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Alain Gilles: "If you want a direct answer, you have to ask direct questions" Design - 17 December 2014

The 2012 Designer of the Year, Alain Gilles recently shared his experience of international fairs during a series of conferences in Brussels organised by MAD Brussels and WBDM. 

What was your reaction when you were asked to make fairs and salons the subject of your conference?
I found it interesting, because it is a relatively important part of the business; salons are by their very nature places for meeting and not meeting, no projects or just about. It is therefore an ideal that is not often talked about; there is a sort of taboo around the topic for a variety of reasons.
Many people see designers as artists and tell themselves that an artist is inevitably a dreamer, not a manager. Frequently, the public imagines what he himself wishes to see. 

To keep a romantic side?
Yes, to maintain the illusion that there is no money changing hands, that everything is done just for the sake of it. I am exaggerating - there is undoubtedly a real creative part but there is also a little of that in the collective subconscious. And each designer deals with this parameter in his own way. Personally I was a latecomer to design and this has perhaps given me a different approach.

When you turn up at 22, when you are still a student, and you ask to see someone on the stand of a salon, most of the time you are politely shown the door after a few minutes seemingly listening to you. As I am also attracted by the world of publishing, I have also visited many salons, but I was lucky in that I was older and slightly more credible, so I asked to speak directly to the boss or the Artistic Director. In life, if you want a direct answer, you have to ask direct questions. At the start, that did not work, but it taught me a great deal.

You need resources to wipe out successive refusals
I had no time to lose, so it gave it my all. I waited hours to see someone. You are waiting for the CEO, they make you hang about, then they tell you that he has left but will be back soon, then you have to come back the next day - and so it goes on. Dreadful. It is the kind of things that you do when starting out, because you have the courage to do so, but it is fairly depressing. Then, as projects come in, you have enough work to avoid having to run after people. But for the past year or so, I have been thinking about taking up my pilgrim's staff again and setting off to meet people. Sincerely, I am very happy with my current collaborations, but some things I do do not fit well with their worlds so to see my other projects published I have to broaden the scope of my contacts.

And the salon is the ideal location for forging these contacts?
Yes. Both on sites of fairs and in the "off" programme, where the encounters are more unexpected, more informal and therefore more personal. By visiting an exhibition, you can meet someone you had spotted without having the time to address them and you start talking to them. Paradoxically, it is also when you manage to talk about something other than work that it becomes interesting, as you become a person to talk to and not the nth designer of the day trying to sell his chair. You must try to trigger this serendipity instead of waiting for it to arrive.

During the conference, you also underlined the importance of labels like Belgium is Design.
Absolutely. These national platforms are the best, in my view; we see this in Belgium and also in France with the VIA. It is by far the most interesting quality-price ratio: the designer's participation proves a mere snip compared with the actual cost and the fallout is guaranteed, although difficult to quantify exactly. It is ideal for a designer: he can show his products but he can also gather in a heap of contacts and openings, then press articles and so on. This type of initiative is really crucial.


Written by Maxime Fischer.

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