Urban design magazine

Objects

Street furniture: between minimalism and decoration

"Sita" chair by Mobil Concepts - Photo Rip Hopkins
"Sita" chair by Mobil Concepts - Photo Rip Hopkins

Public squares abandoned to retailers. Bleak and often obsolete street furniture. This is the kind of landscape we find in cities today.

Fearing negative reactions, public authorities have, over the last thirty years, chosen to avoid reflecting on public spaces in a coherent and comprehensive way. Furniture has thus been reduced to its most basic function. It is, however, possible to be minimalist whilst retaining a decorative dimension. After all, the role of the urban designer is to understand spaces and their users.

Reflecting on stylisation

Furnishing a city is above all about looking at public spaces in a new way. Prevailing ideas about re-designing spaces come from false ideas about minimalism. Since the late 1980s when the majority of local councils decided to restructure their city centre, it was believed that users would appropriate public spaces if they were left empty. This idea-turned-dogma has, however, often proven ineffective. Emptiness encouraged these spaces to become commercial rather than humanising them. Instead of being welcoming places to meet people, they were overtaken by cafés and sellers. They became consumer spaces.

Years later, users and local authorities started to complain. This is why it is essential to consider the real function of these spaces, the expectations of users and the constraints of the landscape from the beginning. This logic is at the heart of the way we create furniture. Our furniture is always the result of these prior reflections.

Combining details to be unique

Designing street furniture is not about stylisation. The most important thing is to integrate furniture within the city, that is to say, establish a relationship with its context. Minimalism is not incompatible with decoration. Quite the contrary. Street objects need to be recognised by everyone as part of our collective memory. A bench must remain a bench. The real work is in the details, which collectively make the piece unique.

Image of street furniture in Hyères - Photograph by Didier Boy de la Tour

Street furniture along Avenue Clotis in Hyères – Photograph by Didier Boy de la Tour

Decoration is never isolated from function. The real questions to ask when making a bench are: how do I make it comfortable? What is the right height for the legs? More generally, this furniture needs to take the user into account. This is my position as an urban designer on which I base my methodology.

Urban planning as a subtle and eclectic staging

Users are always delighted to feel that they have been taken into account – whether it’s small details like the mirror at the Osmose station or the general layout, for example a well-placed bench. This collection of seemingly unimportant elements together create a pleasant living space. Just as private interiors are made up of heterogenous elements that mix old and new objects, public spaces do not need to be uniform.

The dominant way of thinking today, which derives from an 19th century Haussmannian vision, is completely obsolete. Why? Because horses and carriages had made way for cars and motorbikes. We can no longer create spaces that line benches, trees and bins along a road. These aligned benches have become ramparts against the traffic. These spaces have been drained of their humanity. Today, the aim is to create small intimate arrangements within public spaces. Despite the desire of local authorities and project managers for uniformity, it is perfectly possible to combine several different furniture collections in the same space and increase user comfort.

 

Image of Corten Style street furniture by Metalco

‘Corten Style’ collection by Metalco

Installing furniture in a systematic way creates soulless spaces which suffocate their specific atmosphere. If I were free to do what I wanted,  I would create situations based on different uses that are more like installations.

For public authorities, eclecticism makes managing spaces more complicated. My view of design constantly clashes with this vision based on technical issues. I think that today we need to go beyond technical concerns to put the user back in the spotlight and completely revisit the urban context.

Questioning design and industrial savoir-faire

The Osmose Station was such a success because it questioned the established model for the historic Aribus bus stop, which has been dotting our streets for nearly fifty years. A design created in the 1960s is no longer corresponds to our lifestyles that have dramatically changed in recent years. As an urban designer my job is to push reflections to their limits and this begins by questioning and testing established designs. Today an Abribus needs to offer new services and be more open to the city. It cannot just be an attractive shelter.

Street furniture is changing

We change the decoration of our interiors according to fashions and trends. So, why should we accept obsolete street furniture? Society is developing at a dizzying pace, so what is the point in keeping furniture that no longer serves its primary function and that weighs us down? The reason is that we still associate furniture with architecture. Yet, their temporalities are very different.

In order to make public spaces more fluid it is important to regularly reconsider this notion. To redefine the context, usage and needs. This generates new problems. How long should furniture last? What to do with objects that have become obsolete? Previously limited to the private spaces, these questions are also relevant to public ones.

With twenty-five years of experience, my vision is constantly renewed. Far from being fixed, it adapts to each context. The form of the furniture I design changes each time. All this is part of an industrial production system that requires ever more sophisticated savoir-faire.

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