French designer Jean-Marie Massaud has worked with globally recognised brands in industrial and furniture design and has handled large architectural commissions such as the Estadio Chivas in Guadalajara, Mexico and the Tribeca Condominium Towers in New York. Massaud’s inventiveness and wide-ranging enthusiasms have allowed him to cross boundaries across diverse design fields.
Rajiv Parekh is a founding partner of Mumbai-based reD architects, a design practice with a focus on processes and research. He has worked on projects like restoration of heritage structures and community housing.
As people, Massaud and Parekh are quite similar, both have an easy manner, a quick laugh and a relaxed demeanour. In contrast, their work styles could not be more different, with Massaud preferring the lighter aspects of design, while Parekh likes to focus on the logistics of working through practical issues to realise a design intention.
We are meeting at the Poltrona Frau booth at the Salone del Mobile - it is a mad press of people, but we manage to find a relatively quiet space to have our chat. Massaud is in his trademark all white, and Parekh in khaki chinos and navy shirt is the quintessential preppy. They could well be the yin to each other’s yang, and conversation sparks quickly between them.
Rajiv Parekh (RP): You have worked on an incredible range of diverse projects - from product, furniture and transport design to architecture and even futuristic airships. How do you straddle these diverse fields?
Jean-Marie Massaud (JMM): I did. But I stopped architecture, it is for very serious people, you have to be a marathon man. You are an architect, right? Respect. I am a tourist. To realise projects like architecture, often you need to be a manager. Product design is sometimes much lighter; it is easier to accomplish.
RP: What first brought you into this world of design? And in terms of your preferences, what form of design do you enjoy the most?
JMM: I did not plan anything; it is by chance. And I enjoy everything, I like science, I like science very much. I come from aircraft engineering first, then I became a furniture stylist for Italian companies. It is a pity because I am lazy. I should have been a movie director.
RP: Because you like the visual frame?
JMM: No, because I like to dream. When you speak to me, there are a lot of moving images in my mind.
RP: What would you say influences your designing?
JMM: Everything has an influence. Discussing with people, different cultures, nature, all of this inspires creativity. And sometimes we do not have the same perception about the same fact if we do not have the same culture. It shows how much culture has an impact on our fulfilment. Nature is very economic - it does not spend energy and material where it is not necessary.
RP: You speak a lot about being economic, of lightness in your work. What is the essence of lightness to you?
JMM: It is reduction, doing better with less, using less material if it is possible. When I started with Poltrona Frau, which is super conservative, I was doing airplanes at the time, not furniture. And then after six months I did the Kennedee sofa, I just reduced and took away what was not needed. I would say lightness is about reduction and not using too much.
RP: Even when I look at the Bob table, which you have done for Poltrona Frau, it is so clean, it is so simple yet such great design. And your Archibald chair, with the stitching and the folds, it is very beautiful...
JMM: You are too much of a gentleman, you are very kind. But there are no real stakes in doing furniture for niche markets. Working in the car industry, for example, makes you understand the stakes. Getting progressive people like you and me, to put creativity and vision in giving the user a better experience with less, with lower maintenance and everything, then there are issues and stakes.
RP: What is it that you are working on now that you think we should look out for?
JMM: My life project first – I am working on my kitchen. Seriously though, I am working in different fields and I try to be much more involved today in the big industry. To make it first for the user experience, and for the global industrialisation and environmental scenario.
RP: What would be your two bits of advice to young designers and aspiring product designers?
JMM: Just follow your intuition, because the brain is very simple. For example, right now I am having a nice conversation with a smart guy with bright eyes, and it is a positive moment, and my brain will remember the light, the good feeling and the good mood. And the brain remembers all the time - bad or good, right or wrong. Whenever you are dealing with a complex situation, when you remember, you make the selection of what is important and what is not. And when you follow your intuition, you are in line with yourself, it means you are on the right path. Maybe you do something, then have an experience that changes your direction, but it is a good experience.
RP: You follow your gut and make a mistake and…
JMM: And maybe when I was younger, I was not as confident to really follow some intuitions. Because you are timid.
RP: You do not know if it will work out.
JMM: Yes, but you also know deep inside it will. What is your story?
RP: I started with interior design and then moved to architecture. I came back after five years studying architecture, and there I was, with a master’s degree and designing one bathroom. But that is how it is, you take what comes your way and make the most of the opportunities that life hands out.
JMM: That is the meaning of life. When you are doing something that makes sense for you, you are fulfilled; if not, you lose energy.
We know Massaud is in a rush, our allotted 15 minutes are long over, so we must really stop here. But one last question before we go - what would STIR him in the coming year?
Jean-Marie Massaud: “What will STIR me - just empathy, love and friendship, that is my only quest today in life.”
(See more from the series 'Cross Border Conversations 8X8' )