Forty designers who have developed their own self-defining or idiosyncratic practices, eschewing the standardisation of mass production and bending the rules of design along the way, are featured in Le Grand Détournement. Meaning 'changing places', the exhibition at Galerie Poirel in Nancy, northeastern France, offers a counterpoint to the straightjacket of commercial industrial design, instead fêting the individuality of objects made in a designer's atelier.

From Ikea-hacking to making work that is ecological and sustainable, the diversity of exhibits offers a survey of how independent designers are divesting from commercial production. Most of the designers are from the younger generation - such as Martino Gamper, Nacho Carbonell, Joris Laarman and 5.5 designstudio - that may be indicative of the post-capitalist turn. However,  the survey goes beyond the contemporary, including work by three grandfathers of design - Ettore Sottsass, Enzo Mari and Gaetano Pesce.  “We share a conviction with many designers of our generation that there isn't a field of freedom in

Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
“We share a conviction with many designers of our generation that there isn't a field of freedom in industry; the territory of creativity is inside the workshop,” asserts Juliette Pollet, who curated the exhibition with the French designer David des Moutis. Pollet is the head of the design collection at the Centre national des arts plastiques (Cnap). Cnap is France's national centre for visual arts, which falls under the culture ministry. Around 80 percent of the work on display has been acquired in the past four years with Cnap's annual acquisitions budget of €200,000.

“The city of Nancy has a long history in decorative arts and design, from the school of Nancy to Jean Prouvé,” Pollet explains that Prouvé was born and lived in Nancy. This is the second of a trilogy of exhibitions staged by the Cnap at Galerie Poirel. “It seemed natural to [Galerie Poirel] to approach the Cnap about making this collaboration and proposing a contemporary vision of design to the public.”

Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Des Moutis's role is not to be underestimated either. The exhibition highlights the importance of scenography in design shows. Divided over two rooms, all the objects are placed on a vast wooden plinth. Sequences of vertical mirrors in wooden frameworks, designed by Des Moutis, enable the pieces to be viewed from several angles and rhythmically punctuate the display. “We were after a game of confrontations and conversations of pieces amongst each other,” Des Moutis explains the juxtapositions between objects.

“We didn't want to create hierarchies or divisions and wanted everything to be flat,” Pollet goes on. The exhibition centres on work made manually and through DIY or that use materials in unusual ways with humour and irony. For instance, Mari's Sedia 1 chair is a self-assembly chair, produced by Artek, which Pollet and a friend assembled themselves.

OGS stool by Jolan van der Wiel, installation view of Le Grand Detournement. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Gamper's furniture pieces were one of the starting points to this approach. When Pollet told the Italian-born, London-based designer that the Cnap wished to acquire work by him, Gamper suggested making something for the Cnap instead. This led to an invitation for him to spend a week last December at the Mobilier National, which provides furnishings for France's official palaces and residencies. In the chapel, Gamper deconstructed several old pieces of furniture that were in storage waiting to be sold, stripped them and refashioned them into new objects. He removed the panels out of a wardrobe to turn it into a bookcase, then added on bronze claw feet from another piece and coloured the wood with pigments purchased from a nearby dying shop. Gamper also fused an early 20th-century chair with a shelving system balanced precariously on a pile of magazines. Says Pollet:

“Martino's project incarnates this idea of diversion, not just in terms of materials but also techniques and narration. It's a bit ironic and humorous, too, in how he took the trash of the national [furniture] collection to make new, sumptuous objects of great value.”


Another example is Ikea-hacking by Samuel Bernier and Andrea Bhend. The duo, who met online while working on separate pirate projects, appropriate products by the Swedish giant. For instance, by customised two Ikea Frosta wooden stools with 3D-printed plastic parts, they created a child's balance bike – a bicycle without pedals.

Ingenious tools made by designers themselves also feature strongly. Jólan van der Wiel created his own machine-tool to make the OGS stools (2011). Using the principles of gravity and magnetic attraction, it comprises a flat bowl placed underneath three pillars. The plastic liquid mixed with iron filings grows from the pillars into the bowl, creating an upside-down, three-legged stool. “Once the material goes into the machine, the object is grown by north-south magnetic powers,” explains the Dutch designer about his unique organic process. “The outcome is always different and creates a new shape.”

Another example of engineered distortion is Pieke Bergmans' Spiral (2016) – a neon spiral from the Phenomenon collection. Best known for her Light Blubs and Crystal Virus projects that explore free-form blown glass, the Dutch designer hand-crafted neon tubes into irregular shapes, using argon gas to disperse the light. “By choosing to leave the form free and organic, Pieke pushes the material, allowing it to express itself, to make an object that's almost magical,” says Pollet.

The exhibition is intended to encourage the upcoming generation to make their own objects. As part of his curatorial collaboration, Moutis led a workshop with local design students, asking them to make wooden tables and benches. The results of this project are exhibited in a space overlooking the two galleries. Seeing their work presented in the same venue as the likes of Sottsass, Pesce, Carbonell and Gamper must surely be motivating.

Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Work by Maarten Baas and Nacho Carbonell, installation view of Le Grand Detournement. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.
Exhibition view of Le Grand Detournement, from the design collection of Cnap, showing at, Galerie Poirel, Nancy. Photo: Michel Giesbrecht.