Beneath the architectural veil that’s cast over many of today’s contemporary design projects lies a process that can only defined by experience. For a group of six architects that started out studying at Paris’s La Villette School of Architecture in 2002, the journey from textbook theory to hands on design couldn’t have happened any quicker. Founded in 2003 by Hugo Haas, Camille Bénard, Adrian Hunfalvay, Erwan Leveque, Guillem Renard and Alphonse Sarthout, Studio Ciguë is world renowned for its organic approach to creating beautiful interiors and pieces of furniture that are built to last. As they put it, age is beauty.
Recognized for their work for clients including Yves Saint Laurent, Aesop, Merci and Isabel Marant, Ciguë have become an influential voice in the contemporary design space. The following interview with one sixth of the group, Hugo Haas, will open your eyes into the life and times of this celebrated studio, whose process cultivates curiosity and great design on a daily basis.
Recognized for your take on architectural design, how would you define Ciguë?
At the beginning, we were a group of six friends that went to school together and then began working as a collective shortly after. Things went very well and we are now a company that is always meeting new people and doing interesting projects. We’ve grown to an eighteen person studio and workshop in the suburbs of Paris.
How did you all end up working together?
During one of our collective assignments in our second year, we discovered that we were quite a powerful team and that we could have a lot of fun working together. A potential project came to us a couple of months later, so we founded a carpentry company and began to build things.
What has changed over the years, from the beginning, to now?
The major change was that we had to go pro! The group of friends evolved into a small business. We still enjoy every bit and know why we’re doing it. In the beginning we didn’t have many projects. Now we have a lot to do and a lot on our hands. Our creative process had to evolve and include new people as we grew over the years. Early on, it was easy to just have an idea and get it done – you know, from your head to the pencil to the saw. When it’s team work, it’s very different. It’s actually richer and filled with so many more inputs but it’s also a lot to manage. You need consistency, you need to keep a strong vision and a particular taste. As we never had any business models or real experiences elsewhere, we explored many things and learned a lot from trying. I think it made us find interesting formulas that some classical models forget, but you also lose a lot of time… In short, it’s a constant evolution.
In terms of a design ethos, what values are associated with Ciguë?
It’s evolving everyday. It’s both multiple and organic. We don’t ever want it to be fixed as we feel that it would get too old, too fast. We want to be sure that we are proud of what we do. Whether it’s meeting different people or working on interesting projects, it’s important that things make sense and to always have fun.
Do you believe that there is a certain characteristic that makes Ciguë different from others in a similar design space?
It’s very hard to speak about yourself, but I can give facts. I can talk about our experience and how we started with a really strong hands-on approach. Our school was very focused on theory, but there was something missing – a relation to materiality, the act of transforming real materials and trying to understand how they react. For example, to understand how to cut, drill, fix and joint a piece of wood – to explore the basics. Once you have this first knowledge, that you can learn only by experience, you tend to design differently, push into different territories and communicate more accurately to the specialists. This might be something in the end that makes us unique. That clearly nourished our version of how we practice architecture and design, and how we create collectively.
So, how does your team create?
When we began our business, we were very young. We went in head first and tried to look at things very distinctively. We didn’t have a business plan and not much theory, yet I guess we were very practical and highly functional. The typical situation was like; “Those clients need a new apartment and a kitchen, lets just build it.” Our work needs to make sense, look good and talk to people.
We have this kind of character trait where we question everything; “I want to do this, but why? Should I do it this way or should I do it that way.” By doing this, things build themselves up and you find yourself constantly asking yourself if what you’re doing makes sense. We definitely want things to make sense. It’s not only design for design’s sakes; I hope that everything we design feels right. Not good, not bad, just right. It seems that people like how we look at things. In essence, that’s what we offer as a service; we analyze the context, the situation and the needs, then we give our look to it. It’s the job of an architect to arrive at a situation and give their vision of what’s possible and what’s best according to them.
Your projects have been labeled as functional works of art, yet they remain able to be used day in-day out. How do you design to stand the test of time?
It’s mostly about materials and involvement. I think we’re in a period of time, where we kind of reject consumerism where people go and buy something to use for a bit and then throw it out. We like to design things to have a life. The materials and the assembly will guarantee it to last longer, and time will have the opportunity to apply its own accents of beauty.
Can you describe your process of discovering found elements and translating them into functional projects?
I guess when it happens, it’s like a game for us. We’re shopping in a hardware store and in an alley, then suddenly we find a curious piece. We don’t know what it’s made for but it gives us a new idea. There’s a beauty in finding another use to a very functional object. It has happened already with a few Aesop projects where we used different sized elements from drainage pipes or Japanese traditional nails. It’s like opening a weird catalogue of strange parts and building from that. It seems like a way of looking at things, that can be applied to found elements, raw material, etc. We try to ensure that we are staying curious all the time.
Ciguë works across a range of design disciplines. Does the creative process vary greatly for each discipline, or do you approach all design work in a consistent manor?
We have quite a structured creative process now that works in a wide range of situations. It’s based a lot on sensibility, understanding the client, building a dialogue. Of course, it’s flexible and we adapt to each case differently. Part of the architect’s job is to analyze and deal with very specific contexts, functions and people in a wide range of territories. Changing contexts is challenging and reviving. I’m quite sure we always need fresh air and different point of views to keep our work pertinent. Sometimes we design and it just comes to us in our first sketch, and then other times it’s a lot of back and forth based on what we think will work best. Developing a plurality within our projects requires all the partners to be involved. And that’s good.
Do you believe that there is such thing as “good design”? Are there certain elements that seem more logical when designing the best possible outcome?
I think there are “good designs”. There are always many ways to answer a project brief. A good design makes sense, is logical, is pertinent in its context and its time. Sometimes we don’t have all the elements to judge. It’s a bit pretentious but there’s a quote that says; “It’s not the result that counts, it’s the process.” We want the story and the development, to be at least as strong as the finality.
The idea of age is beauty can be seen in the surrounding buildings where your office is situated. Can you elaborate as to why you chose to have your office situated in Montreuil, France?
In Paris and many of Europe’s older cities, people are fighting over spaces to rent. It’s very competitive. The first thing that brought us into the suburbs was the cost. This way we can have enough square meters to outfit the office with the equipment that we need for our projects. The surroundings are very calm but everything goes fast for us. We are surrounded by metal workers, hardware stores and wood workers which allows us to stay close and connected all the way through the production.
How involved do the members of Ciguë get with the physical production process of their designs?
We used to build almost everything we designed. We even did plumbing and plasters on the very first ones. It was like an apprenticeship. Once we experienced the basics, we learned to focus where needed. Then, our workload increased and we began to work a lot abroad, so we displaced the hands-on aspect into the prototype phase. We draw a version, go test it and develop it in the workshop, then go back to the desk. We also often build the final prototype and send it to the constructors on site for reference, like for the Isabel Marant shops in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Shanghai. It helps us to find the exact details and finishes we want, validate it and communicate clearly what we need to see delivered.
In order to stay motivated, how do you take a break from a typical workday and what do you do to stay creative?
We often take trips to our suppliers to view raw materials in their natural environment, being extracted, or transformed from their primary state. At our wood supplier, there is tons of wood stacked up everywhere and it’s always changing; it’s almost like a new art installation each time we visit. It’s even better than art though because it’s very functional and real. In some classical practices, you open a catalogue and you’re viewing product that is already finished. There’s not much to do with them because they are complete. When we visit these places and see the raw material, everything is still to be done. Doors are way open. We can view the process in which the rules are applied to raw materials and then watch them take shape through a series of experiments in design. Almost every time we visit these places and return back to our projects, we have a whole new perspective to apply to make things better.
Enjoyed ‘Studio Ciguë’? Check back next week for the another instalment from The Journal, Issue Three. Or to find your own complimentary copy of The Journal, visit Herschel Supply stockists around the world.