Perusing 'The Inventory of Life' with French designer Mathieu Lehanneur

Speaking with STIR, Lehanneur expands on his creative activism through The Inventory of Life, comprising the State of the World, 50 Seas, Live/Leave, and How Deep is Time.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Oct 13, 2022

To see the world through the eyes of French designer and multidisciplinary creator Mathieu Lehanneur is to comprehend and revel in his radical, creative, instinctive and giddily nerdy ideas of what design is, and can be honed into, as an agency. His works, from LightinDerm (Regenerative Skin Care product) to Ocean Memories (a sculptural table designed as a piece of frozen sea), and his collections displayed at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New-York; and more, illustrate design as an explorative discipline, and also as activism, not in disguise but in purity, functionality and essence. Stretching and experimenting within the realms of product design to architecture, craft, technology, and nature, these objects, solutions and spaces translate at their core, information to emotion.  

French designer Mathieu Lehanneur standing in the middle of his installation, the State of the World, part of the four installations making up the exhibition, The Inventory of Life | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
French designer Mathieu Lehanneur standing in the middle of his installation, the State of the World, part of the four installations making up the exhibition, The Inventory of Life Image: © Felipe Ribon

Described as a “champion of intellectual agility in the field of contemporary design” by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, MoMA-NY, Lehanneur is fascinated with nature, science, the human psyche, and the real world, giving into an investigative curiosity that enables him to learn, and create for our complex species. Even the way his projects are categorised on his website - People, Places, Solutions, and Why - summarises his creative sensibilities and a function-based, intellectual and perceptive approach to designing.

  • Ocean Memories, low table | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
    Ocean Memories, low table Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur
  • Inverted Gravity, dining table | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
    Inverted Gravity, dining table Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur

“Because we are a body and a spirit.
Because some objects have the power to transform us.
Because what we possess represents us,
And what we pass on will say about us.
Because we need intelligence and transcendence.
Because we live in the real, but we aspire to the extraordinary.
Because water, air, fire and time are our pillars.
Because magic is both a dream and a science…”

  • Les Cordes chandelier | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
    Les Cordes chandelier Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur
  • LightinDerm (left); Boom Boom! Bluetooth speaker (right)  | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
    LightinDerm (left); Boom Boom! Bluetooth speaker (right) Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur

If common pieces of furniture and industrial design seem monotonous to you, I would wholly blame Lehanneur – with stringy chandeliers looping themselves in and out of ceilings, and dining tables with bulbous glass legs, and a Bluetooth speaker that is "self-explanatory and magical as a piece of fruit”, his works are faceted and purposeful, and almost perfect. He has most famously revealed in his TED Global conference titled Science-inspired design (2009), his disinterest in creating “perfect” objects as he is essentially creating for a species that is in fact, far from being so.

Deep Time chandelier with Live/ Leave in the background | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
Deep Time chandelier with Live/ Leave in the background Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur

Donning a faded black tee and ardent eyes, the ambidextrous industrial designer joined us over a Zoom call from his "factory" in France, his animated gestures giving away his egalitarian, and fiercely independent nature, and a fervent impatience perhaps relaying his inquisitiveness and passion for the discipline. We spoke at length on his now concluded solo exhibition curated by independent design curator, consultant, critic and author Maria Cristina Didero, The Inventory of Life at the Triennale de Milano 2022. Comprising four succinct installations - State of the World, 50 Seas, Live/ Leave, and How Deep is Time – the exhibition, arranged in a sincere visual odyssey and an organised scenography, revealed a tale of caution, human ingenuity, and most of all, hope, through his original objects of design and art that marries the living and synthetic, the natural and man-made. Lehanneur also indulged us in his definition of a true designer, his overarching journey as a practising one over the last two decades with an initial education in art, as well as creating pieces that are also able to reveal statistical, technical data.

The making of The Inventory of Life Video: Courtesy of Mathieu Lehanneur
Even if I do not understand science entirely, for my designs I essentially refer to it, fascinated by its ability to deeply investigate the human being, our ways of working, our ways of feeling, how we see, how we breathe… it’s a great tool for me to understand what our real needs are …” – Mathieu Lehanneur, Science-inspired design, TEDGlobal conference (2009)

Without being preachy or too abstract, these design installations were conceived through intense levels and years of research. Through these engineered, tangible objects and art pieces, the product designer assessed the state of the world, blurring the boundaries between design, science, art, and anthropology, surveying our lived experiences and how they affect the planet. An underlying but reawakened awareness of the fragility and transiency of human life, juxtaposed to the consciousness of the long term of existence, sewed every inch and facet of The Inventory of Life.

The making of State of the world installation Video: © Felipe Ribon
"In this very particular moment in our history, I wanted to be able to embody humanity in its entirety; to be able to crystallise the infinitely large and complex objects. The Inventory of Life is a way to make our present and future visualisable and tangible.” - Mathieu Lehanneur

Captivating, simple and rich, each installation was based on scientific data and statistics provided by a variety of sources, including the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, and satellite generated photographs commissioned specifically for the project, to display the interconnected damage experienced by the environment through climate change, with two of the works focusing on rising sea levels, and marine ecosystems.

50 Seas comprised a series of wall-hung enameled ceramic plates created on records of 50 different seas based on satellite images | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
50 Seas comprised a series of wall hung enamelled ceramic plates created on records of 50 different seas based on satellite images Image: © Felipe Ribon

Lehanneur then employs design as a discipline to provide an interaction between the world, its environment and us. “In my work, be it as a designer, artist or architect, and regardless of whether I am producing something unique or for large-scale production, I want every piece to speak personally,” says the French multidisciplinary designer, elucidating on his belief that design doesn’t necessarily carry the responsibility of being an accelerator of change, but remains always, a tool of communication, relaying information and triggering thought.

Sculptures of countries represented in the State of the World: Chad (left) and the People's Republic of China (right) | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
Sculptures of countries represented in the State of the World: Chad (left) and the People's Republic of China (right) Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur

So, what made the design event a good fit for the Triennale Milano at Milan Design Week 2022 under its theme, Unknown Unknowns - An Introduction to Mysteries? “Frankly, I discovered the theme on the exhibition’s opening day, but it fit startingly. The design exhibition, its pieces and its intent are a combination of things we know and things we have anticipated based on facts and figures, as well as factors we have absolutely no idea about, or are unable to fathom – we may have some grasp over our present reality but do not know what the future holds. I usually gravitate towards topics and works that I have zero clue about, there is so much allure there. Similarly, once you stand in the middle of the exhibited works, you do not immediately comprehend what they are, or what their message is, despite being designed and based on data and official statistics,” answers Lehanneur, before following it up with - “The future is unpredictable. So do what you want, do it, but do it well.” So European of him.

The State of the World features a series of sculptures in anodised, black aluminium representing the population of over 150 countries | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
The State of the World features a series of sculptures in anodised, black aluminium representing the population of over 150 countries Image: © Felipe Ribon

Taking over most of the exhibition space was the State of the World, a compelling, large-scale installation featuring a series of weighty sculptures in ink-black, anodised aluminium, representing the evolution and history of the human population in over 150 countries. Each pyramidal sculpture with its imperceptible nuances, is a unique, visual record of a country, reflecting its demographic, birth rate, life expectancy and history.

Poster comprising all represented countries in two dimension for The State of the World | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
Poster comprising all represented countries in two dimension for The State of the World Image: ©Felipe Ribon

The three-dimensional, sculptural form of the objects was conceived for the viewer to understand this data quickly, to “provide an opportunity to see ourselves as part of a bigger story". Aluminium was used for precision in production and its weight, but Lehanneur goes on to relay that he does not particularly have a favourite material that he often utilises or goes back to. “For me, materials are to designers, what notes are to musicians – if you ask them for their favourite note, chances are, you will not get a straight answer. Likewise, for me, the choice of material depends on what you want to express, and how accurately it is able to express an idea. My least favourite one, for obvious reasons, is plastic. It is not sustainable, and we cannot in good conscience, keep using it. It surely was magical back in the '60s and '70s when it had just boomed into existence - the ease with which you could use it, the cheapness of it all, allowing creators to birth forms that would have been impossible then - but now we know better," he says vehemently.

Material is to express. Creative expression is material agnostic." – Mathieu Lehanneur

50 Seas were rendered in variations of ocean blues and greens, highlighting the diversity of our planet's giant water bodies | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
50 Seas were rendered in variations of ocean blues and greens, highlighting the diversity of our planet's giant water bodies Image: © Felipe Ribon

A series of round sculptures in enamelled ceramic, rendered in infinite variations and subtleties of hues and shades of dreamy blues and natural greens of the seas and oceans around the globe brought up the next design installation titled 50 Seas. As the moniker suggests, the wall-hung circular plates embody in themselves, records of 50 different seas based on satellite images, highlighting the diversity and overtones depending on the geographical position of the oceans that swathes most of our planet.

The How Deep is Time chandelier against Live/Leave in the background projected rising sea levels | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
The How Deep is Time chandelier (seen against Live/Leave in the background) projected rising sea levels Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur

Slicing through the centre of the space like petrified lightning was a luminous glass filament suspended from the ceiling called How Deep is Time, a visual projection and prognostic of changing sea levels. The unknown future is crystallised in this work, forecasting different sea levels, all slightly different, but equally critical for humanity, as a warning and an appreciative critique.

  • Live/ Leave: Italy | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
    Live/ Leave: Italy Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur
  • Live/ Leave represented suicide rates of countries across the world | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
    Live/ Leave represented suicide rates of countries across the world Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur

My personal favourite was the array of black dots varying in diameter, arranged on petite white canvases on the wall - Live/Leave,  a record of the state of mental health of countries, based on official figures of suicide rates around the world. Highlighting individual choices, the installation could also be interpreted as the state of happiness of countries. Providing a visual tool, a snapshot for visitors to see the world as it currently stands, it lays bare the weight and consequence that depression has on our well-being, via the estimated suicide rates of the represented countries, where, the smaller the dots, the lesser the rates of suicide. Lehanneur chose this shape as a dialect of absence, or alternatively, a depiction of those who stayed - the best way to represent them was to not represent them – the absence taking on the shape of a gaping black hole, as the rest of the white canvas stretches with bright hope, evocative of those who chose to live.

The ivory white canvases as a backdrop also served as a direct visual evocation of it being an icon in the art world. The piece thus exists as artwork while being a visual representation of data.

"The success of a product, especially one displayed in an exhibition, is when it acquires a life of its own – it is at the end of the day, just an object, not a living being – but it becomes so when it does not need its creator anymore, and are able to live on their own." – Mathieu Lehanneur
The only sculpture in the State of the World that was not painted black was of the Earth, done in silver (left); the pieces on display (right) | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
The only sculpture in the State of the World that was not painted black was of the Earth, done in silver (left); the pieces on display (right) Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur

The 47-year-old manages to distil his creative process down for us, the most significant part of which remains saying no to most ideas as they find genesis in his brain. He tends to push these to the back of his mind, retrieving them multiple times during the day, to rethink and play with them, conjuring all allied possibilities, removing and augmenting, honing or discarding them entirely, guided by intuition, curiosity and experience. Some ideas would seem fantastic at first, but lack true substance, while others seem mundane but await polishing to become gems. “An idea is super fragile, like a delicate newborn, a newly planted seed resting blind within damp earth. It requires attention, care, and looking after, almost like raising a child or a pet, nurturing them into functional, healthy adults. Often, or always, your first idea is never the best. Treat it more like a stepping stone, rather than a solid foundation. That Eureka idea, especially for creators, is a fallacy. That idea might move you, but it is fragile in its nascent state. You let your brain come up with ideas, and then you keep discussing with it, going back and forth, wanting to buff that initial thought into existence if consequential enough, and more importantly, disposing of the ones that aren’t,” he explains. That decision-making could take an entire day, a whole week or even months, but it is during that processing, that a work comes alive bit by bit, as blocks in a model or pieces of a puzzle finding a conclusion.

Somewhere in the middle of our conversation, Lehanneur shared an anecdote of how designers, and creators of any kind, should dial down on their self-righteousness. "If you do not have anything interesting to say, keep silent.” How apt!

Maria Cristina Didero on Mathieu Lehanneur, and The Inventory of Life:

"This was my first time collaborating with Mathieu Lehanneur, despite having long known him, and his stellar work. Safe to say that it was nothing short of incredible - I felt that the research he has been carrying on for so long was perfectly attuned to my approach to design and curation - which gives priority to people more than objects, even when the latter stands as protagonists. His work at the Triennale, presented in the exhibition The Inventory of Life, talks about suicides, demographic issues, and the alarmingly accelerated levels of oceans - all pertinent issues that we are bombarded by daily. These works, I believe, represented it all, in a bid to trim the amount of news we are overwhelmed with daily, based on figures and facts, through comprehensive pieces that function in the realms of both, art and design.  

Mathieu Lehanneur with Maria Cristina Didero who curated The Inventory of Life | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
Mathieu Lehanneur with Maria Cristina Didero who curated The Inventory of Life Image: © Felipe Ribon

Since there was so much in common, he and I had deeply interesting conversations about not just his exhibition, but the world and its state at large. All the precise research done by Mathieu displays his great professional and creative acumen. I was super pleased to see the extraordinary reception from the people and press who interacted with The Inventory of Life – all, or at least most of them, were interested in knowing and articulating their thoughts and theories about the installations, and what their underlying message could be. In all my years of curating, that is always a great sign. It is wonderful how design has so many unpredictable, beautiful ways to show up for itself, ignite dialogue, bring awareness to topics that need attention, and carries the power to literally advocate and change lives.

Influenced by everything that surrounds him, Lehanneur is inspired by what he calls in French, "la matière brute", the raw source–shapes, forms and objects that are not yet moulded. With each object, (he) aims to create the totality of our lives, allowing us to reflect on the conditions, the differences and the uniqueness of our being. To Lehanneur, what is important is not the multiplicity of layers that his work informs, but how they are received by the audience. By providing tools to grasp a reality that seems abstract and ephemeral, whose scale seems beyond our comprehension, he reminds us that everything is in our hands."

  • Installation shot of The Inventory of Life | The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
    Installation shot of The Inventory of Life Image: © Raf.studio, Felipe Ribon
  • The Inventory Of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur as seen at the Triennale de Milano 2022| The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur | STIRworld
    The Inventory of Life by Mathieu Lehanneur as seen at the Triennale de Milano 2022 Image: © Mathieu Lehanneur

The Inventory of Life is not only an endeavour representing us, how we live and impact each other, and everything that takes refuge on this repositioning planet, but a directory, a record of our existence and shared feelings through inert objects, representing a reality that is abstract and evanescent, in tangible forms. "Poetic yet precise, fleeting yet endless, abstract yet real, personal yet universal, (these) pieces are conceived and designed for us and through us. This is Mathieu's Inventory of Life, which gives shape to our ephemeral lives through a visual manifestation of facts and figures,” endorses the official release.

Lehanneur stands apart from his contemporaries, in his embrace of a methodical, fact-led creative process, basing designs on science, nature and the human, and questioning the status quo with sensitivity, intelligence, grace and elan.

Watch the full interview with Mathieu Lehanneur by tapping on the cover video.

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