Mathieu Lehanneur talks designing the Paris Olympics torch and more

Mathieu Lehanneur, one of France’s leading designers, explains to Dionne Bel why he creates without borders, from the Paris Olympics torch and an air purifier using the natural power of plants to visually liquid yet structurally solid furniture that freezes turbulent ocean waves in blocks of marble or bronze

From establishing his own studio in his bedroom in 2001 to launching his eponymous made-in-France line of furniture, lighting and accessories in 2018, Paris-based designer Mathieu Lehanneur has always sought to be free – and resisted becoming an employee of another designer or a firm. Gradually building his independence as a company to be able to design, produce, market and sell in-house, he finally launched The Factory, a 700-sqm, vertically-integrated production facility housing offices, workshops and an exhibition space that is the new HQ of his brand, where his pieces are conceived, developed, assembled and shipped to the world, on the outskirts of Paris last September.

Less preoccupied with form than with the concept, Lehanneur’s projects always begin with words, with sketching coming later. Pleased that he isn’t a specialist of any field to arrive at new ideas instead of letting his hands design by themselves on autopilot, his oeuvre is wide-ranging, from the installation of a hyper-mineral choir in white marble and alabaster in St. Hilaire Church in Melle in western France to his Inverted Gravity furniture collection in which bubbles of blown glass support voluminous slabs of heavy stone, countering the preconceived notion that glass is delicate. Now he has won the honour of designing the torches and cauldrons of the 2024 Paris Olympics and Paralympics, which will see the torch carrying the Olympic Flame relayed by 11,000 torchbearers to every region of France in a symbolic display of the values and spirit of the Games.

You founded your own design studio in 2001. What was your path to success like?

In 2001, I left school with a diploma, little money and no contacts. “My own studio” was my bedroom with my office at the end of my bed. That’s it. It has been a long road, but at that time, I already knew that I didn’t want to work for another designer or for a company. I wanted to be independent and free, and I was ready to learn everything and try everything.

In 2006, my diploma project entered the permanent collections of MoMA New York. The senior curator and design thinker Paola Antonelli, who had been supporting me for several years, thus introduced me to the most prestigious collection in the world. It was naturally a source of pride, but above all, the recognition of numerous research and experiments, and the energy of a lifetime.

How would you describe yourself as a designer, your design language and approach, your sources of inspiration, and what do you hope to achieve at the end of the day?

I’m a designer who still doesn’t know what design is. Or more precisely where it begins and where it ends. I see design as a grey area, a territory without fixed borders. It’s actually a great chance; my job is a field of endless opportunities. I feed on complex geometries from nature, and rational and irrational phenomena. I want my pieces to be living beings: they seem to breathe, feel and continue to grow. I want them to be works of art and supports for reflection or meditation.

What do you like about mixing traditional hand craftsmanship and high technology in the making
of your furniture and objects?

I do not put any hierarchy among processes and techniques. From the carved flint to the micro- processor, from the cave to the spaceship, they are, or have been, optimal in the context or the era in which they were born. Depending on what I want them to express, I choose them, or reactivate them, for my pieces. For instance, in the 50 Seas project, I worked with traditional enamelled ceramic and specifically commissioned satellite photos at the same time, for the same purpose. It’s very moving to bring together ancestral processes and the most contemporary technologies on the same project. It’s also a way to integrate the entire history of humanity into each piece.

You won the contest to design the torches and cauldrons for the Paris 2024 Olympics and Paralympics. What does the torch that you recently unveiled look like?

Designing the torch for the Games is a designer’s dream, one that comes around once in a lifetime, like
an extraordinary encounter with history. Ritualistic and magical in equal measure, the torch is a mythical object. I wanted it to be extremely pure, iconic, almost elemental. The design and conception of the torch are built on three main pillars: equality, peacefulness and water. They struck me from the very beginning as the best incarnations of the Paris Games. Equality, which is expressed as much in the absolute parity of male-female athletes as in the equivalent place given to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, is expressed through the perfect symmetry of the torch. It is through a drawing all in curves and continuous lines that the idea of peacefulness is expressed because even if the Olympic Games remain the space of competition and high performance, the flame remains an object of transmission and the embodiment of peace. In this sense, the Games are suspended for a moment, a fraternal ambition that sport can and must carry, whatever the current torments of the world.

Finally water because beyond its monuments, Paris is an art of living along the water. The Seine is the link and the beating heart and will be the stage of the opening ceremony and several Olympic sites. The torch is inspired by this by playing on the undulations and reflections of polished metal that has become visually liquid.

Tell me about The Factory on the outskirts of Paris that you recently inaugurated and what you are able to achieve and produce in-house versus working with an external manufacturer.

As you may know, the vast majority of furniture brands do not manufacture themselves: they commission new designs and outsource the manufacturing. The Factory builds the exact opposite of this type of approach. Each piece is developed by us and leaves our workshops. We are not furniture or art sellers; we create pieces that people are willing to buy. It’s very different.

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