“I’m not really made to fit the general mould.” Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte on breaking away from the conventional with honest Belgian design

This September Brussels becomes the booming hub for all things Belgian design, and as part of this year’s framework, Design September is launching #ikkoopbelgisch/#jachetebelge for the very first time. Set to be a highlighting opportunity for the country’s blossoming stars of the country’s design scene to showcase their strongest work in various shop windows across downtown Brussels. To help you get to grips with the unlimited talent on show between 6th and 30th September, we’ve gathered together three of the brightest young things that would be foolish to miss.

Brussels-based designer Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte (1991) has always been fascinated by the idea of creating objects by hand. From constructing little wooden sea-mills along the Normandy coast during his childhood with his grandfather, to becoming obsessed with the metal, wood and glass-making studios at his sister’s art school, the La Cambre graduate cannot remember a time when design was not something that he loved. Despite being born in France, Vandeputte sees himself as a purely Belgian designer, which he believes is signified by his designs that use honest materials and are surrealist in their appearance.

Visuals (c) MIKO/MIKO STUDIO

 At its core, what is your work about? How would you describe it?

I work in different paths. My main line focusses on an experience and the function of the product. Nowadays product design mostly involves creating pragmatic objects. It’s all about their function. You use these objects for sitting or eating at a table. This type of design has really pragmatic aspects. But instead, I’m trying to really focus on the functions that we don’t currently have in objects, such as feelings and emotions. They exist in the everyday but there isn’t any object that helps you reach these states of mind for example. I’m trying to add these values to objects. I’m asking whether it is possible to create not only objects where you feel comfortable, but also where you can be put into a zone where you can feel safe. My aim is to create an object that allows you to get into these sorts of states.

What is its starting point and statement?

It always starts with a story of some sort. Sometimes it can be an expression – for example, if you look at my piece Paradosso, it’s a back rest where you can actually rest while standing. The structure is made of steel while the back rest is made of leather for indoors and canvas for the outdoors. Paradosso means paradox in Italian. The idea came from a French expression – une histoire à dormer débout – , a story for awake dreamers, which refers to a story that is so absurd that it is almost as if you’re witnessing a dream standing up. So this is one of my starting points, but sometimes it can also be from the material itself. For instance, I made a cork helmet, which helps you remove yourself from your own space, and you actually experience pure silence, because once inside it’s like a shell. You’re in an empty space but you feel also like there’s some wind movement too. I like the fact that objects can tell stories. I never design purely from a sketch; I have to design from a message, which can be an expression or feeling or it can also be an expression from the material. Cork has some qualities for instance that aren’t that well-known, so I wanted to explore those too.

What characterises your work?

My work is pretty frank; there’s no lie behind it. It’s hard to characterise my work, but I would probably say it’s Belgian, firmly rooted in Belgian surrealism. There’s also honesty in my designs and chosen materials. I mainly use top quality materials – for instance, my go-to wood is oak as it’s a material that lasts. It was used for furniture by our grandparents for centuries, passed down to our parents and then to us.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

I want to give the users an experience. I want them to understand that objects like chairs and sofas are not only meant for sitting. If you go to well-known design fairs in Milan, the most famous designs are chairs, tables, mirrors, coffee tables and lights – and that’s pretty much it. There’s not a lot of space for my sort of work. It’s really quite difficult to situate my objects, because they do have a function – to rest while standing, or to hide yourself for instance – but they’re not really considered “pragmatic” by the market. So sometimes my work is considered as art; but for me art involves contemplation. You’re not going to touch a painting or sculpture you’re standing in front of, while you would use objects and wear fashion. It’s not art anymore; it’s design.

For the first time ever, Design September will take place in the public space of the city center. How will you adapt the selection process of your work now that it will be showcased in a shop front?

I don’t really think selection process adaptation is necessary, asides from thinking about the fact that we’re using a shop window to showcase our designs, of course.

How has the atmosphere of the city you live in influenced your work or inspired you in a certain way?

I’ve been living in Brussels for almost a decade now. I opened my office late 2014, and though it didn’t necessarily influence me, it did provide me the freedom that I needed. Brussels is really a fertile ground for launching projects; it lets me do as I want. It’s my playground.

My work is pretty frank; there’s no lie behind it.

This year’s edition will be marked by the latest trends in Belgian and international design. What do you think are the most significant trends in Belgian design, and how has the design scene changed?

It’s a tough question. Most of the time, if you read articles about Belgian design, they always say we’re super-realist. They also say that Belgian designers don’t really have anything in common, which I think is quite true because I don’t see any relative designers that are really linked to my work. We are all connected in a way, but since we’re all so different it’s hard to identify a trend.

How do you see yourself fit into the country’s design scene? What makes your work stand out?

I’d say I’m a bit of an outsider. I’m not really made to fit the general mould – I try to but it’s really difficult. Today’s design is established by the brand: they decide what they need. If we want to produce and sell our work we need to fit these brands, which is really hard as trends are determined by the market. Impressive work also needs to be practical.

Do you feel Belgium as a country does enough to support upcoming designers? How could it improve?

Yeah, I think we’re the new generation, one that’s really close-knit and is going to make their mark, I’m quite sure. We definitely get enough support, like from MAD Brussels, but you need to do your research first. It’s not that complicated, a quick Internet search will suffice.

Which Belgian (design) brand or artist do you follow or look to for inspiration?

I admire the designer Alain Gilles, even if my work is quite different from his; while he doesn’t represent the goal I want to achieve, I admire what he does. He isn’t like the other older designers. Object design is like that of fashion, it can be healthy or poisonous – even if there’s less of a sense of poison in furniture design. That’s why Gilles’ work is so refreshing: he isn’t fake, he’s real. For now at least, there’s no correlation between our work, but from time to time we work on the same aspects. For instance, he made a sound-proofing object, and materials-wise he’s also worked with cork.

How does your work relate to the ideas of the shop with which you have been paired for this project?

I’ll be exhibiting at Filippa K: very chic and elegant fashion design. With this novel aspect in common, we’re pairing up together, playing around a plastic mannequin and allowing the clothes to interact with my objects.

On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work?

I wake up a designer, leave the house as a designer, and sleep as a designer. My everyday life has a huge influence on my work.

What does success look like to you?

I’d say I’m still waiting for it. The day I see people using my objects organically on the streets with a smile on their face, I’ll have made it.

Finally, what projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a hammock that’s not strung up between two trees. I’m also going to continue working on the design world’s new school of thought, called social design. It’s got a lot to do with sustainability. For instance, I designed a bag made from the scaffolding canvas that was hanging from Brussels’ Grand Place, looking to find a suitable way to reuse this fabric. I put together a team to work with MAD Brussels and L’Ouvoir, a social work enterprise. The bags contained a little map telling you which part of the building its material had come from. After this a law was signed a couple months ago stating that all the scaffolding used by the City for renovating buildings have to be resued. Another series of bags have just been created from the downtown Hotel Continental’s scaffolding. They will be available for sale at Kanal, MAD, L’Ouvoir and CIVA. I’m also preparing an exhibition for the Kortrijk-based festival Biennale Interieur, held in the end of October. I’m also going to be preparing for Milan Furniture Week: I’ve been selected to design for the brand Mathy By Bols, and will be creating a children’s bed. More pragmatic, I guess I’m fitting more into the official design “mould” with this choice.

Catch Vandeputte as part of #ikkoopbelgisch/#jachetebelge at Filippa K.
pierreemmanuelvandeputte.com