CIRVA / 2015 - 2018

Exceptional skills fascinate Normal Studio since they are developed around tools that are often handmade, representing human ingenuity and familiar sleights of hand. But from there to say that Jean-François Dingjian and Eloi Chafaï appreciate tradition made of objects would be a misinterpretation. Even they admit that “any beautiful, laborious, worked piece bores them incredibly”. Of course, they recognize the skill of a craftsman’s saddle-stitching, the dexterity of a ceramicist or a woodworker’s meticulous marquety but classic workmanship or conventional acumen doesn’t excite them. They prefer reworking a process or taking possession of it to evolve or reinterpet it. Otherwise they get bored.
However there is an exception: working on glass. “The glass-blower reacts by instinct and his profession nourishes the imagination”. From this point of view, their eighteen-month study project with Cirva (International Research Center for Glass and the Arts) stimulated them beyond their expectations since it was the first time they approached this “telluric” material.
Founded in 1983 at the initiative of France’s Ministry of Culture and located in an industrial building in old Marseille, Cirva is a workshop of research and contemporary creation for artists in residence. For over 30 years, this unique place has accumulated almost four hundred original pieces shown in traveling exhibitions worldwide which have been created by 200 prestigious artists including designer Ettore Sottsass, painter Pierre Soulages (the stained glass windows of the Conques Abbey), designer Gaetano Pesce (a group of 148 innovative pieces) and artist Jean-Michel Othoniel (the glass pieces for the Les Noctambules entrance at the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre metro station in Paris).


“Jean-François Dingjian and Eloi Chafaï arrived without any preconceived ideas except that they wanted to explore the imprint of the mold,” explains Isabelle Reiher, CIRVA’s young director. “This openness pleased me and I noticed that even with their great independence, they focused on a direction without diverting from it. These two designers have a mastered, artistic approach to materials and their use”. Conscious of the luxury of seeking without a precise objective, Normal Studio agrees that the unique experience in Marseille was an exercise that once again let them use instinct without designing a project in advance. “We wanted to be surprised by the reaction of the glass when in contact with the different textures of a mold such as wire grill, perforated sheet metal or supple fabric. The objective was to take part in a process to test limits and generate a form that was never completely the same. There are not many opportunities to do research with total freedom!”. February 2015. Over a year after the beginning of their study, Normal Studio selected a few glass pieces among the forty they produced with the CIRVA team where each member of the team had a role. As the experiment became more precise, workshop foreman Christelle Notellet noted in detail the development and manufacturing phases in a notebook: the mold texture, the reference of color “ballottes” introduced in the transparent glass mass, the composition of the material – a clever blend of chalk, silica and solder - and the temperature. Unsuccessful pieces were also recorded. Among CIRVA’s glassblowers, three were in charge of working with Normal Studio, they listened without making comments while reflecting on and memorizing the gestures they needed to meet the designers’ requests. Though they are willing to give advice like everyone on the team, the in-house glassblowers approach each project cautiously. They seek a complicity with the artists in residence to better satisfy the creator’s desires and even anticipate them but also like to challenge their own skills and push them further.
As of the first trials with mold textures in an ultra-handcrafted development, the duo focused their research on the relationship between glass and light. “The imprint left on the glass offered interesting optical qualities. The diffraction of light opened up our imagination and reminded us of Marcel Duchamp’s painting ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’.”
Normal Studio chose the option of an object devoid of an assembly system to move away from conventional typologies. Forget solder, metal pieces, electric wires or light bulbs! Everything functions on the principle of stacking: a LED plate, a blown glass tube, a cast glass disk … all capped by textured shapes. The result: four inset glass pieces with no attachments. There’s nothing magic about the plan, except for an amazing puzzle to make the notches (grooves in the glass). These let the different elements interlock harmoniously as long as they have the right balance and aesthetic proportions. Why make it simple?
The prototypes selected by Normal Studio look like incredibly light candle holders, a misleading impression since each weighs about twenty kilos. On this day, one piece shaped like a ring of Saturn contains black glass bubbles, it is decided to do another try to erase this imperfection. The glassblower “picks” an incandescent ball at the tip of a stem plunged in the 1700°C oven. What comes out is a magma he turns with the grace of a ballet master lifting a star ballerina. He completes this unexpected choreography by a skilled, technical manoeuver when the fused materials become more compact. These repetitive, metered gestures let him anticipate the reaction of the material. It’s all over in a few seconds. Or not. Silence in the ranks. The two designers remain concentrated on the delicate operation they follow with excitement: the deposit of this viscous material that cools at the first contact runs like a ribbon spread over the entire surface of the circular mold. “Freezing the thickness of a material that has no shape, and doing it equally, is completely random. You can imagine the work and patience to obtain these small flanges that act as wedges between the glass pieces! This practice requires anticipation and quick reactions from the glassblowers who accompany the creation of an object, their presence is exceptional!”. Normal Studio ultimately produced a limited series of light prototypes.