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In conversation with Jeannette Altherr, Lievore + Altherr Désile Park

Fresh from launching Adell, their latest collection with Arper, we spoke with Jeannette Altherr, partner at Lievore + Altherr Désile Park.

21/05/2020 5 min read
Alberto Lievore, Jeannette Altherr, Delphine Désile, Dennis Park

Lievore + Altherr Désile Park is the evolution of the long-standing Barcelona-based studio Lievore Altherr. Working together, the two studios continue their multi-disciplinary work across product design & development, strategic consulting, creative direction, art direction, and ephemeral architecture for internationally recognised design companies.

Long-time collaborators with Arper, their latest collection Adell is made from post-industrial recycled plastic and was created with adaptability and sustainability in mind. We speak to German-born Jeannette Altherr about the inspiration and design process behind Adell.

Tell us about your background – how has it influenced your work?

My background is a contrast of being a German and a woman in a Mediterranean country, working in a quite masculine field such as product design. Being a woman has made me more sensitive to what seems to be missing in the quite rational, conceptual and technology-loving approach to design that is typical for Germany. Living in Spain and working with Italian clients meant I could translate this amplified awareness into themes like a sensitivity for colour and materials, and intangible but important values such as balance, serenity, sensitivity, and the value of communication and storytelling.

Last but not least, because I speak 5 languages fluently, I have access to a wider diversity of publications that has amplified my knowledge over the years!

How did your collaboration with Arper begin?

Our relationship started in 1998, as a regular product design collaboration with 3 collections – among them Catifa, which was immediately a huge success for Arper. From the beginning we recommended a more conscious approach to communication and branding. Little by little over the years we naturally grew as a studio into the double role of product design and art direction, overseeing the coherence of the communication from product, to photography, to expositions.

Tell us more about the inspiration behind Adell – what was your design process?

In general, when it comes to furniture, we use to think in systems, not single pieces – and for Adell we took this 360-degree design approach. We wanted to create a system that was completely customisable so it could adapt to different uses, expressions, and also price points. To allow the product to be customised to suit many different contexts – lounge areas, waiting rooms, educational common areas, hospitality spaces or residential settings – we previewed a diversity of finishes for the shell, from plastic with seat cushion, plastic with frontal cover to completely upholstered, as well as different leg options.

How did materials and research drive this collection?

Plastic seemed like the obvious material choice for a few reasons – the curves of Adell are best created in plastic; it is a robust and durable material that is great for outdoor use; it is a perfect base for upholstery, and, versus wood, it is a much more affordable option for fabrication.

However, plastic can also be a challenging material to work with from a sustainability perspective. At first, in our studio we wanted to work with a bioplastic for environmental reasons, but the more we learned about it, the less we were convinced.

For now, bioplastic can actually create an entirely different set of concerns – from the impact on agriculture like deforestation, water consumption to fertilizers and pesticides use, to say nothing of not having the infrastructure in place to recycle it. To quote Frederik Wurm, a chemist at the Max-Planck Institute for Polymer Research, ‘Bioplastic can actually be just as harmful as conventional plastic.’

The EU recommends that recycling should become a valuable business, so recycling existing plastic might be a better strategy. We realised that problems with plastic that we have today were created by the idea of it as a single-use or cheap throw-away material, an idea that started in the 1970s. We are now beginning to see institutional infrastructure to support recycling – but what do we do with all the raw material? We decided that the most sustainable way forward would be to use 100% recycled plastic.

Plastic really should be considered a precious material and be carefully used only when it really makes sense. To ensure its longevity as a material and reduce waste and consumption, we knew we needed to make the design enduring, but also the material should look like something that you want to keep and cherish. The aesthetic of glossy, colourful, translucent plastic— so characteristic of the golden age of plastic — subconsciously confers fast consumption.

We wanted to transform these connotations into something precious – recalling the tactile qualities of the natural world. After all, plastic is based on petroleum that, in its origin, is from organic sources: zooplankton and algae buried underneath sedimentary rock that has been transformed by pressure, heat, and time.

To help develop this direction, we created an organic texture that calls to mind the textures and patterns created by natural processes and materials – concentric patterns of a tree trunk’s rings, or the circular lines you see in shells. The texture evokes natural materials without being a representation – accepting and celebrating the irregular, the imperfect. Scratches to the surface dissolve in the texture, acting like a patina, not wear.

Regarding the colours, the texture actually determined a lot for the collection. We couldn’t imagine this natural, organic shape and texture with abstract, artificial colours such a clean white, or brilliant, technical colours. We developed a palette of very nuanced tones inspired in organic materials such as wood and leaves. Even the basic colours black and white are not pure graphic colours but softer versions: graphite black and ivory.

 

How do Lievore + Altherr Désile Park work together – do you share a holistic process/vision?

Alberto Lievore and I have been partners for 35 years, you can imagine that as we have overcome so many challenging times together – including two heavy financial crises before Corona – we are deeply connected and share the same values and approach. The same goes for Delphine Desile and Dennis Park. They are long-term collaborators who became partners in a natural process which we made official one year ago.

In the studio, we always had a very flat hierarchy that celebrates diversity within unity, and we are aware that this wide but connected angle is one of the keys to our success as a studio. Alberto is over 70 years now, it is normal that he wants to step back little by little, being involved in less projects; while I am 54 and want to continue the studio in the same spirit as ever! The re-naming of the studio is a natural extension of the previous years and simply makes how we already worked for so long official. We will continue to work together as before, but in a way that reflects more clearly the way we all contribute to the projects.

In your opinion, what are the current challenges and opportunities facing the industry?

The current crisis accelerated and amplified trends that were already there before: the most important are 1) digitalisation versus the analogue world, which translates into the increasingly remote way we work and consume, and the huge impact this will have on consumption, communication, distribution, production and trading. And 2) the environmental crisis that is already a reality and will become the next big crisis in a few years.

The current crisis shows us how we deal with such a worldwide challenge, and what successful strategies are: facing the challenge asap instead denying it; collaboration instead of competition (very important); and accepting complexity and holistic thinking instead of wishing for easy answers. Listening to experts when still something can be done, preparing our society, minds, production and environment to be more resilient, as well as opting for local solutions – we are all connected but not everywhere in the same condition. Lastly, reshaping globalisation and growth into a more prudent and sustainable way: less but better.

 

Photography: Salva Lopez and Frederick Vercruysse

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