The man who designed the Olympic torch that will make its way to Paris next summer has an unusual relationship with design. Whereas many designers are endlessly referential, drawing from those who came before them, Mathieu Lehanneur takes as much inspiration from nature, science and culture as he does from the canon of great design.
Case in point: Lehanneur’s torch, which will be lit by the rays of the sun in Olympia, Greece before making its way across France. There have been 39 previous torches for the summer and winter Olympics, but Lehanneur only gave them a cursory glance before embarking on his own path.
“I got a quick view of historic torches but I knew since the very first day that I didn’t want to bring any ideas or inspiration from those torches, whatever their quality,” he says from his home in Paris. “The first thing I thought was, all of them are based on the same kind of form factor, a kind of vase-like shape, narrow on the bottom and wider on the top. It’s a traditional way of considering the torch, and it makes it technically easier to include the burner. But this kind of shape reminds me of an object of conquest.”
Lehanneur instead wanted to capture the spirit of the torch relay. “Without any god or religion, it’s quite symbolic – it’s quite magic. For me, it’s symbolic that the fire of the torch comes from the sun. They bring a kind of solar parabolic system to be able to light up the torch. So every single aspect of the relay and the torch is liturgical. It’s super rare for an object to have this kind of magic without religion.”
The torch he ended up producing is perfectly symmetrical, like two torches fused together. Made of steel, the top half is matte and the bottom is reflective, with an undulating surface that evokes the ripple of a stone thrown in a pond. In many ways, it encapsulates much of what Lehanneur enjoys doing.
“It’s a perfect combination of all the aspects of design I want to be involved with,” he says. “It’s an object you touch — you wear it in a way — and you need to include a lot of technology inside. It appears quite simple, just a stick that will burn, but it’s quite complex inside because the torch can’t turn off, it’s impossible, because it’s a sacred fire. So you need to ensure that whatever the weather condition the torch will still light. You need to include a lot of specific components for that. It’s an object that billions of people will see and have an opinion about and understand it in different ways.”
That seems fitting for someone whose design portfolio ranges from public seating to fireplaces to residential interiors to medical devices. “Is Mathieu Lehanneur the world’s most versatile designer?” asked Architectural Digest in a 2018 profile. “I don’t want to be a specialist in anything,” he tells us. That sentiment hasn’t changed since the day he started his design education at ENSCI-Les Ateliers in Paris. “When I wanted to apply, one guy [on the admissions jury] asked me who is my favourite designer. And I remember it was absolutely uncomfortable because it was impossible for me to even give just one name. I started to practise and investigate my design work with this kind of naïve approach. Everybody was trying to give a clear definition of design and for me it was the opposite – I was not capable of giving a clear definition. I still don’t want to give a clear definition of the boundaries of design. It’s a great chance for me to be able to cross and go through the potential boundaries.”
From the beginning, Lehanneur was most concerned with what is dryly referred to in design school as user experience. Or to put it more broadly, human well-being and how to achieve that through design. “I try to be as connected as possible to the human being, to their way of living, to their way of thinking,” he says. And that requires the expansive knowledge of a generalist. “I need to integrate some type of scientific knowledge to know how my body works, to include some psychological knowledge to know how my mind works, to include some cultural or religious knowledge to know how my beliefs work. For me the question is never the object, the product, the furniture itself, but always what an object is able to create in your mind.”
With that kind of mindset underpinning Lehanneur’s work, perhaps it isn’t surprising that many of the spaces and objects he has created are biophilic: engaged with and inspired by nature. Andrea is an air purifier, designed by Lehanneur in collaboration with Harvard University biomedical engineer David Edwards, that uses and enhances the ability of an actual living plant to filter the air. (That’s something that might appeal to space-starved households in Hong Kong, who would appreciate such a two-in-one home appliance.) The Digital Break is a free wi-fi station with sheltered public seating and a rooftop garden whose structure evokes the canopy of a tree.
Liquid Marble is a series of works with the texture of moving water etched onto marble and other surfaces – a technique Lehanneur has applied to installations, furniture and now the Olympic torch. “It’s the experience of being in front of the sea – at that specific moment you do not need to talk or think or remember something, you just enjoy the fact that you are here now,” says Lehanneur. “You are just enjoying the fact that you are alive. I wanted to check if the hypnotic effect of water and the reflection of light on a moving ocean could put you in a certain state of mind.”
To achieve that, Lehanneur worked with software used to create computer-generated imagery for movies. “You work as a god,” he says. “In your computer, you are managing the speed and direction of the wind and currents, different parameters that create what could be the ocean.” He then digitally sculpts the pattern onto marble and polishes it by hand. It’s a convergence of virtual and physical realities that is designed to evoke an emotional response in the people who experience it.
That may sound frivolous to some, but Lehanneur points to one example of how a similar process has been used to improve the lives of people in an otherwise grim setting. Tomorrow is Another Day is an installation commissioned by the palliative care ward of a Paris hospital. “It was a carte blanche commission for something that could alleviate the situation of people in the unit,” he says. What he came up with was a digital light box, mounted on the wall of rooms home to terminally ill patients, that projected an impressionistic rendering of the next day’s weather. “It’s an animation, most of the time super slow, that can go from sunny to rainy to stormy to foggy weather,” he says.
And it can be customised by location, which led to an unexpected use that Lehanneur found particularly touching. After the light boxes were installed in the hospital, staff reported back to Lehanneur that one patient wanted to change the location of her display nearly every day. The patient explained that it was so she could feel closer to her son, who was an airline pilot constantly on the move. “Whatever you wanted to create, sometimes a user can invent a new way of using it that still works perfectly within the concept you wanted to apply,” says Lehanneur. “This woman wanted to remain a mother until the very last seconds of her life. I never thought about that.”
That works in the opposite way as well. In 2011, Lehanneur worked with researchers at Harvard and the University of Pretoria in South Africa to launch the CellBag, a reusable bag for carrying drinking water in parched rural communities. Compared to the oil drums that were being used to transport water, the bag was lightweight and foldable, inspired by the way cells transport water and nutrients through the human body. “But CellBag is a failure,” says Lehanneur. The bag worked as intended, but Lehanneur and the university researchers didn’t account for the fact that it needed to be cleaned with water to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, and the people using it didn’t want to waste precious water for that. “We’re still working on a solution,” he says.
Lehanneur takes a long view of things. His final project in design school was called The Third Lung, an asthma inhaler for children that inflates when it’s time for a dose. The idea was to create something personable and intuitive, and it was part of a larger project to improve the process of taking medications to avoid missed doses or overuse. “[It’s] trying to include the patient into the story of the treatment,” says Lehanneur. The prototype was well received by doctors and potential patients, but Lehanneur’s feedback from pharmaceutical executives has been that, if it doesn’t boost their profits, they aren’t interested.
That project dates back to 2001. It has since been collected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “I was flattered but the right place for that wasn’t in a museum,” says Lehanneur. But he hasn’t given up. “The other day I received a random email from a doctor who told me the industry is [closer] to being ready for that. It was super great to hear that. But it wasn’t a surprise. From the very first day I was sure the impact would be a good one.” It’s just a matter of time.
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