And yet, across a career now spanning over two and a half decades, Charpin has built a name for himself within the discipline. So much so that, for its January 2017 edition, the trade fair Maison & Objet Paris has declared him Designer of the Year – an unexpected appellation for someone who set out with a different aim in mind.
Charpin graduated from the École Nationale Supérieure d'Art de Bourges as an artist in 1984, and originally planned to practice within this field, following in the footsteps of his sculptor father. But Charpin soon found his interest drawn to forms and typologies. Homme Vase, a photograph from 1990 that was originally placed on the invitation to Charpin’s first gallery show, shows a bouquet of flowers spouting from the artist’s mouth, letting its living subject assume the characteristics of a decorative item.
Three years later, with the support of the French cultural ministry, Charpin produced his first design object. The Prima stackable chair (1993), formed from steel and fibreglass, contains the seeds of his later style. It is simple without being wholly minimal, colourful in blinding white or vivacious yellow, and possessed of a certain sensuousness. It’s an object that asks you to interact with it. Although regarded by its creator as “not a success, technically and formally,” it initiated him to the practice of design.
From this point onwards, most of Charpin’s output sits well within the design world. He feels, however, that his artistic training has continued to affect the way in which he works. Drawing, for instance, remains at the core of his practice; he devotes two chapters of his eponymous 2014 monograph to it, one demonstrating drawing’s use in design process and another extolling drawing for its own sake. “I do not,” explains Charpin, “need a brief or a mandate to draw things.” Contemporary art has also influenced his way of seeing the projects that he works on: “I also,” he continues, “look at objects as if they were forms rather than [design] objects.”
Charpin’s engagement with art seems echoed in the different types of projects he takes on. As well as work for significant design furniture brands – Ligne Roset, Post Design, Venini and Zanotta, amongst others – he creates limited edition objects for exhibitions, and works on one-off commissions. A visitor to Charpin’s self-curated exhibition at Masion & Objet will be immediately struck by this variety. There are industrially produced pieces of design furniture, such as his Cestini mirror-polished steel baskets (2011) for Alessi, and the re-editioned Slice seating system (2016) for Cinna. There are what Charpin describes as “more artisanal objects,” including the Lacquer series of boxes and centerpieces (2016) for Hermès Maison. Then, in the form of the Crescendo table (2014) and Clown vases (2015), there are limited objects created for the Paris and London-based design space Galerie Kreo. Finally, there’s something that might easily be considered an artistic installation rather than a design product – a large bronze bell called Cloche, cast for an exhibition at the gallery F93 Montreuil. Charpin's exhibition acts as a sort of microcosm for the diversity of product design itself.
In addition to Charpin's Designer of the Year award, this year’s Maison & Objet Paris has inaugurated a programme that pays homage to designers at a more nascent stage in their career. The Rising Talent scheme, supported by London Design Festival founder John Sorrell, spotlights six emerging designers from the UK. Each member of the group – John Booth, Sebastian Cox, Gilles Miller Studio, Zuza Mengham, Marcin Rusak and Studio Swine – has been sponsored by an established designer. These mentors, which include previous Designers of the Year Ilse Crawford and Tom Dixon, have been engaged to offer advice and support to their chosen talent
Charpin is acutely aware of the importance of such mentorships. “It’s always easier,” he says, “when you have support. The design world is a saturated environment in which it is difficult to find your own place. The support of designers or institutions is essential for young designers.” Charpin himself gained from working with others, and through meeting those able to support his ideas. After building the Prima chair, he spent a year in George Sowden’s Milan atelier. And in 1998, he met Didier and Clemence Krzentowsky, the founders of Galerie Kreo. From the reproduction of Slice onwards, Charpin has maintained a long-standing relationship with the gallery, with five solo exhibitions and a joint show with Alessandro Mendini. When his Slice seating system (1998) was poorly distributed by the Cinova, Galerie Kreo stepped in, breaking Charpin’s career as a designer and pushing the item towards contemporary classic status.
Charpin acknowledges that the gallery market can be something of a sealed world, particularly troublesome for young designers to enter. “There are few galleries of design, and I think the market is still confidential even if the exhibition benefits from media coverage.” On the other hand, he believes that the landscape for mass-produced work has also become burdensome to access, largely through the sector’s profusion of practitioners and the competition between them. “Opportunities may have been more limited,” Charpin says, “but the relationships with brands and producers were much more direct, less competitive.” In providing young designers with help from those who have succeeded in making strong relationships in the industry, Maison & Objet’s Rising Talent award should steady their entrance into this competitive world. With guidance and support, perhaps one day they’ll be sitting in Charpin’s position.