A complete and transversal object

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec have rekindled their long-standing relationship with Established & Sons to create the welcoming but radical CASSETTE sofa. We talks to Ronan about how the project came about and the unlikely inspiration behind the design.

For fans of contemporary design, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec need little introduction. The Bouroullecs are unbound by the conventional parameters of furniture design, extending out into exhibitions, installations, pavilions and small architectural projects. Each of their designs reflects an awareness of the use of space. Over the past 20 years, the brothers have made a name for themselves with designs that express a carefully considered balance between the rational and the emotional – an approach that is perhaps reflected in their decision to maintain a studio in Paris and a workshop in Brittany, where they grew up. This relationship is echoed in the combination of industrial materials, design languages and traditional craftsmanship in their work, or as Ronan puts it, the “elementary, almost ancestral, manufacturing methods which produce diversity”. Each design is an attempt to find something new, by revising an archetypal structure or through innovations in technology and manufacturing, and – despite usually knowing where they want to get to with a project – they embrace a kind of naivety towards their objects and spaces wherever possible.

ERB 2018 ES Cassette sofa Photo credit Morgane Le Gall 05

“There never is a precise source of inspiration in any of our designs, even if obvious references can be found in each of them,” explains Ronan. “In particular, our diverse and common passions for Native American objects, American design, but also medieval design, and of course furniture by Prouvé, Perriand, Le Corbusier, architecture, and Japanese design.”

Today, the Bouroullec brothers are among a handful of names regularly cited by other designers around the world as a reference and inspiration. With their time stretched between manufacturers and clients all over the world, pinning the designers down for a studio visit can be hard work. But the relationship between the Bouroullecs and Established & Sons is not just work – it’s a long-standing friendship that has been built over ten years and three collaborations, developed in “absolute and total harmony” explains Ronan.

“In general, we work with very few furniture companies,” says Ronan. “With Established & Sons, we see that we share the same philosophy, the same passion for creative freedom, for constructive rigour, for a certain form of freshness, away from purely industrial and marketing criteria.”

For Established & Sons’ 2018 collection, launching at Milan design week, the brothers have created Cassette, a sofa that has been four years in the making. It is an evolution of a basic principle that was explored with one of those earlier collaborations, the Quilt sofa from 2009.

Now a 21st-century design classic, the honeycomb-upholstered Quilt grew out of the idea of creating a seat that was as welcoming as a duvet or a blanket. Quilt offered the best of two worlds in Erwan’s eyes: “There are two kinds of sofas: there are the Italian sofas; the design sofa which is quite often not so comfortable with a low back and flat surface. It is incredibly clean and it is for the white cube apartment. And then you see the local sofa; it is more comfortable, usually the form and the padding is bad quality but it will have a high back, a good profile. I think in the design world things can become a little too formal and lost. We are more interested in bringing a particular comfort and creating something that at least will hold a lot of the body.”

ERB 2018 ES Cassette sofa Photo credit Morgane Le Gall 06 ERB 2018 ES Cassette sofa Photo credit Morgane Le Gall 01

At first glance, the relationship between Cassette and Quilt might not be obvious. Where Quilt has curves and is covered in plush, bouncy upholstery, Cassette has straight lines, with an entirely exposed structure and deep, rectangular cushions. But it offers a different kind of flexibility – Ronan suggests taking the generous cushions off the sofa and arranging them on the floor to create a bed – and there is no compromise on comfort. “Between Quilt and Cassette, it is not obvious which one is the most comfortable,” says Ronan. “In French, a cassette means a small box in which to lock up something precious. A sort of case, a cocoon. This is our message with this sofa. To make it a kind of alcove, a sofa to gather on.” “We first thought of the project four years ago, and it stuck in a corner of our minds, as is often the case,” he explains.

“The idea with Erwan was to create a sofa, but most of all something new, very uncomplicated, very different, and that would look nothing like what we had done so far. Cassette is a complete and transversal object, a condensed precision.”

The Bouroullecs’ recent work has tended towards modularity in some form or other, but Cassette imagines something more elemental and permanent. The folded frame, made from powder-coated steel and wood panels, began life as a series of experiments with cardboard, folded in a variety of ways to examine different forms and possibilities. The potential austerity of the stripped back frame, with its rectangular structures, is mitigated by the generous cushions, upholstered in fabrics selected for their tactility.

“We imagined a simple, not to say brutal, structure,” says Ronan. “We played around with cardboard folds for the frame, but opted for maximum comfort for the seat, the backrest and the sides thanks to oversized and enveloping cushions covered with a voluptuous fabric. That’s what interested us about the project, working with a new form of rigor, with strong contrasts, and a clash between linearity and sensuality, between wood and wool. Contradictions that can nonetheless come together as one entity.”

“Our sofa is in fact a wooden and metal structure folded and assembled, a rather mechanical and austere construction where the entire structure is visible, which ultimately is warm, welcoming and simple.” Although Cassette will be available in a variety of upholstery fabrics, for their ideal version of the sofa, the Bouroullecs have selected a fabric from Parisian textile house Pierre Frey. Called Louison, the material is a combination of wool and alpaca, and is a 21st-century update on a textile.
Pierre Frey first created in the 1980s. “This is the first time we’ve worked with maison Pierre Frey, and especially with such luxurious fabrics,” says Ronan. “The weave is very soft, and comes in white tones, ecru and neutral in a minimalist style that echoes the spirit of Cassette. Something extremely sensual, a bit animalistic too.” Cassette is a true partnership between the designer and Established & Sons. It reflects the brand’s new, more market- focused and practical approach, it is also an example of the experimental, unfettered openness to ideas that continues to make working with Established & Sons so appealing for designers.

ERB 2018 ES Cassette sofa Photo credit Morgane Le Gall 02

Words by Anna Winston and Serge Leizes

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