Disegno No.2

Inga Sempé


30 August 2013

In 2012 the French designer Inga Sempé was appointed the guest of honour at the Stockholm Furniture Fair. To celebrate her appointment, in Disegno No.2 we asked Sempé to describe a selection of her work for brands such as Alessi, Wästberg, Ligne Roset and Cappellini. Here, we republish Sempé's reflections

Swollen and yellow, the winter sun hangs low in the sky, bouncing its rays off the new February snow. It’s painfully bright as every frost-bitten tree branch, snow-covered bush and car roof reflect the light. “It’s a beautiful day,” concludes Inga Sempé as she sips her morning coffee at Hotel Skeppsholmen in central Stockholm. She’s alone and she looks content.

It’s the fifth day of Stockholm Design Week and the French designer, who is in the Swedish capital as the Guest of Honour of the Stockholm Furniture Fair, is about to pack her bags to go back to Paris. But only after making one last stop – a visit to the Old Town to buy a traditional Swedish sailor-suit dress for her three-year old daughter. It’s navy blue with three rows of white ribbons around the square collar and it comes with a matching bag with an anchor emblem. Nothing could be further away from the week’s many launches of furniture and design products.

But then again, despite being one of contemporary design’s most interesting names, design doesn’t interest Sempé very much. Her own apartment is sparsely furnished and her favourite haunts are the flea markets, second-hand shops and hardware stores of her native Paris.

Being the Guest of Honour at the Stockholm Furniture Fair is a double-edged privilege, because while cementing her status and raising her prospects of getting more commissions, she is also expected to give talks and countless interviews, none of which she enjoys very much. In addition, she is doing a large-scale installation at the fairgrounds and for Sempé this means hands-on involvement. Despite setting up on her own in 2000, her studio still takes up the living room of her apartment and she has just two part-time employees. So the logistics of putting on an exhibition of this size uses up all available resources and time.

The display is a 160 sq/m area at the fair’s entrance, competing with information desks, hot-dog stands and newsagents. To avoid this visual noise, Sempé has enclosed the space with a white, translucent fabric, creating a Sempé oasis of Österlen wooden chairs and tables, the Ruché sofas upholstered in bright green and light-blue fabrics, the mushroom-pink desk light W103c and Brosse shelves with long bristles concealing each shelf. It’s a showcase that proves that Sempé is at the top of her game and rising.

But that’s not her only undertaking this week. The view from the breakfast room where Inga is peacefully sipping her coffee is of a peculiar building. It’s called the ice-skating pavilion, but looks more like a miniature castle with a steep roof, turrets and decorative brick work. It’s a remnant of Sweden of old, before design was one of its most famous exports and when an ice-skating craze swept over these shores via the French Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugénie in the 1860s.

The Swedish Royal skating club was founded in 1866 and in 1882 this permanent pavilion, by architect Adolf Emil Melander was erected. It speaks of class and division, something which the mostly Social Democratic government, has tried to eradicate over the course of the 20th century. Nowadays, this bijou building is used for conferences and parties and on this particular morning it is the venue of a second French vogue – another Sempé exhibition, presented by the Swedish lighting company Wästberg. Smaller in scale than the Stockholm Furniture Fair installation – all the exhibits are scale models, drawings and material samples, the pieces fit into rooms reminiscent of a dolls’ house – it has an intimate feel and it puts the sleek, finished pieces at the fair into perspective.

It is this, that Disegno asked Inga Sempé to reveal in the following texts. Curious about language and the use of words, sharply intelligent and always observant, Sempé has a succinct and humorous way of describing her ideas. Indeed, if she wasn’t a designer, she thinks she might have become a script writer.

Sempeé has worked with clamps in several of her products. Here is the W103c lamp and the Torno containers

W103c lamp for Wästberg, 2010
I like screws. I began to draw screws in my notebooks at school at around the age of 12, but I never saw my parents using a screwdriver and we did not have a drill. I drew screws, but almost never cruciform ones (those with a cross indent) – I have bad feelings about them, like they could be treacherous. I used to like the screws with two holes in the Prouvé Standard chair, until I realised they looked like a pig’s snout. That made me stop taking them off the canteen chairs at L’Ensci – Les Ateliers in Paris, where I studied.

I wish I would be asked to design a new screw – a new indent pattern for the head, for instance. But it hasn’t happened yet, so I design clamps, which I also find very agreeable. I like to look for different types of clamp when I travel. For a long time I’ve been thinking of using an upside-down clamp for a lamp, turning the lamp itself into a screw.

This is what I drew on a paper napkin for Magnus Wästberg, the owner of Swedish lighting manufacturer Wästberg, when we met for lunch in Paris. Casually drawing this up-side-down system in a back-to-front way to look professional was really hard (I heard about an architect who was able to draw perfect perspectives of interiors back to front for his clients). I began another drawing.

Aside from the clamp, the idea of this lamp is related to tool-machine lamps such as the Jielde: you unscrew the socket join to change the position of the arms and screw it back when it is in the right place in relation to what way you have to turn or mill. This way you can’t move it by mistake with any sudden movement. On the W103c lamp, there are three holes drilled with different angles on the top of the clamp, so you can screw the lamp in vertically, or leaning it 30 degrees to the left or right.

Torno containers for Materia, 2011
I used this same upside-down clamp system for the containers I designed for the Portuguese company Materia, which is part of the worldwide cork producer Amorim. At first, I was not attracted to the idea of working in cork – I still had in mind the cork shop on the Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris, which until the 1980s only displayed objects made in this material, looking cheesy and sad.

I am not against shops dedicated to one material – until recently there was a rubber shop on Via Torino in Milan, displaying boots, stoppers, gloves and funnels. It was very interesting because it was using rubber for its material properties. The cork shop was keen to convince us that cork was the most beautiful when sliced into sheets, to cover bags, notebooks and photo frames. It closed down.

For this project, my aim was to make some small containers to be fixed with a clamp onto desks, tables and shelves without needing to drill the furniture. They are meant to be like helpers positioned on a higher level above the surface of the desk, for example, as the screw of the clamp is almost 10cm long – so the usual mess on a desk such as mobile phones and glasses can be thrown into this smooth nest.

I also wanted to use the smoothness of the cork to pin the containers onto upside-down metal clamps. But after a while, crumbs of cork were cracking off, so the assembly system was changed: magnets are now integrated into the base of the containers to stick onto the metal clamps. They are really strong – I tested them on my desk and even when I bumped into them, they didn’t fall to bits.

The Balcon shelf is a simple, but genius piece of design that provides a movable storage platform for anything from plants to keys

Balcon shelf for Moustache, 2011
Balcon is a small, round, plain beechwood shelf that has a screw integrated into the wood. Balcon means balcony. Since I was a child, I have always dreamt of having a balcony in my home. Obsessively looking at property on the internet, I focus on apartments with balconies or terraces, even if I can’t buy them.

Balcon is really affordable and handy, with no screwdriver needed: the integrated screw allows you to fix it directly into the wall, and it’s particularly easy if you find a hole left by another object. If you are not my parents, you can drill a hole to put a Balcon wherever you need it. You handle the shelf like a wing screw, to bolt it into the bushing (the drilled hole lining).

I first had the idea of Balcon while I was doing some research for my cork project, so the initial mock-up was made in this material. It appeared to be too fragile – of course – to resist the torque when the shelf was turned, so the cork got distorted and torn out by the metal insert. The French translation of torque is “couple”, which shows how some French people consider love: a pair of forces of equal magnitude acting in parallel but opposite directions. Two equal forces. When it is not practical, some prefer laws other than physics to organise the world: women still get paid much less than men for example.

I need to mention that Balcon is made by a French wood turner, as it is so rare to find a maker in this country that agrees to work on small or medium-sized series for small companies.

The miniature models of PO/0202 and Vapeur lamps. Scale models like these are always produced in the studio to achieve the final design

PO/0202 lamp for Cappellini, 2002
When I was trying to find makers for the big pleated lamp for Cappellini, I kept calling French companies to ask for some samples of pleated paper or fabric that they produced. First, when the receptionist asked me the name of my company, I stammered, guiltily: “Hmm, in fact, I am not a company, I am a freelance desi...”. The most common response was, “We just deal with companies!” before hanging up on me. Then, I invented a name for a fake company, like “IS Design”, so that I could talk to a technician. Later, when I was more experienced with the French industry’s distrust, I had to change the name to “IS production” as I was too often told: “We don’t work with design.”

Anyway, the next step was to tell them how many employees were at “Sempé Production” (my studio was then six sq/m between the kitchen and the living room), “because we just deal with big companies”. When, eventually, I succeeded in getting information from an engineer, there was another level before being allowed to get samples. “How many 200m fabric rolls will your production use in the future?” I was always an optimist.

When I had successfully passed all the steps, an official letter was requested. I needed a good archiving system as I had invented many company names during those six months of research. As I was often called back three months after I had left the first message, I had to check in my book, recording all phone calls, dates, companies called, technicians required, the pseudonym I used for each... “Inga Sempé International” sounded serious, but I was afraid that they could check in the telephone directory that at 4 Rue Doudeauville, 75018, there was no one of that name.

I only received around 10 samples from France, whereas when calling Swedish or Dutch companies, samples arrived within a few days without any questions. The Cappellini lamp could also be produced because I learned everything about pleating techniques and textile finishing. Understanding all of the processes, I could then talk to an Italian textile finisher about how to treat a sailboat fabric, before being pleated by an Italian specialist I found near the Cappellini office in Brianza. Without that research, my first ever product would never have existed.

Vapeur lamp for Moustache, 2009
You would think that it was easy to design the Vapeur lamp for new French company Moustache, with all the experience I had in pleats. It was not, because Cappellini’s pleated lamp is made in polyester fabric, and Vapeurs are made with Tyvek®, a type of fake paper made from plastic. Many pleaters would refuse to try their machines with this unknown material.

We lost time because we were naively thinking we could help France’s economy by producing the pleated part in France. We met pleaters used to working in fashion who treated us as ignorant and gave us ridiculously high price quotations. When they understood that we wouldn’t work with them, they offered an 80 per cent discount, which remained high compared to the price given by a German pleater.

For the metal base, many metalworkers changed their quotations when Moustache ordered a first batch of 100 pieces. For a new company such as Moustache, I wanted to design lamps that would be highly recognisable and simple to produce. On the second point, I was wrong. It is complicated to make simple things. At least for me. It is complicated to make things in France, to find makers for small series unless you are a big company such as Ligne Roset.

The Österlen chair took two years to create, from first drawing to finished product and involved a burnt-down factory and disobedient wood

Österlen chair for Gärsnäs, 2011
When Swedish company Gärsnäs asked me to design a sofa for them – at the Stockholm furniture fair in 2008 (while I was breastfeeding my newborn daughter at every booth I could stop at) – I accepted. In fact my secret aim was to design a wooden chair, something that no French company would ever ask for (because the wooden furniture industry in France prefers to concentrate on fake, old-style furniture, nostalgic for a time when the French were “kings of the world”).

Gärsnäs chief executive Dag Klockby invited me to visit the factory, where I learnt a lot about woodwork – I didn’t know anything about it, of course. During my studies at L’ Ensci – Les Ateliers, we had no lessons on carpentry, and the wood workshop was dedicated to building moulds for plastic models. I discovered that bent wooden parts are not bent into their final shape as a whole, but parts of the shape are put into a much larger mould that is removed once the wood is dry and then assembled to make the final, complete shape.

From this point, I built the Österlen chair, using flat cut-outs on the bent and round parts of wood to add comfort. It was almost two years between the first drawing and the first prototype – one of the Swedish bending factories burnt down and it took time to find another good one for this delicate technique. Eventually, we found a Danish factory. Bent wood is like a person with rheumatism – if they don’t dry enough they twist and get distorted. Every time I arrived from France by plane to check a new prototype, I felt totally depressed – why had I sent strange and heavy drawings to be prototyped? I didn’t recognise my chair – like when you find a friend looks different and odd because they’ve had a nose job without telling you.

It took many visits for me to understand that the prototypes had different dimensions because they were made with bent parts that had arrived from Denmark, and kept changing from one day to the next, so the carpenter in Sweden tried to adapt the parts he had built to fit the pieces arriving from Denmark. The difference in size from my drawings was as much as 50mm. I finally checked everything with a ruler, which I normally never do because I trust a prototype maker to follow my drawings.

It was hard work correcting a wrong prototype to be replaced by another wrong one. Dag was always positive and he thought that the chair looked ideal for Swedish churches. I thought he was kidding, as in France if you didn’t put traditional-style chair in a church it would be a scandal, even if no one goes there any more. Dag also insisted on applying just the slightest varnish to keep the beauty of the natural wood.

The Ruché model looked very different from the finished version - an elegant tall sofa on a wooden frame

Ruché sofa for Ligne Roset, 2010
One of the greatest things about collaborating with Ligne Roset is that the prototype workshop is in the same building as the series production, so the head of the prototype workshop can go and check with the specialists working on tool machines to see if the detail we just tried out could work in a series. Around 10 people work on prototypes, including upholsterers and seamstresses, and they know a lot about foam.

The world of foam is really much bigger than you would think: the yellow foam that everybody has in mind (because of old leaky sofas abandoned on pavements) is just a small continent in the world of foam. Like people, foams react in unexpected ways: when two foams meet, the couple they produce when glued together can be a surprise. Like tiramisu, adjusting layers is part of the secret of making comfortable sofas.

Owning your production machines seems ideal at first, but it also means there are some constraints for a company: you need new objects to be produced using those machines and workers. How do you choose a new sofa that will be successful enough to keep the factory running without spoiling the level of design of the brand? There’s an important issue for designers that is almost never discussed in the press: projects we design involve workers’ jobs, and the life of a factory.

For the Ruché sofa, I first sent to Michel Roset (creative director and co-owner of Ligne Roset) some sketches and really naive models that I made myself without any care, twisted as if I had sat on them. (When I was at college, I was really good at making precise models using lathes and milling machines. But since then, as I work in my apartment and can’t have these noisy machines, I have to use unprofessional tools such as scissors and glue. When I use them, I really don’t concentrate, building models as if they are sketches: the legs of a chair are not the same height, glue points look like snot.) I sent pictures of these lousy models to Michel’s summer home in July. He stayed silent until September, when he said that the sofa was too odd to be made. But then in October, he called me and said: “Let’s do a prototype.”

The first prototype was so ugly (because of my choices) that I wanted to stop the project. Often, I see that things are wrong, but I don’t know how to improve them. I need time, but I don’t have it. It’s especially hard when you come from Paris to spend one or two days at the prototype workshop with two upholsterers, whose whole day is dedicated to working with you, and they are waiting for your immediate comments to be applied to the prototype.

Should they cut 100mm of the upper cushion? Should we change the section of the foot? Should we sew it another way? So many possible changes, with professionals waiting, and I can’t find a new direction. We had many painful prototypes to get through, from the first metal structure that was changed to wood to the boring first quilt, which was flat and common until I discovered the special reduced stitches found on the only machine I have at my studio: the sewing machine I got when I was 14.

Inga did some market research before settling on the shape of the IS01 risotto spoon

IS01 risotto serving spoon for Alessi, 2012
I got in contact with Alessi through a competition that last year. They asked five designers to take part in a competition to design a risotto serving spoon. I am usually too proud and touchy to enter into competitions and risk losing. But I like spoons and I like Italy, and I am often the victim of bad risottos cooked by French people that think they are specialists because they have the patience to stir a spoon in a pan for 20 minutes.

To understand what an ideal risotto spoon should be, I called a Roman friend, Paolo, to get some precise information. I had already consulted him about objects I made for an exhibition in Milan called Souvenir d’Italie, for which I designed a colander and a cheese grater using the shape of Italy for the holes and reliefs. He gave great advice about a detail on which I took too much liberty (as most French people would).

If I had used the shape of France, I would obviously had an easier and cleaner design, removing Corsica like a disturbing crumb. I thought, evidently I could do the same with Sardinia and Sicily. My Roman friend was shocked by my proposal, so I put them back, but brought Sicily closer to the point of the boot, and decreased the size of Sardinia.

Paolo had a lot to say about the way risotto should be, and the way it should be poured onto a plate. But I also checked the opinion of Alessandro Sarfatti, head of Luceplan, whose father Riccardo had cooked a risotto in front of me at Lake Como. Alessandro was stunned that I had first asked a Roman about a typically northern Italian meal. He also had lots of advice to give me. I called Paolo back to laugh at him, as if I had discovered he was a cheat. Disgraced, he asked me to call Alessandro back to tell him that his grandfather was from Turin – an even more northern city of Italy and the cradle of risotto. My think tank worked - I won the competition.