Natacha Poutoux and Sacha Hourcade look back at their residency at the Villa Kujoyama
Natacha Poutoux and Sacha Hourcade are the co-founders of design studio natacha.sacha. Returning from a residency at Villa Kujoyama, they tell us about their process combining technology, ecology and manufacturing expertise.
The Villa Kujoyama is an arts establishment belonging to the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs cultural cooperation network. Falling under the Institut français in Japan, it works in coordination with the Institut français and is supported by the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, its principal patron.
Updated on 16/05/2022
Could you tell us briefly about your respective careers? How did you meet, and how did you decided to work together?
Natacha Poutoux: We studied at ENSCI Les Ateliers, both starting in 2012, which led to a master’s in industrial design. Before that, I was at the Beaux-Arts Paris-Cergy, in parallel to playing in an orchestra. Then I did an internship with Stefan Diez, a German designer, before working at Ronan & Erwan Bourollec and at an innovation consulting firm called Possible Future. Ever since we met at school, we wanted to set up a studio together. After each building up a bit of professional experience, we launched the studio in 2019.
Sacha Hourcade: After leaving the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle - Les Ateliers in 2016, I earned my stripes at India Mahdavi as an assistant.
Your work is halfway between design and technology, conceptualising utilitarian objects while remaining environmentally conscious. Can you explain your working philosophy?
Natacha Poutoux: We are not interested in these objects because we’re passionate about technology, but because we think they are often the poor relation in design. That’s precisely why we wanted to tackle them, in order to make positive progress. Technological objects pose a lot of problems in terms of recycling, due to the fact that plastic is the norm and the other materials are often interlocked. As designers, these objects force us to go beyond the design itself and think about how these objects are made, distributed, what impact they will have, etc.
Sacha Hourcade: It’s an interesting field for us, because it relates to mass production. This makes it a good starting point for trying to change things, which also allows us to consider the overall life cycle of the object. For example, can we give these objects more longevity, make them more repairable?
Natacha Poutoux: Working with industry means ensuring that we’re creating an object that will be mass-produced and that will therefore have a real impact, unlike a single piece, even if it is sustainably designed. This is an approach we take with all our projects, including non-technological objects.
Some of the objects you conceptualise fall under the category of domestic electrical appliances, where plastic remains the norm. Despite this, you have still chosen to use other materials.
Natacha Poutoux: During our residency at Villa Kujoyama, we realised that when we look at the history of electronic objects, for example at the Panasonic Museum, we see that they used to be made from wood or cast iron. There was much more diversity in terms of materials and processes. We therefore try to opt for materials that really make sense for a given requirement. With our piece Métis 01, a ceramic data server, we created natural air convection using the properties of the material to help cool down hard drives. This enabled us to design an object without a ventilator, making it quieter, and with a more domestic appearance. Along the same lines, Métis 03 is a porcelain kettle that eliminates a large amount of scale, which is responsible for excessive energy consumption. The kettle is also more aesthetically interesting and doesn’t burn your hands when you touch it. Beyond that, the challenge is also to bring back manufacturing expertise in industry, an aspect that is quite well-preserved in Japan, but not enough in France. Design can therefore also have a social impact, by upholding areas of expertise linked to specific areas.
Is industry receptive to this approach?
Sacha Hourcade: There is some resistance. It’s always a battle when you're suggesting new ways of doing something. In Japan, there are lots of standards that companies have set for themselves, without really needing to in relation to actual use.
Last year you won a residency at Villa Kujoyama, a programme run by the Institut français and the Institut français in Japan. What struck you the most when you arrived in Japan?
Natacha Poutoux: The first thing we were stuck by was spending two weeks in quarantine (laughter). When we came out of it, the first thing we did was to go to an electronics shop.
Sacha Hourcade: We were struck by the contrast between the seven-floor electronics stores, with thousands of products, and others located in a tiny house and specialising in a single product. There’s a huge gap there between hyperproduction and monoproduction. Despite mass production, things that are made by hand still have real value.
Can you tell us about the project Passerelles that you completed there?
Natacha Poutoux: The aim was to consider how to design electronic objects in a more sustainable way. We therefore met with both tech players and more traditional manufacturers, with the idea of creating a bridge [or passerelle in French] between the two.
Now let’s talk about your project Komachi Beni, conducted in partnership with the Japanese company Isehan Honten, which won the French Design 100 prize. How did this collaboration come about? What did it mean for you?
Natacha Poutoux: Isehan Honten is a cosmetics company dating back to the Edo period, between 1600 and 1868. Their first products were traditional lipsticks for geishas, made from crushed benibana flowers, which look a bit like saffron. They make a paste that changes colour: it’s green on ceramic and turns red when moistened and applied to the lips. Today, this product is very much disconnected from contemporary use. Our job was therefore to develop a compact product that was easy to carry around and included all the features in a single container: a brush, a receptacle for water and the komachi beni. The product’s lifespan was 3 months, which is why we came up with a refill concept for the lipstick to lengthen its life. The undulating texture, inspired by zen gardens, creates an interplay with the light, strengthening the object’s presence.
Natacha Poutoux and Sacha Hourcade were 2021 recipients of the Villa Kujoyama residency. The Villa Kujoyama is an arts establishment belonging to the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs cultural cooperation network. Falling under the Institut français in Japan, it works in coordination with the Institut français and is supported by the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, its principal patron.