Our approach is forward-looking, focusing on technical and conceptual innovation, and is deliberately contextual. Whether the working concept takes the form of an object or a monumental complex, we always work within a project-based approach.

With this in mind, in collaboration with several partners, we draw on both the craft techniques of glasswork and on the most recent industrial technologies.

And always, we serve the project by applying the highest sculptural quality and creating meaning.

Interview: Emmanuel Barrois
by Jean-François Pousse

Jean-François Pousse: How would you define your work?

Emmanuel Barrois: I create, reflect, study, I make glass components in the fields of art, architecture and design. I am a glassmaker. It is not a job in a “putting in the hours” sense of the term, but almost a way of life. I decided to take up this occupation twenty years ago, nobody forced me to do it. Today, I am still a glassmaker and a lot more besides. Some see me as a designer, an artisan of art, others as a technician, an engineer, artist, architect, etc. That’s a good sign. I navigate all those waters without laying claim to any one of them, or I can lay claim to all of them at once. Sometimes corporatist thinking can be ossifying, only creation and a level of excellence should play a part.

JFP: Is glass so special?

E. Barrois: Allow me to quote myself when I say that it is both heavy and light, simple and incomprehensible, born of fire but cold, liquid then rigid, smooth and jagged, predictable in its inconsistency, obvious and unfathomable, unchanging and always unexpected, brittle and solid, physical and ethereal, everything and its opposite… In glass, the material and immaterial communicate with each other [1]. This material has several lives, several identities. I see it as an interface, an edge, but also as an articulation into open frontiers.

JFP: With the benefit of hindsight, how do you analyse your choosing to work in glass?

E. Barrois: Glass was a chance encounter for me. The fact that our relationship endures is undoubtedly linked to the fact that the material allows me to be free. It is very hard for me to feel shut up inside something, whatever it may be. I trained as an agronomist, I spent time as an aid worker in Mali, and in Afghanistan during the war. I have been a photographer. It was thanks to a report on heritage for Globe magazine that I met a glassmaker. It is difficult to say exactly why I chose to become one. No doubt there was a fascination for light, for colour, for the one-on-one struggle with the material.
But although the opposite is the case today, in the beginning I worked a lot on my own: the start of a journey to the heart of the matter. I am therefore completely self-taught, in the sense that I learned on my own and in my own free way, I hope. I created an environment and an activity for myself that was tailor-made for me alone.

JFP: But to begin with you only worked in stained glass? How did you evolve?

E. Barrois: Yes, I started in stained glass. I did a lot of it, although today it is a marginal activity for my workshop. My activity had to mutate because I wanted to be more than a heritage technician. In fact, I wanted to work like the glassmakers of the 18th century. Those people invented new techniques, they created the contemporary art of their age, they participated in the invention of the architecture of their day, they were its co-authors. I asked myself who was doing that today. Was there a need for it? I sensed something. A role to play, perhaps to reinvent one? I had the questions, so I looked for answers. At the time, my friend Jean-Philippe Poirée-Ville, the inventor of strange vegetal sculptures, advised me to go and see the architect Claude Parent. I was familiar with his work, the Church of Sainte-Bernadette at Nevers, the “Oblique Function” and what it implies in terms of reconsidering conventional wisdom. We talked about my questioning, what I wanted to head towards. This was to be a decisive meeting; he endorsed my thinking, encouraged me and put me in contact with other architects: Paul Andreu, Jean Nouvel, Claude Vasconi. And above all he urged me on, he pushed me to constantly question and challenge myself, to make a rule of the principle of discomfort. That was when I really started. Today, I am reaping what I had sown 15 years ago.

JFP: How do your initiatives get under way, a new work, a collaboration?

E. Barrois: I move towards what interests me. The same impulse undoubtedly drives my interlocutors. As far as design projects are concerned, there are no rules; I can work on them in advance – sometimes as soon as the architectural design competition is announced – or while an existing project is in development, or I have a free hand to imagine, to create something.
I make designs, not products. How the specifications are taken into account and dealt with is the overriding element in my approach. I find my freedom and undoubtedly part of my strength in overcoming the constraints. What is imagined, created, realised in my workshops or in collaboration with various partners is specific, adapted to a context, a budget, a functionality, a place, a quality of light, etc. Beyond the affinities, the to and fro of exchanging ideas and the fine tuning, the struggle does not discourage me if the interlocutors want to succeed.
Then again, time marches on and it is not possible to do everything, one has to choose. But I see that there are a lot of ideas, concepts, techniques and interesting designs still to develop. What do I bring to a design project? That is not for me to judge. It is up to each person to go and judge on the actual evidence.

JFP: Doesn’t working within the confines of craft industry, architecture, art, design, etc., carry the risk of losing sight of oneself?

E. Barrois: On the contrary, my designs are enriched by crossing the borders between different professions. “Hybrid vigour”, the ability to draw on many sources, to achieve a blend of ideas; sensibilities enhance performances, they open horizons. Why not seek, experiment, innovate? Putting oneself in danger is healthy. It prevents one from becoming numbed through routine; it stimulates, it acts like a spur.

JFP: How do you see the future of your practice?

E. Barrois: Glass guards its secrets closely. It hides behind an aesthetic that is almost too strong and seductive. One needs to master and overcome this in order to allow the material to do and say what the design calls for, what the design project needs.
The artist Aurélie Nemours said to me once: “Over the course of 30,000 years, mankind has daubed hectares’ worth of paintings. In comparison, glass has been worked to a very little extent”. This is true. When measured against the history of mankind, of art, of architecture, it is a new material. By manipulating it, observing it, rediscovering it, its interwoven lives draw me in. I see its unexplored potentiality, and it is immense. In the invention of space, of architecture, of the arts, with glass the field of what is possible is wide open.

[1] Emmanuel Barrois, “Morceau de ciel dans l’atelier” [A piece of heaven in the workshop], in Arts sacrés, Issue No.9 (January 2011), pp.16-21.