Product Designer Erwan Bouroullec on the Magic of Wrought Iron

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By Diana Budds / Published by Dwell
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The French designer provides food for thought on the new wrought-iron collection he and his brother, Ronan, designed for Magis.

Since 1999, brothers Erwan and Rowan Bouroullec have run an independent practice from their Paris-based studio, working with furniture brands such as Vitra, Kvadrat, and Cappellini. This year, they launched the Officina collection with Magis, using wrought iron to achieve the modern, elegantly functional pieces for which they are known. We caught up with Erwan at the Milan Furniture Fair to get his thoughts on the use of an ancient technique for a contemporary collection, and how production choices hold the power  to shape the industry.

Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec’s new Officina collection for Magis includes chairs, stools, and tables made with wrought-iron frames, marking the brothers’ first experimentation with the material. In this age-old technique, iron is hammered into shape by hand.

How did you first approach the idea of using a traditional method for a contemporary line? 

The Officina collection offers a range of material options, including steel, tempered glass, American walnut, Carrara marble, Ardesia slate, and leather. Shown here are the chair and table with galvanized, gray metallized frames.

If you compare it to cooking, to play with wrought iron is just like having an incredible fish—a beautiful one, like whole tuna. You shouldn’t do anything. You should just slice it perfectly and maybe bring just a little something. Because in the end, design techniques are like a flavor or seasoning. In the case of wrought iron, you’ve got a really, really rare flavor.  

“For me, as a product designer, I feel like the strongest political action that any citizen makes is by buying things," designer Erwan Bouroullec says. "We are buying things all the time, and of course, it has a huge, huge consequence on the way the world goes.”

How do you feel it contrasts with more common methods or materials, like aluminum or powder-coated metals?

It’s so strong because it’s filled with history, first. Then also, it’s filled with some incredibly primal steps: You see it, hammer it, heat it—fire, melt, poof! Hammer it into shape, and that’s it. As soon as we were confronted with it, it posed a big dilemma. It really took us a while to achieve such simplicity.

How do you feel this fits into your trajectory of work as a designer?

One responsibility that I understand, more and more, is that in the end, we work with companies, and those companies are partially in danger. Most of them are European, producing locally in Europe, so we have to think carefully when we do things. Now, with globalization and the movement of everything, design has to be much better every time. You need to find some clue— a reason—to resist local production. 

Have you found there are others that share your desire for a more organic way of producing things?

I’m happy I’m working with some producers that all have high expectations for good design. So, they’ve got different production techniques. Some of them are more industrial, some of them are less, but at least something that they all share is that if you do something, it has to be worth doing it. 

To you, what makes it worth it? 

One of the biggest considerations behind furniture is to make pieces that are able to travel time. If you look at all the production of the ’90s and the design, a lot of things were not able to do that. They were getting old instantly, and they were getting old by their visual language, and also by their function. They were just not necessary. This is one of the worst things you can do for furniture. They have to be able to be kind of non-temporal. In this regard, I think we work with the right partners.