French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec have been working together for ten years and have earned a remarkable reputation as Europe’s most original design team, producing extraordinary pieces of furniture. It’s a collaboration centred on their distinct personalities and their special relationship as brothers. Originally from Brittany, the elder Ronan was the first to become a designer. Erwan studied art before working with his older sibling.

Everything the Bouroullecs create has carried their own names since 1998, but a few of their projects have been signed-off individually. In Gary Hustwit’s acclaimed 2009 documentary on design, Objectified, the brothers described themselves as a hedgehog (Erwan) and a fox (Ronan), using philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s categorisation of intellectuals. It is an intriguing description of the way they work and their complexity. From pure design, the Bouroullecs have more recently expanded into several architectural projects, including the Maison flottante (Floating House) in 2006, Camper stores in Paris and Copenhagen (2009) and the Casa Camper Hotel’s restaurant, Dos Palillos, in Berlin (2010), one of their most intriguing projects to date.

For the design of Dos Palillos in the 51-room Camper Hotel in Berlin, the brothers reinvented the concept of the restaurant, which has become the talk of the town since opening at the end of last year. “What immediately interested us was that Dos Palillos was a one-of-a-kind culinary experience offered by Albert Raurich, elBulli’s former chef. In order to celebrate his cuisine, the concept of the restaurant gives full meaning to the expression to his culinary art,” explain the brothers.

The design centres on a long wooden table and the stainless steel kitchen, one module facing the other. The seating is located on different levels so that the guests have panoramic views. It is a minimal design with few elements and materials. The Bouroullec’s designed the space to express itself through the relation between the guests and the food.

With regard to the rest of the hotel, as you’d expect from the iconoclastic Spanish shoe company this, their second hotel venture is big on contemporary design mores. Refreshingly the bedroom interiors veer towards tasteful modernism rather than the bells and whistles of pointless flourish. Not that it’s wit-free: room numbers are writ large on the street-side of the floor to ceiling windows and signage is in Camper’s stylish free-hand typography.

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In 1997, the brothers presented their Disintegrated Kitchen at the Salon du Meuble in Paris. It was here that they were spotted by Giulio Cappellini, which led to their first major industrial design projects, including the Closed Bed and the Spring Chair. This was followed by a commission from designer Issey Miyake, who asked them to create an interior for his APC shop in Paris.

“We grew up with the same background. We have the same deep relationship with shape and colour and share a common understanding about more general things.”

However, their biggest breakthrough was a decisive meeting with the chairman of Vitra Rolf Fehlbaum, which resulted in their development of a new kind of office system, Joyn, manufactured in 2002. This was the beginning of a special partnership that has borne fruit in numerous projects, including Algues, the Alcove Sofa, the Worknest, the Slow Chair and the Vegetal. Since 2004 the Bouroullecs have also worked with Magis, where they designed two complete furniture collections, Striped and Steelwood. Today, Ronan and Erwan design for numerous manufacturers, namely Vitra, Kvadrat, Magis, Kartell, Established and Sons, Ligne Roset and Cappellini.

Since 2001, they have worked in an experimental capacity at Galerie Kreo in Paris, where they have maintained activity that has been essential to the development of their work. They have held five exhibitions since 2001 and 2008, the last one was held this spring, when they experimented with lighting. They have compared their work for the gallery to the use of a sketch pad where they can explore different media and extraordinary techniques that are rejected by industry. Their last exhibition at Galerie Kreo had a certain delicacy in terms of the materials used. Leather was used to cover electrical wires of the lianes lamps, while their roches shelving units were painted with a finish of matte mineral-looking paint. Conque lamps were mirrored to give off a sense of mystery when lit up.

The Bouroullecs were voted Designers of the Year at the Salon du Meuble in 2002. In 2009, the Vegetal chair won the ICFF award for outdoor furniture. Their work is part of numerous international collections including the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the Centre Pompidou and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Design Museum in London, and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam.

Christopher Kanal: What is your working relationship as brothers?

Ronan and Erwan:We grew up with the same background. We have the same deep relationship with shape and colour and share a common understanding about more general things. However, we didn’t go to the same school and we don’t have the same friends. And although we can have a really high level of understanding, we can still disagree with each other. Nonetheless, we always reach the same opinion on our projects, even if that is not always evident from the beginning. It needs a long process of discussion and agreement.

We comment and criticise all the time and often have frank and animated discussions. Each step of every project is discussed for a long time. What is important is that we find a common view, a solution that satisfies the pair of us. When we differ, we do everything we can to reach an agreement.

How do you characterise your work?

Ronan: This is a difficult question for us, as the designers of our projects. We are happy to read about them, to see what people suggest, to review comments from journalist that describe them but as for “characterising” our work and our projects, we do not feel comfortable doing this.

Can you describe Casa Camper design process?

Erwan: Part of being a successful designer is the ability to oversee a project from start to finish, managing its complexity and overcoming obstacles. Integrating this complexity, while retaining the essence of the initial idea, has been the main challenge for us. It is easy to have an idea but difficult to make it real. For Casa Camper, the kitchen, naturally, had to be the centre of the space. It had to be open so that guests could see the preparation of the dishes. We decided to base the design around a wooden table and the kitchen. Consequently, the guests find themselves in the centre of the kitchen, while the chef ‘performs’ in front of them.”

What is your relationship like with manufacturers?

Ronan: We have work with a distinct group of manufacturers, such as Vitra, for several years now. Working collectively intelligence is important to us. Just as Erwan and I question the project over and over to be certain that we are pursuing the design in the right way, we follow this philosophy with the manufacturers we work with.

Erwan: I would add that, as designers, our everyday concern is to strike a balance between a variety of parameters that make up each project. Design is a multi-facetted discipline. What drives us is the quest for harmony between parameters. These can be tangible, such as shape, colour, size and weight, or intangible, namely sensuality and comfort. It is not exclusively the search for the right balance between form and function. We share this with the manufacturers we are working with.

How did the Kvadrat collaboration come about?

Ronan: We first met with Kvadrat after they invited us to design a showroom for them in Stockholm, which we initially declined. After several months, we said to ourselves that it would be a great possibility to experiment with dividing public and private spaces with textile walls. This is how we came up with the idea of Tiles, which is the main focus point of the showroom.

The Galerie Kreo installation touches on industrial design. Can you define your interest in mass production?

Ronan and Erwan: Our interest in industrial design is linked to the unlimited reproduction of objects. Nevertheless, for the past ten years we have been producing work in the framework provided by the Galerie Kreo. The context has often led us to compare our work for the gallery to the use of a sketch pad, a more instinctive form of research free from the constraints imposed by industry, and the norms, weight, size and other issues more or less dictated by mass production. Here, we give ourselves the time to explore different media and techniques rejected by the industry and apply unique skills. Our work for the Galerie Kreo has always produced exceptional events. Our research for the Galerie Kreo is about magic as much as use.

Can craft ever be reconciled with mass-production?

Erwan: Furniture and product design sit between craftsmanship and industry. It is, or should be, the perfect conciliation between both disciplines, both worlds.