Abstract artiste

Italian-inspired French designer Pierre Charpin talks to Anna Bernagozzi about his role in the design world

Pierre Charpin is often considered to be the ‘artist’ among French designers, a title with which he doesn’t fully agree. The reasons behind the title are to be found in his academic background – and he is also a professor at the University of Reins – his peculiar approach and his innate reluctance to adopt any kind of marketing oriented approach.

‘When I design I realise I have to deal with objects characterised by a more or less precise identity, says Charpin. The only intervention I dare to do on these kind of objects is to emphasise their details. By doing that I have to understand how to give a new meaning to an object with a lot of history, and how to articulate it with today’s materials and production techniques. I can also stimulate perception of it by questioning the relationship we usually establish with familiar objects.

‘My aim is not to produce something new, original or innovative. I just want to help the objects to accept their material nature with dignity by letting them assume their role of inanimate artificial constructions to help us perform our daily tasks,’ he says.

By affirming this, Charpin is reflecting on the role of the designer in society. He understands that his passion for detail could be considered superficial or irresponsible, in the context of global uncertainties and complexity. ‘Working on details means emitting discreet messages that will only make sense to those willing to hear them. In this way, the design becomes integral to a complex world where a thing and its contrary coexist inside the same system: the industrial with the handmade, the artificial with the natural, the high-tech with the archaic,’ he says.

He maintains that his work differs from that of an artist because he considers other elements such as the production process, the form, the usage and the interaction with the final user.

After his degree in fine arts in 1984, Charpin accidentally started his career as a designer in 1988 when the Parisian company Algorithme asked him to create a series of silver-plated objects under the direction of Nestor Parkal, who would later persuade Charpin to show his work in his gallery. In 1994 Charpin decided to spend time in Italy, the country of his favourite designers: Enzo Mari, Ettore Sottsass, Achille Castiglioni and Andrea Branzi. There he collaborated with the UK designer George Sowden, a leading figure in Postmodern design who in 1981 came together with Sottsass to form The Memphis Group. This experience has probably influenced Charpin’s whole design approach.

Having exhibited in several Parisian galleries, in 1995 he was offered carte blanche by the French furniture industry association VIA and he designed a series of objects in polyurethane foam and steel. At the same time he was asked to submit his red ‘narrow rocking chair’ to the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou.

These official rewards didn’t change his attitude towards design, however. Charpin went on collaborating and exhibiting in private galleries and institutions, producing a small series of objects. He experimented with materials and honed his skills as a craftsman.

This interest in materials probably started with his collaboration with the International Glass and Art Research Centre Cirva in Marseille. He says, ‘What most characterises my work done at Cirva between 1988 and 2001 is time, and more particularly the possibility of taking time.’ Before that experience he was sceptical about working with materials – in this case glass. The only reason why he accepted the proposal was the possibility to observe, learn and evaluate.

Because of the freedom given by the Cirva project, he decided to work within restrained parameters. He chose the cylinder as a form of elementary revolution of the glass-blowing technique. He was already interested in simplifying the design process in order to reduce the object to its essential qualities and allow a direct, even sensorial perception of the piece.

He then realised that his experience wasn’t directly linked to the search for new expressive qualities in the object. He started to consider the object not only for its use, but also as an integral part of a more complex whole.

Even today in his research Charpin still doesn’t want to endow each product with a meaning of its own, but rather consider its interaction with other similar products.

Charpin’s passion for what he refers to as ‘week design’ is to be found in the car prototype he designed in 1998 for the Biennale of Saint-Etienne. The car wasn’t considered to be a sculptural, iconic or pragmatic entity, but as a mere element of the landscape, of a more complex ensemble. The intent wasn’t to conceive a new car model, but to materialise an idea of car, to formulate some indications for a possible design. The simplicity of most of Charpin’s designs doesn’t have to be interpreted as a will to create ‘neutral’ objects that easily adapt to any environment, or even a simple ‘style exercise’ to create objects that better respond to the end user. He just wants to lend his objects the capacity to be considered as an extension of reality.

This is easier when the material used already carries values that have be passed from one century to another, which is why in 2000 Charpin agreed to take part in the exhibition Two Designers in Vallauris (alongside Jasper Morrison) in the workshop of Jacques Bro and curated by Paris gallery Kreo. It gave him a chance to ‘play’ with china, a material that even in today’s high-tech world depends on individuals that are capable of blending experience and skills and also on their ability to pass these skills on from person to person.

The same simplicity can be found in the pieces Charpin designed this year for Italian manufacturers Zanotta and Montina and for the shop windows of Christian Dior in Milan. That capacity of communicating with the surrounding space can be expressed with a strong use of colours, a creation of unusual proportions and a reinvented experimentation of traditional materials.

In his installation Stands for the Design Gallery in Milan, he showed three support systems. These objects have no precise function, but follow different scales of proportion according to their position, their colour or their material. Created in glass fibre, gold, silver, Corian or bronze, they allow complete freedom of interpretation and pose no limits to the imagination.

Without any doubt, they are exemplary of Charpin’s approach.

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