Off-the-Grid Yet Totally Connected, Designer François Chambard is an Old-world Atelier for the Digital Age
A Frenchman turned New Yorker buys a vintage Airstream trailer. It's pristine on the outside, trashed on the inside, and restoring it is going to a pet project of his – or rather, one of many.
"Ultimately," he says, "I am envisioning a compound with the trailer, one or two Quonset huts, solar panels, windmills, and other structures. An off-the-grid yet totally connected outpost somewhere on planet earth, for creativity, inspiration, resourcing, and amazing work."
Coming from anyone but designer François Chambard, this statement might come across as grandiose and, let's face it, a bit utopian. But the founder of design studio UM Project not only doesn't reveal his intentions lightly, but is as much of an artist and maker as he is a dreamer.
99U jumped at the chance to visit the UM workshop, a well-outfitted space inside a massive industrial building on a desolate stretch of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Chambard took us through the evolution of the studio’s design principles via its signature breakthroughs; introduced us to the cast of characters in his most recent creative project, the Ultraframe series, which had just come back from New York’s Design Week exhibition; and shared the remarkable story of UM Project's genesis, which has everything to do with Chambard's realization in his late twenties that after doing what he could to ignore it, it was time to finally act on his lifelong wish to design and build things with his hands. “Sometimes it takes a long time to find your calling, or you know your calling and it takes a long time to embrace it,” Chambard told us. “I’m glad I found it and embraced it.”
Francois Chambard photographed in and around the UM Project workshop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
How did you, a Frenchman, end up establishing your business in Brooklyn rather than, say, Paris?
Well, there’s a very simple answer. It’s because of my then girlfriend, now wife: I moved to the States 23 years ago because I had met Kathleen in Germany, when we were both exchange students in Germany. We lived two or three years in Germany and in Paris. And she had to move back to the U.S., so we had a long-distance relationship for one or two years. Then I moved here; that’s it. I moved out of passion, you know: out of love. I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time, only I’m still here, with kids and family.
And you moved to New York straight away?
Yes. I hated it.
Do you still?
No. I love it. When I moved here, I spoke English like a French high school student, which is not much. I knew nobody but my wife. I had $1,500 in my pocket, so I had to make money. I was actually a bike messenger for almost a year to make a living, which was fun. It was a rough learning curve. It was more the learning curve that I didn’t like than New York City. It seemed that the city made it harder to get my bearings, grow a network, get a job. But at the same time, maybe it made it easier, too, because I found a good-paying job after eight months.
How did UM Project come into being?
When I was 13 or 14, I already wanted to be a furniture maker. I told my parents and they were not too crazy about the idea. In my family, everybody has a proper, classical education. Everybody’s like an engineer or a doctor. They convinced me it maybe wasn’t the right choice. You have to put things in context; it was in the early 80s. Design wasn’t what it is today. Now it’s much more a part of popular culture. At the time, it was not.
So I just followed the more traditional path. I went to business school. The way for me to reconcile my creative aspirations and my business background for 10 years was by working for so-called strategic design firms, brand constructing companies, more on the corporate design side of things. I learned a lot, but I was a consultant. I was doing nothing with my hands. And in my late 20s, early 30s, I decided to finally commit to what I wanted to do, which was work with my hands: make things. Design and make things.
I went to RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design), and it is a wonderful school. But I went there when I was 31, not 18 or 19. I was with much younger people, and it felt like that wasn’t the right place and time for me. I had thought about design for like 16 or 17 years, and I just I had to do it my own way. I was eager and impatient. I left on really good terms, and after that I apprenticed one year with a very old-school, classic furniture maker, Hank Gilpin. Because what I really needed was a transition period between being a consultant and being a designer-maker; a way to embrace what I had been wanting to do for a long time. Being an apprentice, doing work with hand tools on the bench, a very humbling task, was a centering experience to the transition phase. From there, I just started doing projects.
Do you design mostly digitally, or do you also sketch?
We sketch a lot. The work by hand is very important – let the hand imagine and think for you. When you start to draw, things happen which you don't necessarily expect or know how to explain. Some kind of sixth sense. So I always steer clear of computer work, at least in the early phase of the work. I don't go straight into computer rendering or 3-D modeling. When you see a hand sketch, it's really about a more personal process. When we have an idea, we do a beautiful hand rendering and color it. Then the design is chosen and this is when we actually start to work with the computer. We do a ton of detailed drawings, small models, mock-ups, and prototypes for fabrication needs. That is when we segue to the computer. I'm not against computer or digital work. I mean, we'd be silly not to use it. But at the right time, for the right thing.
And then we make things. It's a combination of all the old-fashioned techniques and totally new digital processes. Often we like to think of UM Project as an old-world atelier for the digital age.
What are the actual building blocks?
We use wood, metals, plastics, composite materials, glass, Corian, leather, cork – we are material-agnostic. The tools are basic, which is part of the process. When you look at the design solutions we develop, there is no secret. A practical eye would understand pretty quickly how things are made. It’s about pushing economy of means to its very essence, to its maximum, by making the most of simple, limited ingredients. We're about combining, layering, connecting materials, shapes and colors, redefining basic products and functions for specific uses. A collage process. The result is a design vocabulary articulated around strong moments or connection points that are graphic, functional, or structural, or all of the above.
That certainly seems to describe Ultraframe, the series of quasi-furniture pieces that debuted late last year.
Ultraframe is all about pieces that have a subframe or substructure. They are covered by a skin, a shell, an envelope, a small building. Because there are different layers between the subframes and the top covers, all of the pieces have an interesting relationship between the inside and the outside. There’s a lot going on. Also, it's much more restrained than our typical work, which is more colorful. We tried to develop material structures and textures as opposed to relying on color in this collection. One piece is covered by fabric, almost like a winter coat. It took Megan, my close collaborator, over 10 days just to make the fabric cover: sheering, folding, gluing, applying and layering, fitting and stitching – endless work!
We do these collections first to push the boundaries, to experiment. By participating in shows or in galleries, it gives us a timeframe and deadline. Ultraframe was one of these breakthrough projects for us where we just did new things, and it was really well received; we got a lot of press. We’re prepping to show it in Europe in the spring.
So they are not for sale?
Not necessarily. I have a secret – I'm a terrible businessperson. Usually the showpieces are hard to sell. They're hard to price. Often when we do something, we have an original concept but we don't know the specifics. So we proceed by experimentation. We do all kinds of tests and experiments. We actually waste a lot of time and material and probably money. But at the same time, after a few tests in two or three weeks we know what we’re doing and then we build the thing pretty quickly.
There is definitely something anthropomorphic about them.
They all have human-body scale. They're held on dollies, so they're higher now, but usually they're about five to six feet. They’re like little characters. This collection is inspired by automotive, boatbuilding, or even aerospace building. It’s a very technical and engineered project. However, in the end, the project doesn’t come across as technical at all. It’s not intimidating, cold, or mechanical. It is approachable, engaging, almost endearing. Often we have been labeled as playful because our work is playful. I argue with that. Playful may be the byproduct but it’s not the intent.
UM Project workspace. Photo by: Francis Dzikowski/OTTO.
Is there a fundamental difference between your collection pieces and your commissioned work?
It’s a blurry line. First, I’m at a point where I can choose my clients. It was not always the case. I started UM in 2004, so it’s been 13 years. The first six years were pure work, trying to survive. Then it was this transition of three or four years. For the last four years, I’ve been in a position where I can choose my clients, or even better, attract the clients who want to work with me.
Like everybody, I have to pay the bills, so client work is how I make most of my money. I always end up selling some showpieces in the longterm. Three years ago, I made a collection of theremins, unusual musical instruments that were the first generation of synthesizers. It was a milestone. That being said, it took me three years to sell all of the pieces. It creates a welcome residual income. Likewise I’m sure I will sell Ultraframe, but it might take me five years. That’s okay.
So that’s your personal work – work you do because you have to.
Yes – I must. It’s a way to really push the limits. I push the envelope much more on exhibition work because I am not accountable to any client. I can make mistakes and nobody has to pay for them. Conversely, it allows for grander gestures and unconventional creative decisions. It’s also great publicity: a promotion medium. The Ultraframe show, which we did for New York Design Week in May, is basically all of my “marketing money.” Some people spend money on advertising, trade shows, or PR firms. I spend money doing one or two shows a year.
Do you have a favorite piece of commissioned work?
One piece that we like doing is a custom, one-of-a-kind recording and mixing console for music studios. When I finally decided to be a designer and a maker of furniture, someone from the music industry invited me to create a sound design studio, a whole room with a big console, full of equipment – the speaker rack, the acoustic panels, the lighting. I worked for six months like a maniac and did something totally different than any other sound studio. This is when you produce your best work: when you have this luxury of getting lost in your work.
The new sound studio got noticed by the creative recording industry, a small world, and led to many more commissions, such as a keyboard stand for Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco, or the Odd Harmonics theremins I mentioned, in collaboration with Butterscotch Records and Moog Music. More important, that initial sound design studio was not only UM’s first project but also set the tone for all future projects, allowing us to develop and apply an original approach combining design and technology.
Your insistence on projects that are singular suggests you are an artist. Is that a designation you’re okay with?
I may be part artist but I’m also an artisan or designer or maker. I would say “industrial artist” as opposed to “industrial designer.” We’re living in a time where technology, digital tools, and processes are becoming so dominant. At the same time, we still crave something tangible – collectively. Look at the design world today basically as a spectrum: On one end, you have people yearning for the past: handmade, a vision of old-style luxury, vintage and reclaimed. On the other end, you have mostly tech companies who offer sleek, futuristic products like the iPhone, which represent a somewhat improbable, distant vision of the future. It might be too much of a caricature, but in many ways the design spectrum can be summarized as Brooklyn vs. Silicon Valley.
Today you have to be either/or. But it doesn’t have to be that way; there can be a third way, by creating new processes with designs or expressions which combine both – which embrace technology but are rooted in methods and memories from the past. I hope that when you look at my work, you can see it’s creating a new vocabulary, often using technology, for living in the 21st century.
To grow my practice and business, I have been hesitant to follow the investor avenue because I have always felt that it would compromise too much my creative independence and vision. Similarly, I get invitations by big manufacturers to design products for them. I usually turn them down because I feel that by doing that you become a design consultant for the brands, and somehow you’re not true to your own brand. To make an analogy with music, I see myself not as the top-of-the-charts pop music icon but very much as the indie band of design, with a small yet strong following, true to an original vision. I don’t want to dilute it by making the wrong choice, which can be rewarding in the short-term but will jeopardize the long-term trajectory.
You lose control, too.
You lose independence, definitely. Paradoxically, this may be what I love about being here in the U.S. It’s a new market culture driven by money and quick profit. But it’s also a culture driven by independence and self-reliance. It would be less possible for me to do what I do if I hadn’t stayed in New York because I have the luxury of pretty much doing what I love to do, offering my vision, and people don’t question that.
More about Lee Magill
Lee Magill is a writer and editor based in New York City who has contributed to Travel + Leisure and Time Out. She previously served as the editor of Time Out New York Kids.