Profile: Eric Jourdan

French furniture designer Eric Jourdan’s pieces combine extreme simplicity with a touch of pop vibrancy. Dominic Lutyens catches up with the modest star as he’s branching out into signage – and dreams of designing a car

French contemporary design can seem an oxymoron. It can be a struggle to count the number of French designers working in a contemporary vein on the fingers of one hand. (Compare this to how easy it is to namecheck cool Italian or British designers.) Obviously, there’s Philippe Starck. And gradually usurping this tousle-haired titan are the internationally feted Bouroullec brothers and Matali Crasset. But who else?

Several others are steadily adding their names to this threadbare roll call, among them Parisian Eric Jourdan, Swann Bourotte and François Azambourg. Interestingly, many of these emerging designers blame France’s conservative and insular design industry for the country’s dearth of good design. There is one positive force, however/ France’s VIA (Valorisation de L’Innovation dans l’Ameublement). A 27-year-old, non-profit association set up by Codifa, France’s Furniture Industries Development Committee, with the support of the country’s Ministry for Industry, it helps designers put prototypes into production and promote themselves. To date, it has financed 403 projects.

This autumn, Jourdan’s work will be showcased at 100% Design within a project run collaboratively by VIA and Ligne Roset, one of France’s more experimental furniture brands.

Interestingly, Jourdan and his fellow French rising stars appear free of the influence of Starck’s showy, theatrical and wacky style, having more in common with the Bouroullec brothers’ minimal aesthetic. Jourdan was born in Paris in 1961, studied at its L’Ecole Nationale des Arts Decoratifs, and lives and works there in an ornate plaster-ceilinged Haussmann apartment studio with his painter wife, Caroline Bellon. ‘Everything I design is very simple. I like simplicity because I work in a very ornate environment,’ he says wryly. ‘I’m inspired by Romanesque architecture and Modernist architects like Mies van der Rohe.’

Jourdan’s pieces are generally so pared-down, flat-looking and even two dimensional, that they feel childlike and cartoony. Given their occasional bursts of colour (orange, say, or purple), they also look rather pop. Does he agree? ‘Yes, I suppose my work’s pop because it’s very direct and childlike,’ he concurs after a little hesitation.

This diffidence is typical of Jourdan, whose unassuming manner is mirrored by his understated aesthetic – a typical example being his Hyannis Port sideboard with curving sled legs (for Ligne Roset). Other pieces, also for Ligne Roset, include Somerset, of 2005 (a milk churn-shaped lamp, inspired, surprisingly, by a love of rural Somerset) and the 2006 Shaman chair – a modern take on a club chair in white or pea green.

This pared-down aesthetic sets him apart from Starck’s showmanship, as Michel Roset, Ligne Roset’s creative director and vice-president of VIA, observes. ‘He behaves very differently from Starck. He’s not a show-off,’ he says. Interestingly, though, Jourdan worked briefly for Starck designing a radio for French electronics company Thomson, soon after graduating. Roset is present when I meet Jourdan, and he likes to tease the designer, whom he first talent-spotted in the early Noughties (he produced his fuchsia ‘multimedia chair’, Tolozan, incorporating a shelf for a TV dinner tray or laptop, in 2002). ‘Eric has his faults. He is too modest, introverted, a bit English. But he’s a great draughtsman. There’s a good balance in his work of curves and right angles,’ he says.

Jourdan’s late 1980s and early 1990s work is unrecognisable as his, but unmistakeably influenced by 1980s Postmodernism (it includes an early asymmetrical, one-armed armchair). But by the mid-1990s, he was shaking off this derivative, whimsical style, and his rigorously simple Table Basse (low table) of 1995 provided the blueprint for his current aesthetic. There’s nothing earth-shatteringly innovative or experimental about Jourdan’s work yet it manages to be both elegant and hip – and it is easy on the eye.

Two of his favourite pieces are the Tolozan chair and the Edmond sofa (for hip, relatively new French manufacturer Domeau & Peres), ‘because they’re more complicated. It takes longer for you to understand them’. Certainly, the Edmond sofa is so enigmatically monolithic – it recalls a stone slab in a morgue, albeit a chic one – that at first it looks like a sculpture rather than furniture.

Jourdan is currently designing signage and street furniture for the University of Reims in Brittany, and furniture for a golf club in the Hamptons. In 2008, he will be unveiling new pieces for Ligne Roset.

But his ultimate ambition is to design a car. Just don’t expect one with go-faster stripes. You can be sure that nothing so crassly flashy would ever leave his drawing board.

100% Design runs from 20-23 September at Earls Court, London SW5

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