Working from Bologna and London, SEBASTIAN BERGNE designs products for companies such as Authentics, Habitat and Vitra which address the changes in our daily lives but in a gentle, unobtrusive way.
Today we are as likely to eat when watching television on a sofa as sitting formally at a dining table, yet most eating utensils are still designed for use in a formal setting rather than to be juggled on a tray or a lap. When Sebastian Bergne started work on the design of the Bop eating utensils for Driade, he was determined to create a versatile eating kit which could be used in any situation. The result is a set of porcelain plates and bowls that slot neatly into place on the ridges of a plastic tray, yet look conventionally elegant when used individually.
Bop is typical of Sebastian Bergne’s work in that it reinvents an everyday object, but does so gently and quietly. Rather than dazzling us at first sight, Bergne’s designs are intended for long term use. “It may only be that after using a product for several years that the quiet functionality, quality or reliability brings a smile of satisfaction,” he says.
Born in Teheran in 1966 into a diplomatic family, Bergne had lived in Cairo, Athens, Beirut, Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong by the time he studied industrial design at Central St Martin’s in London in the mid-1980s and then won a place at the Royal College of Art. After graduating from the RCA in 1990, he set up the purposefully entitled Bergne: Design for Manufacture in London. As well as exhibiting his work internationally, he was commissioned to design products and furniture by companies such as Authentics, Driade, Lexon and Vitra. Bergne now divides his time between studios in London and the Italian city of Bologna.
Q. How did you first become interested in design?
A. My first real memory of design was when, as a young teenager, I helped my mother set up an exhibition of her work in Milan. By chance, it took place during the Milan furniture fair and across the street was a huge Memphis show. This work that I couldn't understand, the crowds and the energy left a lasting impression and made me very curious.
Q. What was the influence of your design education?
A. My first degree in Industrial Design (engineering) (Central School of Art) gave me an invaluable old school industrial design background (although it seemed a little dry at the time). My following two years at the RCA gave me a chance to develop my own design interests using the skills I had learned at Central.
Q. Which of your early projects were most important in establishing your reputation as a designer?
A. My first success was a project called "Lamp Shade" in around 1991. It started as a self made project but then ended up being put into full production in Germany.
Q. How would you describe your approach to design? And how has it evolved throughout your career?
A. As most industrial designers, my primary concern in my projects has always been to create good functional industrial design solutions. However this alone is not enough. There must also be an idea, an element of innovation and considered communication. The parameters of each project – client, materials, price, processes – have an enormous influence on the development of a project.
Q. What are your goals as a designer? And how have they evolved?
A. I feel very much the same designer as I always was. What has changed is my experience and ability to shift the focus in a project one way or another. Luckily I still make lots of mistakes so there's more to learn.
Q. Who or what inspires your work?
A. Almost anything can spark an idea for a project. Indeed, a walk down the street can often be more inspiring than a visit to a museum or leafing through a design magazine.
Q. How did the Bop project come about? Is there anything about Bop which is innovative or distinctive?
A. Bop came about initially because of a request for a new table-ware project from Driade. The innovation in the project primarily lies in the way the project is used. It tries to recognise the way people really eat at home. It can equally well be used as a place setting at a formal table, or in an informal situation eating in front of the TV. The ability to position the plates as you wish allows you to compose different meal types, from a classic sequence of courses to an instant
micro-waved snack. Then again if you don't feel in the mood to use the elements in a structured way, they function independently as simple plates or the tray, flipped over, can be used in the normal way.
Q. Similarly, describe Clown and its distinctive characteristics.
A. Clown was the result of a direct commission from Habitat to design a set of melamine table-ware for children. My primary aim in the project was to animate these otherwise static pieces in a way that children might see before adults. Each piece contains an abstracted human characteristic. The plate has ears, the cup a nose and the cutlery stands on a foot to bring various little characters to life. It was important to me that these features should not necessarily be immediately recognisable. This element of discovery, seeing something in something else, is something I think children are generally better at than adults.
Q. You have commented on the importance of an object “making us smile”. Which of your products are the smiliest?
A. I like to think that different projects make different people smile for different reasons. It may be simple because you’ve got a bargain, because it reminds you of something or it may only be that after using the product for several years that the quiet functionality, quality or reliability brings on a smile of satisfaction. The beauty is that there is no smiliest project. If there was, we would all be the same.
Visit Sebastian Bergne's website at sebastianbergne.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain