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For A+A Cooren, design is a matter of context, sharing, and embracing the present
(L - R) Closeup of the ‘Ishigaki’ lamp; Tiss-Tiss Fauteui and Tiss-Tiss Tabouret Bas A; ‘Cowcodile’ low table by Aki and Arnaud Cooren
Image: Courtesy of Carpenters Workshop Gallery, A+A Cooren

For A+A Cooren, design is a matter of context, sharing, and embracing the present

Led by French Japanese designer duo Aki and Arnaud Cooren, the Paris-based studio reveals their understated yet distinctive collectible designs that seek to ‘question harmony.’

by Jincy Iype
Published on : Nov 20, 2023

Can design demand harmony with nature? Can it also assign values through cognizant emotions?

With a striking confluence of pragmatism and understated visuals, the poetic and multidisciplinary design beings of A+A Cooren Design Studio hold the attention and admiration of many. Founded in 1999 by French-Japanese designer duo Aki and Arnaud Cooren, the Paris-based practice is on a quest to ‘question harmony’ vis-à-vis poignant designs that border on the dreamy, exercising within the realms of lighting design, products, furniture, scenographies, as well as interiors. Their creations, often and effortlessly serene, impart meanings internal to them, which might not be necessarily or immediately conveyed through their mien, providing them with sensuality and sensory mystique.

The daughter of a Japanese jewellery creator, Aki has roots in France and grew up in Tokyo, Japan. After spending a year in the United States, she returned to Paris at the age of 18, to pursue an education in interior architecture and product design at Ecole Camondo, which is where she met Arnaud, who hails from the north of France. Nurturing an avid interest in the arts since his childhood naturally led him to study Humanités Artistiques at Saint-Luc Tournai in Belgium, then La Cambre in Brussels, where he received an education in contemporary art, before eventually settling in Paris.

“Our different cultural backgrounds and commentaries are our assets,” they tell STIR, corroborating a statement from their designer profile: “One Japanese, one French, partners in creation and in life.” So, what does their experimental and hands-on creative approach entail, as a designer duo with differing nationalities and opposite sexes? “It is like a ping-pong game. We always begin a project with a heartfelt discussion. From this, one starts to work on the idea, and in certain moments, the other continues to work on what was done before. We continue these multiple sessions of back and forth until we find the obvious together. Perseverance is the key! Often, it may take a long time, as we are very demanding as creatives,” the Japanese and French designers relay.

Perpetually evincing impermanence, Aki and Arnaud’s product designs 'let them dream,' while offering comfort to their users. Their objects and interior designs are informed by a ‘natural antagonism,’ and a practised and gentle tension between design coherence and its context. “These reflections create harmonies that, just like nature, constantly evolve and gradually immerse the user in the present moment,” mentions their designer bio. By playing with contrasts and patinas of materials, Aki+Arnaud Cooren produce minimal, sophisticated works of art and design that strive for its users to perceive something extraordinary in the ordinary.

Elaborating on their idea of design, they share, “[It] is all about context and the act of sharing: sharing ideas, sharing with people of companies and, above all, sharing with users. [We] see design as everything that surrounds us, whether it is industrially made or hand-crafted, and proceeding to form new ideas in harmony with their industrial, temporal and economic contexts (…) Design is not something that you do just for yourself, you do it with others, for others!”

Tiss-Tiss, their most beloved collectible design collection (presented at the Carpenters Workshop Gallery, London marked their first solo show in the UK. Perfuming metal with the fragile poetry of fabric, the collection bore witness to their layered cross-disciplinary approach, juxtaposing notions of traditional handwoven textiles with aluminium, in a minimalist aesthetic.

Tiss-Tiss comprises a succinct selection of nine works including chair designs, a dining table, bedside table designs, stool designs, a bench as well as a lamp, each of which unveil a relief of irregular fabric on the surface and sewn stitch imprints on their edges cast in aluminium. “The fluid impression of the textile imprint is juxtaposed to the architectonic, self-supporting structure of the rigid aluminium plates,” they explain.

With backgrounds in industrial design, Aki and Arnaud Cooren convey the project’s inspiration: “creating the Tiss-Tiss collection, we were inspired by Keisuke Serizawa’s Waterfall piece and how he manages to capture a moment in time. Also, the Buddhist philosophy of Impermanence is an important influence (for) us. All that exists is impermanent; nothing lasts. By capturing the fluidity of the linen material and placing natural elements onto manufactured aluminium, we give the illusion that things aren’t always as they seem. There’s no beauty without imperfection.”

Also part of Tiss-Tiss are the ‘Ishigaki’ light sculptures, which amass Arnaud’s freediving experiences off the coast of south Japan’s Ishigaki island.The lamp designs’ light projects upwards from a bulb in its base, throwing a dreamy shadow on the ceiling, symbolising the small circle of sunlight on the ocean’s surface when viewed from many meters underwater. “The lamps are visually distinct from the rest of the series but continue its material themes, in this instance, dealing separately with the metal and fabric elements, rather than unifying them as in the aluminium furniture,” the furniture designers explain.

On a more intimate scale, their Tiss-Tiss jewellery design collection also proceeds to merge fabric and metal to form ‘highly finessed artworks.’ Aki drew on her father’s knowledge as a pioneering silversmith in Japan, for the collection’s incorporation of silver. Here, linen’s delicate weave is trapped in the solidity of silver as a means of preservation, displaying an impressive level of detail achieved by masterful craftsmanship.

Adding to their diverse design oeuvre is the ‘Tourbillon Vase’ that is able to capture a subtle natural harmony, by evoking an image of a water vortex frozen in time. The vase’s design results from the union of digital technology and French craftsmanship, and comprises a main section and a small cup in Borosilicate glass that holds water. The fluidity of water is contrasted and accentuated dutifully by the rigidity of the surrounding glass bubble.

A+A Cooren’s ‘Tadaima’ console is lightweight and sculptural, displaying a gesture of warmly welcoming one home. As the French and Japanese designers explain, “The Japanese word Tadaima means as much as ‘I am back’. “Inspired by the formal language of a paddle or branch, the lines flow and are at the same time, designed to follow the natural movement. Leaned against a wall, ‘Tadaima’ finds a place even in narrow hallways, witnessing simple Japanese design aesthetics that aim to capture the feel of nature….” The contemporary design also personifies the gesture of placing things down and picking them up again.

The contemporary designers, who’ve been together for more than two decades now, also seek to ‘integrate a fragrance of nature’ within their designs—"The human is part of nature. Yet, people often define humans as the opposite of nature, detached, or superior. That is simply not true. We must find harmony within our context! Our Tadaima console for ClassiCon reminds the form we can find within nature, emulating Ginko leaves. Meanwhile, Tiss-Tiss demonstrates the nature of fabric: fluid, irregular, soft, and intriguing... We don't try to represent nature directly or literally in our projects: we try to evoke it subtly, through materials and context,” they relay.

Their latest exhibition titled Between Realities at the Carpenters Workshop Gallery, New York, in conversation with the contemporary artist Thomas Demand's work, witnessed the development of ‘empirical work that questions reality consistent with craftsmen.’ Each piece of the design exhibition was made either partially or completely by the hands of Aki and Arnaud in their Paris workshop.

Commenting on their preferred materials, A+A Cooren tells STIR, “Every material can be interesting if you use it in the right way, by understanding its properties and working with them rather than against them. For us, design is all about the context! For seven years we have researched, tried, and optimised the process with our foundry, in sand casting techniques, to realise the texture on the surface of metals. We like to seek and work in the process of making.” On being asked what their favourite design to date is, they respond cheekily, “Our daughter, definitely! A mix of us, French and Japanese!”

Since their inception, the artists and product designers have also collaborated with brands such as Artemide, L'Oréal, Yamagiwa, Saint Louis, Chanel, among others, on interior, product, and furniture design projects as well as scenographies. Since 2019, the design practice has been represented by Carpenters Workshop Gallery. They are also the winners of the Liliane Bettencourt Prize for the Intelligence of the Hand -Dialogue- with founder David de Gourcuff (2017) and are currently working on the French Ministry of Culture's art program, Mondes Nouveaux.

With minimal and elegant interventions resulting from their collective, two-pronged Japanese-French aesthetic and approach, A+A Cooren Design Studio aims to pursue and keep evolving in its creative journeys, by continuing to integrate understated references to nature within the everyday sculptural designs and interiors that they generate with intention.

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