.
MATALI: I showed my senior thesis project at the Milan Triennial that year, and used the opportunity to approach Denis. I had always admired his work, and I felt that we shared an interest in domesticating technology.
JEFF: Santachiara uses technology to infuse his designs with warmth and a human touch.
MATALI: Yes. We both try to bring poetry to home design, and address the small aspects of daily life "the little nothings," as we call them. Working with Denis was wonderful. I discovered that you don't have to change your way of thinking just because you're working for somebody else. It gave me such confidence.
JEFF: He seems like a real influence are you two still in touch?
MATALI: Oh yes. We had dinner together in Milan just last week. Our relationship isn't one of a master and pupil we're collaborators who share a sensibility. We try to work on projects together whenever we can. In fact, we both contributed designs to Beijing's first Architectural Biennial just last year. We seem to be made of the same fiber.
JEFF: In 1993, you began working for Philippe Starck in Paris.
MATALI: I started out making lamps and furniture for the Philippe Starck Agency. After six months I was invited to work at Thim Thom, Starck's design center for the electronics giant, Thomson Multimedia. My first project was a design overhaul of not just one line, but of all their products.
JEFF: That must have been very exciting for a young designer.
MATALI: It taught me how much more important function is than style. We designed an oval-shaped radio with a flexible antenna to look like a Brancusi head it was very beautiful. But then we did a market survey, and the overwhelming response was that it looked like a mouse! It was a total shock. I realized that I have to base a design on something more universal than shapes, because not everyone interprets them in the same way. For me, that universal is our little domestic habits.