July 5, 2018

10 Questions With… Alain Gilles

Alain Gilles would never be where he is today without a financially questionable decision. At the age of 32, on the advice of his wife, the Belgian designer dropped a successful career in international finance to enroll in an industrial design program. Following his dreams paid off. Since opening his own studio in 2007, Gilles has produced a range of award-winning products for manufacturers including Bonaldo, Ligne Roset, and Vincent Sheppard, to name a few.

Most recently, at NeoCon in Chicago, he launched a collection of sofas for BuzziSpace and sound-absorbing panels incorporating real moss for Green Mood. Gilles sat down with Interior Design to share more about his pivotal career change, the Belgian comic book that influenced his work, and the product that jump-started his career.

Interior Design: You launched the BuzziSpark sofa collection for BuzziSpace and the G-Desk for Green Mood at NeoCon. Can you tell us a bit about these products?

Alain Gilles: With BuzziSpace, we focus on new ways of working, in particular with small spaces or micro architecture—places you can go and work in a slightly protected environment. I was thinking about a sofa where you’d relax at night or watch TV. When you sit on a sofa in the BuzziSpark collection, you immediately feel how wide it is. The flexible panels are tools architects can play with—you can create high or low combinations with these shields for a standard sofa, a love seat, or a new dynamic.

We debuted moss-covered acoustic panels for Green Mood in December, and G-Desk is the latest addition. The G-Line range is a collection of sound-absorbing screens or partitions for offices that use stabilized plants—they are not alive but still look alive. Basically, there are three different ways to do green walls: You can make living ones that are very expensive to maintain, you can use fake plants, or you can make these, which are dried plants. 

G-Circle circular panel, part of the G-Line acoustical range by Alain Gilles for Green Mood. Photography courtesy of Alain Gilles.

ID: What else have you worked on recently?

AG: At Light + Building in March we launched our first lighting product, BuzziHat for BuzziSpace. It’s an acoustical pendant light that took five years to develop. You can choose any kind of fabric and play with the height. 

And at IMM Cologne in January, we released a new mirror for Ligne Roset. The name, Goeffery, comes from the butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the idea is that Goeffery is more than a mirror, it’s also a butler. When you come home, you put your keys in the little dish and hang your shirt or scarf on the hanger.

ID: Could you share an upcoming project?

AG: We’re currently working on something completely different. We got asked to be a brand ambassador for a Swiss cheese manufacturer, and they asked for a cutting board. To me, you say cutting board, and I think extremely boring. Ours is much more than that. It will come out in September.

The Wicked armchair and Basket table by Alain Gilles for Vincent Sheppard. Photography copyright STOR/courtesy of Alain Gilles.

ID: How did your childhood influence your design thinking?

AG: I grew up in Belgium and when I was 13, we left for the U.S., living in Washington, D.C., for five years. Then I lived in the South of France before coming back to Belgium. So I am a mix. I’m not a typical Belgian designer in the way I use color. However, with materials, I tend to use them for what they are, and I think that is very Belgian. If I use wood, I would not it hide it behind a thick coat of paint. If I use metal, you feel it is metal. 

The Belgian comic book series The Adventures of Tintin was bedtime reading with my parents. That school of drawing, ligne claire, was very different from the American school of drawing then. In Tintin you’d see a black line around each shape. In contrast, in an old Tarzan comic for example, they do shadows. The clear line methodology is close to what I do because I tend to separate materials in my designs.

ID: You studied political science and marketing management and worked in the financial industry. What inspired that crossover to product design?

AG: I worked for five years in international finance, but I was always dreaming about products. I had all these ideas, and I didn’t want to forget them, so I actually couldn’t sleep sometimes. One day, when I was 32, my wife said to me, ‘You should be studying design.’ The day after that, I thought, ‘I am free now. Somebody said I could do it!’ So I enrolled in an industrial design program.

The BuzziSpark sofa by Alain Gilles for BuzziSpace. Photography courtesy of Alain Gilles.

ID: How did you get your big break?

AG: I was always drawing lamps, so I thought I would do lighting at the beginning. I started doing furniture by accident. We did the Big table for Italian manufacturer Bonaldo, and it became a best-seller. It won a Good Design Award and is still selling.

ID: How do you start your design process?

AG: I don’t do prototypes. I’ve seen too many young designers spend thousands of euros on prototypes. I work on a computer and then send the companies a presentation. If they like it, we make the products. And that’s it. We almost never get briefs.

ID: Is there someone in the industry that particularly inspires you?

AG: I love Oscar Niemeyer. Readability is important to me, and what he does is extremely readable.

The Geoffrey mirror by Alain Gilles for Ligne Roset. Photography courtesy of Alain Gilles.

ID: What do you look at on Instagram?

AG: I follow a lot of Brutalist architecture pages. One is WaxandBrutalism. If you go past the upholstered softness of my products, if you look at the very structure, you’ll see that the product is actually very masculine and hard. I really tap into Brutalism.

ID: Is there is there an item in your home that has particular significance to you?

AG: My house itself. It used to be a fur coat factory. It doesn’t look like a city building, but a bit like a barn, with pillars, bricks, wood, big windows, and lots of green space. You don’t even see a street—yet we are in the middle of the city.

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