Close menu

La collaboration avec Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec

François Pinault entrusted the design of the Bourse de Commerce’s interior and exterior furnistings to the breton designers Ronan and Erwan (born in Quimper in 1971 and 1976, respectively) Bouroullec. In this conversation, the brothers look back at how their respective paths have differed, met, and complement one another, leading to their very first museum projet in Paris.


What are your earliest memories of Paris, or your initial impressions of your very first visit here?

Ronan Bouroullec I was seventeen years old at the time. In the Quimper library, there was probably one single book on design, maybe three about architecture. I was deeply attached to Brittany, where I had grown up, but Paris was the city I wanted to discover, where I hoped to study. This was back in another era, pre-Internet, before any kind of security checks were in place in public spaces. Beaubourg, with its library and forum, was the epicenter of creative energies, a place of improvised encounters, spontaneous debates, occasional fights…

I was too shy to take part in this hectic life but I liked to feel the rhythm of the city, its pulse, its vibrations.

Erwan Bouroullec For me, the city revealed itself in successive stages, since I first lived out in the suburbs. In fact, my first sightings of the Bourse de Commerce were from the RER exit at Les Halles for several years! Today, what I like about Paris is its diversity. You can choose to be invisible here, to lead the life you want.


How and when did you start working together?

RB Luckily, my very first exhibition, when I was only eighteen, was a success, and I was able to start working as soon as I’d finished my studies. There is a five-year age gap between Erwan and I, which is nothing today, but at the time it seemed bigger. He had just arrived and was studying at the Beaux-Arts in Cergy. One day—I must have been twenty-four years old—he came to give me a hand with a move, and he never left. EB When I came to work with Ronan, I discovered the pleasure of working as part of a team: with my brother on the one hand, and in collaboration with manufacturers. In retrospect, I don’t think I was cut out for the solitude of the artist’s studio.

RB And now we’re like an old couple! Our bulimic curiosity brings us closer together and is illustrated in the variety of our projects: some of our designs are produced in bulk and sold all over the world, while we also design one-of-a-kind, tailor-made projects, calling on very sophisticated craftsmanship.


How would you describe your job?

RB I have a hard time defining exactly what a designer does, given that everything that doesn’t grow naturally on this earth is a product of design.

EB Our job is to have ideas, which are then reproduced and enter into people’s lives and become anchored in reality. It is very pleasant to place the individual, and therefore practicality and functionality, at the heart of our design process. I think of life as a forest: from a fallen tree, we build a chair; from a canopy, a shelter from the sun… Objects are part of the landscape; our role is to identify them, to appropriate them, to activate them. It is this tension that motivates the designer: beyond its functionality, how much should an object be a means of expression?


And what are the various roles of the members of your design team?

RB There are about ten of us. We use various different research methods: we make models out of clay and wire, we have an extraordinary 3D printer, a 3D assistant, a Japanese collaborator who has a very precise understanding of scale and who translates the sketches I make very precisely… We also collaborate a lot in the outside world: it is important to continue to supply work to fabricators and craftsmen. They need to renew their language in order to survive.


Which project generated the most debate among you two?

RB As I was saying, we’re like an old couple! We have a very artisanal way of working, with an obsessive attention to detail. The smallest detail can prompt endless debates.

EB What generates the most discussion among us is the value of the project itself. We need to believe in our clients’ vision; we need the care they devote to fabrication to match our own; we have to share the common goal of elevating our culture, even if the function of the object in question is banal. Once we’ve agreed to take on a commission, we work by iteration and subtraction: we deconstruct, we eliminate the superfluous, we go straight to the point. We spend endless hours redesigning every last detail; and each time we make the slightest alteration to a design, we make a new prototype, so that we can identify what is missing, what can still be eliminated. Whereas the architect advances by addition, the designer advances by subtraction. An object must be made of very few components.


In our era of digital design, computer graphics, and the impulse toward instant gratification, what importance do you attach to drawing by hand, to constructing prototypes and models?

RB I am very sensitive to sensations, to perceptions, and I need to experience something physically in order to make a decision: to measure volumes, touch the materials, appreciate the light, feel shapes… When a chair is delivered, I discover it first by touching it, blindly, before I look at it. At the same time, we’re both fascinated by digital tools and new technology, which have changed completely over the past twenty years, with an obvious impact on the pace of production. For me, given that I love to work on all kinds of different projects at the same time, this is a golden opportunity! I love our complex, modern life that combines practices, where you can be passionate about a door handle you find at a flea market or make extraordinary discoveries on Instagram.


How do you manage your different timelines—the long span of time that governs the design and manufacturing processes, and the short time, that of the image and of communication?

EB We live in a complex, paradoxical, strange time: on the one hand, the speed of circulation of information, goods, and people has exploded, while on the other hand, project implementation and decision-making is taking longer and longer. Michel Serres pointed out that long ago knowledge was memory; while today, decoding the contemporary world requires us to have an understanding of choice and analysis. And I am not sure that we possess that intelligence! Ronan and I are committed to very simple principles: to the quality of the manufacturing process and the honesty of the objects, that they are transparent and that their DNA is visible, that they can communicate their functionality, their preciousness, their fragility, their durability…

RB Each project progresses at its own speed: some are driven with great urgency, others remain stuck in inertia and doubt. Design is a frustrating discipline because the process is slow: between the initial concept and its arrival in stores, years of work can go by.This long time, which is also linked to the multidisciplinary nature of the professions involved, is self-sustaining, because it encourages moments of doubt and questioning. Even when we work for different manufacturers and clients, who have their own means of communication, punctual in nature, we maintain a parallel conversation, using our own images, to bring a visual coherence to our projects. To me, there is little hierarchy among our various projects: I am happy to have been invited to design the fountains on the Champs-Élysées, and I’m just as proud to have a project on a small square in Poitiers and to be working with the best lacquerers in the world, in Japan.



What is your relationship with Japan?

RB We are obsessed with Japan! It’s a fascinating, enigmatic country, with a complex history and a codified society, which has been able to preserve breathtakingly intricate crafts for centuries. I’ve been fortunate to visit Japan several times, most recently Kyoto, to work with craftsmen who restore temples according to secular techniques.


How do you understand Tadao Ando’s work? Here at the Bourse de Commerce, and elsewhere?

EB Ando is unique is his respect and appreciation for what already exists. Time has an incredible way of embellishing, enriching, and reinforcing, in an intangible way. With infinite delicacy, Ando subjugates the value of time, that is, of our inheritance from the past, whether in an urban or a natural context. I especially appreciate the choices he made in giving new life to the Bourse de Commerce: endowing the geometric purity of the circle with a spiritual, almost acred, or contemplative, charge… I call it the science of building. And this lends itself perfectly to the intended use of the space, as a museum.

RB  In 1999 or 2000, Issey Miyake asked us to design one of his stores in Japan, even though we had never done interior design before. He invited us to his first exhibition in 2001, and as soon as we landed in Tokyo, we were taken to a conference with Tadao Ando! After that, I spent a lot of time in the pavilion he built for Vitra, near Basel, and had the chance to visit some of his buildings. I am very sensitive to the monochromatic nature of his work.


You work with fabric, ceramics, metal, rope, glass… What is your favorite material, the one you could call your signature style?

RB I am fascinated by creators who spend their lives on a single millimeter, on a single subject, on a single vocabulary. I don’t think there is a hierarchy of materials or colors. I love the range of possibilities that plastic presents as much as the preciousness of an ancestral practice like Japanese lacquer. At the moment, textiles are once again becoming one of our favorite subjects. For the Bourse de Commerce, we’re working in the north of France with Jacquard machines that have been in use for a century. We’ve discovered a whole world!


Compared to industrial design, how do you approach design for public spaces?

RB Design is a discipline motivated by empathy: each subject has a particular flavor and a singular problem. I’ve never had a problem with the idea of industrial reproduction: on the contrary, I’m in favor of this means of sharing our ideas with as many people as possible. We never wanted to limit ourselves to prestigious orders and confidential projects. Accepting projects in the public space is part of this attitude.



How will you approach the rue de Viarmes, which surrounds the Bourse de Commerce and its square?

RB This perfectly cylindrical space around the Bourse, between the rue du Louvre and the Nelson Mandela garden, is a very unique feature in Paris. Once the rue de Viarmes is closed to car traffic, it will be completely integrated into the pedestrian area. One of the main challenges was to make the cultural role of the building visible from the outside—to imagine a gesture, both discreet and strong, that would give off a signal.


This is the first time you are responsible for the design of a museum and its restaurant. What challenge do you remember most?

RB This project is indeed unprecedented, for us. The most challenging part was figuring out how to treat the entrance, reception, and circulation areas as domestic spaces—that is, how to make them welcoming, warm, on a human scale. The visitor must find softness, a source of appeasement.


How was working with Michel Bras?

RB Michel was a little worried when we first met him. He is a very shy man who is in total control of what he does… like ourselves, actually! We soon got along quite well. Although our professions are quite different—I would never go into the details of his seasonings, and he’ll never set foot in our kitchen—they both prioritize research, ambition, application, care, and then the sophistication of the details.


How would you define hospitality? How does one live in a museum?

RB What I immediately liked about the architectural project of the Bourse de Commerce is how it emphasizes natural light and its openness to the outside world— since I am quite claustrophobic!

EB Hospitality is inconspicuous courtesy. It means expressing to visitors—in an imperceptible, yet paradoxically obvious manner—that they are welcome, that they are invited to sit down, to read, to slow down, to reflect, to be moved, to contemplate: we must create the conditions for them to enjoy a moment all their own.


What was the work of contemporary art that first marked you?

RB What really influenced me was the discovery, in a bookstore in Quimper, of a book of photographs of Donald Judd’s museum and foundation in Marfa. It seems almost conventional today, but at the time it was less so, especially for Quimper! It was a book in German that I was never able to read—so a real fantasy—that has always remained my book of reference to this day.

EB With Ronan, we were lucky to have, as children, a drawing teacher who took advantage of every opportunity to show us art, at the former Quimper Art Center or at the Kerguehennec estate. I remember mainly the paintings of Jean Hélion but also the works of Tony Grand, Mario Merz, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Janis Kounellis… Today, my absolute reference is Donald Judd, and I particularly appreciate the works of Malcolm Morley and Philip Guston.



Do you collect art? What is your relationship to the collection?

RB I don’t collect. I enjoy looking at certain places, objects, landscapes, but I don’t particularly like to own or to be surrounded by things.

The restaurant

The restaurant
The restaurant

   Michel and Sébastien Bras © Bras


François Pinault has decided to entrust the Bourse de Commerce’s restaurant, which will be located at the top of the building, to renowned father-and-son team Michel and Sébastien Bras – the next step in the impressive culinary journey, which has taken them from their native Aubras region to Japan, and now to Paris.

Michel Bras’s story begins in the En countryside region of Aubrac. The Bras were cooks for generations—while his father was a blacksmith, his mother, a housewife, was constrained, for pecuniary reasons, to take a position as a full-time cook. As a child, Michel spent his youth in a furnace—of the forge, the oven, the stove. His character was formed during long hours of physical labor, fed by the happiness that comes from gathering loved ones around a dinner table. Even as an innocent child, he was able to perceive the magic of cooking, which he would one day make his own.

Michel grew up on this elevated plateau, this rocky climb, whipped by cold winds, in the Alto Braco region, a territory that straddles three départements—Cantal, Lozère, and Aveyron. The young boy learned to recognize the different wild herbs and flowers that grow there. He developed a strong constitution of flesh, silence, sky, and earth.

We might encounter the boy running through the green fields, pausing to gather queens of the-meadow, sorrel, picolingo stinging his tongue — later, in Vietnam, he would discover its Asian counterpart, rau-raum, coriander with a sharp flavor. He would gather fresh garlic, fresh goosefoots, following his instincts. He didn’t know it at the time, but he would eventually bring all those native herbs and plants into his kitchen and use them to flavor his dishes. The Aubrac region, with its powerful alchemy, determined his fate: he would become a cook.

Bras uses the myriad plants and flowers of the region in his cooking: his poetic gastronomy is inspired by the “natural fortress” in which he grew up, “this desert, in which the sky, minerals, vegetables, everything brings us back to basics.” Twenty-five years ago, with his wife Gi, he took over the premises of Le Délaissé (or the abandoned, the forsaken), so called because no one was interested in farming the land. Together, Bras would set it on a new path and transform its past.

Daringly Bras wanted to convey a contemplative vision of l’Aubrac, to stay as close as possible to nature. The architecture and design of his restaurant reflects this intention: a glass bubble, perched on the edge of a meadow, like a dewdrop. A gurgling stream merrily crosses their property. Bras has brought a new energy to Le Suquet, once abandoned. Visitors come from near and far to eat there. It was there that Bras invented le Gargouillou, a unique dish that has become renowned across the world.

Eventually his son Sébastien joined him, along with his wife Véronique, who together with Gi maintain harmony and tranquility. Father and son share an attachment to the land, the fields, rivers, and forests; they have in common a childhood spent on these lands, a keen awareness of the changing seasons. They traveled together, feeding their imagination both near and far. One day, they were invited to open a restaurant on the island of Hokkaido. Like in Lagardelle, where they grow silver sorrel, mint geranium, valerian, and fennel—plants gathered across the world—they would build a garden, an entire ecosystem, in Japan. The inspiration of these two sons of the Aubrac region knows no frontiers. While one feels a connection with the Fula people of South Africa, the other makes his own miso, using lentils from the Planèze region. Michel and Sébastien are open to all sources of inspiration.

They were invited to open a restaurant in Rodez, alongside the work of painter Pierre Soulages; in the hall of the musée Soulages, you can now find the Café Bras. The architecture of the building perfectly suits both Soulages’s outrenoir works and their style of cuisine: they have in common a refinement and purity of lines. Art is a universal language that adopts many different guises; gastronomy, like painting—or photography, Michel’s preferred hobby—is a metaphor. It gives meaning to the world. And it constantly reinvents and renews itself, incorporates new sources of inspiration. Never concerned with fashion, always true to itself. Such is, I believe, their simple truth!


Corinne Pradier, writer