MATHIEU LEHANNEUR is not your typical design-world superstar. The forty-three-year-old Frenchman can’t be found on the streets of Milan during the annual global furniture extravaganza, surrounded by a flock of admiring fans. His interests are much broader: art, craft, interiors, science, and product design are all part of his portfolio. “I’m not a specialist in anything,” he says. “The only thing to be a specialist in is to be a human being. I focus on who we are and what we need.” Lehanneur graduated from Ensci (École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle), where his diploma project, “Therapeutic Objects”—a new way of packaging and labeling prescriptions to ensure that people take their medications properly—made it into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and set the tone for his later design work.
He also made his first appearance on the international stage at MoMA, with Bel-Air, a prototype for Andrea, an air purifier that’s essentially a miniature mobile greenhouse that continuously cleanses air by circulating it through a plant’s leaves and roots and a humid bath, designed in collaboration with Harvard professor David Edwards, and included in the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition in 2008. Popular Science named it one of the inventions of the year.
He has a long list of high-tech products to his credit, including energy monitoring devices, an innovative Bluetooth speaker, and intriguing prototypes for objects like an oxygen generator and an infrared heater. He has also worked in the public realm, devising Wi-Fi charging stations and street lighting (created for the Paris climate conference) that employ both LED lights and photovoltaic panels. In 2015 he became the chief designer for Huawei, the Chinese company that’s the world’s largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment and a major supplier of smart phones. A seemingly full-time job for many, but for Lehanneur it will take up, he has said, only half of his brain.
These accomplishments alone would satisfy most designers. But Lehanneur’s resume in the world of interiors is equally impressive. He has designed poetic settings for St. Hilaire church in Melle, France, and interiors for the Groupe Hospitalier Diaconesses Croix Saint, Simon in Paris, as well as a temporary museum for Audemars Piguet in Shanghai. In Paris he has created many restaurants, including Café Mollien for the Louvre; Noglu, a gluten-free bistro; and Flood, a restaurant with algae-filled aquariums that help keep the air clean. He teamed up again with David Edwards, founder of Le Laboratoire, a cultural center and think tank in Paris and the United States, to design the ArtScience: Culture Lab & Café in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which not only serves food, but also acts as a meeting place for scientists, students, and startup executives to brainstorm ideas. His impressive client list includes Kenzo, Veuve Clicquot, Issey Miyake, Cartier, Christofle, Poltrona Frau, Kiton, and Nike. In 2014 he won the competition to design all the interiors for the Grand Palais—a 750,000-square foot series of buildings on the Champs Élysées that will open in 2023.
An example of his interior design work will be on public view this September at AD Interieurs, an exhibition, similar to American showhouses,
that the French edition of Architectural Digest stages annually. In 2017 he created a dreamlike bedroom for the project that revealed his fascination
with marble and minerals. Even the books on the shelves were made of stone. The Navona travertine wall, the Versailles parquet floor, and the titanium-plated ceiling had touches of pink onyx and green marble, with iridescent metallic reflections. All the furniture and lighting were created in Lehanneur’s studio, and
many are available directly from him.
His fascination with the sea and abiding interest in minerals and marble also drew him to the world of design art. His first show in the United States, Ocean Memories, held at Carpenters Workshop in 2017, continued this fascination, expanding on an idea that he began in 2013 with Liquid Marble, a show in Milan and at various other venues. For the 2017 exhibition he produced eight monolithic furniture forms (seven in black marble, one in polished bronze)that evoke ocean waves: “Nature is not always gentle or sweet. It can be raw and violent. I love the double point of view,” he says. For the marble elements he used special-effects software to capture the multifaceted surface of rippling water, then programmed a machine to cut the blocks to the 3-D renderings, before handpolishing
the material to lustrous effect.
This year he presented 50 Seas at Christie’s in Paris, a display of fifty enameled ceramic plates inspired by the actual colors of fifty different bodies of water—from the Gulf of Guinea to the Bay of Bengal—choosing those he felt would give a good overview of the entire spectrum. He captured the exact hues with photographic drones supplied by French satellite company Planet Observateur. Each plate represents a specific place on earth, and faithfully replicates the color of the water there. Lehanneur color-matched the enamel paint by making close to two thousand paint samples before he was satisfied. “It takes a lot of learning and mixing,” he explains, “because the colors change enormously during the firing process, so they look wildly different between start and finish.” His wife, Isabela Rennó Braga, a former fashion designer, was an invaluable help in fine-tuning the hues.
Lehanneur’s schedule is always filled. He has an electric bike soon to hit the market, and just finished the interiors for Air France’s business-class lounge in Paris. “I never wanted to choose between being an artist or designer,” he says. And certainly he hasn’t: he’s the twenty-first century’s version of the Renaissance man.