Arkitektura Assembly:  Bringing together the world of Design

DESIGN IN MIND: Christophe Pillet

Christophe Pillet’s initial passions lay in music and he came to design almost happenstance. Quite incredible given all that he has accomplished in his career, working on a global scale, in a wide range of mediums for the most revered brands including Cappelini, Driade, Moroso and Architonic. From architecture to objects to furniture, Pillet’s touch can be seen in hotels in Fez, Lancel boutiques in Paris and in exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou, to name just a few. Pillet studied in Milan and became part of the Memphis Group in the 80s leading the way to change the approach to design. Upon returning to Paris, he worked closely with Phillippe Starck, and in 1993 he opened his own studio and was swiftly nominated designer of the year in 1994. Since then, he has continued to make waves in the design world through his vision and his drive. In this interview, we speak about his work in far reaching places, the playfulness he finds in design and how he almost gave up his career to return back to music.

Christophe:
What was the first piece that I designed? Do I remember that? It really depends where you put the starting point. When I was in Italy, I finished school in Italy and I started working as a designer in Italy. Usually, I’m used to say that I had this amazing opportunity to collaborate with Memphis, even if it was the end of Memphis, the Italian radical group of design. At this time, that was the end of the movement. They were very happy to bring some new, fresh blood into that. I had the opportunity to make a little cardboard lamp. This might be the starting point. That was in ’86, maybe, in Milan.

Arkitektura:
New, fresh blood. New French blood, too.

Christophe:
I was not the only French. The initial group of Memphis, founded by Ettore Sottsass, included Nathalie du Pasquier. She’s French. And Martine Bedin, who I’ve been working for three years. They were still fresh at this time, let’s say. On the young team, I was certainly the only French. It was serious, but it was more just a game, anyway.

Arkitektura:
Had you grown up with design as a child? What part of France did you grow up in?

Christophe:
My parents were both gym teachers. My father worked in the Administration of Sport. We had been moving a lot. This is why I have a hard time to say that I’m from this place or this place, because I’ve been living in the north, in the south, in the center. I’m a typical middle-class young boy, and I was really raised in this idea of middle-class modernity.

We were the very first living in a suburb. We had the first dishwasher, the first color TV, but it was really not something about money. It was just attraction to modern items. I remember watching people walking on the moon at night. I was raised in this idea of modern stuff, let’s say.

Arkitektura:
Have you populated their house with your things?

Christophe:
Not really, no. I usually don’t put much of my stuff in my surroundings. I think it’s enough for me to live with products, designing them. I don’t need much product anyway. My house is pretty empty. Certainly not need to live in my stuff. I don’t know why. There’s no reason, no snobbish at all. It’s just I love the project aspect of being a designer. I don’t much care about the consumer aspect when those products are on the market.

Arkitektura:
You like the process, not necessarily-

Christophe:
Yeah, the game of this job for me is just the game of… Because it’s still a game. This is true that I didn’t want to be… It happened that I became a designer very, very randomly. I like it, but I still feel that I’m like a tourist in a foreign country. What I like is just walking around and having fun.

What I like in the job is not any goal or any target or any ideology. It’s just to keep having fun and doing the things. When they’re done, what I like is not processing the things. It’s just again in doing more stuff. This is really as simple as that.

Arkitektura:
It’s interesting because I interview a lot of designers. Obviously, this whole series is based on design. Many of them often say that they feel compelled to design. They have ideas that come to mind and they have to get them out. They need it like air or food. It’s something that they have to do. But that’s not the case with you.

Christophe:
It’s a little bit the case because today it’s 99% of my time. I don’t know why I keep doing this. I think I keep doing this because I think this is just a normal human process. When you’ve done something, you’re not satisfied. You want to go further on. You do again. You do something new. You want to see the horizon, so when you arrive in the horizon, the horizon is further on. So you keep walking. You want to go to the top of the hill. Top of the hill, you see that there is a valet. You want to walk to the valet.

This is as simple as that. There is no reasons for keep on doing things. For me, this is not a pressure as you were explaining from the others. This is just a desire. It was fun, but I think it will be more fun next time doing better. You see what I mean? I don’t know if you play sports. You feel the same thing. At the beginning, you don’t play well. Ten years, or you don’t, I don’t know, whatever. Any sports. Soccer, let’s say. Step by step, you get better. Getting better, you improve more pleasure and you have more pleasure. So you want to keep going because it’s more and more pleasure.

This is my motivation. I have some colleagues, you know. No names, but they want to change the world. They want to build something new. I just want to keep having fun in doing the things. That’s it.

Arkitektura:
One of the things that you had said was that the design is always late because it’s never… When do you know that it’s perfect enough? You always want to change it a little bit. It’s never quite complete.

Christophe:
Yeah, that’s true, but it’s not only design. Any work, any creation, you are never satisfied. You will always have some doubts. This is a never-ending story. This is why you’re always late. This is a job where you can’t say, I’ve finished now. You understand? It’s never finished because you still have doubts about is it enough, is it too much, is it understandable, is it cool enough, or is it precise enough.

It’s like writing, I think. You might be writing. You are never satisfied of a sentence. You always think that there is something which is more smoother, fluid, more understandable. So you’re constantly reworking things. Then a moment happens where you need to stop, but it’s not because you need to stop that you feel that you have finished it.

This is also why I believe that you want to redo tomorrow. Most of the time, people are asking me what is your favorite product that I’ve designed. My answer, which is sort of provocation, is the next one. That’s a provocation, but this is really, really true. You’re never satisfied and you are sure that the next one will be much better than the previous one. This is why it’s never-ending, always late, never finished.

Arkitektura:
It’s a silly question-

Christophe:
Unsatisfied people.

Arkitektura:
…yeah, exactly. It’s a silly question to ask, what’s your favorite product, because everyone is so different and every experience is so different with the product that you make. It’s like asking me what my favorite radio piece is, or what my favorite interview is. People ask me this all the time. What was your favorite interview? Every interview has its own connection. It’s hard to say what your favorite is. It’s all part of the experience. It’s not something [crosstalk 00:11:07]

Christophe:
Yeah, but I understand that behind this question there might be the feeling of achieving something. You have achieved something, or you have completed something. I think even for the interview it’s the same because it’s creation, it’s interpretation. This is creation. It’s never satisfying because you never capture the entire depth of anything.

Arkitektura:
What do you love about the process of designing something? Why is it fun? What are the components of it that you really get excited about?

Christophe:
What is exciting here is it’s a game, but it’s a game of strategy. Creation, most of the time people think that you have an intuition. What I like when I’m designing is finding the good reason for doing things. The products at the end that we need to design is just the representation, the expression of an environment.

So I don’t think a designer is designing a product. I really believe that my job is the same than as a writer or a movie maker. I’m telling a story to people, and I need to find the right story, the right way to tell it. Sometimes it has to be serious. Sometimes it is not to be serious. This is what is fascinating with design. It’s communication. It’s telling a point of view to people using as a media a product, a piece of furniture. As a vocabulary, you’re using the color, the shape, the materials, et cetera. This is not designing the chair which is fun. You understand? It’s finding what to tell to people using this chair.

Arkitektura:
Yeah, absolutely. If we were talking about music, you would say the material, the form, the color, would be the instruments, the words, the melody. The song is the final product, and it’s a process of telling something.

Christophe:
Absolutely. This is why music is also much stronger as a instrument of communication or telling stories, because it doesn’t go through something which is physical. It’s just direct emotions, you understand? You don’t pass through a product with all the constraints that it has to pollute what you want to say. This is why some arts like calligraphy, like music, it’s just a pure expression of things. It’s difficult because you need to learn it, but you don’t need an intermediary, a media to talk to people. You go straight to the mind or straight to the heart.

Arkitektura:
I guess with music, it’s a little more direct because it’s language-based and people are so familiar with language. But with a piece of furniture or an architectural space or interior space, much like watching dancers, you have to let go of trying to figure something out and allow the feeling to take over. How does a form feel when you look at it? How does a color feel when you look at it? That’s the communication that you get. It’s not like language, where it’s so didactic.

Christophe:
Exactly, exactly.

Arkitektura:
Have you abandoned music completely?

Christophe:
Oh, yes. Yes. Every morning, I’m waking up with the idea that tomorrow I will… I abandoned because you need to be good to have fun. To be good, you need time to practice. If you don’t practice, you’re not good. If you’re not good, you get annoyed of not being able to play what you want.

Some years ago, like maybe 10 years ago, even a little bit, 12 years ago, I bought myself a huge synthesizer, and I decided to go back on the tracks of music so I would play it again. But I was spending my days playing music, and I almost abandoned design.

Arkitektura:
Did you really, 10 years ago? Was it pretty serious?

Christophe:
Yeah, not really abandon, but I was spending most of my time in playing alone at home, just practicing and composing. The problem is that you can’t be good everywhere. I’m just a regular person. I’m not someone particularly talented. I said it’s maybe better to be just regularly good in design. I don’t give up. I’m sure one day I will be back in doing things because this is something which is not just mental. It’s addiction, attraction, I don’t know. It’s animal pressure.

Arkitektura:
It’s instinctual.

Christophe:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. But it’s strong. This is strong. Anyway.

Arkitektura:
You don’t spend much time in Paris.

Christophe:
Most of my projects, all of them, I must say now for a reason I don’t know, is broad. So I’m constantly traveling to Turkey, Poland, Russian Georgia, U.S., Morocco. My office is in Paris. I wish I would have more, soon, projects in the neighborhood to be able to stay a little bit more here. That’s the way it is, anyway.

Arkitektura:
Was that just luck, or was it by design? Was it chosen? Did you choose that? Is that what you wanted?

Christophe:
I don’t think I ever choose anything. It happens because one project leads to another one. I had some years ago the opportunity to do things in Morocco, so I did the things in Morocco. I did some hotels, and the hotels were pretty successful. So I had people calling me from Turkey because of this hotel. We started making things in Turkey. Opportunities that lead to other opportunity, this is a sort of process. I think I’m too lazy to control things, so I just float.

Arkitektura:
You make it sound so easy, but I’m sure that-

Christophe:
This is not easy. This is not easy because if it was easy, it would not be fun. Let’s go back to this metaphor, to this analogy with sport. Or music. If it was easy, it would not be fun. I think the excitement comes also because the experience brings you to a controlling or mastering in a better way. So this is also part of the pleasure, having this feeling that you are progressing, that you are able to master things. This is part of excitement.

If it was just as easy as eating a burger or fries, you can easily get bored. It’s not easy. It’s even sometimes difficult, but difficulty is a big part of the excitement here.

Arkitektura:
When are the moments that you just feel blocked or challenged? What are the things that are most challenging?

Christophe:
What are the things that are the most challenging? You mean in the project? In doing a project? In the process?

Arkitektura:
Yeah, what are the things that you struggle with most?

Christophe:
I think, at my age, I’m struggling with my preconceived ideas. Sometimes, this is real. After 35 years doing the same thing, you can imagine that you have a certain maturity. But your mind is, how can I say that, has entered into routines which need a little effort to get rid of.

When you’re blocking in a project, meaning not being able to express exactly what you want to express, the character of a product, the feeling that people could have, or the emotion that people could feel in looking at certain products… When you’re blocked on that, it’s not because you’re not able to do that. It’s just because your brain is not free enough.

Just going back to your question, most of the time what is difficult to fight is fighting against your preconceived idea, a mind which is not open enough, the routine that you have produced during your career. I must say that this is difficult, and this is just the non-fun part of the difficulty.

Arkitektura:
I think no matter how long you have done something, no matter how long I’ve been a journalist, you still go back to the way in which you think something should go or will go. It doesn’t always do that, and you still find yourself surprised.

Chritophe:
Yeah, I don’t think this is a job the way you have a… There is no truth, it’s just one truth against another one, and everybody has got his own truth. It is just being convinced that you can convince people that your truth is a better truth than another one. This is the pure subjective world, which makes also this a fun world.

What you liked 10 years ago, you dislike it 10 years after. What you think was good a few years before, you think it’s not good. This is also what makes it fun. It’s unstable. It’s like walking on the swamp, you know? There is no stability. You need to be light. You need to float over the things.

Arkitektura:
When you say there are things that you liked 10 years ago that you don’t like anymore, or I’m sure there are things that you liked 30 years ago that you still love.

Christophe:
There are things that are part of you. I imagine that they’re following you constantly, because I think it comes from you. It comes from your character. It comes from your education. I take an example. The fact that I really love simple things, it’s sort of a quest in my… Even if I don’t think about that, I always go to simple. I always look to the most simple thing. I am not a minimalist because I’m not, but I like the economy of expressing things, not for saving, but just to be rigorously where you need to be when you want to express something. I don’t know if it’s clear what I’m saying.

Arkitektura:
Yes, it is. It’s totally clear.

Christophe:
So this is a part of me. Even if I don’t think about that, this is constantly here, this quest of cleaning the things, cleaning again, cleaning and cleaning to have the sense of a project or shape, a color, whatever.

I’m talking about things you like and then you dislike. I think it comes from the context or the consumption. We know that on fashion, which is more obvious. You buy a pair of shoes because you’re dying if you don’t buy them. The year after, you say how come I should wear that. This is the same thing.

This is very strange. When sometimes I look to my project, interior for example, I’m exactly doing today what I was hating 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago, I was saying this is old-fashioned, this looks like old stuff. Now, this is exactly what I am doing. I think it’s cool.

Arkitektura:
That’s very funny. I wonder why that is. That’s so interesting that something that you would be so critical of in yourself or in design in general is suddenly something you find yourself doing a decade later.

Christophe:
What is interesting is the way you do. It’s not what you do. There is a sentence. I’ve been working with Philippe Starck a long time ago. I remember him telling me. I was asking, why are you so eclectic? Why are you doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that? He told me you need to do everything to choose not to do certain things.

Arkitektura:
You make work for the best brands in the world. Giulio Cappellini is a visionary, and he is incredible in the way in which he picks and chooses the artists or designers whose work he puts into production. You’ve worked with the best. This is a hard question. You have to be very arrogant to answer this question. Why do you think that is? What is it about your work that makes it so special?

Christophe:
I have no ideas. Absolutely no ideas about that. Sometimes I’m asking the same question. It’s a bit mysterious. I look back to what I’ve done and say I was so lucky to have had the possibility of such collaborations. The only answer I’ve found is two things. Honesty. What does it mean? It means that I do what I think is good to do for the person. I don’t try to show myself. I try to do the right project, even if the project is discrete and even if I think that I would like to show a little bit more of myself. I would go to discretion. There is an honesty in saying that the project deserves that answer and there is no other considerations.

The other thing I believe which is pleasant working with me, is I’m not very much talented. It’s not the false modesty. I don’t give up. When someone is saying it’s not enough, I keep doing and doing and doing and doing until it comes. So I don’t give up. I think it’s comfortable for people to have someone constantly reworking, reworking, reworking, reworking. At the end, of course, it works. You finally arrive where you want to go. So I think those two things, honesty and tenacity.

Arkitektura:
Tenacity should never be underestimated because when you’re really tenacious, when you push it until it’s right, you discover so much and you learn so much in that process. Then you take those learnings for another project.

Christophe:
I wish I would.

Arkitektura:
Now, a personal question. I don’t know if you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend. You don’t have children. You’re not married. Is that true?

Christophe:
No, I am. I’ve been married several times. I have two kids, two old kids. I have a daughter who is 33. I have a son, 30. I’m a grandfather of a little daughter who is five years old, the daughter of my daughter. I had a new son 29 years after the last one, who is now two years old. So I’m a family man.

Arkitektura:
So wait. Let me understand. Hold on, hold on. If I understand correctly, you have two grown children. But then you also have-

Christophe:
No, no. I have two children. I married very early. When I was 24 I got married. I’m very old now. When I was 24 I got married. I had a daughter and a son. My daughter is now 33 years old. My son is 30. My daughter got a little daughter, so I’m grandfather of this little five-years-old daughter. I got remarried 10 years ago with a young lady, my wife now 10 years. We had a baby two years ago. So I’m a father again.

Arkitektura:
Amazing. A father and a grandfather.

Christophe:
Yeah, and the funny thing is that the uncle is younger than the niece in this case.

Arkitektura:
So how does it feel the second time around to be a father again?

Christophe:
It’s much more interesting than the first time because you’re more relaxed. You know more about the thing so you’re not stressing. You’re not afraid. You have a little bit more money, so you can afford to be more comfortable. And you feel young again, which is a good impression.

Arkitektura:
A strange question. Has it changed your process as a designer or your approach to design in any way?

Christophe:
No, I don’t think it has changed anything from being a designer. I think it has changed more about the organization of the things, the desire of spending a little bit more time with my family than before, because I’m constantly traveling. I’m not very much in Paris, as you were saying. Usually I’m traveling, traveling, traveling, and I’m not in Paris.

So I’ve decided two years ago, when you got this new baby, that we bought a house in the south of France. I spent three weeks in Paris, where I’m not in Paris because I’m traveling. Then we go a week or 10 days in the south living together. So this sort of game of life after the professional game. This is just the fun idea of living in two places. But in this case, above the game is also the reality of spending good family moments together.

Arkitektura:
It’s not the story I expected at all. Nowhere in any of the research I did, did I know that you had children, grandchildren, a new child. I was having a conversation with a friend today about this. It’s something I’m always curious about. Is someone married? Is someone partnered? Do they have children? It expands the person so much, even though it’s not a professional thing. It’s who they are as a person. As a designer, you always bring who you are into your work. At least, it seems that way.

Christophe:
I think maybe that’s changed since bringing more stability. This culture the last 25 years in constantly traveling, you’re on the road. You’re getting into a culture of chaos. You understand what I mean? Everything is not really organized because you are there, then you are there, then you sleep there, then you go there. It’s a bit chaotic. Even if it doesn’t make any difference in my vision. I don’t know if I have vision, but just to say of what I need to do in the design things. The fact that I have this desire to be more stable sometime… I think it brings also some serenity in the projects.

Arkitektura:
That was designer Christophe Pillet. Design in Mind is a podcast series from Arkitektura. Based in San Francisco, Arkitektura curates the best design from around the world and makes it accessible through its retail spaces, live events, and this podcast.

Design in Mind is Arkitektura’s way of honoring the life and work of some of the best designers today, and celebrating the magic and beauty of design and design thinking.

Design in Mind is produced for Arkitektura by Sound Made Public. I’m your host, Tania Ketenjian, and our associate producer is Zeneva Schindler.

To hear more, please visit arksf.com, or go to iTunes and subscribe to Design in Mind. Rate the show and tell us what you think. Thank you so much for listening.