Brussels furniture designer Alain Gilles was voted as the 2012 Designer of the Year. So it was about time we got down to it and had a nice talk with him.
“Alain Gilles‘ designs are solid and relevant, and show his industrial responsibility. At the same time, they show a poetic side”, said the members of the jury at the 2012 Design Awards.
After studying political science and marketing management, Alain Gilles spent some time working in the financial sector, before starting a second working life as industrial designer. He first joined designer Xavier Lust, later followed by Quinze & Milan, before opening his own design studio in 2007. He soon developed a very personal approach to product and furniture design, and has since worked with many international manufacturers, including Casamania, Bonaldo, Buzzispace, Galerie Gasserez, Qui est Paul, and O’sun – amongst others.
You’ve mentioned before, that design is a second life to you. And you are somewhat of a latecomer in the design world. Was that your “fuel” to get here and become designer of the year (2012)?
Well, basically, I got all my energy from my dream. That one day I would have the chance to see all the ideas in my head come true… At one point you simply have to believe in yourself, especially in a world like the world of design, where only a few people have the chance to see their designs get produced and, above all, the chance to make a living out of it. Every time I start a project, I always try to do the best that I can and no less, because I know that since this is something I longed for so long – for there is always a chance to have the opportunity to create something new. I like the idea of being able to surprise or arouse emotions in people that look at or even buy my designs. Personally, I’ve never tried to become “designer of the year”… It just happened. You can’t apply for the “title”, it is the people that get to decide.
What made you drop the financial world and start all over again professionally?
I just wasn’t at all living my own life. I understood it very quickly when entering the world of international finance. In a way, it was so much the opposite of what I was looking for that it gave me that extra drive to gamble it all and take a career break to study industrial design. It was a big step, and I didn’t want to go back! My wife helped me take the decision, since she allowed me to think about doing something else -morally. While working in the financial world, I had undertaken some marketing management studies, thinking that would be a good in-between job, but it just wasn’t enough for me, I really needed to be able to create.
But does this first life you’ve had help you with your second one?
Everything I have done in my…first life has helped me in the design world. I knew how to talk to all kinds of people. I was old enough and with enough experience, so it was easier for me to talk and have access to the managers. Above all, apart from the creative and poetic side, there are a lot of aspects such as marketing, financial, logistics, etc. When I started my own studio, one of my first assignments was to create a collection for a new French brand, “Qui est Paul ?”. The design and technical sides were only one aspect of the work, while marketing, and branding of launching a new brand were the exact second half of the job…
Design is also about people. A designer eventually creates things that will be used by people, so having lived different lives really helps. See, I have walked in different people’s shoes… so, in some cases, I can feel for and understand their needs. When I design and conceive new pieces for Bussispace, I understand very quickly what I can create and what issues have to be addressed to, to improve the well-being of people working in large open-space offices, since I had worked for J.P. Morgan in a large open space architecture.
What were you dreaming to become as a grown up, while you were a kid?
As a kid I was dreaming of creating, of architecting, of realising installations or playing with art… I have never really drawn boundaries between these different disciplines! But I always knew that first I would have to study something common, before I could go out into the real world to pursue my dreams.
How was it working for Arne Quinze? What have you learned during your working days for Quinze&Milan?
It was fun actually. He has a great energy and the capacity to motivate people, use them for what they are bets at, and make them believe in his vision. I worked there for two and a half years. I met him by accident, as I was looking for a company to produce one of my early designs. He offered me a job, 6 months prior to my graduation. I had already done a 6 month internship with Xavier Lust. At the time, Arne and Xavier were really the two up and coming international figures of the Belgian design scene. Their ways of working and designing were the absolute opposites … and so were their personalities.
Your designs are solid and relevant, and show your industrial responsibility. But at the same time, they show a poetic side. Where does this come from? Is it a need to leave something of eternal value behind?
Yes, indeed, I wanted to become a designer in order to leave something behind. I dreamed of creating things that would still exist once I would disappear. Maybe because my father died, when I was still young and still needed him.
About my designs, ye,s indeed in general they are a mix of my dreams and reality. I like products that work, products that don’t lose their functionality because they are different or beautiful. That is really my threshold. When I start designing it is always because I have started dreaming, because I can see some part of the story, of a logic if you want, in my head. They I try to find ways to make it rational enough, so it can be produced and used by people. I am not a technical designer, I am more of a story teller.. so usually I will hide the technical elements of an object, in order to make it simple to understand and remember. I like to create pieces that are fairly graphic and have an iconic side to them. I also love to find different ways to talk to people through my designs. I am usually happy when my designs tell more than one story… as long as they remain understandable. Usually, there are different levels of understanding (different layers) in the objects I create.
What are your favourite materials and colours to work with?
I don’t believe I have a favourite material, it really depends on the project and what I am trying to say through it. But the one thing I don’t want to do is work with a “bad” material. Usually I will favor what I perceive as a very real material, very down to earth pieces, almost raw, like metal, wood, concrete, but I am also happy to play with the formal qualities of plastics.
Is there a particular object you ‘ve designed that you are especially proud of?
Proud is a very strong word, so I would have to name the Nomad lamp I designed for O’Sun. As a designer you don’t get very often the chance to make a difference. In a way, nobody needs a new chair, even though we are all happy that there are new chairs around. In the case of Nomad solar portable lamp, the idea was to bring a good quality solar lamp to the millions of people that don’t have access to electricity, while at the same time designing a nice object that we would all like to have and use. Creating a connection between people living on and off the grid, or between developed and developing countries.
The other project I am very proud of is the Big Table I, designed for Bonaldo. As a designer, it really changed my life, as it almost instantly became a “new classic”. It is the very essence of what I had been dreaming of as a kid: creating iconic, architectural and graphic products, that are non static and have a different personality depending on the angle you look at it from. This is it.
Then again, all my designs are my “babies” and I am proud for them all, ready to even stand up for them all, as they all show part of what I am trying to express through my work.
Do you have any regrets? Is there a project that you would have approached in a whole different way if you would redesign it again now?
No regrets at all! When a project is done, I always start thinking about the next, it is the future, the things to be that excite me. Not the past.
Is there an architect/industrial designer that you look up to or even are envy of?
I am generally interested in design and architecture, but there is no one specific person that I look up to. When I see a very good design, one that touches me, I usually feel like “I wish I had done it”, but then again, it’s too late, it has been done.
Which known object would you want to have designed yourself?
The wheel, because it literally changed the world.
And what are you currently working on?
We are currently working on a lot of new projects in the Studio. If all goes as planned (because actually you never know if a project will come out until it actually is out ), we will be launching a new high-end French “Kitchen tools” brand next year with a full collection of 8 pieces. We are also working on the launch of a new Italian brand of leather sofas that will be bringing out some very qualitative and high-end pieces. At the same time we are continuing our collaboration with quite a few brands. This year we will also be conceiving our first architectural scenography in Antwerpen ( Belgium ).
What does it take, in the end, to create an object of great value, even if made of common materials?
I don’t know! There is no recipe, it is a feeling… I try do things that feel right. That have a real personality, a function and nothing more is needed to tell the story, really. And at the same time they need to be readable through different angles. They need to have different entry points.
The eternal question: functionality over beauty – or the other way around?
No, it is all about finding the right balance.
When do you know that a specific sketch is ready to leave your desk and go into production line? When are you satisfied of yourself?
Usually, I stop the design process when I first get that gut feeling that the object is right. The best is then to leave it rest. And after a few days have a second look at it. Then you will know if you still fully agree with everything done.
What was the most challenging project you’ve had to face so far?
As one single project, I would say the Nomad lamp for O’Sun. It had to answer a lot of different needs while still remaining simple enough to be used by any kind of people around the world. Then again, the launching of a new brand with a full collection is always what is the most time consuming, as it always is a global design project.
Suppose you were hosting a dinner this coming Saturday night. And you could invite anyone you wanted. Dead or alive. Which four would you invite to come over and why?
I would invite Barack Obama and his family, because they look like a cool bunch and I know that would make my wife very happy.
If your kids came over to you, asking what exactly design is, what would you answer?
I already tell them that design is about answering people’s needs, understanding our societies, and giving answers. But it is also about having a personal vision for that exact answer. Design is realy a mix of art and function.
And if they told you one day, they would too want to work as industrial designers, what would you teach them first?
I think at first, I would discourage them to do so. Like any career with an artistic side to it, you never know, if you really will be succesfull, it is a job where you constantly have to fight for your ideas. I have two kids. And since I am a designer, design is a fairly “normal” job to them, nothing exotic. In the end, I would want to make sure, that they are not taking this decision because of me, but because deep down it is truly what they want to do.
What was the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
Believe in your dreams and live your own dreams.