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Exclusive: Marc Berthier, the time at the Square

January 15 2018

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Hermès, exhibiting at the SIHH for the first time, today unveils the watch Carré H. It was designed by one of the greatest designers of our time: Marc Berthier. The latter has the art of creating objects that enter the time at the right time: D-day and H-hour. Conversation on almost everything. - Isabelle Cerboneschi.


Arc Berthier is one of the biggest and one of the most unknown designers and architects of our time. The stars of the trade adulate him, Philippe Starck in mind. He has trained a whole generation of talents: Tse Tse, RADI group, Matali Crasset, Patrick Jouin, Inga Sempé, to name a few. One of his techniques, to tickle the creativity of his students, is to work in mental images: he gives them a brief and lets them imagine the place or the object in their head before drawing it. This gives results so much more exciting than computer programs. If Marc Berthier is a god in his kingdom, he is little known to the public. Let's say he did not try to make himself known. His objects speak for him. "And then I'm a bit rustic," he says.

His objects? He has created so much, in fifty years of career, that he is not able to list them all. We are surrounded without knowing it: the famous Lexon Tykho radio wrapped in silicone gum to listen to the news in his bathroom, it is him, the kettle Rowenta super pretty in the open kitchens, that's it too. And then there are calculators, morning alarms, elastomer fans, travel bags, binoculars, mobile phones, watches, a whole catalog of creations that live with us, make life simpler and lighter .

Lightness is his Grail, including lightness of mind. A move that goes back to 1967, when he created the Ozoo polyester and fiberglass furniture line for Roche Bobois, sold at a "democratic" price. There was also modular school furniture in tubes, designed as a self-assembling Meccano of color: the Mecanotube, launched in 1977 and exposed at the Center Pompidou. Objects that prefigured the phenomenon ofDo It Yourself". In 1991 he co-founded the Eliumstudio agency with Pierre Garner and Frédéric Linz, his former students, joined by his daughter Elise. A name inspired by Helium, the ultimate in lightness.

This great sportsman, who practiced all sports -  swimmer fighting, skydiving, judo, wing delta, golf skiing, water skiing - 82 years but actually 20 less. The interviews, he hates that, viscerally. At each of our meetings, I bias a little. "We chatter, as he says, and chatter there are things that are telling and revealing." In our last interview, last October, he spoke about the genesis of Square H, but not only. He sat down to table, literally and figuratively, telling bits of his life like a novel, while forgetting the recorder that was spinning, sitting in front of a turbot back cooked to perfection. did not finish. This interview is the longest it has been given, because it is more of a conversation in the living room. A monothematic conversation that revolves around a single subject - Marc Berthier - but under all the angles he wanted to address.

When he was president of Hermès, Jean-Louis Dumas had asked him to draw a men's watch: a very identity chronograph. The project remained a dead letter until the day when Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the artistic director of Hermès, decided to do something about it. Thus was born in 2010 Square H: a design with a cord, a square with angles softened like most nomadic objects, a case like a bowl, index stick, purity pushed to the extreme. Only 173 copies had been produced. They left like comets. It would have been a pity not to decline this success and years later, La Montre Hermès again appealed to Marc Berthier. "We wanted to continue this story of Square H, because with the first, we remained on a frustration: there were too few and she left too quickly. We wanted to continue this story, but with another face, "explains Philippe Delhotal, artistic director of La Montre Hermès.

"My job as an architect and designer is to solve the complexity and minimize it to do the right things. But I came to understand that in the world of watchmaking, it's the opposite: the more complicated it was, the harder it was to do, and the more valuable it was. "

In 2010, the Carré H watch was launched. What has happened since with the Hermès house?
Marc Berthier. Nothing happened. All copies were sold in 3 months. There were copies. I'm used to it. I will soon be exhibiting in an important museum and trying to list all that I have done, I am unable: and we realized that circulate on the web many things that we Attribute and I do not know absolutely! (Laughs). Some are true copies, others are inspirations. This is the price to pay when we create things for the greatest number. With La Montre Hermès, we do not work for the greatest number of people, but for people who appreciate quality, and that's something else. I just regret that this watch has not been created to more copies. This form is not easy: it's like a pebble, it looks like it's the hand that used it. It has a microbell effect that I love. She is so Hermes! We could have taken her back to a more feminine dimension.

How was your first meeting with Jean-Louis Dumas when he asked you to draw a men's watch?
It was an interview of at least two hours. "Is it really you Marc Berthier?" He asked me. I was told about you I know a little about your work. We have a problem. We were not able to launch a men's watch. How would you see a Hermès chronograph? So I told him in mental pictures everything that could coincide with his idea. He looked at me rather surprised and he said to me: "I need you, it is absolutely necessary that you get us out of business! ". I suddenly felt invested with a mission: as the messiah who was going to save the house Hermes! (Laughs).

And what project did you propose to him?
I had eliminated all models too sporty to return to a project that seemed more romantic. I told him about explorers, seducers, dandy travelers, and I made two propositions to him. One was inspired by Gatsby the Magnificent and the other by the philosopher explorer Victor Segalen, who pleased him. But I ran into the team at the time who thought I knew nothing about watchmaking. It is true that what I knew of La Chaux-de-Fonds was rather Le Corbusier than the workshops, but I had already designed a dozen watches! Then I made a proposal that was the ancestor of Square H: Cavalier and Cavaliere. I was turned around a bit and at one point the discussions stopped. We did not speak the same language. The watch has not been marketed.

What remained of this unhappy experience at the time?
All trades have their own language and I realized that what I call complexity, the watchmakers they speak of watches with complications. But my job, whether it's my approach as architect or designer, is precisely to solve the complexity and reduce it to the maximum to do relevant things, while in the watchmaking environment we make watches with complications. Evidently I came to understand that it was a kind of challenge: the more complicated it was, the harder it was to do, and the more valuable it was. I learned some things backwards.

The first Square H was very simple at first sight, but complex in its details.
No, it was not complexity, it was pure. Luxury is purifying an object of all decorum. For me it is a form of elegance and lightness is part of the tradition of Hermes. Take the Kelly: there is nothing to add. There was a rounded squared trend in the objects. at that time. And the square is emblematic of Hermes.

When La Montre Hermès announced that a new version of Square H was coming to light, I thought it would be a connected watch.
We did it, but not for Hermes:  we drew in 2008 the first smart connected watch that was worn by the former President of the French Republic. It still exists but has changed its name: Withings company was bought by Nokia in 2016.

How do we turn the time around in a square?
To rotate round needles in a square they must be arranged in a certain way. If you take the Cartier Tank, it has Roman numerals that have been balanced: 4 is different (it is represented by four symbols I, instead of the usual IV, ed) for this to turn out well. With Square H, we created a circle inscribed in the square, it is pure geometry: we played on the figures of the round of hours. All harmony is born of proportions.

You are the designer of lightness, where does this desire come from?
I have been doing design for over fifty years and I have always worked lightly. For me, it's the key to entering the 21st century. Lightness is not the search for absolute weightlessness: it is the lightness of the mind, it is mobility, it is a form of modernity, of progress. Lightness is the economy of materials, means, and energies. With the electric bike we got to do something mobile and ultra light. Lightness is an attitude to problems posed: the solutions are in the lightness. I was interested in ultra light aircraft. With one of my students and my team, we built a mylar airship, a material like a survival blanket. This student had made a carbon / carbon bike chassis with a propeller propulsion system and he crossed the English Channel. I realized that all the criteria going towards lightness went towards progress. Moreover, I realized that it is mainly women who are interested in my speech on lightness.

"For me, lightness is the key to entry into the 21st century. Lightness is not the search for absolute weightlessness, it is mobility, it is a form of modernity, of progress. Lightness is the economy of materials, means, and energies. "

Maybe because we have more weight problems?
(Laughs) But my speech was not going to that! Besides, my daughter drew the first connected scale!

What is fascinating is that at the time you were interested in lightness, in the world of luxury, it was the opposite: the more heaviness, the material, and the more the object had value.
The vision of luxury since then, has been purified. The first Square H, we made it in titanium: it was a feather! The luxury of Carré H is its brilliance and its reflections.

You often talk about mental images, what is it?
I usually work in mental pictures. I am able to assemble and disassemble the Carré H watch with your hands in your pockets. I taught the work in mental pictures to my architecture students. For example, I said to them: you lay in front of you a sheet of paper, your pencil and you cross your arms as in primary school. They did not like much. I was then describing a space for them: for example I told them that on entering there was a zenitic lighting on the left, 2 steps of stairs here, a pylon in this place, reflections, in short, you see the idea. I spoke to them of course with a more architectural language. It was like a storytelling, but very  specific. They had to visualize the space and they had ten minutes to draw it. In the end, there were not two who did the same thing! They realized that in mental images they expressed things differently. I did the same thing in design: one day I asked them to draw 6 glasses, and they made me the catalog Ikea! They made six identical glasses. I then gave them an aquatic theme and then some wonderful things happened. With a computer software, if you ask for "Philippe Starck" bottles, he will take you out maybe two bottles that the designer has made, but also bottles in his style, drawn by the system.

These young people you teach are born with computers. Do we have a greater ability to envision imaginary worlds when we are not a "native "born in the era of computers?
A computer is never a tool. So far, he has never been at the origin of a new concept. But those born without have much more ability to imagine things, objects, places in their head. That's why I have my students work in mental pictures.

The taste of design, what do you think of it?
My great-grandfather invented the cinderblock from machefer. They were gray blocks, not expensive, designed for the working cities of the north. I also had a grandfather who was forge master in Le Creusot, and he made hardware, tools for agriculture, rails. His son, my maternal grandfather, was a dandy who loved cars and won the Tour de France in 1923 on a Th. Schneider. Older, he was competing for elegance with his wife. He had his car leather covered so that the pebbles do not damage the bodywork. He was drawing his aluminum glasses, his white cap. My design genes come from him rather than the grandfather who made blocks, I think.

Yet your great-grandfather already created something useful and light ...
He had bought a mill in Macon where there was a mansion Napoleon III, a pond and a waterfall. He had made it a great property for the whole family. When I was a child, during the war, we lived completely in autarky. Thanks to the water wheel of the mill, we had electricity. He had also created an ice cream factory. We did not have cattle but a vegetable garden, flowers. My ancestor was a bit temperamental and did not want to do anything to anyone. I learned about ecology before the hour with him. He had bees, he made honey, soap. That's where I come from.

You've always been an accomplished sportsman and one day you told me you had a swimmer. How did this happen?
When I was a student, I was a lifeguard at Club Méditerranée and I was a good swimmer. I was spotted when I was doing my military service and was integrated into a mixed unit: there was the 11e shock (11e parachute shock regiment, Ed) and the swimmers. Among them were radios, spies and swimmers. The difference between the combat swimmers and the frogmen of the navy is that the latter will remove the mines on the boats while the first would rather raid and lay the bomb. We followed a particular training. I already had a parachutist certificate and I was trained during an internship at the citadel of Font Romeux. We skydived in the mountains with a rifle of alpine hunters and Aluflex skis, which we wore on the side. The descent with these skis was difficult because they are not stable. It was the obstacle course, and worse. After the mountain course, I was sent to Collioure to do the internship at sea. We jumped to sea and we were recovered by zodiacs. Jumping at sea means that we had a ventral and a dorsal. Arrived at good height, one must unblock the belly and sit on the belt to be able to disengage in time and not to be held prisoner under the dome of the parachute. The first jump I made, I landed on the beach (laughs).

Let's go back to Square H. The yellow needle and the red needle, was that your idea?
No. I wanted a needle that is "gun-barrel" color, but I do not dislike it being in color.

I thought you wanted to bring some joy, as with those children's furniture you drew.
I had made children's furniture because it was the only way to bring color into the homes at the time. Subsequently I made plastic furniture for adults. The Ozoo collection will soon be exhibited in a permanent collection at the Pompidou Center.

This watch reminds me of Junichiro Tanizaki's book, The Praise of ShadowLight comes from one side, creating shadows, and at once comes from everywhere when moved.
That's exactly what we wanted to do. It is a circle inscribed in a square. You notice that the circle is hollow. We have created different levels which gives projected shadows and light referrals, because of these different shots. All this to play with shadow and light.

You always knew how to create the right object at the right moment, when society was ready to receive it, or even waited for it without knowing it. You could have created fashionable objects that are out of date, but yours are still transformed into timeless objects. How do you do?
At Hermès I feel this intention to create timeless things. I have been in fashion, often, I like to be in the currents. I try to do things that are timeless because it's satisfying for me, but also because otherwise, it's getting into an unattractive system of consumption. Garments suffer wear: they can not be worn all year, but this is not the case with the equipment. Make a new chair that does not bring something new, it is useless! I try to justify what I create in a given context. Besides, humans would do well to take an interest in the ecology of the artificial, to turn things that are useless and not to create objects that have no meaning.

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