Beautiful People

Emmanuelle Roule

Sunday 6 March 2022

Photograhies : FLORIAN TOUZET

Emmanuelle Roule is a designer and ceramist. She first dug her hands into clay in 2012. In 2019, she established Patrimoine Vivant - Living Heritage - an applied research project focused on earthen materials and their possibilities, questioning our production methods and the way we construct spaces, furniture and other objects in an economic, disrupted and changing ecological context. In particular, she develops clay/biopolymer combinations such as natural beeswax and vegetable fibres.

A project that links design, architecture, crafts and lifestyle. A meeting with a researcher who is passionate about earthen materials.

In 2007, you founded a multidisciplinary creative studio to explore the object, the image and the space: what link do you make between these different practices?
These connections have come about naturally over time. I am a graduate of the Olivier de Serres school of graphic design, publishing and art direction. I founded my design studio in 2007 because I had the opportunity to undertake a graphic commission, quite substantial, for the National Dramatic Centre, the TGP in Saint-Denis. At the same time, I joined a group of visual artists. We were developing an artistic project that questioned environmental issues through the prism of the bees whose hives we installed on city pavements. It was a collective adventure that lasted ten years and gave us the freedom to reconnect with the living world in an urban environment by bringing together and sharing a range of expertise. Placing a beehive somewhere is a way of reading and bearing witness to development and urban sprawl, questioning our agricultural practices and future and, of course, the environmental issues linked to them. Beekeeping and ceramics carried out in conjunction have enabled me to develop a professional practice with a strong multidisciplinary and cross-cutting dimension, linked to the pleasure of working with others and crossing boundaries by decompartmentalising the disciplines. This has defined my working methods over time, and today I need to reconcile different complementary practices, which feed and echo each other.
Since 2019, you have been working on a project called "Patrimoine vivant" (Living Heritage) which explores the possible applications of earthen materials: can you tell us more about it?
To put the genesis of this project into context: in 2007, I established my design studio, and I started this project with bees that would last ten years. At the same time, in 2012, I accidentally got my hands dirty in the desire for an outlet and the opportunity to experiment with new materials. At the beginning, it was weekly, three hours a week, with a great teacher, Patrick Loughran. In 2017, everything accelerated when I co-founded a workshop and a collective called Gangster with three other ceramists in the Bastille district of Paris. There was the magic of establishing our space, of the four of us creating a practice together... This adventure lasted three years. It came to an end at the beginning of 2020 independently of the context of the pandemic and more because of the response to Gangster and the development of our individual art practices. Gangster has been a real springboard for all of us, and most of us have since relocated to grow our work and, more importantly, to have a bigger, more adequate workspace. At the beginning of 2019, I wanted to focus my research work on what interests me most fundamentally, i.e. the material itself, earth, whether raw or fired. Clay and wood are the oldest materials, and today, at a time of accelerated global warming, loss of biodiversity and scarcity of resources and raw materials, clay offers an alternative that opens up a significant range of possibilities. It is a durable, non-polluting, multi-purpose, recyclable, and inexpensive material that can be found almost anywhere on the planet, yet it is still undervalued and underused. Working with clay allows us to draw upon a history spanning time and encompassing expertise from the most ancient to current innovations, from cutting-edge engineering that uses ceramics to design rocket parts, electrical insulators for high-voltage lines and prostheses in the medical field... It is a material that builds and nourishes, cutting across the domains of both agriculture and construction. This research project highlights the living, global heritage that is our soil. The future is beneath our feet. Patrimoine vivant (Living Heritage), an applied research project and a plea for the earth, aims to develop multi-sector uses for the clay material that links our living spaces to our lifestyles (nature/culture/food). The project aims to bring together a network of partners and expertise around this common material, from the potters who dig their own clay to the industrialists who manufacture ceramic parts using cutting-edge technology. The intention is to make manufacturing processes viable and sustainable, eventually generating a transdisciplinary clay system (housing, furniture, objects, food), sustainable and accessible to the largest number of people.
Your ceramics research has recently resulted in pieces that combine clay and biopolymers, such as beeswax and vegetable fibre: what message do you want to convey through these pieces?
My initial research prompted me to question a slightly more complex part of ceramics because it is less virtuous, namely glazing, which uses naturally toxic materials. In addition to the fact that some of these are derived from "rare earths", they also raise questions about their origins and extraction, which are not always environmentally friendly. But glazing is still essential for items used for food. It provides elements of colour and, above all, makes the pieces watertight. Finding an alternative to traditional glazing was a question I worked on during a residency in Morocco at the invitation of the French association Mémori. During this stay, I immersed myself in the history of the appearance of ceramics about 10,000 years ago, in the Neolithic era, as it was linked to the advent of agriculture: I discovered that beeswax was used at that time to seal the pieces made. With my ten years of experience with bees, it seemed obvious to me to link these two traditional skills in an attempt to solve the problem of chemical glazing, which is toxic and not very eco-friendly. So I started to apply the technique of beeswax and ash glazing, two natural and sustainable techniques. I have also further developed this central principle of the Patrimoine vivant project: clay/biopolymer combinations. In particular, I have transposed the techniques of raw earth architecture like cob onto objects. In this age-old practice, earth is combined with plant fibres such as straw, hay, or sawdust gleaned from cabinetmakers' workshops.
You will soon be presenting a talk at Sessùn Alma entitled "Earth and the earth". You also teach at the ENSCI and at Clay. Generally speaking, what part does passing on your knowledge play in your practice?
I teach earthen materials and design at the ENSCI in Paris (Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle), and at the Camondo Méditerranée school in Toulon. I also occasionally teach classes at Clay, which is overall very exciting but quite time-consuming. I do have a genuine interest in teaching. I arrived at it totally by chance, a bit like earth and clay, in fact... I was invited to be a member of the Jury for the fifth year diplomas at HEAD in Geneva in 2016. As a result, I was offered the opportunity to co-teach a global design course, and when I found myself in front of the 35 students on the first day, it was both impressive and very exciting. Today, it is an integral part of my practice. I divide my time between the workshop and the earth, my creative studio and teaching. I think the whole question of passing on skills and knowledge is interesting because it also speaks of reciprocity. I don't see it as a unilateral position of the teacher imparting knowledge to their students, but rather as a perpetual dialogue and support mechanism.
How do you see yourself reflected in Sessùn's values and activities?
I've been wearing Sessùn pieces for a long time, since I was a teenager, with some iconic pieces I have never parted with. There is something quite timeless about them. And what interests me in particular at Sessùn are the fundamental principles that Emma François initiated around this question of skills and expertise, which are the custodians of a rich and unique history linked to materials, their identification, and their appreciation.

Check out Emmanuelle Roule's look!

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