When Design Stars (and Brothers) Collide

Since the turn of the millennium, when the French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec emerged as international product design prodigies while still in their 20s — hailed as the most famous French design stars since Philippe Starck — they have taken equal credit for almost everything they have brought into the world.

A modular office desk with the propped-elbow informality of a French farmhouse table. A bright green room divider that spreads chaotically like algae. A fat, curvy sofa that resembles a piece of overripe fruit. Elemental furnishings for the Bourse de Commerce, an 18th-century commodities exchange in Paris transformed into a contemporary art museum.

It was impossible to know where one sibling’s contributions ended and the other’s began.

Their work is enshrined in the permanent collections of the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Design Museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art.

For a decade, however, the Bouroullecs have been quietly following forking paths. And now they have brought their partnership to an end. They recently moved out of their shared studio in the 10th Arrondissement in Paris and into individual spaces nearby, where they will turn out projects — often for the same clients — under their own names.

“I want a different type of direction,” said Ronan, 52, on a recent call from France. “It’s really an organic happenstance.”

In a separate conversation, Erwan, 47, said that creation was “a burning energy, like you burn from the desire of making something. The pressure was not possible anymore for us to cope with.”

Both brothers spoke of their tendency to clash energetically (and according to several accounts, publicly) as a constructive force that had become corrosive. They fought over the legions of details, large and small, that arise in the long and ponderous process of turning a sketch into a mass-manufactured object.

“It was sometimes funny, they really had big arguments and shouting during work sessions,” recalled Rolf Fehlbaum, the chairman emeritus of Vitra, the Swiss producer of many Bouroullec (pronounced BOOR-el-eck) classics. “It was not embarrassing to them that everybody could listen, but it was useful. They were productive fights.”

Ronan said of their skirmishes, “No one who was not a brother could have faced it.” At a certain point, he added, the confrontations became disabling “because I think both of us already fight with ourselves.”

But now that the Bouroullecs have lost their own best external critics — each other — and are lighting out into independent territories, what will be the effect on their work and their cultural impact? Have they absorbed so many common skills and habits through their long and intense collaboration that their designs will continue to look like emanations from a single brain? Or will they diverge creatively as well as professionally?

“I think we’re going to see in the future maybe the differences that we cannot really see today,” said Clémence Krzentowski, a founder of Galerie Kreo, a Parisian space that has produced limited editions of some of the brothers’ most adventurous designs and, until a couple of years ago, exhibited their personal artworks collectively. (A solo show of Ronan’s latest drawings and ceramics is on view there through Jan. 13; his works are also on Artsy.)

Their designs continue to be mainstays of major museum exhibitions, from the Bourse to biennials to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But for those who were paying attention, the last year has served as a test of their solo public identities.

In April, Flos, an Italian lighting company with many Bouroullec projects under its belt (including a leather ceiling lamp called Belt), presented the brothers for the first time as individual creative forces. Flos showed Ronan’s set of three ceramic lamps with light beams pointing in different directions, and Erwan’s triangular columns that disguise the illumination source entirely.

The Danish textile company Kvadrat introduced fabrics inspired by Ronan’s intensely colored fine art drawings, abstractions that seem to ripple from their surfaces like materials conjured from air. It has also made Erwan the creative director of a division reinventing the roller blind.

And now there is “Ronan Bouroullec,” a book Phaidon published this fall filled with hundreds of photographs the elder sibling took from 2014 through 2022 and originally posted on Instagram. (The subtitle is “Day After Day.”)

Erwan receives tribute in the book’s brief introductory text and acknowledgments. But this is Ronan’s visual diary — “a self-portrait,” as he described it — with repeated glimpses of his daughter, his cats, his house in the brothers’ native Brittany and the artworks that his acquaintances said have become increasingly central to him.

Product design is rife with teamwork. Most of the objects created for domestic life — furniture, flatware, flower vases, light fixtures — are developed by cohorts, most of whose members wouldn’t dream of getting personal credit, much less becoming famous names.

But sometimes this world hatches celebrities, like the vacuum king James Dyson, the impish maximalist Philippe Starck, the Apple Computer visionary Jony Ive and the edgy Pop artisan/potter Jonathan Adler, not to mention architects like Zaha Hadid who flourished separately through their furniture.

And sometimes designers make their marks as people related by marriage or family ties, tugging at the mysterious bonds of intimacy, or feeding on competitive energy.

When Anders Byriel, the chief executive of Kvadrat, described the Bouroullecs as “the Charles and Ray Eames of our time,” he was not just complimenting the brothers’ era-defining ingenuity — their wraparound seating that creates private nooks (Alcove for Vitra), their lights that hang from the ceiling like jungle vines (Aim for Flos), or their modular, sound-absorbing textiles that look like sculpture (Cloud for Kvadrat). He was comparing them with creative (albeit married) partners who labored — who knows how equitably? — behind a seamless facade. (Decades after the Eameses died, in a testament to the mysteriousness of intimate creative associations, the question of who did what and how well is still being debated.)

According to more than a dozen clients and friends interviewed for this article, the Bouroullecs have always shown contrasting temperaments and affinities. Some described Ronan as the more “poetic” of the two, sensitive to color and savoring artisanal processes like glassblowing and ceramics, while Erwan leaned into technological advancements and into products like the brothers’ Serif television for Samsung.

Of the pair, Erwan has “a harder line, a harder edge, a harder personality,” said Gregg Buchbinder, the owner of the American furniture company Emeco, which is getting ready to roll out an aluminum-mesh-and-wood bench called Truss on which Erwan took the lead. “He is very clever and creative, very tenacious,” Buchbinder said.

“You know that fox and hedgehog of Isaiah Berlin?” Fehlbaum said. He was referring to the British philosopher who divided thinkers into “hedgehogs,” or people who filter all experience through a single lens, and “foxes,” who entertain a flurry of ideas.

Erwan is the hedgehog, Fehlbaum said, “interested in systems, going deeply into variations.” Ronan, who whips through approaches to a design problem and bounces between painting, photography, sculpture and architecture, is the fox.

In the beginning there was no fraternal monolith, just Ronan, who found his way to design at the age of 15 after a provincial childhood in Brittany that he has said bored him to tears. He embraced the applied arts with the passion of someone on a juice fast who capitulates to a corned beef sandwich. Or as he has often described it, he got on a speeding train and never got off.

His big break came in 1997, when he exhibited a prototype for a modular kitchen at a Paris design fair that caught the eye of Giulio Cappellini, who was there scouting talent. An Italian entrepreneur, creative director and star maker, Cappellini asked to meet the kitchen’s designer.

“I was waiting 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Nothing happened, why?” Cappellini recalled. He was told that Ronan was very shy and was so unnerved by the invitation that he was off smoking a cigarette. Cappellini pulled out his own pack and went to join him. Ronan’s gyroscope-shaped Monofiore vase was the first of their many productions.

“Other designers do beautiful projects, but they look more or less all the same,” Cappellini said. “With the Bouroullecs, every time, it was a surprise.”

Erwan had entered the picture when he was still in art school and Ronan needed an extra pair of hands. The five-year age gap meant that the brothers had not been close as children, Ronan said. But “coming from the countryside, it was like when in summer you have to cut the grass. Everyone comes to help.”

By 1998, when Erwan was 22, the brothers began using both names on all their designs, including a signature early piece, an enclosed bedroom on legs called Lit Clos that had the carefree attitude of a treehouse. Designed by Erwan and presented at the 2000 Milan Furniture Fair by Cappellini, it was produced only in a limited edition. It was a sensation anyway.

Rolf Hay, who with his wife, Mette, founded the Danish furniture company Hay in 2002, recalled looking to the Bouroullecs as designers who could put his young business on the right track. In 2002, the brothers’ combined age was 55. The next year, Phaidon published their first monograph.

“To be honest, we were always working with them individually,” Hay said of the brothers. “How much they were sharing has always been for me a little bit difficult to understand.”

And now what? Hay, like many others in the Bouroullec sphere, isn’t treating the separation like a divorce that requires picking sides. The company will continue working with both brothers independently and will see how the creativity flows now that the circuit between them is broken.

The bond may be stronger than it appears. “I can see when they look at each other there’s something very, very strong between them,” Hay said. “There’s something very sensitive, and there’s a lot of love.”

Clients say they are not optimistic about a rapprochement. With the Bouroullecs, design has its Hall and Oates, though one can still hope for an Eagles outcome. “If they get back together, it will be like a comeback concert,” Byriel said.

The brothers still have joint custody of the brand they created product by product, installation by installation, from little shelves that jut from the wall like Neolithic ledges to towering fountains studded with crystals on the Champs-Élysées.

The office that continues to manage their business is located between their new, independent workplaces. “You can’t have such a success and such a collaboration” and dismantle and rebuild it easily, Erwan said. “Yes, for sure we will find ways of collaborating, but will it be for work? I’m not sure. I don’t know.”

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