Swiss designer Adrien Rovero finds success on his own terms, eschewing big industry in favour of independence.
I started in design really young. In Switzerland, mandatory school ends at about 14. Most people at that point continue with their studies or learn a profession. It was not so common to do internships, but I was lucky enough to get a few short ones, and I completely fell in love with design. From there, I did an apprenticeship with a firm called Atmosphere Creative (which unfortunately no longer exists).
I went to ECAL [Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne] for university, not because it was an easy choice of location (I grew up in the countryside around Lausanne), but because as a school it was very open minded. There was a focus on creativity rather than on the technical aspects of design. For me, it’s most important to be in an environment where you trust yourself and can experiment. You can gain the technical knowledge on your own.
It was a dream of mine to have my own studio. The apprenticeship gave me some practical business knowledge, and I already had a couple of projects started – an installation in a French park, and a scenography for a design magazine – when I graduated ECAL, so I thought, “Let’s try it.” From there, step by step, it developed. In the beginning, I was working out of my parents’ house. I designed the Pomy stool, my first collaboration with Atelier Pfister, and the Pimp series of tables and stools for Galerie Kreo in those first couple of years. Now it’s been seven years that I’ve had a studio in Renens, a suburb of Lausanne, which I share with architects. At first, I was living there. Then I got a flat and eventually rented another area of the studio, and it continues to grow. I have a CNC machine and a nice space to do models.
It’s been my fear that being independent so early would not give me access to high technology and big industry. I’ve never worked with huge manufacturers, though I’m of course fascinated by industry. I work with craftsmen, with small productions. So far, it’s okay. Maybe I will never design a mass-produced plastic chair, but that’s the danger of being established so young. It’s funny, though. I get clients who are looking for someone with not so much experience, for a fresh perspective.
I started working with Hermès after meeting Pascale Mussard, the co-artistic director. I’d won a prize in a competition called Villa Noailles, in the south of France, and she approached me because she liked my display in the winners’ exhibition. First I worked with them on the scenography for a private show in Paris, to exhibit the leather division’s new products. Then it slowly continued and moved into a few more projects, like the series Opercule for Cristalleries Saint-Louis, a glass brand that is part of Hermès, and eventually we developed Clickazoo, a collection of foldable leather animals.
It has happened like that a few times, where first I did an exhibition design for a company and then an object. The exhibits help to connect me with clients, because you have to really understand the brand. This work also helps with income, so I try to keep a 60/40 balance with objects and scenography. The financial part of being a designer is complicated. There are so few brands doing interesting work, and lots of designers. If you do it for the money, you should change direction. It’s not something we discuss at school, how difficult it will be. It’s a fantastic job, but it requires patience and energy. If you’re not totally sure, find something else.
I like to work with boundaries, whether it’s for a manufacturer or not. If I work on my own, I set up my own rules. The context for me is important. If you do a limited edition piece, like the Pimp series, the price may not be a priority. If you do something for Ikea, it’s completely the opposite.
People describe my work as very conceptual. It’s never a stack of functions and that’s all. The Aspartame series, which I showed in Milan this year, is named for its synthetic materials: silicone and Corian. I wanted to express that it is not craft, but very much extrusions and industrial. It was not meant for mass production, more as an exploration. If that were the case, I would have thought about using different materials.
More and more, I’ve started to pay attention to colour. For example, Pimp started from colour. We used an aluminum anodizing process that makes bright, very specific colours you cannot get from painting.
“Playful” is a good word to describe my work. Just as long as people don’t call it humorous. Like the Eameses said, toys are very serious. There is something playful and pleasurable about them, but it’s not a joke.
1981, Pompaples, Switzerland
Bachelor’s (2004) and master’s (2006) in industrial design from ECAL (Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne)
2006 Jury prize, Design Parade, Villa Noailles, France; Solutions légères, for the collective Inout, Biennale du Design, Saint-Étienne; 2011 Swiss federal design prize
2008 Droog’s A Touch of Green, Fondazione Antonio Mazzotta, Milan; 2013 Mountain Climbers, Design Miami, Basel, Switzerland;
2015 Aspartame limited edition, Brand New World, Dušan, Milan
Selected clients Atelier Pfister, Campeggi, Centre Pompidou, Cristalleries Saint-Louis, Droog, Hermès