Courtesy Margaux Salarino
I met Superpoly, a duo of all-round designers who are renewing the genre of interior design, a duo of southerners (ie : South of France), who retain from their Var coast, images of the sea and colours made vivid by the sun, rather than the accent of the South. We were in a cafe in Paris on a Friday. The conversation started quickly, faster than the installation of my recorder, and crystallised on the fact that there is now a space in France for creators who do not create smooth things.
Antoine Grulier: At this moment there is a place for grabs for artists and designers, even for galleries, there’s no gallery in Paris which exhibits such things.
Thomas Defour: There really is a place for grabs in what you call “Dirty Design*”. This expression is interesting but when we started… Antoine was very artistic, but could work with very poor materials while I had a more let’s say “straight” design training. And by mixing these two things, we really saw something really hyper positive: we could create with anything and everything and bring together a whole load of influences that were unique to us, that come from both contemporary art and what’s happening in a scene …
AG: contemporary art AND design in fact. We like music, architecture, we like fashion. We feel comfortable in all those places …
TD: it’s juggling all these influences. But also the South of France. We also have this thing about recycling materials.
Courtesy Etage Projects
Your image, really is that of Southern designers. You gave me appointment in Paris. I was surprised I was preparing a trip to Hyères for the next Design Parade, I wrote you in this context and I thought I would see you there. But where are you from? What has your path been so far?
AG: We simply happen to be living and working in Paris right now. But we are both from Hyeres.
TD: We’re really children of the Villa Noailles, it’s our artistic culture. The first things we did together were in my garden.
How old were you?
TD: It was in 2015.
AG: 23, 24 years old.
TD: The idea was just to have fun and create a bridge between our two ways of working; to use materials, to work with them in an artistic way, with paint and that sort of thing. Then there was the Toulon Design Parade. This was the first time that the city had proposed a festival of interior architecture. At first, we thought that we were not made for this discipline but…
AG: We were quickly at our ease.
TD: We really saw the way to fully express our culture, this way of mixing design and colour.
It’s interesting that you started with interior architecture, which is a discipline that is, let’s say, less free in France than elsewhere. And you’ve made a work of art out of it…
TD: We tried. We were not into the technicality of architecture, the technicality of someone trained in this field. We saw it as an installation. The Villa Noailles allowed for this freedom. There was also a supplier who helped us by providing us with tiles… these were things we never thought we would be working with. Looking through catalogues etc… But there are so many things you can do in this field …
AG: There is also a curatorial work. You see, for instance, we talked about tiles. It’s not just the choice of tiling, it’s the mix of colours and shapes which hook up in a certain vision.
TD: We also created a water mains inlet… so it was pretty technical in the end.
Courtesy Lothaire Hucky
It’s not just tiling, you alluded to a swimming pool, what memories did this bring to mind …
AG: It’s pretty funny because people often talk about this project, saying that it looks like a disused pool but in fact it was something completely different. We are used to go to a beach called Polynesia, in Hyères, in fact it is a beach with big rocks where the residents built concrete slabs to enable them to use those rocks as a beach.
TD: They built it right on the sea, it’s pretty awesome!
AG: With ladders going into the sea, proper swimming pool ladders.
TD: So we wanted to build a kind of transition space, to bring a wild space into an already installed interior. We made ceramic rocks and put tiles everywhere that allowed it to be watertight. Water is not an enemy in this room. We put a hose in the middle and some green plants. The idea was really to enable playfulness in this room.
AG: To be able to play, but essentially to be free. We wanted the freedom to say: we can sleep on the ground, we can sleep upstairs…
TD: Ladders, hammocks …
AG: You do not have to take off your shoes.
TD: Sand from the beach gets everywhere, but here it’s not a problem. It’s the way we live in the summer, we spend our time in the sea, in a swimsuit, not thinking about anything. We do not want to do housework and clean up all summer. Everything is much less complicated. You simply wash your feet in the middle of the room and water the plant. And the dampness remains in the room as a cooling ally for your sleep in the hammock. We were often told that it was a bathroom, but although we brought a lot of bathroom items into this room, it’s not a bathroom, but a play room.
Courtesy Lothaire Hucky
A room for everything, a room for whatever: anything’s cool.
AG: Yes, that’s it. People think it’s a bathroom, whereas I think it’s a bedroom. And maybe my grandmother will come and say it’s a kitchen. It’s also interesting that people imagine the spaces they want.
So what’s your thing about rooms? You made several while playing with the very stereotype of the room. You made a room for the hotel La Reine Jane, you made a room for the Moulin des Ribes (the project s called 5 Rooms)…
AG: It’s not really a hotel room, it’s a room for someone.
TD: It’s an artist’s residence. The festival, Design Parade, opened this door and gave ideas to other people… to agree to give us total freedom and leave us “carte blanche” for a particular space. The story of the Reine Jane hotel is one of a businessman searching for a strong concept for his hotel. He decided to have each room created by a different designer. It is the Villa Noailles who helped with the curating. There are many artists who come from Villa Noailles who participated in this. There are some super signatures. We really wanted to be part of this project when we saw that it was being realised.
AG: It’s also a building we’ve known for quite some time. It has a story, what with Godard filming Pierrot le Fou there, etc.
The Villa Noailles is really more than a simple exhibition space, it really helps designers like yourselves, all along the process. In my opinion, your room is one of the most successful rooms…
TD: We spent a lot of time in this room, we were probably the ones who had the most time. We simply were there. We were the youngsters of the project, so we really concentrated on it.
AG: We destroyed part of the walls ourselves…
It seems that everyone did not perceive the exercise in the same way.
TD: The instructions could be read differently by established designers. Inga Sampe has an already huge catalogue of objects, so for her, it was perhaps more about the selection and the enhancement of things which were already created. Her universe is already present in her objects.
But apart from you, it was only object designers, right?
AG: Yes there was us, and Valentina Cameranesi.
We also love the room of the OddMatter, with their cork material.
They are part of this generation, which is not (or not much) represented in France and which is a little “Dirty* /Cool”.
TD: We thought the project was great because it was the first time we created something that lasted because … what we did for the Design Parade was destroyed after 6 months.
AG: Even earlier. But it was very good because it was very dense for us.
TD: I was still a student at that time.
AG: To get back to La Reine Jane, we knew exactly what we wanted …
Courtesy Lothaire Hucky
Weren’t there any decisions made on the spot, spontaneously?
TD: There were, some of the things were already planned, and some weren’t. We decided to work on small elements, we did this in collaboration with Salernes. It is a city in the Haut-Var that makes Provencal ceramics. This town was largely maintained by second homes in the area, especially in the 1990s. It was THE village for materials. Now people are going to big cities, to showrooms, or have their selection made by architects. So we decided to work with Salernes, to stay local and support this “savoir-faire”, and we made a fresco in painted tiles. Our idea was Atlantis, where everything was enshrouded by the sea, all the volumes were a little eaten-up, nothing really remained apart from the ceramics. This is something that we still see quite often on the coast, these faïences that are half-buried…
AG: In Hyères, there is this archaeological site called Olbia, which is partly submerged by the sea with treasures that could be summed up as small walls and terracotta. We wanted this kind of feel, like a promise that these sites tend to give off.
For 5 Rooms, you also use a special technique for the walls, which creates depth?
AG: It’s stucco, it’s lime with marble dust.
TD: Antoine’s first drawing was of layers of paint upon layers of paint scratched out a little with a knife. We tried to achieve the same result with stucco. It is a material that is layered…
AG: it works by transparency. That’s what they used in the Italian-style palaces. This is a historic technique of the most beautiful palaces in the world.
Courtesy Giulio Boem
On your website, your images seem to have a specific lexicon of characters with a starfish always as the hero…
AG: Yes it’s like we have our own cartoon. We have our mascot.
TD: It has become a kind of logo, and we like to play with our image as if it was a brand of swimwear from the 1980s . It has that…
AG: solar and at the same time obsolete look…
TD: yes, but also regressive. We found that French design is something very serious, we did not want to go in that direction.
AG: …it’s all the codes of a brand, we have a brand name, a logo.
TD: …for the website, we thought we were going to do some kind of virtual tour of the superpoly house.
AG: Every time people go on the site, they will discover a new thing. It is this what is interesting : you have to really want something to be able to find it.
There’s something “pretty/ugly” that I love.
AG: It’s what our work is all about !
TD: Maybe this is the new French scene – the “beautiful ugliness”. It is true that there is this “entre-deux” of good and bad taste which is a delicate balance with which one tries to progress. We’re trying right now to see how to apply our universe to artistic direction.
I noticed that you Antoine, you worked with Sébastien Tellier.
AG: Yes, I’m also set designing for fashion.
Sebastien Tellier is someone who’s had a great career but you have this in common: he also played on this fringe between beauty and ugliness.
TD: Yes, that’s one of our great inspirations. He explores kitsch, hyper rococo influences, absurd things. But he brings a certain modernity, a twist to them that we always try to find.
AG: It’s risky.
TD: When we think of some of the 1980s designs, there is a whole load that has fallen into oblivion because it is said to be in bad taste. There are a lot of really interesting things to get from there.
AG: Even more so today when there is a globalisation of design. It is a way out of standardisation.
I remember when I was working for an international design gallery called kreo, which showed only the very best of global design, one of their exhibitions that really impressed me was a mini-show curated by Nicolas Trembley called Sgrafo vs Fat Lava.These are ceramics from West Germany during the post-war years. Fat Lava is a ceramic technique that explodes during cooking, while the Sgrafo is rough, usually white. Basically the forms are very free and Nicolas Trembley spoke of “pre-design”. He said that his father collected Japanese ceramics, that were immediately sublime, and that he had the need to go to something less immediate.
AG: Our ceramics are Vallauris. There are some very beautiful and some very ugly ones, but what is nice is that after the passage of Picasso, local ceramists allowed themselves to be free.
TD: It’s a popular art that’s really inspiring. It’s hyper punk in a way to come into a gallery and to show a fish, like thousands of people did in Vallauris.
You’re having fun when you create such objects?
AG: It often comes from a joke, yes. But it’s our job too, so even if it’s sometimes a big mess, we need to have control.
TD: The beginning may be funny, but as we want to achieve a precise image, it is inevitably less funny in the rest of the process. We work on things in a photographical way. There must be a balance.
AG: It is perhaps that what differentiates us from the amateur ceramists of Vallauris: making decisions and classifying them.
TD: We did it consciously when we started working with Etage Projects in Copenhagen. We had never done gallery design before. The universes we created were ones in which each object instinctively responded to a functional or aesthetic need of the final picture. There we had to think each object a little out of context.
AG: As a retrospective…
TD: we distanced ourselves a little from our work in order to recover something from each project. Before that, we saw each project as very different, if only in colours …
Courtesy Margaux Salarino
Courtesy Etage Projects
I think there is still a common thread going through all your projects. The tubular furniture is almost always the same colour (light turquoise/minty water) and we find this colour in touches in all your projects, right?
TD: Yes, but it’s not just that. It’s also removing an element that would become too obvious a signature. It’s creating small challenges.
How was the link made between Hyères and Copenhagen?
TD: We knew Sabine Marcelis who introduced us to this gallery. The name of the exhibition was “Postcard” because it’s like sending a three-dimensional postcard from the South of France. It was furniture – chests. Only boxes …
AG: As if we were sending a box of what the South of France is like – something very happy, to Copenhagen. Scandinavians also have a very beautiful furniture culture but it’s very straight, elegant and precise. “Etage Projects” shows designers from all walks of life that contrast with all this Scandinavian furniture culture. That’s why it’s pretty cool to have been part of this great selection.
Sources of inspiration?
TD: This culture of popular objects. These artists who have worked at the border of art and object, like Franz West, and this studio approach – it’s pretty straightforward in the way it’s produced.
AG: Support Surface, especially Claude Viallat. It’s a little like French Arte Povera.
TD: The materials he chose were blinds from Provence, fishing nets, for us it is really a current of the South. We like his way of assembling materials and colours.
Another one is Gaetano Peasce (great designer of objects – I put a photo of one of his rare projects of interior designer).
AG: In fashion, we are also fascinated by Margiela’s work. In music, I would like to talk about Bashung, both of us like his music, but it’s mostly his approach that I find interesting: his only rule when he rewrote an album was to go 180 degrees from what he had done previously. To do what he had never done before, not to reuse a sound that worked. I like this idea of constantly putting oneself back in danger.
To start from scratch each time, don’t you suffer from the blank page syndrome, a sort of writer’s block ?
AG: We always have the blank page syndrome, but it’s the only thing that’s really exciting when we create. We criticise some designers for doing the same thing all the time, and we do not want that.
It’s complicated to have a signature but to reinvent yourselves at the same time…
AG: It takes twice as much effort but since we work as a duo, it’s just twice the battle.
TD: We would never do anything out of pure laziness, that would not bring something new. There is always the other to shake and challenge us. It’s a kind of ping pong.
What was the « Chez Bob » project?
TD: Bob tiling, which is a Var tile supplier and partner of Design Parade, gave us « carte blanche » to realise a sensory experience in his showroom. He provided us with his products and know-how to build something out of a 20 meters long container. We chose to occupy this space by creating a “Superpoly” Spa. We had fun to transform the codes of this type of place, in a space that in theory shouldn’t fit at all. The project is visible for 1 years.
Courtesy Lothaire Hucky
Your name comes from a super Monopoly?
AG: Ha ha! It’s the name of the Italian or Mexican Monopoly I can’t remember which.
TD: Our first project was called “little Polynesia”, we mentioned it earlier. The name came from this: super-poly(-nesia) project. There was something in “superpoly” that sounded like a brand …
AG: It’s the use of Super!
TD: The other thing is that we try to try many types of handmade creations, there was the poly thing (in French polyvalence means versatility)
AG: And then it’s a great play on words too because we’re super polite (in French Superpoly sounds like super polis = super polite).
TD: It’s pretty light like the rest of our work and it sounded good.
Your latest news?
TD: We’re right now working on private orders with our gallery and on new pieces of furniture in our workshop.
Many thanks guys for this enlightening interview, that I simply could not bring myself to cut. I think we got something balanced between seriousness and fun about the balance between ugliness and its sublimation.
* This expression comes from the Dirty Art Department of the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, from which Clémence Seilles-Stromboli Associates (already mentioned in hlow) is graduated.