Five Minutes With … Alain Gilles!
Having designed for Bonaldo and Casamania, Alain Gilles’ products have received international love and are currently used in Microsoft, Facebook and Google. Catching up with Alain Gilles, we learn about his views on the commercial setting today and in the future.
The BuzziHat is fully based on BuzziSpace research and development in acoustics from the last 11 years. I was inspired by the functional logic of the BuzziTotems, which are free standing acoustic pillars that can be placed on the floor, anywhere in a room. I wanted to free the floor of the room and wondered how something hanging up in the air could perform the same function. I then thought that it should ideally be placed above a desk or an area where people gather, which happens to typically be the place where you would also hang a light. Thus, the combination between these two worlds, the world of lighting and the world of acoustics. The combination between a technical light made out of metal and the much softer and handmade world of upholstered furniture. In order to be efficient and absorb certain types of sounds, the lamp needed to be bulky, hence the slight reference in shape to large vintage industrial lights. But since no one would like to have something that looks and feels too heavy hanging over their heads, the details were designed to look refined and subtle, and also to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the upholstering process.
In the end, the lamps while being very “normal” are quite unique and recognisable. Thanks to the four different colours offered on the shade and the ring, plus the four different heights of the upholstered top and the large array of fabrics available, there are more than 24,000 combinations that can be created. So people and architects can almost have their own unique lamps!
How have recent developments in the commercial landscape changed the way we think about acoustics?
Well, a lot of hard walls have come down, but that now also implies that the sound travels more freely than ever… thus people and architects started looking for solutions. Sometimes these solutions are something they look for once the project is already finished and already in use because the users have encountered a problem, at that point they can only really turn to furniture to improve things.
How has this affected your design thinking recently?
We have been collaborating with BuzziSpace on these types of solutions for more than 9 years, so as far as I am concerned, it is nothing new!
But there has been in evolution in people’s mentalities, ways of working and general awareness of wellbeing of at work and in public areas, which means that we can go further. Solutions that might have appeared strange at the time would now appear more normal and acceptable.
In anticipation of future workplace behaviours and the increase in collaborative work tasks, how does acoustic features in products like BuzziHat address this? Does it play into improving overall employee productivity and efficiency?
I am probably one of the few designers to have also worked in the “real world” since after studying Political Sciences, I started my career working in international finance at J.P. Morgan. So I actually spent five years of my life working in a company with 1,500 employees and roughly 150 people per floor working in large open spaces. The noise and the numerous visual distractions made it very tough to concentrate and get the job done. Anything that could absorb and attenuate the sound level was and would have been welcomed. I loved the interaction we could have with people but the downside was the difficulty to properly focus on a task.
A lot of the earlier products that we have done together with BuzziSpace, like the BuzziHood, BuzziBooth, BuzziHub and BuzziBlinds could resonate with what I had experienced and came from this firsthand experience. I would hate to be locked up in an office by myself, but still need and want to sometimes be protected from the others.
This year, when we designed the BuzziBracks, featuring these self-supporting structures with either see-through sheers or view-blocking curtains, the idea was to create small enclosures where people are fully or partly shielded from the visual noise. A noise becomes all the more distracting if we get visually attracted to it, so blurring the vision always helps.
In the last several years, the office space has been booming as an effort to improve employee communication and collaborations, conserving space and increasing productivity. How has your collaboration with BuzziSpace responded to these changes?
I think BuzziSpace and a few other forward-thinking companies have also helped foster and promote this possibility. The general trade-off in the decade has been to allocate less square metres to each employee as far as their own personal office or desk is concerned, while on the other hand creating more shared spaces. Up to now BuzziSpace, and what we have designed in collaboration with BuzziSpace, has very much filled up these common spaces that very few companies had paid attention to.
As some tasks and projects require more focus, some employees still need their peace and privacy. Which particular products – between your collaboration with BuzziSpace – exists in this middle ground?
I think our brand new BuzziBracks very much fits this category. These self-standing structures that can be “dressed-up” with either sheers or curtains. They even offer the possibility to have some see-through sheers with acoustic performances almost as good as a thick velvet curtain, or the possibility to define how opened one wants to be to others and his/her surroundings.
Multipurpose design can be facilitated through form or function. Are there any particular materials that you have worked with recently that allow for this type of design in today’s commercial setting?
If we talk about multipurpose design that is achieved through a material I would go for the sheers and curtains we have used on the BuzziBracks. We also have to take into account that one BuzziBrack can also use different fabrics on the same setting either splitting it half, or one third/two thirds.
On the other hand, if only the design itself is considered in the achievement of a multipurpose product I would have to go for the new BuzziBlinds (or the original BuzziBlinds), since they are a real tool for architects and allow them to define their spaces with either linear or curved shapes.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. This quote by A. Einstein resonates with a lot of product designers, so in this regard, how have you approached new product concepts in the same manner?
I don’t consider us to be a design agency, we are a studio, so our approach is different, more personal. We have a vision on how we would like people to work and interact, the type of feeling and atmosphere we want to generate.
So based on what we understand of the needs of the people and the insights we get from BuzziSpace we try to propose innovative solutions, tools that can be used by architects to define their own projects and visions of a place.
Contrary to most design agencies, we tend to propose solutions based on our gut feelings and luckily for us. BuzziSpace also behaves this way. BuzziSpace is always ready to take risks and bring out unexpected solutions to real problems.
I believe that if all companies and all designers follow more or less the same steps and logic to create new products, you end up with a lot of me-too products and very often the same problems.
How do you see the new way of working on a global scale?
I see it as more and more flexible. The office is not necessarily the place where you work anymore. It will sometimes be one of a few places where you work. It could be at home so people don’t have to waste time and energy to commute daily to work. It could sometimes be at a client’s space. Or it could be at a local coworking space from time-to-time for people who don’t want to commute for too long but who, nevertheless, want to have more social interactions during the day. These coworking situations allow workers to meet with “colleagues”, even if these colleagues all happen to be employees of different companies who have found a more local place to work from and only go once in a while at their employer’s office.
The office in general is also becoming a place with less and less hierarchy where people with more or less experience interact freely.
Have you integrated this into BuzziSpace’s products?
From the start of our collaboration with BuzziSpace, we have always tried to take into account the nascent social changes in our societies. Very often we have also come up with out-of-the-box ideas together that we believed should be put in production because we felt they made sense and made a difference. Often they started by being seen as niche products only, but often enough, because they corresponded to a need that people had not necessarily already identified, they turned into bestsellers that little by little changed the way people imagined a common area or office.