‘At the end of the day, each of us is unique, and wants to be considered unique,’ says 43-year-old French designer Mathieu Lehanneur, whose multidisciplinary approach spans architecture, interiors, product design, craft, science and art. ‘In my work, be it as a designer, artist or architect, and regardless of whether I am producing something unique or for mass production, I want every piece to speak personally.’
Lehanneur’s oeuvre, which ranges from air-cleansing sculptures and boutique interiors to outdoor computers and emergency telephones, has won critical acclaim for its blend of sleek minimalism, practicality and beauty. He has collaborated with brands including Nike, Air France, Sony and Pullman Hotels, and his works feature in the collections of MoMA New York, MoMA San Francisco, the Victoria & Albert Museum and The Pompidou.
‘Growing up, my family was more of a community,’ explains Lehanneur, who was the youngest of seven children. ‘In such a large unit, you have to function as a group. I now apply that same ethos to our world, whether the context is family, business, country or the entire planet.’
The latter, in particular, is in evidence in his new body of work, 50 Seas, which goes on display at Christie’s in Paris as part of Maison et Objet, a biannual fair for home decor. Fusing science with design, the work charts the chromatic topography of our planet’s liquid environments.
Can you describe the project in your own words?
Mathieu Lehanneur: ‘I have worked with the liquid state of materials for many years. In a previous project I made liquid forms from marble, and this series grew from that. It draws on the experience of being in front of the sea or ocean, where you can stand in silence and enjoy the rhythm of the waves and the infinite colours of the water. Each disc represents a pinpoint-specific place on earth, and faithfully replicates the colour of the water there.’
How did you make the wave shapes?
ML: ‘It was a long process to accurately reproduce the movement of the ocean’s texture in ceramic. In order to realistically reproduce the sea’s currents in a physical form, my studio adapted 3-D computer software used by the cinema industry for rendering CGI waves.’
‘Once we were happy with a wave’s texture, we printed it as a mould. From this we cast 50 identical circular discs, each with the same surface pattern, and every one made by hand. It took a long time to get right. They were made in a studio in Switzerland — a landlocked country — but rather than working from a desk and computer, the majority of my time was spent moulding shapes and mixing colours in front of a furnace.’
How did you select the 50 colour points in the oceans and seas?
ML: ‘I didn’t want them to be random — I wanted the work to show the entire range of water colours, from Mexico to the Arctic. It was difficult to select the 50 — I could have easily chosen thousands. But in the end I felt 50 was the right number to give a good interpretation of the entire colour spectrum, with no two colours being too similar.’
Was it difficult to recreate the colours faithfully?
ML: ‘I partnered with the French satellite photography company Planet Observateur. It provided me with high-resolution images of each of the 50 points, from which we colour-matched the enamel paint by eye. We probably made close to 2,000 paint samples before I was happy that each was accurate enough. It takes a lot of learning and mixing because the colours change enormously during the firing process, so they look wildly different between start and finish.’
‘These works are physical representations of the seas, but they are also snapshots’
‘At Christie’s in Paris, they will be mounted on the walls in one long row, at eye level. This is so that the audience can easily compare one to the next, and feel as if they’re in front of the water. Below each piece will be the GPS coordinates and name of each location. That way, you can know where you’re looking, whether it is the Yucatán Peninsula or the Caspian Sea. Each ceramic will operate like a window on to a world of water, allowing people to travel the planet.’
Do you have a favourite?
ML: ‘I do, but I can’t tell you which it is. As the pieces are currently unlabelled, I don’t know where the colour I love most comes from!’
Is there an environmental message that you're trying to communicate with the work?
ML: ‘There is, but I don’t want it to be too obvious. These works are physical representations of the seas, but they are also snapshots. For sure, in 10, maybe 20, maybe fewer years, these colours will change because of pollution and humanity’s impact on the oceans. Even if I don’t state this as the work’s message, people will think about it — and I love that. But I want them to come to that conclusion on their own.
‘I want people to enjoy the fact that we reached an artistic conclusion through scientific processes. We took technologies made for other industries and combined them with this idea that when you stand in front of a large body of water, you focus very humanly on the self.’
50 Seas runs from 18 January to 2 February, open daily 9am-6pm, at Christie’s France, 9 Avenue Matignon 75008, Paris. Each work is sold separately for €4,800, as an edition of one with two artist’s proofs