V’la les coulonneux
In preparation for the show at Camden Arts Centre Michael Marriott invited me to assist him in a trip to the Département du Nord in northern France where the collection of the Frac is based. He had chosen a photograph by Robert Doisneau from the collection, Les coulonneux de l’aile droite (1951), which translates as ‘The pigeon fanciers of the right wing’. The picture is a group portrait of members of a pigeon fancier’s club sitting in front of another group portrait of the same club painted some years previously. The photograph provided a starting point for the show, partly because of the trestle tables visible in both group portraits. In the photograph, the large painting and the wall on either side of it, seem at odds with the temporary nature of the table. Everyone is looking at the camera for the portrait; this is a set up, yet a very comfortable set up. The main attribute of this makeshift, temporary, ad-hoc furniture set up is its simple comfort; not a luxurious comfort but something comfortable and unobtrusive; something you forget about. For Marriott this would be a representation of the perfect design, something almost unnoticed, not some fetish-for-sitting-in (up to and including the industrial-utilitarian-modernist-type fetish). Who wants to sit on a chair that constantly reminds one that one is sitting?
But I must go back to the pigeon fanciers. There we were in a small French town of the Département du Nord, looking for elusive vernacular furniture arrangements imbued with this quality of egalitarian comfort. The day was drawing to an end and we had decided to give our quest a rest and look for a restaurant instead. After a short walk around the centre of town we drifted towards some sort of a local festival. In an effort to walk around the festival compound we suddenly found ourselves in an alleyway where we were drawn to a shed-like space containing a table, a few chairs and some baskets for carrying pigeons like those in the Doisneau photograph. This was without doubt a pigeon fancier’s shed. But the trained eye of the designer could discern that something else was going on. The two rusty, over-painted plywood and metal chairs looked familiar and indeed seemed very similar to a Jean Prouvé design.
They were, in fact, old Jean Prouvé chairs perfectly at ease in the setting of the shed. That this modern design classic should reappear in such circumstances is hardly surprising considering the ethos behind the design. It only adds a little poetic justice to the show and reinforces the point that the arrangements in the exhibition are making; the blissful comfort of the pigeon fancier’s shed goes with his ignorance of the design fetish. Those chairs are still in their sheds where they belong. This is also where the making-do and improvisation present in modern vernacular products is truly more important than the fetishisation of a modern design tradition. Ultimately there is nothing anecdotal in the arrangements present in the exhibition; arrangements which are all meaningful gestures. The objects in the show are a series of readable negotiations that expose the economy of their own making. Economy of Means is also an economy of the meaning of objects for a designer who wonders everyday how you make a living from meaningful gestures rather than marketable objects.
Economy of Means
Written by Micheal Marriott
This project has become like an odd investigation exercise, to the extent that even writing this now, the final outcome is still not completely resolved.It started off by looking at the web site of Frac Nord – Pas de Calais, a regional art collection based in Dunkerque, looking for pieces from their art and design collection that I could make a show with, possibly also mixed with pieces from other places. The piece that triggered the line of investigation was by the French photographer Robert Doisneau (1912–1994), entitled Les coulonneux de l’aile droite (1951), which translates as The pigeon fanciers of the right wing.
I found it a very intriguing image, with the painting of the same setting, some years earlier, serving as the backdrop to the photograph, meaning both its foreground and background were occupied by two very similar trestle tables. Trestle tables have always fascinated me: they are seen as the underdog next to a regular table. They are often viewed as something workaday, not worthy of use indoors. They have a humility, a lack of pretension. They are utilitarian and proud of it; they are comfortable, convenient, stout, fast and useful. There could be something in using trestle tables to illustrate certain issues about design. They might work really well combined with some pieces from the Frac collection?
This fascinating photograph has a very similar setting to the painting The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519): both consist of a group of men gathered around a long trestle table, with one long side open to the viewer. There are obviously some real differences as well, not least the ten pigeon fanciers as opposed to Jesus and his twelve disciples.
The Last Supper was painted on the refectory wall of the monastery of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan between 1495–1498. Milan is also the home of furniture manufacturer Zanotta, who in 1969, started production of a trestle table designed by Achille Castiglioni (1918–2002), with his brother Pier Giacomo (1913–1968). Both were Milan-based designers and architects. Their beautiful wooden table design was obviously inspired by the kind of everyday trestles similar to the ones featured in both the Leonardo painting and the Doisneau photograph. Their table is titled ‘Leonardo’, which was surely inspired, in part, by this iconic painting and the implications it has of everyday, humble pieces of furniture such as trestle tables and the kind of honest timber structures Leonardo Da Vinci designed whilst devising his early machines.
Amongst the enormous amount of fine art housed in the Frac Nord collection, there is a small design section, which consists of just 59 pieces. Out of this total, Castiglioni’s output is by far the best represented. Although the ‘Leonardo’ table is not included, there are seven other pieces of his work. In many ways, Castiglioni’s designs are not obvious objects to collect. His work is not remarkable or astonishing; it is, in fact, often quite unremarkable, which is partly what makes it so brilliant. He had the observational skills of a Robert Doisneau and let that inform the making of new objects, imbuing them with qualities that are both familiar and enigmatic.
Robert Doisneau was a photographer who documented everyday life in France; working class people doing ordinary things. His photograph of a pigeon fanciers club was probably taken somewhere in the Département du Nord in northern France, which is where eighty per cent of pigeon fanciers are based, as well as being home to Ch’ti (pronounced ‘shtyi’), a French patois, which is also the language in the title of the photograph. Whilst finding out about this, I came across a song entitled ‘V’la les Coulonneux’ (‘Here Come the Pigeon Fanciers’), by local ‘chansonnier’, Edmond Tanière. Tanière was a folk singer-songwriter based in a mining community who wrote and sang in Ch’ti about normal people doing normal things, hence his two compilation albums, Edmond Tanière cante pour les mineurs Vol.1 + Vol.2.
As part of the exhibition at Camden Arts Centre, I was asked to be involved in a Saturday afternoon event in the garden. I enlisted the help of an artist friend, Arnaud Desjardin, who makes objects that sometimes reference both issues to do with furniture and production, but also issues of ‘French-ness’. We decided it now seemed appropriate to visit the Frac Nord – Pas de Calais, Dunkerque and the Pas de Calais region, so we set off, hoping to find some Edmond Tanière records and other material with which to improvise a structure for this garden event. We found three (his only three?) singles, no LP’s and therefore no ‘V’la les Coulonneux’, unfortunately. We bought lots of other things as well, including a collection of anonymous plastic chairs.
On a tip off from Katia Baudin, director of Frac Nord – Pas de Calais, we drove to a small town just outside Dunkerque, called Bergues, to look for a restaurant named after Brueghel, the painter. I remembered a Brueghel painting, which involved some sort of outdoor feast, with lots of people seated around long trestle tables. Apparently the restaurant was a bit like this. Seemed like we should have dinner there. We walked all around town, with no luck finding the restaurant, but on the way to another restaurant in the park at one end of town, we walked up a small alleyway by the side of a café, only to stumble upon a pigeon fancier’s loft, with a table and some café chairs to one side.
Two of these were the Nº300 chair by French designer and engineer, Jean Prouvé, designed in 1947. Prouvé (1901–1984) is another great master of modern design, who until relatively recently, was not well known outside France. This chair was probably his most produced piece. It was apparently used to furnish certain French schools and, I guess, with time has ended up getting dispersed, to places such as sheds and pigeon lofts.
At a point when we were looking for things that were, I guess, essentially anonymous in the manner of simple wooden trestles, finding these relatively rare ‘designer’ chairs in such an out of the way shed, was one coincidence. However, the fact that these chairs were also surrounded by pigeon baskets made them seem even more significant, as it was the Doisneau image of pigeon fanciers with their baskets that had set off this investigation. The fact that these Prouvé chairs were sitting happily in this situation together with some other tubular steel and plywood café furniture, is testament to their effortlessness and success; an elusiveness, which is missing in so much industrial design.
‘The design student may sometimes find that the industrial scrap heaps, the surplus stores and the products of straightforward engineering, will yield images of greater vitality than will be found in more fashionable quarters.Such a situation is a challenge, and as such must be studied and understood.’ — Norman Potter, What is a designer: Things. Places. Meanings. p.36
Michael Marriott was born in Woolwich, southeast London in 1963 and lives and works in London. After just scraping through at school, he studied Furniture Design and Making at the London College of Furniture (1985), followed by a variety of different but related jobs and work: lighting design, carpentry, interior design, space-planning, shopfitting, furniture design, furniture making, workshop technician. After a few years, he returned to studying at the Royal College of Art. He graduated in 1993, with an MA (distinction) and set up his studio, initially working mostly on furniture projects, design for production (café furniture for Trico, Japan, 2000) and commissions (Arts Council of England, foyer furniture, 2004). The nature of his practice has broadened more and more in recent years and has included: curating exhibitions (Things, Ipswich, 1999); graphic design projects (Ways of Saying, Loman Steet Studios, London, 2003); writing (‘The Everyday and Architecture’, Architectural Digest, 1998); exhibition design (Hometime, British Council, China, 2003) and installations (Bring Me Sunshine, Tokyo, 2000). Marriott has also taught and lectured at many schools and institutions worldwide. He is currently a senior tutor on Design Products at the Royal College of Art.
Arnaud Desjardin is an artist born in Argenteuil, France, 1969. He trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts Paris, UBC Vancouver and Middlesex University. He has been living and working in London since 1995 and teaches at Goldsmiths College and Chelsea College of Art & Design.
The File Notes with a hashtag in front of the number were published prior to the numerical system implemented on further printed file notes. As a result, there are duplicate numbered file notes. To differentiate, we have used a hashtag to indicate the original number of file note.
— Robert Doisneau, A Photographer’s Life Peter Hamilton Abeville Press NY, London, Paris (1995) ISBN 0789200201
— Achille Castiglioni Edited by Paolo Ferrari Electa Editrice/Centre George Pompidou (1985) ISBN 2858503184
— The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci Editor Irma A. Richter Published by Oxford University Press (1998)
— Edmond Tanière cante pour les mineurs Vol.1 + Vol.2 Edmond Tanière Collection Prix d’Ami CD/LP (1993)
— Jean Prouvé J. Van Geest & J. Prouvé, Taschen Verlag (1994) ISBN 3822897515
— Learning from Segal — Walter Segal’s life and influence John McKean Birkhauser (1988) ISBN 376439992
— Mies Meets Marx ⁄MMM Michael Marriott Geffrye Museum (2002) ISBN 1872828078
— Adhocism — The Case for Improvisation Nathan Silver & Charles Jencks Auricula press, Inc. (1972) Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 72–76174
— What is a Designer: Things. Places. Meanings. Norman Potter Studio Vista/London (1969), Hyphen Press /London (2002) ISBN 09072591622
— Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert M. Persig Corgi Books /London (1974) ISBN 0552101664
— Repair Manual: The complete guide to home maintenance Reader Digest Association London/Cape Town/Montreal/Sydney (1972)