Pascal Gentil, Head of the Technical Department at the Innovathèque – a French resource center for innovative materials – is an expert in innovative materials. He supervised the éKosse project devised by Caroline Saier, Master’s student in the Mutations of the Built Environment Program. Catherine Bouvard, Curriculum Course Leader, asked Pascal Gentil about the activities offered at the Innovathèque, current issues involving materials and the interaction between this field and design.
Innovathèque: Seeking Alternative Solutions Rooted in Eco-Design
Catherine Bouvard: The Innovathèque was founded to answer to the expectations of professionals in the furnishings industry. Can you tell us more about this structure?
Pascal Gentil: The Innovathèque is an in-house department at the Technological Institute for Forestry, Cellulose, Wood Building and Furnishing (FCBA). It has been part of this 360-employee technical center for the past decade. The FCBA was created to meet the needs of furniture manufacturers.
Catherine Bouvard: Have these needs evolved over time?
Pascal Gentil: Yes. Our ongoing monitoring has paved the way to building relationships with those in other lines of business, who now, also, turn to us for advice. As a result, our database boasting over 17,000 different material samples can provide food for thought to professionals from different fields.
Catherine Bouvard: What do you think is hiding behind this evolution in your client base?
Pascal Gentil: A tendency to transpose materials. For instance, car manufacturers have taken an interest in bio-based materials. Since our technical center is specialized in the “wood” industry, manufacturers have focused on wood and its car-compatible side products. The other way round, furniture professionals are quite interested in automotive technology; they are eager to learn how car seats are made, what type of upholstering is used, etc. In fact, we play the part of an information center disposing of technologies that can be transposed from one industry to another.
Catherine Bouvard: Why is innovation promoted so much today?
Pascal Gentil: I think mankind has always innovated, and should continue to do so. At the Innovathèque, we monitor trends on an international scale, and we select those materials that seem the most relevant to us. We do this, first and foremost, to benefit furniture manufacturers as well as creative professionals, interior decorators, designers and players from other industrial fields.
Catherine Bouvard: What kinds of requests do you get from these professionals?
Pascal Gentil: We get all sorts. The furnishings sector is divided up into three major categories: seats, tables and storage. Each group is faced with its own set of issues. For instance, a seat manufacturer is on the lookout for new upholstering solutions, stretchable, self-supporting fabrics, thinner, more resilient structures. Table manufactures, in contrast, are in search of lighter and less expensive tabletops. On the storage front, the demand is centered more on door-articulating mechanisms and smart closing systems. Despite these differences in demand, a mutual concern can be observed: In what way may environmental impact be assessed? In other words, how do we select various materials likely to be integrated in an eco-design process and on what criteria?
Catherine Bouvard: And this concern was not around ten years ago?
Pascal Gentil: Ten years ago, we banked mostly on novelty and differentiation. Today, our research is carried out with more expertise, and aims to expose materials we may not, otherwise, have considered. Our search engine takes a large number of transversal criteria into account. For instance, with regard to transparency, we’ll soon be in a position to propose materials made from agricultural products, minerals and metals, and thus enable a wide range of choices not solely restricted to glass.
Catherine Bouvard: The wealth of this task lies in cross-disciplining.
Pascal Gentil: Yes, it is the search for alternatives through eco-design-oriented research.
Catherine Bouvard: How long have you pursued this line of work?
Pascal Gentil: We’ve been working in this direction for ten years. We pioneered some of the first eco-design initiatives in furnishings back in 2000. In the past two or three years, there has been a strong demand. Eco-design has become the overall trend, though methods vary.
Catherine Bouvard: Do you see other trends emerging?
Pascal Gentil: Indeed. We are currently scouting out the materials’ toxicological and health-related aspects in accordance with the REACH European regulation. A bit like with eco-design ten years ago, we are launching a new step: we are implementing performance analysis tools and indicators to help select materials, develop methods, and provide designers with the means to devise more health-friendly products.
Catherine Bouvard: What are your primary responsibilities at the Innovathèque?
Pascal Gentil: On the one hand, we monitor trends to spot recently commercialized materials. This activity also encompasses those works-in-progress in a number of research labs. On the other, we host conferences and share knowledge. Lastly, we offer consulting services to our clients: we provide support to companies on technology transfers, new materials and training opportunities.
É’KOSSE: Decay Turned Downside Up
Catherine Bouvard: You supervised Caroline Saier’s project as an advisor. What appealed most to you about her project?
Pascal Gentil: Her desire to restore credibility to the aging process of an object is quite singular in nature. Caroline Saier sees the decay of a material as an upside rather than a drawback that would put an end to the product’s life cycle.
Catherine Bouvard: In your opinion, what is innovative in this approach to design?
Pascal Gentil: Her approach is innovative for it stretches beyond the usual purpose of a plastic cushion. We contributed to Caroline’s project by introducing her to materials, and suggested she focus on a changing-shape object that would stay out-of-shape. A fragile, yet versatile object. This is innovation in terms of usage, new exploration in seated comfort.
Catherine Bouvard: Doesn’t it have more to do with age-old logic than with actual innovation?
Pascal Gentil: The only example relating somewhat would be the beanbag cushions filled with Styrofoam or glass beads that adjust to the user’s morphology. The product developed by Caroline not only adjusts to body shape, but also adopts an old and worn look without losing functionality. The added esthetic value is what makes the project.
Catherine Bouvard: And maybe also the ethics of it? Add nothing, just hold on to it, but with a different look.
Pascal Gentil: It’s not as easy as you think. Today, we know how to make flexible products with a fairly long life expectancy. Even a “disposable” piece of furniture made out of thin particles can last between ten and fifteen years, even though it was only originally designed to last three to four at the most. However, by fixing or patching things up, we manage to get more life out of them. People have a really hard time letting go of their furniture. They get attached.
To answer your question, upgrading a product by making it more sustainable could really be interesting if there were such a thing as long-lasting, fragile material. But I don’t think there is in the furniture department.
A Culture-Rich Crossroads
Catherine Bouvard: What did you gain from collaborating with this student and the design world?
Pascal Gentil: This type of collaboration is yet another enriching opportunity for the Innovathèque, which falls in line with the notion of cultural cross-breeding that we strongly advocate. This encounter enabled us to reflect upon how fragile and tattered materials could be used in designing a morphology-adapting product. We have a concept in mind, but for now, it’s confidential, so you’ll have to sit tight.
Catherine Bouvard: You are already familiar with design processes?
Pascal Gentil: Yes, we quite often have designers call on us for consulting missions. We always take part in our customers’ research projects. This is part of our daily routine.
Catherine Bouvard: How would you rate this collaboration?
Pascal Gentil: This collaboration went very smoothly schedule-wise. I did not expect Caroline to build her armchair as quickly as she did, and was pleasantly surprised. Once she had chosen a solution, Caroline had to find the material herself, a honeycomb fabric, needed to bring the project to life, and design the prototype from A to Z. Despite the tight timeframe, she pulled it off.
Catherine Bouvard: In the end, it wasn’t quite exactly the material originally specified…
Pascal Gentil: …No, but it wasn’t too far off from the one she had in mind from the initial concept. Since it became clear that we would not receive the honeycomb fabric in time, Caroline created a substitution with her very own hands.
Catherine Bouvard: Do you think the outcome of the project meets the research objectives?
Pascal Gentil: We have not yet defined this material’s shelf life, nor do we know if its shape will stand the test of wear and time. The marketability of a product depends on such criteria. So, our next step should be to proceed to testing several materials which fulfill this function.
Catherine Bouvard: Do you think this concept could appeal to manufacturers?
Pascal Gentil: The singular approach on which this project is based could be applied during exhibits. Visitors who express more interest in rigid products than stretchy, foam ones may be particularly drawn to the concept. Caroline and I had also considered revamping the product using shape memory materials. Using a smart material would flesh out the concept.
Catherine Bouvard: What type of material do you have in mind?
Pascal Gentil: Metals and plastics work best when it comes to shape memory materials. You can also create composites. It would require finding a shape memory, thermoplastic material that holds its shape up to 60°C, and would return to its initial shape when heated, for example, with a hair dryer.
Catherine Bouvard: Let’s get back to the furnishings industry. You mentioned eco-design and health, but do you ever receive requests that have nothing to do with either of these topics?
Pascal Gentil: Price-related and performance-seeking matters come up on a regular basis. We are also asked about ways to tailor products that furnish the end user with a unique piece. Though a recurring idea, simple observation shows that, in the end, a well-designed product suits everyone. Some go through life not needing any changes. What are the current trends seen in today’s market? A strong will expressed by industrials and possibly customers to revert to more European, or even French products.
Catherine Bouvard: A local market?
Pascal Gentil: Rather on a national scale due to the growing concern on the impact of imported goods on the environment and the quality of the materials used.
Catherine Bouvard: But this growing concern is overtaken by the reality of pricing!
Pascal Gentil: You’re absolutely right.
Catherine Bouvard: Who wins?
Pascal Gentil: For now, pricing does. But we have to change our ways, and head toward a new consumer logic that pushes us to hold on longer to products. In any case, most products are sustainable, but our consumer habits spur us to renew them all the time.
Catherine Bouvard: A more cultural than technological revolution…
Pascal Gentil: That’s it. It would be about a different way of consuming. While keeping with the same budget, we could buy an object with a higher value-added that would stick around for a longer period of time. This is possible: sticking to the same economic model, though manufacturing and usage would change.
Catherine Bouvard: Shape memory products can be a significant cog in this machine.
Pascal Gentil: Absolutely, not to mention product repackaging, repair and interchangeability. Indeed, a lot of furniture parts can be switched out.
Catherine Bouvard: Is this trend making a comeback?
Pascal Gentil: I wouldn’t say it is a trend. But it’s something to which we can aspire, for should it happen, national industries would be in a position to manufacture high value-added products, which would, in turn, provide companies with an accrued viability. To be competitive in the hyper-consumption market today, you must set extremely low prices while making investments and maintaining very high production costs. For this to happen, you must set up shop in huge-scale markets so as to absorb costs. National markets are, simply, not enough. Car manufacturers put up with them, but barely get by.
An interview conducted by Catherine Bouvard,
Course Leader for the Mutations of the Built Environment Master’s program – June 2010.
Translation: Morgane SAYSANA & Krista SCHMIDTKE
Who is Pascal Gentil?
Pascal Gentil is 50 years old. From 1984 to 1987, he developed equipment for the laboratory gas, medical and industrial industries. From 1987 to 2007, he was Head of an R&D department in the professional furnishings industry. Together with designers, he elaborated products composed of polymers, wood, flexible materials, metal, etc. He is also skilled in computer-aided design and three-dimensional modeling, structure calculations, prototyping and testing.
He currently acts as a technical interface between designers, retailers and users. He is a member of several European standards development committees, and chairs the French commission for office furniture standards development.
Since 2007, he has headed the Technical Department of the Innovathèque, an in-house resource center for innovative materials, processes and systems at the Technological Institute for Forestry, Cellulose, Wood Building and Furnishing (FCBA). His main duties include identifying innovation sources for creative professionals and industrials so as to apply them to myriad types of projects across all sectors.
Pascal Gentil is also an aeronautics fiend who regularly flies as a private pilot, and leads training courses as part of the Brevet d’Initiation Aéronautique (French aeronautical initiation certificate).
Caroline Saier’s project, éKosse
deciphered by Jocelyne Le Boeuf, Director of Studies
Don’t tell me you’ve never flinched with emotion and hesitation before parting with old, used items when it came time to move? In the end, why do we keep an object instead of throwing it away? Do we ultimately hang on to it because – who knows? – somewhere deep down, we may eventually have a use for it? Or isn’t it most often a token of our strong ties to the memories it conveys?
This dimension of the object that bypasses functionality, and which runs parallel with the “irrationality of needs” as stated by sociologist, Jean Baudrillard (The System of Objects (Radical Thinkers), Verso, 2006) – was the starting point for Caroline Saier’s final degree project.
Her approach echoes the current craze for stories and biographies of objects upon which historians and anthropologists muse as they imagine the many lives of objects in their common and symbolic meanings that follow the ebb and flow of both social and temporal contexts (see, for instance, the works by anthropologist Thierry Bonnot). She also refers to current issues in design, where objects are created based on user-experience-oriented research.
Wear and Tear
This notion of experience and relationship to objects over time triggered much thought about materials seen as a preferred contact with objects and wear and tear as a “weakness.” Marking life events and the interaction between users and the armchair, can wear and tear be acknowledged as a true value and sustainable factor rather than a reason for disposing of a product? A related issue is the designer’s responsibility toward the environment. However, Caroline Saier’s primary objective is to account for the wear and tear element right from the design process as a reflection of the complicity between an object and its user.
A Well-Seated Project
Though the end result of her research, it is, ultimately, the armchair that shaped and guided the process. When you sit down on “éKosse” the first thing you feel is the knitted fabric, exposing the “handmade” element and reminiscent of these raggedy, out-of-shape sweaters that end up as rags. As the armchair is used, the wear of the knitted top layer prompts the degradation of a second layer composed of a honeycomb structure (a mix of non-woven and thermoplastic fibers) mounted on a latex foam and natural hemp fiber base. As time goes by, the armchair’s comfort becomes one with the shapes left by its users, leaving behind both a trace and memory.
Knitting has come back into fashion as we can observe today (associations, artistic actions, interventions in urban environments). It seems as if people are compelled to revert to an outdated activity within this overly “high-tech” world in order to reconnect with less dehumanized techniques. The little, knitted, mobile phone socks you see all over the place these days say a lot about the social trend in which Caroline Saier’s work took root.
Read Jocelyne Le Boeuf’s blog Design et Histoires