Can I Do This?
Perhaps it is always best to interview people at the beginning of the week, when everyone has "plenty of energy", as Montserrat, the Bouroullec’s studio manager explains to me as she powers up a set of steel stairs, before she passes the phone on to Erwan himself. After some brief introductions, we begin the interview, and Erwan, who speaks excellent English, states quite simply "I am going to explain you exactly how it is done and what it is." And so he does.
The Can sofa is made from three basic elements. A frame that is assembled from steel tubing, a set of upholstered cushions that require "dedicated upholstery work," and finally, "the one important part in the sofa which we call the canvas, which is actually made out of really strong canvas and which is installed and then slightly spanned onto the structure." It is in this element that we can understand the genesis of the idea behind the design. "For this concept of Can, to avoid having too much structure, we decided to span a canvas onto the structure. By spanning the fabric you make something quite strong, which is going to hold, while at the same time that is soft enough to partially react to the life of the fabric, which is always something that kind of deforms, and takes its place and has a life." Erwan thinks the design "belongs a little bit to the language of the tent and also all of those furniture that were meant to travel, daybeds you could open that would have a wood or metal structure, with a strong canvas making the surface on which you would lie." This sense of lightness, of travel, even perhaps of a kind of purposeful casualness, all seem to have filtered into Can, also applying to how the sofa is sold, packaged and assembled.
The sofa itself comes flat-packed and is assembled at home. For Erwan, this is a better solution in what he terms the "new industrial era", when people are keen to get things in a quick and simple way. "It is better for all resources, it is less transportation, less volume, less stock, it is just much easier to do this." In terms of how it is assembled, if you have visions of struggling with a tent in strong wind and rain on a far flung camping expedition, fear not. Erwan ensures me that "It takes quite a limited time to assemble. Of course, we know how to build it, but some people who didn’t know, it took them 10 minutes to build the sofa, which I think is quite okay, considering you may keep it for more than a couple of years. It is less than a birthday cake, definitely."
I wanted to gain an understanding of how the Can sofa was prototyped and developed, how they finally brought the design to such a balanced place. Erwan tells of how the design was in development for at least three years, "I don’t remember when and how, but at one point we had a really clear vision of the sofa and then we started to build some prototypes here in Paris, which were in a way what it is now but without all the incredibly nice detailing that have happened through the development. It means that when we sent our prototypes and drawings to the man who has actually been developing the canvas, everything was clear, but many issues had to be solved." It is here that Erwan touches on what I consider to be at the very heart of what defines not just good designers, but truly great ones. When and where to take, or to cede control. As he puts it, where to leave a gap.
"At one point, it was really easy, we just had to let the nature of the technique, take the control. It means that in the original building everything was right, then it needed to be solved in some issues, then I knew that all the technicians would come with a lot of nice detailing, this is one part that I don’t want to control too much, because all of those technicians have been stitching, they know leatherwork, they know everything, it is even better to keep a gap and see what they propose, because there often lies something which, in a way, has more culture than something that I could do. I am very happy with the end result, because it is very clear, there is a lot of detail inside it. I love those kinds of detail, and how the culture of the technique grows inside the object."
Erwan sees Can as something that will wear well over time, something that gains character in a natural way, through use. He acknowledges that the design perhaps runs slightly against where sofas have been heading. "We have been using sofas that are giving more and more softness and comfort. Here, the steel plus the canvas are a little bit counter to this, it is not a silk shirt." This leads us to discuss the colour palette. "One of our biggest games in a way, was to choose some colours that would all go, in a way, together. So you have got many ways of thinking "can", you’ve got really grey on grey on grey, really chic. Or you could go with a red frame, and build beige on beige on beige, with the red frame bringing a little spice inside it. Then there are many ways of kind of playing with it, so in a way you deal a little with your mood, either you go a little more active, or more quiet. But what we made sure is that there wouldn’t be any error." The idea is that customers will be able to infuse their Can with their own sensibility, "I think you can have something that is quiet enough to make sure it can travel through years, but at the same time, you can make something a little bright."
This freedom of expression and positive attitude has been noticeable throughout our interview and I come to understand how determined Erwan is to infuse the Can sofa with these ideas. "I am always obsessed by what can people actually do," he explains. "Hopefully this sofa is lightweight enough in many senses, that people are not going to be afraid with it, there are many times when people just can’t use the sofa, afraid they are going to drip wine, or spill something, so sometimes the sofa is not right for having a relaxed attitude, and this is not right. So the name "Can" is the idea that "you can", "you can make it", just don’t be afraid. I think the sofa will raise the fear "can I do this?", "is it going to be right?" So, I wanted to implement into the name itself, just don’t be afraid, it will work."
Interview with Erwan Bouroullec by Duncan Riches