Nicholas Préaud

NR Vol. 15 Celebration · Spring Summer 2022
Published · Print Page 380

Feature · Nicholas Préaud
Words · Matthew Burgos

“I celebrate humility and simplicity in design, that which feels obvious, which looks like it should be rather than not.”

Nicholas Préaud’s fondness for furniture and product design brings him satisfaction on different scales in different timelines. The liberty and authority these designs lend him feed his creativity to break through the boundaries between what exists in the digital and physical world. In fact, some of his projects touch upon abstraction, works that only serve the digital altar. As he investigates, researches, and develops plans and methods to bring these digital works to life – together with Kei Atsumi – Préaud finds himself invested and knee-deep in his design and work principles, an indication of a positive intensification in his design, architecture, and construction research and development.

NR: A focus on design, architecture, and construction research and development: what made you pursue a creative studio on these themes? Where did this strong affinity for these themes come from?

NP: I am a Paris-based architect and designer. I pursued architecture studies in Paris and subsequently worked in several architecture firms such as DGT Architects, Lina Ghotmeh Architecture, Nicolas Laisné Architectes, and more recently Sou Fujimoto Architects in Paris. My background is purely architectural and bridges several practices such as smaller-scale furniture or product design, and construction R&D. My practice spans today from furniture design, interior design, architecture, and R&D (all designed to be built and used in real life) to more abstract and digital works of design meant to exist only digitally. Some projects such as Casa Atibaia are ways of bridging the gap between the digital and the physical world. Initiated as a digital architectural project, we are now working on bringing it to life in the years to come. 

Furniture and product design has always been a go-to theme for me to work on as it brings satisfaction on a different scale as well as a different timeline. As architects, we often get lost in never-ending processes due to political or financial parameters that are out of our control. Furniture design gives me more liberty and control over the creative process, and ultimately the finished product. Although my practice aims at a certain form of humility in the creative process, it is also progress-driven, which naturally leads me to invest time and resources in research and development. In the past two years, together with my friend and partner in this adventure, Kei Atsumi, I have designed and put together a manufacturing process for a joining system of architectural elements. We subsequently patented the design and process to bring it to life in the years to come. The joint system aims to allow for any architectural elements such as beams, pillars, or panels to be assembled to one another without any tools or a particular skill, a seemingly interesting subject for disaster relief construction for instance.

How essential is construction research and development in creating design and architecture?  Do they go hand-in-hand?

They most often don’t go hand in hand at all in my experience working in Parisian firms. In France at least, these practices are very compartmentalized. Architects work on design and engineers work on R&D. I would say that focusing on R&D applied to architecture makes sense when you want to go beyond the existing techniques and processes which exist and have been normalized. It isn’t essential, but it contributes to broader progress and helps create new techniques and expertise ultimately making the construction process more efficient and sustainable.

I want to learn more about your design process. Do you start with a single concept then go from there, or an already-envisioned product? Is it challenging to lay out the design plans? How many revisions do you go through?

I usually neither iterate so much during the design process nor do I start with an already envisioned product or project. A concept often emerges early on because it makes sense, and is then pushed further until completion.

“I believe there are as many valid concepts as there are approaches to the same project.”

It’s just a matter of it making sense to the final users of the space or product, and of course to you the designer. Depending on the scale and complexity of the project, iterations and revisions are nevertheless bound to happen. This is where engineering and construction knowledge proves useful in the design process. Accurate engineering can be taken into consideration early on in the creative process to avoid painful iterations. My architectural work has been and is for now on a scale not exceeding that of a private home. In this sense, once the wants and needs of the client and the natural context of the construction have been well understood, the design plans follow easily.

Do you prioritize functionality over design in your products? Also, would you say you practice the less is more philosophy? 

To a certain extent, I would say I do try to practice the less is more philosophy. I truly believe excellent functionality can be achieved without compromising on design. True utility often suffices to bring beauty out of any given design. In my work, I enjoy emphasizing the simple technicalities of how a given object, space, or building is assembled by revealing the sheer power of the forces at play. Functionality in some cases can also become overly complicated and fussy. Design that doesn’t seek to fulfill a specific given functionality sometimes brings out so much more, as theorized by James J. Gibson with the concept of affordance and perceived action possibilities of an object.

Noting the titles of your design products, there is a touch of East Asian culture in them. What lifestyle or philosophy do you practice that roots from East Asia? Is there a difference between the way East-Asian culture works and that of European and Western one?

My work is impregnated with many references to East Asian culture, specifically Japanese culture. Having been very passionate about the Japanese culture and architecture in my entire life, and having worked at internationally renowned studios led by Japanese architects such as Tsuyoshi Tane or Sou Fujimoto, I have learned a lot about, and continue to seek to learn about, how architectural design can entertain an essential relationship with its foundational natural counterpart. A simple relationship between the artifact and the untouched, and layouts intentionally designed to encompass empty space where anything can happen are essential to me, as opposed to Western architecture and its spaces impose a function on the user. The concept of ‘Ma’ in Japanese culture and architecture exactly points to this.

“The invisible aesthetic of Ma is portrayed by this energy filled with possibilities emerging from the design, an emptiness that reveals unforeseen functions.”

Let us talk about your architecture repertoire. There is a sense of calm in your designs, from the light hues of the interior to the arrangement of the fixtures and furniture.
How do you decide what color and style to use? Do you compromise with your clients’ briefs?

I tend to iterate much more on textures, colors, and furniture than actual sheer architectural geometry which comes more naturally to me. The sense of calm you are referring to probably comes from the essentialness of uncluttered spaces, once again not imposing function but revealing it. In terms of color and style, I would say I try to adapt as much as I can to the context of the design rather than imposing my own. I feel an architectural design is well rolled-out specifically when you cannot recognize its author through the style, but rather through the creative pro- cess which led to its materialization. In this sense, the creative process can lead you in so many different directions.
That is what is interesting to me; each design exists in its own context and with its own referential universe tied to it, not so much its author’s aesthetics.

“That is what is interesting to me; each design exists in its own context and with its own referential universe tied to it, not so much its author’s aesthetics.”

What has been your most challenging project so far? What and how did you learn from it? Also, how would you describe your work ethic through your projects? What architectural elements do you pay attention to?

My most challenging project has been and continues to be Casa Atibaia which I designed in collaboration with Char- lotte Taylor. This project encapsulates so much of what I try to push towards in my practice. Architecture that does not wish to disappear in its surroundings, nor shows off extravagantly either; architecture that exists through the multiplication of natural forces. Started in early 2020, the project was first rolled out as a way of putting forward ideas and our interpretation of Brazilian modernism. Having lived and studied architecture in Brazil, this project resonates so much with me. Phase one of this project which we rolled out in 2020 was met with great enthusiasm and gave us extra incentive to continue pushing for it to materialize. Phase two which will be released soon brings us even closer to this imagined dream-house and consists of a short film and VR experience allowing the viewer to immerse themselves completely in the design in a way the still shots didn’t let you. Phase three which we are very optimistic about will be rolled out in the coming years and will materialize through the construction of the house. We have been in discussion over the past year with clients who are also guiding us through the process.

A question on a title: is there a difference between an architectural designer and solely an architect or a designer?

There is no difference I know of or intended other than this title is the most broad-reaching one I could find on Instagram to define what I do, which is a broad scope going from object and furniture design, to architecture, to digital works, and research and development.

It seems that we have to look forward to your research and development content. What can we expect from you in the upcoming months?

Speaking of which, I have yet to update my website as I am waiting on legal deadlines to communicate more broadly on the R&D aspect of my practice. For the past two years, my partner in this adventure, Kei Atsumi, and I have been developing a joint system that allows anyone to assemble and disassemble architectural elements without the use of tools and without any particular skill set. This joint system is sturdy over time and can be manufactured for panel or framework structures. No tools and no skills prove useful for certain types of constructions including but not limited to emergency architecture and lower-scale wooden homes. Two years of research and development have led to the successful patenting of the system in Japan, which we are now working on marketing and developing more seriously. As this is a slow process, I do not have a date for release but we are working to get it manufactured and on the market as fast as possible.

Our issue touches on the concept of Celebration. Some people seem to only revere design and architecture for their face value. For you, why and what should celebrate (in) design and architecture? For instance, in Casa Atibaia, you seem to celebrate the force of nature. Does nature drive your philosophy in design?

As mentioned above, and also just now by you in the clearest way, my work explores the relationship each design entertains with its surroundings and founding natural elements. As our culture and humanity tend to distance themselves more and more from the most basic and essential connections we still have with the natural elements, I feel the urge to explore and question how this can still happen on a very basic level. I celebrate humility and simplicity in design, that which feels obvious, which looks like it should be rather than not. A lot actually looks like it should not.

“I celebrate the designs whose creative process and formal results are more relevant than their authors.”

Continuing the theme of celebrating nature, you also collaborated with Charlotte Taylor for Coral Arena. How did this collaboration unfold? How can your collaboration fuel the discussion on climate change?

Charlotte and I were approached by the team at Aorist, which is a next-generation cultural institution supporting a climate-forward NFT marketplace for artists creating at the edge of art and technology. Together with the team at Aorist and OMA New York which is one of, if not the, leading architectural firms in the world, we produced a film that portrays the life of a physical artwork that will be installed in the future as a part of the ReefLine masterplan—it is a digital twin to a sculpture that will live and grow over time, depicting the sculpture as a piece of resilient infrastructure. Proceeds from the sale of this release will be donated to The ReefLine, an artificial reef, marine habitat, and sculpture park in Miami Beach. This project was our first meaningful jump into the NFT format and made sense to us creatively and of course, because of the cause it is supporting. We hope the film is viewed and appreciated by many, and that it helped educate the public about what is unfolding and what has yet to unfold in the years to come on the Miami coastline.


Images · Nicholas Préaud

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