French group 5.5 Designers courts participation

French group 5.5 Designers is creating a niche for itself by courting participation. Lynda Relph-Knight enjoys their playful, interactive approach to anything from furniture repairs to wallpaper and tennis tournaments

If your consultancy is called Cinq Cinq Designers, translating as 5.5, your five-and-a-half-year anniversary is surely your first milestone.

That was the thinking of the youthful French quartet behind the Paris-based group that etched its mark on the global design community in February with an appearance at Cape Town’s Design Indaba conference and celebrated its birthday last month with a strong presence in Milan during the furniture fair.

On Milan’s fringe in Zona Tortona, 5.5 displayed Out of the Box, a storage ‘feature’ for Veuve Clicquot that takes the champagne brand from the cellar and puts it on public display. Intended for bars and restaurants, a simple white framework with integrated table uses champagne bottles in their recently revamped packs as building blocks for strength.

Meanwhile, over at Milan’s French cultural centre, the foursome partied in style with a retrospective of work, including projects that won it Paris City Council’s Grand Prix de la Création in 2006, after only three years in business.

Like many of their peers, product designers Vincent Baranger, Anthony Lebossé, Claire Renard and Jean-Sébastien Blanc met at college – in their case Olivier de Serres in Paris – and started to work together there. Their first project, Réanim, gave a taste of what was to come. They created ‘treatment kits’ – splints and sutures – for broken furniture to extend its life.

They believe their work ‘challenges the process between marketing and the design of technical products’. They maintain that most products look the same and designers just create a style. Designers tend only to be brought in at a particular point in the production cycle, whereas they can have a positive impact on the outcome – and the life beyond production – at just about any stage.

They are also concerned that too many products are being created, hence the reuse suggested in the treatment kits. ‘We wanted to make something new out of old,’ says Baranger of that project. He says Ikea’s ‘Chuck out your chintz’ ad campaign exemplifies the current culture of disposability, when 50 years ago we bought products for life.

‘We don’t think of durability these days,’ adds Blanc. ‘If a product’s life-expectancy is short, it’s good for business.’

That thinking patently had resonance. French department store Galeries Lafayette asked the foursome to design a shop for teenagers in 2003 and 5.5 was born. And the idea of doubling up and cannibalising products lives on in a two-legged round table for Italian company Coincasa, also launched in Milan, which gains its third leg by attaching a lamp, a bookstand or a birdcage.

Creating new models for designing isn’t the only concern of 5.5, which is now ten-strong and growing. Its founders are also looking at new ways of selling.

They cite the example of a glassware manufacturer, for which they worked for two years creating a collection of tableware. A couple of weeks before the launch last year, the client decided not to go ahead with the 45 000 products, even though they were packaged up and ready to go. The designers bought the stock and decided on ‘a big sale’ for a year, inviting people to ‘save a product’ from destruction by paying €1 per item. Some 10 000 products were sold in Milan.

Baranger and his partners encourage participation in this way, and the same goes for their designs. With Wallpaper Games, produced in 2006, the design is unfinished so people can personalise the wallpaper once it has been hung. ‘We have used games as a simple pretext; it is a good reason to draw on walls,’ the team explains.

‘A game is always better if you are part of it,’ says Baranger. And this couldn’t be more true of the latest project, for French tennis tournament Roland Garros, which started last Sunday. The ball container becomes a carafe, the rackets a mesh-topped stool and the scoreboard a table. You don’t have to be a tennis superstar to enjoy this particular match.

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