top of page

Mathieu Lehanneur - Moving borders: Living, Sleeping, Creating

For our research project on sleep, we had the privilege to speak with Mathieu Lehanneur, an iconic figure in French design. In this interview, he shares his perspective on the boundaries of design and particularly discusses his interest in the subject of sleep.

In the realm of contemporary design, Mathieu Lehanneur is one of the few designers of his generation with interdisciplinary creative skills. His design practice spans from industrial product design to architecture, from traditional craftsmanship to new technologies. His works are part of the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. In 2015, he was appointed Chief Designer at Huawei.

Lehanneur strives to inspire and promote well-being through his projects while challenging traditional descriptions of design, science, and art. Sleep holds a special place in his work: on one hand, he has directly addressed sleep-related issues in several projects, such as Suite N°4 in collaboration with Renault, Tomorrow is another day designed for the Diaconesses Hospital, and Once upon a dream in collaboration with Maison Veuve Clicquot, among others. On the other hand, sleep and dreams also have a particular influence on his inspiration. In March 2022, we had the privilege of interviewing him, delving into the world of deep sleep, dreams, and the unconscious.

Obvision:Good night Mathieu Lehanneur. You are an inspiring and inspired designer, who has found his playground in the blurred contours of design, and who - through the creation of a landscape of objects, spaces and works - invites us on a journey between technology and craftsmanship, between scientific rigor and artistic freedom, to nourish our imaginations.

Lehanneur: I like that definition.

O:With your latest collaboration with Renault, Suite N°4, you invite both travel and reverie. What was the inspiration behind your interpretation of the 4L?

L: There are two things: the first is the state of the car today. For a long time, the car's sole purpose was to get you from point A to point B, and whatever happened in between, you had to get there as quickly as possible, and be comfortable. Today, things have obviously changed a little, and we've come to realize that point A and point B have become almost less important than the in-between. The idea behind this car was to rethink this in-between and to see if the car could not itself already be the destination. We tried to free ourselves, on the one hand, from questions of performance and, on the other, from external signs of status. In the end, it's a car that's not nearly as interesting stationary as it is on the move. Advertisements always show cars moving forward, which is obviously the very definition of the car - but then again, the world has changed a little, and if its main interest was to stop when it wanted to. That's the dream of our generation, compared to the generation that saw the birth of the 4L. It was a great era of freedom: you could stop wherever you wanted, you could sleep wherever you wanted, you could make love with whomever you wanted, kiss whomever you wanted without a mask...

In the end, the inspiration was to try and completely liberate the car from what makes it an organ of movement, and to start transforming it into a car that is itself architecture, by removing everything we could. We then replaced everything we took out with things that would feed into the architecture, namely transparency, visible structures, the ability to sit as you like and sleep, make love, have a drink, invite friends... so obviously all this in a necessarily radical way constrained by a very small space.

O:Gaston Bachelard said in The Poetics of Space: "Lodged everywhere, but locked nowhere, such is the motto of the dreamer of dwellings. One must always leave open a reverie of elsewhere."

L: It would have been nice if you had given me this beautiful phrase before I launched the car, it would have made things a lot easier.

O:Scape the ordinary and offer a new experience to discover the world. It's a subject that speaks to a lot of people, especially during confinement. How has the pandemic influenced your practice, or how you see your role as a designer?

L: I'm not very comfortable with the idea of saying "out of the ordinary". Maybe that's what we thought before the pandemic, and even more so a few years ago. In other words, I have an ordinary life and - as the name suggests - I accept a life that's relatively routine, boring, dull and grey, and then I'm going to give myself zones of the extraordinary, which are going to be Friday nights, which are going to be during the school vacations, which are going to be very special moments. So it's a kind of on/off. The off will be the ordinary, which will take up a lot of space, and then we'll try to inject a bit of the extraordinary into it. Perhaps the car, suite number 4 is an example of this: let's make sure the ordinary is enough, but inject a little more flexibility. One constant in my work is to bring back flexibility, to bring back plasticity, and that means playing with limits and boundaries as they have been inculcated or imposed or transmitted. It means not accepting the geometry of the box of the ordinary. Without or with the pandemic, we do recognize limits, we do recognize that there are limits, but we're constantly testing them.

O:Do you question everyday life and the people around you to push the points that frame them?

L: That's right. It happens because we realize that in the world itself, in the creative world perhaps even more so, that people even tend to build their own limits because obviously it's reassuring because the boundary is reassuring because there because defining one's vital space is paradoxically both reassuring and absolutely frightening. So the idea is not to say that all this no longer exists and there are no limits to anything, which would be absolutely absurd: borders do exist, but let's spend our time experiencing them. Children do exactly that when they arrive in the world: boundaries are not defined, neither social nor physical, and they're not even really aware of where their bodies begin and end. They spend their time testing the limits of authority, the limits of space, the limits of what they are physically and intellectually capable of doing. As they grow up, it's society, it's the school, it's the constitutions that are going to define the limits, but I think we need to maintain this plasticity and push certain predetermined boundaries that don't actually exist like that.

O:Let's talk about sleep: Sleep is the periodic physiological state of the organism, notably the nervous system, during which vigilance is suspended, and reactivity to stimuli is diminished. Aside from this definition, we are primarily aware of the reparative effects of sleep, but even more so of the harmful effects on our body when we don't get enough. With "Once Upon a Dream" you envisioned a space dedicated to sleep to help insomniacs sleep well. Can you tell us more about this project and how you approach sleep-related issues?

L: It's a collaboration with Veuve Clicquot, the champagne house. For several years now, they have had a hotel near Reims that is not open to the general public; it's a hotel to host their prestigious clientele, VIPs, ambassadors, etc. They completely redesigned the hotel, bringing in decorators and architects, and they contacted me to design a room.

So, I go there and question the head waiter to find out who comes here, for how long, and what happens. He explains that we should imagine someone like Kanye West, who works with them on communication, coming over. He arrives one evening, they have a meeting in the hotel's dining room, and then he spends a night at the hotel because it's late, and the next day he heads back to Los Angeles. So, the decoration of the room, the color of the curtains, the design of the chair, or the plushness of the carpet—frankly, it doesn't matter because the client won't care. After his meeting, he's exhausted, completely jet-lagged, and the decoration won't play a role. I told them I wouldn't take care of the room; it doesn't interest me. You can do whatever you want with the walls, curtains, and floor, but I will work on the bed because that's where it's going to happen, and the promise we're making is not that of the most beautiful room in France but the most beautiful night in terms of comfort, obviously, but also in the speed of falling asleep and the ability to stay asleep.

I approached sleep specialists working on sleep apnea, chronic insomnia, who know the causes and symptoms, to try to understand what the parameters were. The goal for me, in the end, was to offer Kanye West or someone else a feeling of "wow, I had an amazing night." I didn't want them to say at breakfast, "I love the color of the curtains," but "I had an incredible night; I rarely slept so well."

So the aim wasn't to provide an answer for insomniacs, it was to provide an answer that makes use of the knowledge surrounding sleep medicine. Questioning the experts revealed three parameters - which are those used in clinics - and which are light management, sound management and temperature management. They use different techniques or technologies or systems, but what was also interesting for me was not realizing that everything I was describing was nothing more than a sunset, which was nothing more than the end of the day. That is to say, in its primitive state, what happens at the end of the day? The sun goes down, so obviously the light diminishes, and so does the temperature, and because that's what we're set up for, activity starts to calm down, and of course noise diminishes.

So it was quite interesting to realize that, in the end, all the research had come down to this somewhat basic, primitive state of managing all these parameters in a world that has cut itself off from its elements. When the sun goes down today, it's not a problem because I turn on the light; when the outside temperature drops, I turn up my heating and when the sound drops in the evening and I don't feel like sleeping, I put on some music. Human beings want to be stronger than nature: when the sun goes down I create a sun, when the temperature drops I create heat and when the sound drops I create noise.

The aim of the project was to reintroduce these absolutely geophysical primitive primary elements of this planet, and when I decide to go into a state of sleep, I don't trigger the program by pressing a button. I wanted it to be a more flexible, plastic thing. I had installed a real connected plant with reactive leaves and so just by stroking the leaves it triggered the sequence So Kanye West goes to bed after this dinner which was also a bit of a pain, he touches the plant nearby and the curtain slowly closes. He's lying horizontally, looking up at a luminous slab that slowly dims over a 15-20 minute sequence. At the same time, the temperature is also managed to decrease slowly. Light and temperature act as stimuli for the body, reconnecting it to the primitive state I mentioned earlier. So with these parameters, in a 15-minute sequence your body begins to let go, to accept this drop in vigilance.

O:Today, digital objects are seen as essential tools that accompany us at every moment of our lives, to both simplify and optimize them. At the same time, the invasion of connected objects into our daily lives is a real source of disruption to our well-being. How do you approach technology in your projects such as "White noise" and "Daylight transmitter"?

L: I use technology as a tool, like wood or metal, always being as vigilant as possible about the fact that technology no longer impresses anyone. This was the case just a few years ago before it became so present in our daily lives. It is a devilishly effective tool, but the project should never be a kind of homage or celebration of technology. It might make designers and geeks dream, but that's it. For the rest of the world, it's about giving a good reason to use it and reassuring them that they remain in control. This is even more true for sleep-related technology because it's a moment when I accept being more vulnerable and when I give the keys to my conscious and unconscious to a system that I don't master and can't control.

In my projects, technology is integrated and disappears as much as possible. As a designer, I may be aware of the complexity and effort it took to develop it, but the user doesn't care. I make sure they don't question the technology. When we talked about the "Tomorrow is Another Day" project, which is a connected object in the hospital, it's a technical object with technology that was quite complex to implement because it gathers real-time information from all worldwide locations, compiles it, and triggers not videos but a continuous algorithmic animation based on all this data. However, from the perspective of the user, a patient who will die in a few days or weeks, from the perspective of their children, wife, friends who will enter the room, technology is absolutely not their concern. So it must completely disappear and allow but never be a subject. We were never talking about technology on this project. It's not the subject. The subject is a patient at the end of their life, in thoughts, spirituality, meditation, the afterlife, religious or not. For me, it becomes a real subject—to propose a sky that makes sense in relation to that and to offer them a way to physically reconnect.

O:Today, we have the impression that technology is used in a quest for performance and commercial success at all costs.

L: Does it work in the end? Concretely, it doesn't work.

We talk to each other over video. Video systems have been around for 35 or 40 years. The business world needed them for reasons of travel, time, ecological footprint, pandemics, whatever the reason, but they had to have a good reason to get started and for the technology to catch on. Back in the '80s, when you talked to all those brands that offered the same technology, no one was interested in seeing who was talking to you. Breakthroughs in this type of product never work; there has to be a real need for them. In Apple's case, it worked because they did everything they could to avoid disruption.

In the world of sleep, we've seen the appearance of headsets and all sorts of gadgets. But sleep remains a zone of freedom, fragility and intimacy. The very rational and medical promises of offering data, which are eminently complex and eminently brilliant in terms of technological development, I don't think it's a relevant approach to add a high-tech object. What's interesting is never the object we're proposing, it's what we manage to create,as a magnetic electric energy and relationship between this thing and you, it's the in-between that needs to be drawn.

For the "white noise" project, it's a particular sound, one that's almost thought to have powers; it's even a sound that's used by certain sects to put oneself in a meditative state... You get the intuitive feeling that it's a sound with a power I can't control. When I started this project, a lot of people told me: "But don't bother. You just put in speakers". If I did that, functionally I'd be able to provide an answer, except that I'd have more control. That's one of the reasons why I deliberately made it a small apprehensible thing, as big as a balloon, that I can see moving. So it sends out its function, but I know that I'm still in control, or at least I give the user the feeling that I'm still in control. And if the user knows he's in control, he's much more open to new things. You have to create some kind of visible or invisible boundary to let people have control.

O:In your approach to creation, has there been a change in the extent to which you use technology, science, nature and craft as tools?

L: Yes, of course things have changed, but probably the most important thing is a finer understanding of the complexity of the human being. A few years ago, I had the feeling that technology could provide many answers and solutions, and that scientific justification was sufficient. I've come back from that, or at least I've put it aside to investigate other fields. Over the next 10 years, we're going to have to bring these things together, but we've got enough examples from history where we've been fascinated by an innovation, by a technology, and we can quickly see how it can become twisted, distorted, dangerous, frightening... We need to use all this knowledge to be much more refined. You can't act as if nothing had been done before. Every single thing you put down today or propose today exists beyond what it is. You won't be able to control all the cultural background that will be mixed in with what you propose to the person who will see your object, who will use it. Everything you propose will pass through this cultural filter.

And the more time goes by, the more complicated it becomes to put something down or to propose something because they keep getting mixed up. It's like if you bring in a new dish, a new food, but you have to mix it with the food that's already there, so you'd dream of removing all the food and just bringing in your perfect dish.

O:You mentioned intuition several times. So for each project is it not only the first thing you think about, but also how to integrate the notion of intuition into the interaction you're proposing.

L: That's true. A lifetime won't be enough to master all the culture, all the history, all the psychology, ... so I'm obliged to work with intuition, which means accepting to lose control a little and to let your ideas pass through all these filters that I, like you, have already integrated, and it means accepting to let your brain work a little without you.

It's something I do a lot - and it's a bit related to sleep - it's accepting to send the beginnings of ideas, impulses, visual stimuli to the brain and letting the brain do the job.

O:Are dreams and sleep also tools in your practice?

L: For me, this is one of the great strengths of sleep. I'm not interested in sleep as a sinusoid, or deep sleep, or REM sleep, or changes in heart rate - what interests me today is the brain's ability to continually play with elements and associate them where they could never before be associated consciously, either technically or intellectually. And the brain, like a child who takes things, takes this freedom, but always with an idea in mind. It makes associations of meaning and form, and I'm able to find the impulse behind it, but I would never have done it consciously. Sleep is exciting. The brain is exciting.

When I'm awake, I try to accept that I'm losing control, accepting that it's not me who consciously and laboriously picks up my pencil and puts down my idea and engraves my idea, but we send a bit of matter to the brain and let it play. You have to learn to trust it, and then it will come up with interesting things. Sometimes it takes a little time to see the interest, but you understand it later. For me, this is one of the great strengths of sleep, and I try to use it in a slightly conscious state - without meditating - but on a very daily basis.

O:You have a studio in Paris and the "pied à terre" gallery in New York. I imagine you're often on the move. How do you sleep?

L: Generally speaking, I'm someone who falls asleep in 3 minutes 2 minutes and a half. I've found that it's intellectual fatigue - I'm not very sporty, so I rarely feel very physically tired - that helps me fall asleep the most. Some days, when I've been looking harder than others, I'm completely exhausted, and then I fall asleep in 30 seconds. It's feeling this fatigue in the brain that radiates out to the whole body. The brain tells me: I'm rinsed out and now you're going to leave me alone and I'm going to play with it all. It's quite pleasant.

O:What dream do you still have to realize?

L: I've never made myself a dream list, I don't think I really have one. The only thing I'm always vigilant about, and think about every other day, is telling myself in my last days, when I'm in palliative care, that I've done what I had to do, and that there are no things I would have liked to do, but didn't because I was afraid to do them. I don't have a conscious goal of success of wealth, accession, a project I'd like to do, a client I'd like to have....

O:That's very consistent with your approach after all: taking a little control but letting go of it too.

L: That's very true. I'm a very consistent guy (laughing).

photo credits:Thomas Chéné, Felipe Ribon


bottom of page