The Designer Who Said Goodbye to Everything

21 July, 2017

Marc Held was a successful designer before he decided to become an architect, then drop everything to move to an island in Greece. As the only French designer edited by Knoll, Marc designed furniture for high-end cruise ships, cars for Renault, table service for Coquet, and the list goes on and on. We spoke with him while he was on a beach in Greece, before leaving for Senegal to build a school.

Where are you now?

I'm in Greece now on the beach, and Thursday I'm flying to Lebanon. I give two lectures there, and then I'm going to stay one month in Africa and Senegal, then back to the island. That's my program for the next few weeks.

Do you live in Greece now?

Yes. I'm starting a new private house build here in September. I'm working like a craftsman, finally. I love to be on-site and supervise the building every day. I've been living on this island of Skopelos now for 27 years; I left France 27 years ago.

What were you doing in France before you left?

When I left Paris I was a successful designer and architect. I was working for IBM in France. I had about 38 people [working for me] and it was too much for me. I decided it wasn’t really my way, to run the big game. Almost suddenly, my wife and I decided to change our life, and we did it. We sold everything that we had in Paris. Nobody could understand. Nobody could believe it. We decided to live on this island. We shifted our lives completely, starting with a tiny house, which we restored, and after a while we started to complain that people were building horrible things. Instead of complaining we decided to do something, and wrote a book concerning the terrible architects of those islands. The book was a hit, and that was completely unexpected.

What happened after that?

People asked me to give lectures, and then somebody asked me to start building again for them, and finally I accepted, and started to work like a craftsman, alone, with ink: supervising and being on the building site. Completely different than during the best part of my professional life. I built about nine, ten big houses, I designed eight others, which were not built. Now I'm starting with a very talented colleague; we are starting a new part of our life, creating a sort of school in Senegal, all about building with local resources. We will connect information, meet people, have students coming over. So, it's starting now, and we hope that we will start to have the first students in February, so it's a new era for me.

House in cor-ten steel, Gif-sur-Yvette, France, 1974-1976

How did the shift to being on your own change the way you create?

I mean 40 years, 45 years ago, and even 50 years ago, I was mostly a product designer, mostly involved in furniture. Then I became an architect. Like many young architects, I started with interior design, and was lucky enough to be published in magazines. And my studio was still three people. Then we went to eight people, ten people, and then I was hired by IBM France, and I designed a few buildings for them, which were beautiful. During the same time, developers came to me, and in France, I don't know how it is in America, they are terrible people, really gruesome. Of course, the income was very big, but the more money, the lower interest for job! I was just a business man, which is not my way. So, after a few years I realized I was losing my spirit. And I said, "Okay, I'm a business man, I meeting with client, I give him instruction, I give instruction to my assistants, where is the creativity? Where?" Just in hiring the right people to work with me? I'm a man of details. I really think that God is in details.

So your thinking began to slowly shift, and…

At that time I met the Vice President of Sheraton. He sent me to Africa and when I came back he said, "I admire your work, blah, blah, blah. But, you know, I’m used to investors. I’m used to seeing 1,500 collaborators working in open spaces. You're good, you're famous, but you're still too small.” So I said, "Okay, maybe it's time to really grow." I went to the bank and because the income was big, they said, "Of course, we’ll give you a big loan." I was intending to buy a wooden factory, 600 square meters in Paris. I started designing the place. Before we signed the contract with the seller, I fell in love, and all of a sudden, really all of sudden, we realized this is a dead end for us, it's a mistake. I was losing my soul, and we said, "Let's change our life."

How did IBM take it when you left?

I went to IBM, and said, "Listen. I'm leaving." They said, "Are you crazy?" I said, "No, I’m changing my life." And I did it to a few other clients. Only my children knew where I was going to go. We sold our beautiful apartment in Paris. We sold everything and all of a sudden, after a few months I gave all the remaining jobs to one of my assistants, and we came here. I’ve never regreted this, never, because now I'm working the way I love.

House built in Greece according to vernacular practices

Tell us about your designing process.

I have a very special design process. You should see my drawing books. I start with long and frequent interviews with the users. I want to know exactly, exactly what they want, who they are. What is the environment? What are the constraints and the cost, the technology available? Before, I refused to self-imagine the building. When I'm talking to students, I tell them to reject the image, to behave like a yogi. Of course, a designer sees a lot himself in the work. I would rest, and go on with constraints. Technology, semiology, environment, et cetera. And all of a sudden, like a farmer working his field, slowly, slowly, and in respect of all the constraints, the shape comes naturally. Then I make lots of sketches, like comics, to explain the solution. How I was working with IBM did work, and it's not less creative; on the contrary, for me, coming and saying, “This is the shape, I see the shape." No I don't believe that.

So you start with function first?

I would say yes. I would say in the old times, form follows function, in a way.

Is this how you’ve always worked?

Yup. I mean now that I'm preparing this big book, I went into my archives, really from the beginning. When you're an industrial designer, you have to respect the constraints, how something is built, the technical resources. It's a very important way to become an architect, respecting the different constraints. I always did it.

How do you juggle your personal vision with those constraints?

The second very important thing is not only to respect the constraints, but protect yourself, because if you integrate all those constraints, everything, the client cannot come to you and say, "Ah, no, no, no change this!" What I say to my clients is, "Listen, I was very respectful of all your constraints, you accepted my drawings, which is a representation of the building after when the plans were ready, now the bus is leaving. Don't ask me to change anything, this is the deal.” Then, I can become very strict. I’ve written a few letters saying, “I respected your constraints. You respect me. If not, go and see somebody else who’s more flexible.” One example I give to students is if a client comes in and says, “I would like my toilet to be in the kitchen," I would say, "Come on, I'm out. You really want that?" And I push the client to be sure that's really what she wants. I say my role is not to give a lesson in behavior or lifestyle; it's to give a shape to her requirements. I designed a house I like very much in Corsica years ago, and the client was a painter. She told me, "My bedroom should be like a coffin in the center of the house, below the level of the earth." I said, "You really want that?" "Yes, this is really what I want, I'm sure," she said. So, I did it, and she was happy, and I gave the right shape to her requirement.

The table service Marc designed for Coquet, still a hit to this day

So you try to respect the client's constraints, but also bring your own ideology somehow, no?

Of course. After numerous meetings, I try to re-organize the constraints into four categories. One is what I call functions. In diagrams, not representing the building, what’s the relationship between the kitchen and the bedroom, et cetera. The second category is the relationship of the building in its environment. What I want to see, what I don't want to see, what I want to hear, what I don't want to hear, the regulations. Then the third category is technical constraints, the cost of available technology, local knowledge. The fourth category, I would say, is semiology, which means what this building will express from the deep nature of my client. My daughter Marion used to say, "You design a private house like a couturier will design a dress for a certain lady." It's very personal. And when you mix all those constraints together and respect them, the shape comes naturally. Of course, what is very important to me is respecting the environment. And using mostly local resources, in terms of labor and materials.

Let's go back to design. Is there a piece you’re most proud of?

I wouldn't use this expression, proud. Not proud, but things which still touch me. They give me a positive emotion. So sometimes with our old work, former work, if I would see it at a shop I would buy it, or if a colleague would have designed it, I would love it. There's a few things I really love: my china line for Coquet. It was one of the few commercial success. I designed a sort of metal table and shelves. I think it's really clever as an engineered design, and at the same time, it's beautiful.

Can you tell us about the Culbuto Chair you designed for Knoll?

At the beginning when I started to design, I didn't have any pressure or any clients. This armchair was designed with a counterweight inside. The president of Knoll at that time, Bobby Cadwalader, said he was interested. I couldn't believe it, it was like a dream. They loved the idea. Then, they financed my research and the challenge was to design an armchair without a counterweight, which could swivel and rock, without any mechanism. At that time we didn't have a computer, so we did everything by hand and it took a lot of time. As a result of the technology, I found a real convex shape, which finally gave proportions. At that time, it even surprised me. I was in unknown territory. When Florence Knoll came, she said, "I love it!" And then started producing it in small quantities.

All three sizes of the Culbuto chair, edited by Knoll

You've designed for cruise ships.

Ah, cruise ships! In those years, in '85, a French company named Pacquet owned very chic cruise ships named Le Mermoz. They wanted to restore them inside. They opened a contest with four architects advising, and I went on the ship for two weeks, to really understand how it works. I wanted to win. I love ships. Anyway, surprisingly, I won! The cruise ship world is smaller, not so many companies, so when something new appears, everybody in the industry wants to have a look. So after the launching, I had a phone call from the president of Circle Line New York. He came to me and said, "We saw what you've done. Could you show us more work." So I showed them interior design, and they said, "Okay, we want to work with you. We are building three cruise ships in France. It's a very special new concept.” I designed most of the furniture, the carpets, many things. A very interesting job. Also, what was really great is that they didn't want to make those huge, giant cruise ships, which were hotels on the sea. So, the proportion of open space was big, and we were using real wood. We did a lot with engineers to get the approval on the permits, so we developed certain technologies, which probably have been used since many times.

The constraints are so different on a ship.

No, of course they’re different from a hotel. You have to respect the construction. Also, it's moving! The skin of human beings is fragile, so as the ship moves, everything should be smooth, round, comfortable.

Table designed for the cruise ship Le Mermoz
Armchair designed for the cruise ship Le Mermoz

Words by The Editors and Marc Held. Photos: courtesy of Marc Held.

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