His name is French and he was born in Germany, but his Spanish accent points to the Canary Islands, where he grew up. He reached Barcelona in the mid-1980’s to finish his degree in interior design. Soon afterward he headed to Milan, where he discovered industrial design.
A restless man, he seems to carry those traveling genes of his Belgian ancestors who ventured to move to Spain in the 1960’s. With an architect and handyman father (he made lamps at home using the origami he learned while working in Germany), 30 years ago Christophe Mathieu transitioned from being a professional competitive swimmer to the world of design. He is open to unforeseen events in life and does not discount the possibility of one day maybe leaving it all and doing something totally different.
Having lived in Barcelona for years now, he is one of Marset’s veteran designers and has created several successful products for the company. However, nothing quite beats his Discocó, the firm’s current bestseller. That expansion of energy conveyed by the lamp suddenly makes more sense when you listen to Mathieu.
What do you ask of a lamp?
The first thing is that it should give off good light, always depending on the kind of lamp it is, its purpose, where it will be placed and the ways it might be used. In addition to being a device that helps us to see, it is an object with size, volume and proportions. I ask that a lamp be attractive when it is both on and off; it should seduce you even before you turn it on.
Does the perfect lamp exist?
It probably doesn’t because every user is different. What is perfect for you may not be perfect for your neighbour or even your partner. Perhaps to me, the perfect light is the right light for what it was designed for; it is comforting and beautiful as an object; it aesthetically represents the era when it was designed but has features that will allow it to last over time; it is made of good materials and is technically resolved in a skilful way; and its price does not exceed its value. I know I ask a lot!. And then you have the lamp as totem: that piece with a noticeable presence that arouses interest and fills the space. This kind of lamp usually offers ambient lighting; it is secondary. And again you have the lamp that does not stand out aesthetically but makes life more comfortable when you turn it on. Every object has the purpose for which it was designed.
You talk about each object’s purpose.
The issue of the purpose of objects is a discourse that has changed over time. In the 1980s, it was a topic that spilled plenty of ink and inspired lots of debates. If a chair wasn’t comfortable then it was a useless chair. I think that now objects are a bit more complex; it depends on the purposes for which they are designed and the way you want to use the object or lamp.
What materials do you like working with?
I like all materials if they are used properly, but I dislike them when they are used poorly. Materials are not to blame for whether they are used well or badly! In certain eras, certain materials are overused and both the public and designers get saturated. This happened in the 1990s with aluminium, and now it’s true to brass and copper.
How do you know if a material is right?
Trial and error is very important in design, so that’s why I make a lot of models and prototypes. I rarely start with a material at the beginning of a project, but instead I start with the kind of light I want and I look for elements to make it: “ideal” materials, possible execution systems, finishes, colours, retail price, whether it will be manufactured on a large scale or handcrafted. I initially envisioned the Discocó lamp with metal disks and they ended up being injected plastic. All the factors add up.
What phases in the design process do you emphasise?
Actually, I spend quite a bit of time thinking. Having a good idea is what really counts. It seems obvious, but it’s true. So how do you get good ideas? They pop up at a specific moment, even if they don’t happen suddenly. Sometimes I get a flash of inspiration, a picture of what I want an object to convey to others, but it is the outcome of certain circumstances, of the day-to-day accumulation, of continuous effort. Then I try to visualise the object in my mind as clearly as possible and I draw it on a piece of paper or directly render it as a model, which helps me to see the proportions and volume in space.
Then comes the emotional part. It is very important for this idea to spark an emotion in me, for it to enthuse me. It is almost a practical issue because it spurs me to continue. I rarely work on commission, so I design or make projects every day, just like someone else might write or paint.
Why do you prefer the word “proyectar” (the verb of proyecto or project, plan) to “diseñar” (design)?
I associate “diseñar” more with drawing and “proyectar” more with planning how to bring a project to fruition. You make a project in the future: you make something where there is nothing. And I am interested in the verb “proyectar” in relation to light, such as a slide projector, that is, using light to project an object onto a surface. Plus, I really like the connotation of sending it a long distance.
What would you like to design that you haven’t yet?
Actually, I’m always designing. As I walk down the street, I see that a store is being remodelled and when they open it I like to think about how I would have designed the interior. I go to someone’s house for the first time and I mentally design the space. Or at the beach in Tenerife where we go for vacation, there are some areas with no sand but only rocks that stretch into the sea… I start thinking and plan how I would design the access to the sea. I like to think about how to improve things; I have a blast doing it.
You say that you like to think about why a lamp fails…
It is really interesting to analyse why a lamp works and is popular, but the opposite, too. Sometimes people tell me, “Man, stop thinking about what went wrong with that lamp”. But I don’t do it out of masochism. I like to identify the reasons, the mistakes and the elements that could have been improved, so I learn from it. I compare it with the boxes that used to be at fairs in the Canary Islands when I was a child. They had strings which were all the same length. You had to pull on them and guess which string would win you the prize.
It is also interesting to analyse why one of your lamps is successful, why people like it, what elements and variations make a good lamp. It’s like the structure that every good story should have: a beginning, climax and denouement. I think that there are many parallels between designing an object, writing a novel, composing a song, making a film or even cooking a delicious dish.
It matters less to other designers, who say, “What do I care – all that matters is that I like it”. Not me.
You like people to like your designs.
Who doesn’t? I want them to like the things I design. I love it – and it’s happened to me sometimes – when suddenly I got to someone’s house who has a lamp of mine, who bought it and didn’t know it was mine. Of all the lamps they found in the shop, that person chose mine. I’m not too in favour of designers becoming celebrities and selling products because of this celebrity. It’s not that I’m against it, because it happens and if it helps to sell a product, why not? But I feel more comfortable when the object I design is in the foreground.
What would you highlight about LED lighting?
Well, something very simple that happened to me. You cannot forget that a lamp is an object that give off light. With LEDs, now lamps come with their own light incorporated, and so as a design you’re much better able to control the kind of light you want the lamp to give off. Before, you would suggest a kind of incandescent or halogen bulb, and people would go to the shop around the corner or to the hardware store and buy whatever they recommended without thinking about the right temperature of light for that lamp, or the quality of the bulb or the brightness of the light. Plus, since LEDs last 30 years, you can better control the end user’s experience with the object you’ve designed.
You used to make your own toys when you were a child. Was this the seed of your profession?
I have always been a very handy person, very hands-on. So I built myself a slingshot to improve my marksmanship and make it go further. At first I wanted to be an architect, like my father, and as a boy I would go with him to the construction sites and draw houses when I got back home. I remember that when I was 11 I built a two-storey wooden house on a plot of land next to my house, so deep down I already liked architecture and building things.
Another career choice was Fine Arts. In the end, I decided to study industrial design because what I’m really interested in is applied art: I want there to be a briefing, I want the object to be limited by practical utility.
What is light?
It is a very powerful tool. Just ask architects, interior designers, film directors or photographers. Light is what allows everything around us to be visible; it allows us to perceive our environment in a given way, move around space, appreciate colours, shapes and volumes, do activities, make a space look larger or smaller, make it comfortable or even disgusting, and all of this means that it influences our mood and quality of life.
Light is also a language. The lamp becomes an object that speaks and sparks a series of sensations inside you which translate into greater or lesser comfort.
Do you have a favourite kind of light?
I really like to play with indirect light which bumps up against the elements around it, and not only within an architectural space. In this sense, a lamp is actually a miniature form of architecture, like the Discocó or the Maranga. Thanks to these elements that screen light, you play with the result and manipulate light. A lamp not only gives off light but it also receives exterior light. Designing a light is extraordinarily complex, which also attracts me. It would be great if children had a class on light at school!.
Tell us about a memory associated with light.
I went on a trip to Senegal with a friend and the first thing that impressed me was the Dakar airport, which was totally dark. Here, we are invaded with artificial light all around us. In villages, we would go out for a walk at night and couldn’t see a thing. You could only hear a bunch of voices. The houses where we slept had a little light bulb hanging in the centre of the room – a transparent Edison with a really low wattage – which gave off a warm light. It sort of gave me a sense of insecurity, yet it also felt comfortable.
I live in Barcelona and there is never total darkness at night. I got out on the terrace and see lots of lights. In contrast, I like to go camping in a tent in the mountains and experience the darkness of night only punctuated by the light of the stars. Darkness conveys silence and relaxation. Sometimes we need a break from light.
You were raised in the Canary Islands. What is the light like there?
Since we’re near the tropics the light is more vertical. Especially in the summer it is more direct and the light and shadows get harsher. When I was a child, we used to live a five-minute walk away from a lookout point where the entire Atlantic Ocean was spread out before us. The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular with the changes in the tones of the light, cooler or warmer, until the sun disappeared. I still like going to the beach in the evening because of the quality of the light.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
I was in Milan looking for a job and I went to Enzo Mari’s studio. He welcomed me mistakenly. I was going to show him my book and he told me he wasn’t interested, but he also said: “Do you want me to give you a tip? If you have money, spend it on travel and or stay in the Canary Islands basking in the sun, because here there are more designers than policemen.”
Actually, the best advice I’ve ever gotten was something else. Work at any job, but make sure you love it. Be honest with the objects you make. If you want to accomplish something and you’re not there yet, get training and study in order to accomplish it. These are the tips I would give today. And also: look closely at the first projects you do because they really leave their mark.