The current crisis has brought unexpected challenges, but the French architects and designers I spoke with have also found a silver lining. With a sudden pause in travel and meetings, they have time to think, draw and imagine new projects.

Isabelle Stanislas normally she treats herself to one or two periods of seclusion per year to recharge her creative batteries. Now, after a couple of weeks of confinement in her Paris apartment, ‘I am fully in this process, and have arrived at a certain degree of clarity about all of my projects.’ Her style, already minimalist, has become even more focused on the essential. Moreover, she believes that her confinement has honed certain senses. When discussing projects with clients by phone, she says she can listen more deeply to their words, with a keener understanding of their desires. Discussions with suppliers have also changed. Without the benefit of materials at hand, they now converse at length about technique, assembly, length, weight. ‘It’s back to basics, the things we learned at school. I find it fascinating.’

Isabelle Stanislas’ sketches for an upcoming project, photographed at her Paris apartment

Alone with his dog at his apartment with its stunning view of Place des Victoires, designer Ora-ïto says, ‘I’m taking this time — not to work, but to do nothing. I have no need to watch TV series, read three books a week, do hours of sports. I’m letting my thoughts run free.’ He finds he is sleeping less, yet has more energy than in normal times, when he sometimes feels he is ‘living ten lives at once’. His priorities are changing. ‘I no longer want to create the same things. Rather than tables, chairs, lamps, I want to design mobile hospitals, emergency beds...’ He is giving serious thought to a long-held project on an island off Marseille, where he owns land. Called ‘Marsa’, it will be a sort of think tank for the oceans, bringing together science, technology, art and design for initiatives such as designing artificial coral. ‘Ready or not, the time has come to do it.’

An aerial view rendering of Marsa, a ’think tank for the oceans’ which Ora-ïto is developing on a stretch of land that he owns on an island off Marseille

Having retreated to his country home in the south of France, in the company of dogs, chickens, and friends, Pierre Yovanovitch says that one challenge of this new mode of working is determining where to focus his attention — during a recent Zoom call with a collaborator, emails kept popping up on his screen, which he worked hard to ignore. Another difficulty is communicating his vision to clients without showing them materials — drawings are often insufficient, while 3D images can be cold. But he has found workaround solutions, such as showing a sketch of a chimney for a New York apartment alongside a photo of a similar one he designed in Europe. And a hiatus on travel means he is more anchored in the present, losing no time on the road. ‘This is time I can devote to creation, drawing, and sharing ideas with my team.’

 

Top, an upcoming residential interior designed by Pierre Yovanovitch. Bottom, Work-in-progress on Charles Zana’s desk in his Paris apartment

Charles Zana notes that the current situation has flattened out the hierarchy at his agency. Many of his employees have young children, which creates complications for working from home, so his younger staff are taking on greater responsibilities. Zana himself is at his desk in his Paris apartment all day. He says, ‘Because the “social” part of our profession has stopped — no trips, no fairs, no visiting antiques dealers —we are focused on the essence of the work, on design, shape, volume, space. This is a change in the day-to-day reality of our business.’ The quieter rhythm has given him time to think about an idea for a design exhibition for next year’s Venice Biennale. He is also working on a new furniture collection, making it simpler and lighter. ‘As it turns out,’ he says, ‘we don’t need much.’

One architect who anticipated the current situation was Laura Gonzalez, who prepared her staff to work from home days before France shut down. Gonzalez headed to her country house north of Paris, where she has developed a passion for gardening. From there, she deals directly via WhatsApp with her project managers, who oversee half a dozen different teams. One of the tools she has put into place is a matériauthèque, an online materials database for clients and collaborators. Without the back-to-back meetings that typically fill her workdays, she finds the stress has lifted, giving her more serenity to research and design. And yet, she knows that in the long term, ‘I am responsible for my employees, and my primary goal is to keep the agency running. If things have to change they will, and we will find a way to work differently.’ §

The view from Laura Gonzalez’s window at her country house, with her cherry tree in the foreground

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