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The Secret To Creative Product Design? Getting Physical

Is the digital era killing the magic of hands-on experimentation? Designer Philippe Malouin’s room dividers reclaim a lost form of creativity.

Last week, Philippe Malouin–a London-based industrial designer–was holed up in the basement of a WeWork office in Manhattan, experimenting like a mad scientist as he created a series of room dividers and screens. The resulting project, an NYCxDesign installation commissioned by the direct-to-consumer furniture brand Hem, isn’t about the final product. It’s about the process of coming up with an idea, prototyping it quickly, and communicating the underlying concept. For Malouin, that’s in stark contrast to the way most design is made these days.

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[Photo: Erik Lefvander]
“Today, we don’t have time to experiment as much, so we sketch and we get on a computer and model something out and then send it to production,” Malouin told Co.Design during a studio visit. “The ideas were good, but they’re not as interesting as what you can find when you experiment and try things out without having a final goal or a final idea.”

Seven of Malouin’s wildly inventive room dividers made it into his NYCxDesign show, Study for Screens, which is on view inside a WeWork space near Bryant park alongside Hem’s consumer products, some of which Malouin designed. To Hem–which is currently focusing on an expansion within the United States (it furnishes many of WeWork’s spaces)–Malouin’s experiments reflect the company’s investment in creativity and experimentation.

“[Study for Screens] says something about who we are; we’re are a retail brand in that we sell furniture but at our core, we’re a creative studio and we’re interested in the creative process,” Petrus Palmer, Hem’s founder says. “Sometimes it’s more interesting than the final result.”

[Photo: Erik Lefvander]
To start the project, Malouin and his assistant thought about the atmospheric qualities of space–like transparency, sound, light, color, temperature and air. Next, they purchased industrial materials and office supplies that spoke to those themes, like masking tape, metal screens, mylar balloons, tent poles, LED strip light, cork board, packing peanuts, and upholstery foam. “Finished materials don’t provoke you to make discoveries,” Malouin says.

[Photo: Erik Lefvander]
Unfinished materials in hand, they began physically manipulating their off-the-shelf items to divide space. Their only restrictions, since the pieces were destined for an exhibit and not an office, were that the room dividers had to stand on their own and they had to look visually interesting. The simpler the idea, the better.

For instance, in one experiment Malouin and his assistant tied a string on one side of a flat mesh panel and pulled it taut to create a U-shape that let the panel stand vertically. For another concept, they taped an LED strip light to a tent pole so it cast a narrow band of illumination directly beneath it. One clever screen featured helium-filled balloons tied down in a single line, held together with horizontal strips of tape. The designers spray painted a screen door mesh blue and crunched it up into a giant mass that almost looks like a plume of blue smoke. One of the most difficult experiments involved folding clumsy upholstery foam in an accordion shape and tying it together to yield a ruching effect.

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Malouin’s past work has involved other wild material experimentation. When he designed the Molo chair for Established & Sons–an all-foam seat with no internal framing. To figure out how the material behaved, he began the project by purchasing Ikea mattresses, slashing the covers, cutting out the foam, and simply folding.

The project as a whole is also a reflection on the state of design today, which is more expressive, reflects the hand of the designer, and is concept driven.

“The financial crisis that happened in 2008 changed everything and everyone,” Malouin says. “It was how we consume things, how we didn’t like chains anymore and went for local things that were handcrafted, things that were tangibly made, things on a smaller scale, food that was grown around you. This was a sea change that touched everything and all types of culture. Making things yourself and the idea of craft came back during that period. I’m interested in industrial production and mass production, but you need to be able to make things as well to discover things. Sketching in the computer is never going to take you there.”

[Photo: Erik Lefvander]

While the scope of the project was to create abstract pieces for an installation, not to design something that could be sold to an end-user, Malouin’s experiments might wind up in products in the future. He was interested in the idea of using soft materials to create walls “because everything around us is so hard, and there are possibilities for soundproofing,” he says. He also likes the freestanding light, since it would be easy to place in open offices.

But in the end, that wasn’t the point. “The problem with design shows in general is that people always expect to see a finished product on a plinth and this show is not about that at all,” Malouin says. “They’re more like sculptures based on the idea of a screen.”

What the project also reveals is how the design profession has changed. Consider Malouin’s career: He designs mass-produced, fairly affordable products for brands like Hem and Umbra Shift; higher-end production work for companies like Roll & Hill and Matter; one-off studio pieces; and interiors through his architecture firm, Post Office. Branded projects, like Study for Screens, are part of the equation too.

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“There are so many ways to exist in this business and you need to exist in many ways if you want to survive,” Malouin says. “You can’t do [only] product design unless you’re the Bouroullecs or Konstantin Grcic or Jasper Morrison. It’s a huge myth. With the amount of brands and how inundated the market is, the royalty model, where you get a percentage [of sales] and so on, [doesn’t work]. You have to do other things: private commissions, gallery work, installations. Being good at one thing isn’t enough to keep you alive.”

Meanwhile, the way people consume design has changed. The idea of a product and how it’s communicated is sometimes more important than the physical object. Malouin treated this project like a “visual journal,” he says. Since it was all about process, his experiments had to be documented and presented in a visually interesting way.

“This project exists, and it doesn’t exist,” Malouin says, pointing out that half of his experiments didn’t make it into the final installation. “They’re not material; they exist in a publication. How we consume objects [today] is from a mood-board standpoint. The thing exists, but it’s images that are communicated. The proliferation and speed of this type of communication have changed. It wasn’t like that when I graduated [in the mid-2000s]. We had the internet but we didn’t have Instagram. At the time, printed publications were all that mattered. So if you had a spread in [the design magazine] Frame, you were there. Now print media has changed. Objects have to exist hand-in-hand with the virtual world.”

See Malouin’s experiments in the slide show above and at WeWork Bryant Park.

Corrections: A previous version misidentified Petrus Palmer as a co-founder of Hem; he is the sole founder. Hem alone, not WeWork and Hem, commissioned the installation.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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