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Maison & Objet, Olympic Torch Designer Turns Focus to Pioneering Solutions

MILAN — “What do I really need?” With a constant eye on how science can benefit daily living, this is the question designer Mathieu Lehanneur wanted people to ask themselves once they saw the nature-immersed cottage he unveiled at Maison & Objet on Thursday.

Tapped as the Designer of the Year of Maison & Objet’s 30th birthday edition, the appointment sends a message to the design community that this next era is more about changing human habits and habitats, rather than putting sustainable initiatives on show. Outonomy, as his installation is called, is a structure that weaves in seamlessly with the nature around it and puts to the fore a new design for human lifestyle.

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The son of an engineer and inventor, science has influenced Lehanneur from the start. Over the course of his career, Lehanneur’s creations have been as varied as the torch for the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris and public projects incorporating solar-powered street lamps and air purifiers. Today, Outonomy is set in a world in which nature dominates human lifestyle and technologies cater to human needs.

“The idea is to imagine an innovative habitat and a new lifestyle constructed around a virtuous collaboration between human beings and their environment. It’s more of an installation than a scenographic work. It’s a project about a possible life, a way to ask each visitor the implicit question: are you ready?” the designer, who turns 50 this year, enthused in an interview with WWD.

Looking back, Lehanneur said his interest in science was ignited as a design student, while moonlighting as a test subject for pharmaceutical laboratories.

“I was doing tests on drugs that allowed me to pay for my design studies. I used to be a guinea pig for pharmaceutical laboratories. I spent whole days in hospital to test the potential side effects of new molecules and new medical treatments before they were put on the market. I discovered a universe in which the body and the mind are intimately linked,” he said. The experience brought about his graduation project, “Therapeutic Objects,” a new way of conceiving and designing medicines, which was integrated into MoMA’s permanent collection in 2006. Curated by Paola Antonelli, the project underscored how the demise of small apothecaries led to less guidance for people on how to take medicine.

Since then, Lehanneur has been working hard to bridge the gap between science and design to fuel solutions. He worked hand-in-hand with Harvard professor David Edwards to design Andrea, an object that uses living plants to purify the air, based on tests carried out by NASA.

Paris Olympics torch designer Mathieu Lehanneur.
Mathieu Lehanneur

“I like the way science aims to understand human beings in their great complexity. I love how our body alters our psychological states and how our mind affects our physical states. Science, whether astrophysical, biological or medical, is the greatest source of knowledge and a permanent inspiration for my work,” he said.

Founder of his own eponymous brand, he opened a new creative hub called the Factory last year near near the city gates of Paris and has built his reputation in the style world through numerous projects for fashion brands, including Audemars Piguet, Cartier, Christofle, Issey Miyake, Kenzo and Nike.

In a consumerist society, he said that humankind’s penchant for cheaply priced goods has fueled the planet’s rapid decline, underscoring that he thinks the keys to holistic living lies in the past, and that less is indeed more.

“In ancient times, we didn’t change our outfits every season. In ancient times, we used to fix our clothes when needed. We lose ourselves globally by turning the ‘new’ as a way to feel young eternally. Less is more. New is dead. Nature is back.”

Under the aegis of the Tech Eden theme, the trade fair, which closes in Paris on Jan. 22, seeks to unite the seemingly contradictory concepts of tech and eden to stimulate dialogue among professionals in interior architecture, hospitality and retail, encouraging them to envision a biophilic future where technology and nature coexist harmoniously.

This concept will be thoroughly explored throughout the organization’s Paris Design Week fair, the city’s showrooms, and MOM (Maison&Objet and More) online platform, Maison & Objet organizers said, adding that the aim was to highlight the importance of biophilic interior design and how it can change lives, affording humans the opportunity to live in tune with nature every day, with natural light, a view of green landscape, plants, natural materials and patterns.

Maison & Objet’s managing director Mélanie Leroy said that outside of science, the ongoing edition is about pioneering solutions to address key challenges of professionals in the home decor, design and lifestyle industry.

Designers like Lehanneur, she said, work hard to seek out collaborations with scientists and start-ups, combining design with technology, art and artisanal know-how. Leroy pinpointed the Future on Stage program, a mentorship initiative that highlights creations from emerging companies. One such name is Ostrea Design, which developed a special surface material made of crushed oyster shells. Natural and glamorous at the same time, Ostrea Design is part of a growing trend to create a holistic home environment based on eco-values and principles.

Looking ahead, Leroy explained that outside of environmental concerns, inflation and a drop in real estate mortgages present challenges in the year ahead. “The year 2024 will therefore be another complicated year for Europe and the USA. But consumption is a cycle, a return to the dynamism is expected,” she said.

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