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Review> Microarchitects
Philip Berger reviews Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec: Bivouac at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Installation view, Bivouac, Centre Pompidou-Metz, France.
Courtesy Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec: Bivouac
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
220 East Chicago Avenue
Through January 20, 2013

The presentation of Bivouac—an exhibition of work by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, originally mounted by the Pompidou Museum’s Metz branch—at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) reflects several encouraging trends. First, it’s a great harbinger that MCA and Michael Darling, its new chief curator, will be showing more design (despite the fact that it has very little in its permanent collection). In a wider sense, it illustrates the growing acceptance that the contemporary art world is looking at design objects—even those that are mass-produced—as examples of “fine art.”

It’s unfortunate that in that rarefied world, the notion that something is functional, or, even worse, decorative disqualifies it from consideration as fine art. But the oeuvre of the Bouroullec brothers militates against such discrimination. The functionality of their pieces bespeaks their intellectual underpinnings while their pleasing forms make them hugely appealing. In general, they just look cool.

Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, 280 Case Studies, various dates.

The Bouroullecs have designed a wide range of objects for both the residential and contract markets, including tableware, shelving units, chairs, and large upholstered pieces like the Alcove High Back sofa, which creates its own contained environment. Darling suggests it offers the user “a beautiful moment of solitude.” But it’s their modular systems for creating “micro-architectures” that are so innovative and arresting. Darling points out that some of the Bouroullecs’ most interesting works weren’t devised to address any individual problem, but simply to represent the output of incessantly innovative minds. There was no pressing need for a product like Clouds, a system of interlocked thermo- compressed foam “petals,” or Algues, a similarly interlocked system of modular pieces (here of injection molded plastic), but they created their own market niche.

Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Cloud Modules, 2002.

The cerebral/intellectual components of the Bouroullec approach are evident in all the modular systems. First, there’s the interactive, DIY element of the designs: Users must assemble the individual pieces in what could be an infinite variety of configurations. They’re almost like very sophisticated LEGO toys; there’s a distinctly playful quality about them. Plus, they’re simultaneously precisionist and naturalistic. When used as room dividers, for example, the Clouds and the North Tiles can easily look completely different depending on which side of the divider you’re seeing. And there’s an ongoing theme of order in the machine-made regularity of the components, which—in an apparent paradox—are shaped to resemble organic, natural forms. The MCA’s long, sky-lit fourth floor galleries are well suited for the installation. The entry to the show— featuring a wall of the “Twigs” pieces as a back- drop to a linear display of furniture, on a perpendicular axis to another wall of the Clouds—is what Darling calls the “brains” of the exhibition. It’s certainly a powerful expression of the scope of the brothers’ work. Another bonus of the MCA’s installation is the number of elements in the show that visitors can actually touch. Nearly all of the chairs are available for sampling. It’s a real treat to try out both the “soft” chair, an exercise in fabric construction, and the aforementioned Alcove Sofa.

It’s too soon to say whether the MCA will be adding “& Design” to its name, but, if Bivouac is any indicator, it’s a possibility that design aficionados will welcome.

Philip Berger

Philip Berger is a frequent contributor to AN.