On the walk along the Seine over to Martin Laforet’s new studio located in the far eastern stretches of Paris, I started thinking about the tools that designers grow up with. I met him in 2010 when he was a first-year student at L'École Supérieure d'Art et de Design de Reims. Like many, he had completed a one-year art preparatory programme that would improve his chances of passing the very competitive public entrance exams to any one of the 27 French public art and design schools. Unlike many, he also had a scientific baccalaureate. Resonances of controlled technique would prove to resound in his work.

Reims was a good choice. Proximity to the French capital guaranteed a teaching staff of professional Parisian-based designers, and the school itself, significantly inspired by the Bauhaus model, also encouraged independent and autonomous production, something that would be practical for his future training at the Design Academy Eindhoven.

Fire working the metal for the Mould Chair at the Foundry Beeldenstorm in Eindhoven
Martin’s studio is in a neighbourhood that is unabashedly modern, with the city’s first automatic and driverless metro line. Modern cityscapes stretch along the Seine, ever mindful of Dominique Perrault’s temple of steel and glass, the Bibliothèque nationale de France just in front. The district has the feel and smell of metal and concrete, not French limestone. A row of a dozen or so street level studios (circa 1980s) replicates a familiar Parisian drabness on a grey wet afternoon. Approaching I saw a slim, tall yet unimposing clean-shaven young man exit a large metal door with a huge plastic bag. Martin was taking out the rubbish. He motioned to me, and we walked into a six-metre high one-room studio. Looking up, two living areas are perched above the studio while a staircase meanders down to a small kitchen. Most of the lower space is filled with machines and prototypes. I noticed some familiar objects from his comrades in Reims and Eindhoven, as well as something specific, even symbolic: Richard Sapper’s 1972 Tizio, a desk lamp inspired by the original Anglepoise. Two objects in one.

Martin and his girlfriend, the designer Léa Mestres, had prepared a spread of cheese and paté accompanied by a salad. It sounds cliché but true, and I gave Léa the anemones that I had picked up along the way. We chatted about their recent return to Paris. They are currently preparing limited edition pieces for their individual practices in coming fairs in 2019 (Brussels, Milan, Paris, Los Angeles…). We also talked about innovation, technology, accessibility, judgement, mechanical modulation, and then a digression into the legacy of Auto-Tune, Cher and Mirwais.

Mould Table. Photo: Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt
Neither had heard of Mirwais, and Radiohead was a bit of a blur, but they certainly remembered the Cher song, and one of them mentioned Daft Punk. Then we talked about tools, and recalled a few questions surrounding the making of objects. What is a signature creation? Do tools make making less human? If the Marshall McLuhan cautionary adage, ‘We shape our tools, and our tools shape us,’ can be reformulated by the designer, it might go more like this: do you define the tools you use, or do the tools define you?

Remember Auto-Tune is a plug-in (never to be confused with vocoder for you aficionados), which was created by an Exxon geophysicist attempting to write algorithms to interpret seismic wave data in order to identify underground oil deposits. The story goes that one of his wife’s friends wished she could use a device to help her improve her pitch and sing on key. And with that, Auto-Tune was born. Detect, analyse, modify. Sound engineers first used the tech on Cher’s 1998 hit, Believe, and the first ever track for complete vocals was Naïve Song by Mirwais in 2000, followed by a host of others. Daft Punk of course, and even Radiohead, on their 2001 album Amnesiac.

Mould Chairs. Photo: Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt
Mould Table. Photo: Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt
Martin graduated with a Master’s in Contextual Design from Design Academy Eindhoven in 2015 with a project called, The Transition of the Mould. They both laugh as they talk about their years of being ‘framed by design school’. He smiles as he remembers his department head, the emphatic Dutch theoretician Louise Schouwenberg, who referred to him as ‘the stubborn French’. And undeterred, he tells me, ‘I knew what I wanted to do technically, and even if nobody thought it would work, I just kept telling myself, it’s going to work.’ The result was more conceptual than contextual, he admits. Technically he uses both the cast and the mould in the final object. To him it is an empirical application. It is method. It is his way of making, contextualising his production. He is connecting the tool to a semi-prescribed outcome. Even if the technique synchronises like Auto-Tune, both lead to invariable and unique extents of redistribution, a type of casting to form the final product, which incorporates the two.

The practice of casting is a 6,000 year-old-process and Martin, over just a short two years, worked non-stop to take his technique towards materialised expressions. In point of fact one could observe that he has taken a tool, and transformed it into an actual instrument. The resulting mould and cast reverberate. He uses the deliberate reflection of each and methodically integrates both into the final object. Even his signature acts as a mirrored reflection. This technique optimises his working method and underlines his considerably limited resources.

In 2016 I came across an article in Les Inrockuptibles by Xavier Ridel, who supposed that Auto-Tune had passed its statute as a tool and had become a veritable instrument, permitting new textures of expressions in modern music. What started as an easily accessible tool became more than an artistic gesture, and more an object of composition and style. What about Martin? For two years after graduation he stayed in Eindhoven and strived to develop his work, and even began experimenting with ceramics.

In September of 2017 he would ‘get lucky’. He was invited, along with a selection of young talent from Europe’s best design schools, to show in an exhibition curated by Li Edelkoort called The Graduate(s) at Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Carpenters, founded in London in 2006 by Frenchmen Julien Lombrail and Loic Le Gaillard, has galleries in Paris, New York and, more recently in 2018, San Francisco. In 2015 the duo opened an 8,000 square metre production space outside of Paris, near Roissy airport, dedicated exclusively to research and development in art and design.

One month after the London show, Martin received a visit in Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week, and by the spring of 2018, his work was being shown with Carpenters at the PAD fair in Paris alongside internationally rising and well-established creatives Ron Arad, Maarten Baas, Andrea Branzi, Campana Brothers, Atelier Van Lieshout, Nendo, Wonmin Park and Franz West.

I asked him how he felt about this experience, and what I really meant was, ‘What does this type of recognition feel like?’ He replied, ‘I had been working very hard, and Carpenters has helped me approach my work in the long term. The gallery has given me the resources to develop and drives me to keep researching. I feel like I can do many things in the future, no matter the scale. And yes, I like to control the process. I really must control it. It is the only way I can understand my method and the result. That is the only thing I can be responsible for. And that’s what makes me free.’

Perhaps what Martin means is that stubbornness can also be a form of plainspoken persistence, unguarded tenacity, and genuine belief. Perhaps what Martin believes is that he alone defines his tools. At 27 years old he is the youngest designer to be on the Carpenters Workshop roster.


This article appeared in DAM72. Order your personal copy.
Martin Laforet