NOUVELLE VAGUE: Finding the Humour in the New Wave of French Design

Retroviseur Domestique by Onna Vautrin
Retroviseur Domestique by Ionna VautrinImage courtesy Nouvelle Vague

Humour, like most of our tastes and predilections, may be influenced by our culture but that doesn’t mean that if we are the outsiders we can’t be let in on the joke.

After coming to Toronto in the fall of 2011 as part of a lecture series at OCAD U titled “New Forces in French Design”, journalist and curator Cédric Morisset has returned in spirit with the exhibition Nouvelle Vague.  In this show at the Harbourfront Centre, he has brought together an interesting collection of work from contemporary French designers.

At the lecture I attended Cédric characterized contemporary French design as possessing an inherent sense of “serious humour”. At the opening reception for Nouvelle Vague I experienced a little more about what he was referring to.  Upon entering the exhibit one is greeted with some humour noir. “Souvien Toi Que Tu Vas Mourir” (Remember That You Will Die) by the design studio Pool is a replica of those ubiquitous white plastic seats – the chair that is everywhere from Palestine to Phuket. Why the grim face? Designer Jean-Christophe Orthlieb of NOCC explains to me that the cutout skull is a twist suggesting the fate of these chairs.  When our derrières no longer need to be seated and our souls have left this world they will remain, overpopulating landfills across the globe. Made with materials that might just be in a competitive dead heat with uranium for half-live cycles, the chairs are a lasting testament to our dependence on chemically toxic and environmentally devastating petroleum based plastics.

“Souvien Toi Que Tu Vas Mourir” by Pool“Souvien Toi Que Tu Vas Mourir” by Pool Image courtesy Nouvelle Vague

Hypertrophy Chair by NOCC
Hypertrophy Chair by NOCCImage courtesy Nouvelle Vague

Jean-Christophe’s own chair designed with partner Juan Pablo Naranjo also utilizes some dark humour. The Hypertrophy Chair has its own ominous back-story.

“For Radiation Collection (in Chernobyl) we imagined a scenario in which traditional pieces of furniture would have endured some kind of radiation; where their genes would have mutated.”

Despite this chair’s inspiration arising from a dystopic tale it really is quite lovely as well as perfectly practical. It is this practicality I come to appreciate while getting to know this show.  The design that best exemplifies this is NOCC’s Elements.

“Elements is a shelving system that explores the concept of DIY (Do It Yourself). The actual object is a 1mm aluminum flat sheet that the user shapes by himself thanks to a special laser-cut folding system assembled with standard 18mm thick wood boards that can have any type of length and finish. The shelf can be assembled in a traditional upright way, as well in a deconstructed form, to better adapt its setting place.”

As someone who has a serious obsession with dense and large antique quarter oak furniture, I quite like the idea of packing brackets into a backpack with the ability to set-up-shop anywhere. In the spirit of being a 21st Century global nomad, it’s all about keeping the load light along with one’s carbon footprint. 

Elements shelving unit by NOCC Elements shelving unit by NOCCImage courtesy Nouvelle Vague

Getting back to this idea of “serious humour” the practicality is not without a sense of play. NOCC’s Elements brings to mind the memory of tinkering with my father’s childhood Erector Set snapping together the metal frames to construct whatever configuration was my fancy.

Another stunning piece that combines this ’practical playfulness’ is A + A Cooren’s Yabane chest of drawers that opens in both directions just in case you feel like being a little unconventional in your morning dress routine, a feature that also gives this piece the duality of being both a chest of drawers and a room divider.

Yabane chest of drawers by A + A Cooren’sYabane chest of drawers by A + A Cooren’sImage courtesy Nouvelle Vague

“Jean” Clock by Pierre Favresse
“Jean” Clock by Pierre FavresseImage courtesy Nouvelle Vague

But the collection would not truly be French without the contribution of beauty! A gorgeous piece that I fell-in-amour-for was Pierre Favresse’s “Jean” Clock.

 “Time and life are inextricably linked – we feel time pressures in our daily lives and wish we had more time; our time on this earth is limited and dictated by a clicking clock…Time therefore is something powerful yet fragile, which is why I wanted to encase it in a delicate white cloud of glass”

Explaining to me that perhaps it was his wife’s pregnancy at the time that informed the shape one wonders if it was not also the sentimentality we feel as our life’s rites of passages quickly slide by. We long to stop the clock and capture the moment so we can hold onto it forever.

Tidelight by Pierre FavresseTidelight by Pierre FavresseImage by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag. 

Also by Pierre is Tidelight. For this piece he took inspiration from an automobile headlight which for me created a highlight of the exhibition as I love the way it feathers light across a surface. Along with his designs in glass, Nouvelle Vague features several chair designs by Pierre who is the Artistic Director for habitat.

Chairs from the Perch Collection by Pierre Favresse
Chairs from the Perch Collection by Pierre FavresseImage courtesy Nouvelle Vague

The irony of this show is not lost on the way the materials are used to explore opposites. The pièce de résistance is A + A Cooren’s vase, Tourbillon, literally an ironic twist of materials that plays with the rigidity of glass to create an illusion of fluidity.  We are left with the impression of flowing water and wild wind.

Tourbillon, vase by A + A CoorenTourbillon, vase by A + A Cooren. Image by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag. 

Closing this Sunday, MIXED BAG MAG recommends this show if you are interested in the tongue-in-cheek visuals of contemporary French design.

Visit the Nouvelle Vague website. More information on Harbourfront’s website.
Show presented in partnership with the Consulate General of France in Toronto and the Institut français.

Logos for Consulat General of France and the Institut Francais

French Design exhibit Nouvelle Vague at Harbourfront Centre TorontoIn the foreground Louxor light by Pool. Images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag. 

French Design exhibit Nouvelle Vague at Harbourfront Centre Toronto
Top image Hypertrophy Chair by NOCC. Bottom image Oeil de sorcière (Witch’s Eye) Ionna VautrinImages by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag. 

French designers Jean-Christophe Orthlieb and Pierre Favresse at Nouvelle Vague French designers Jean-Christophe Orthlieb of NOCC and Pierre Favresse


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