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Modern French Design: Normal Studio

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Industrious Design

With its fresh take on minimalism, French design duo Normal Studio is ushering in a new machine age.

Designers Jean-François Dingjian (left) and Eloi Chafaï (right), cofounders of Normal Studio, inside their firm’s new studio in Montreuil, a suburb east of Paris, France.

Jean-François Dingjian and Eloi Chafaï, cofounders of the burgeoning design firm Normal Studio, met as master and apprentice. In 2000, Dingjian taught a workshop at ENSCI–Les Ateliers, one of the leading design schools in France. Chafaï was his student. Until that point, Chafaï had been unapologetically “design-uneducated,” as he puts it. His main activity from ages 14 to 26 was spray-painting graffiti throughout the Parisian suburbs. “The city was my playground, scale 1:1,” he says. “I was drawing letters, not representing forms. It gave me a sense of how to project proportion onto an object.”

Incarnations of the iconic A chair by Tolix occupy a corner of the studio.

Recognizing his raw talent, Dingjian took Chafaï on as his intern, then as his design collaborator, and then, in 2006, as cofounder of Normal Studio. In the past six years, the pair has developed a diverse portfolio that encompasses everything from lighting to tableware, graphics to exhibition design, technological innovations to site-specific installations. Recently relocated to a 2,000-square-foot former warehouse in Montreuil, one of the more ethnically diverse suburbs east of Paris, the studio has added two assistants and one intern. They like to keep things small and hands-on.

The 13-year age difference between the founders does not imply a hierarchy; they seamlessly finish each other’s sentences. “In design, the term that really matters is industrial,” they chime almost in unison. It’s a neat summary of Normal Studio’s philosophy. Like nostalgic futurists, Dingjian and Chafaï believe in the power of the machine. They despise what they call “Dutcheries”: anything that remotely reminds them of the quaint, quirky, and traditionalist design movements of Northern Europe. Eliminating gestural, decorative, and expressive forms, Normal Studio prides itself on making objects that are reproducible in small- or large-scale series and always systemic in terms of both process and thinking. Their work is grounded in the fabrication process, inspired by the technical limitations, machinery, and deep, untapped knowledge of traditional French industries.

An early prototype for the 2007 Diamond Boxes collection, a range of domestic lights utilizing photographic reflectors, never made it to market.

“Thanks to the technique of metal sheet folding, we’ve been able to create rich and complex forms, shifting from 2-D to 3-D but nonetheless never appearing angular,” says Chafaï. Take Séléné, an elegant set of lights created for Artuce by folding an aluminum sheet at a single point. The light source is masked behind white polycarbonate, which emits a mysterious halo. The shieldlike forms are soft, vegetal, and feminine, yet extremely precise.

They’ve taken a similar approach as in-house art directors for Tolix, the Burgundy-based company best known for the A chair, a ubiquitous garden chair conceived in the 1930s by Xavier Pauchard. In the summer of 2004, Tolix was on the verge of bankruptcy when Chantal Andriot, its former financial director, decided to buy and restructure the company. Normal Studio, brought in informally by Andriot to suggest a new product for the brand, began its collaboration by exploring Tolix’s legendary patrimony: the industrial know-how of galvanized sheet metal.

Normal expanded Tolix’s talent pool, bringing in guest designers such as Sebastian Bergne, who developed office coatracks, and the Lyon-based studio Superscript2, which updated the company’s visual identity. In the meantime, Normal tried to maintain the company’s original smart and sustainable design ethos whenever possible, using existing machinery to produce new products. “The A chair is the first stackable chair in the world!” says Chafaï excitedly. “We tried to apply this systemic thinking to our new designs by, for instance, producing four similar feet that can be adapted to a variety of products—chairs, benches, low tables.” Additionally, perforating the A chair helped cut its weight in half and lower costs; producing it in new bright colors added a distinctive modern twist and transformed the historical artifact into a contemporary icon.

Created for ENO (Editor of New Objects) in 2008 and available in three sizes, the Ajours table features a latticed lacquered-wood seat affixed to a steel base.

Technological evolution is another driver for Normal’s design. Dingjian believes that because technology is incrementally shrinking, digitizing, and dematerializing (think LEDs and GPS sensors), design has to offer a new materiality—it cannot just contain technology, but should also become an autonomous and smart interface. Last year, for an invitational group show organized by the Belgian venue Grand-Hornu, Normal Studio devised Augmented Wall, a seven-ton adobe wall cast using soil from within a six-mile radius. The piece, inspired by traditional French agrarian architecture, is a sort of über-natural radiator with a futuristic bent: It contains photovoltaic cells silkscreened onto a glass cage that generates a greenhouse effect and naturally retains the adobe’s heat. “Evolution operates either by obliteration or by integration,” remarks Dingjian. “Augmented Wall is the proof that archaic building techniques can cohabit with forward technologies.” The studio explored similar ancestral terra-cotta techniques at another scale with their Brique à Vin wine cooler. Designed in 2010 for the French manufacturer ENO, it utilizes the natural insulating qualities of porous clay to keep liquid chilled.

Most recently the pair was hired by the global giant Schneider Electric to create an affordable light switch. The resulting design is a simple but sensual oval-shaped fixture. With millions launching this fall at $6 apiece, this humble object could be the team’s most impactful design yet. Asked what attracted the company to Normal Studio, Frédéric Beuvry, a senior vice-president at Schneider Electric, replies: “Normal Studio knows how to express super-normality in an abnormal way.”

Dingjian and Chafaï are happy to let their designs stay in the background. “To make a successful industrial design, one has to be humble,” says Dingjian. Their creations are never about ego. “Normal Studio seeks neither the extra- ordinary nor the exceptional,” writes design critic Jeanne Quéheillard in the catalog that accompanied Elementary Design, their first two-man show, held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the summer of 2010. “The normal aims to do away with remarkableness while reaffirming the anthropological and cultural value of design.” To the critic and consumer alike, Normal’s designs celebrate the ubiquity of everyday objects and their power to change our lives—design as utility, not as artistic expression.

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