Jean-Marie Massaud strives for designs that are so subtle as to be inconspicuous, leaving room for comfort and flexibility. It is precisely this unique ability that endears him to creators of a whole range of products, from cars and furniture to perfumes and real estate developments.
It is October 2017. One of the world’s foremost industrial designers, Jean-Marie Massaud, is sitting across the table from me. It is a week to go before the launch of Apple’s iPhone X, and I am curious if Massaud is an Apple or Android user. “I have an iPhone,” says the animated Frenchman, whipping out a sleek black device. He pauses for a moment to remember the model, eventually identifying it as an iPhone 7. “Because it’s black; the iPhone 6 [had an anodised finish]. To me, Apple’s success has been its ability to create ways of managing information, and to allow users to access that information in the most intuitive way,” he adds, referring to its apps.

In 2003, four years before the first iPhone was launched, Massaud had designed a concept phone for Japanese telco SoftBank. “It was a very similar concept, but maybe even more radical in terms of hardware.” He proposed a black acrylic monolith that would recognise the user through a touch interface. It had satellite navigation, and, with no buttons, connectors or jacks, was completely waterproof.

“I imagined the kind of [operating system] it would deliver, but I didn’t think about the apps. Which is what the iPhone is all about,” he says with a hint of regret. “But SoftBank wasn’t ready at the time.”

A few years later — before the launch of the first Samsung Galaxy — the Korean electronics giant approached Massaud to make him creative director for medical and electrical appliances, electronics, TVs and phones. They had a discussion and were close to cutting a deal, but differences of opinion led to the deal eventually falling through.

What a shame. If Massaud’s designs for Axor Hansgrohe, B&B Italia, Cassina, Christofle, Lancôme, Poliform, Renault and Toyota are anything to go by, a Massaud-designed Samsung or SoftBank smartphone would be quite the treat to own and use.

An authority on design
Massaud was in town to celebrate SPACE’s 16th birthday, along with representatives from Poliform, a brand that SPACE retails as well as one that Massaud has had a working relationship with for five years. The Bristol and Mondrian sofas, which he designed, are among Poliform’s bestsellers.

They might not be as instantly recognisable as, say, a Zaha Hadid sofa is. Or even one of his own, more sculptural designs — the Terminal 1 Daybed for B&B Italia and Outline Sofa for Cappellini are two that come to mind. But they do exemplify his ideals of elegance, comfort and timelessness. At least according to his “sensitivity”, a word that comes up often during our hour-long conversation.

“What lasts or makes sense for a long time is not because it’s stylish, but because it’s something consistent, competent. It could also be something sensitive and stylish. It’s a holistic thing, not just about the skin of the object or the appearance. It has to do with the whole programme. [Famed US design brand] Eames’ work is stylish, but first of all it’s competent, comfortable and elegant. If you look at what lasts in the world, [it’s things that have] this kind of approach.”

With almost 30 years of experience under his belt, Massaud has enough authority to make such proclamations. After graduating from Paris’ ENSCI (National Institute of Industrial Design) in 1990, his initial forays into the design world concerned furniture, industrial products and accessories. In 2000, he opened Studio Massaud in Paris’ 20th district, expanding his range to include architecture and development strategy.

It is this experience that makes him a suitable candidate for giving design talks. Which is precisely what he did while he was in town. “In Conversation with Jean-Marie Massaud” was held at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, just across the road from SPACE, and attended mostly by design students — the next generation of designers. In his talk, he urged the students to follow their own path.

“Everybody has to follow their own intuitions. There is no one truth. Everybody has their own talents and sensitivities. Don’t lose yourself in a stylistic approach, but do something new and better, whether it’s your life experience or your future. You will arrive at your own style eventually. It’s the last part of the story,” he says, adding that these are not “rules” he doles out but advice that he has the pleasure of sharing because of his vast experience.

How the next generation will live
Massaud’s open-mindedness sometimes belies his age (he is 51). In fact, he says he shares some traits with millennials — design students, for example. “I’m quite similar to them… I don’t care about [material] things. If I don’t need it, [I won’t own it]. You can always rent something. By being more flexible, you can avoid being a slave to material things, processes, maintenance and so on. I don’t wear a watch… I only wear a belt because I’m fat,” he says with a laugh.

He is quite the comic, peppering his speech with sound effects and gesticulating with gusto to emphasise a point. Perhaps it is a characteristic of the southern French — Massaud was born in Toulouse.

Endlessly curious, as any good designer ought to be, Massaud enjoys exchanges with people. Particularly millennials, the generation responsible for ushering in the new world order. “I’m always excited to meet millennials. They give us an understanding of a world that’s in permanent mutation. They know better than us what they will do with their surroundings.”

This, of course, impacts the work that designers like Massaud do, as well as the kind of products and services that brands like Poliform need to roll out. Massaud paints a portrait of how society will live in 10 years, a scenario influenced by millennial preoccupations: “They will live in an environment that is more sensitive. It’s a world with more greenery. There will probably be a soundscape too. Maybe the sofa will become like a reef. I don’t want to call it an organic design, or say that it looks like a natural landscape, but it will be a more flexible space, because we will work 24 hours a day and be on vacation 24 hours a day.”

If that scenario sounds like the premise of a sci-fi movie, it is because many of Massaud’s designs have a futuristic, naturalistic, utopian quality that would not be out of place on the set of a sci-fi flick. “I read a lot of sci-fi books because that’s something I’m keen on. I try to be positive [in my designs] because I want to live in harmony.”

Massaud has never worked on a film set — “I’m lazy and I know how much energy it takes to put everything together.” But he would love to design a set, only if he can collaborate with production designers. “Production designers of big-budget movies are geniuses,” he proclaims.

He has not yet caught the hottest sci-fi flick of the moment, Blade Runner 2049, but he does remember watching the original film when it debuted. “When I saw the first Blade Runner, it was an aesthetic shock to me,” he says, without elaborating. Presumably, though, it’s because Blade Runner portrays a dystopian future — the antithesis of his utopian ideals.

Sum of all experiences
While Massaud’s designs are optimistic, harmonious and tranquil, he says that he only arrives at the final concept after an intuitive yet analytical process. “I always examine the context — economic, industrial, cultural, social… everything. Then I decide [which of these are the most important, or need to be improved upon]. Then I consider the means. When I have all this, then comes the creative sensibilities.” It’s at that point, he says, that problems cease to be challenges, but become catalysts for the solutions.

Inspiration comes from everywhere. “I’m always absorbing, from my everyday life, a lot of different experiences.” One of his most distinctive architectural projects is a 45,000-capacity football stadium in Guadalajara, Mexico. Completed in 2011, it is shaped like a volcano with a cloud ring “hovering” above it, and forms the centrepiece of a vast urban redevelopment project. It is his holistic approach at work: Instead of plonking a stadium directly into the urban landscape, he proposed an integrated environment.

Massaud says he arrived at the design after a “15-minute discussion” with the stadium’s developer. But he could not have come to such a conclusion had he not drawn upon prior experiences. The experience in particular was a football match in Milan, where he sensed “too much energy in the stadium for just one night”. This was in contrast to the peace and calm the next day.

“It’s not good for people living in the area,” he maintains. “[The developer] said that sustainability was not an issue, but I told him the opposite was true. [A football stadium] has to deliver a good experience for people every day, not just two days a month.” To heighten the sense of place, Massaud took inspiration from Volcán de Colima, a volcano 125km south of Guadalajara. The stadium, which is half-submerged in the ground, has its sides covered in greenery to look like it’s part of the landscape. The area becomes a public parkland when no matches are on.

Designing without designs
Massaud admits that his designs were more showy when he first started out. It was a way of asserting his own talent. Since then, his designs have evolved to become more about the experience. In fact, some of his contemporary designs exhibit no design whatsoever.

He explains: “If you look at the Bristol sofa, which is a big success for Poliform, there is no design. I prefer to have something super comfortable, super flexible in my life scenario than something loud. That’s my temper.” However, he quickly points out that he is not against conspicuous designs. “I like it when [designers] Patricia Urquiola or Marcel Wanders design things that are surprising. If you have one piece in the house like that, it [gives presence]. If you have too many things like that, it’s too much for my sensitivity.”

Of his relationship with Poliform, Massaud says: “We’ve worked together for five years now. We’re successful with [the sofas], Bristol and Mondrian. Poliform is very good in kitchens and systems, because it’s an industry of flexibility. When they apply the same philosophy to furniture and upholstery, it’s another story. I’m happy that we arrived at the same simple lines, the quality, the sustainable production and the flexibility to create real systems.

“We’re now starting work on sofa covers that you can change. I live in the south of France, so I want fresh white things — such as bedlinen. You don’t use the same bedlinen for six months; why isn’t a sofa like that? I want the same! We’re working on something that’s easy to remove and wash but doesn’t look like bedlinen. So every time you look at it, you’ll think it’s cool and fresh.”

Aside from Poliform, SPACE also carries Massaud’s designs for B&B Italia, Cassina and Serralunga. Asked how he feels about them, Massaud replies: “It’s about no design. It’s about elegance, comfort, proportion and refined details. These are long-lasting products that you have to keep for 20 years or more. [They’re] not arrogant designs. I try not to put any ego [in them].”

Ultimately, I ask, what gives him the greatest satisfaction? Is it seeing a product realised, winning a design award, having his designs showcased in museums, making a client happy, or seeing his products being used and enjoyed by people? “There’s a narcissistic pleasure in seeing your work. Of course, when I receive [awards such as] the Compasso d’Oro, I’m happy, because I admire [the late designer Achille] Castiglioni and others [who have won these awards in the past]. But the thing that makes me happiest is seeing people using my stuff.”

Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries.

This article appeared in Issue 805 (Nov 13) of The Edge Singapore.

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