Purple Magazine
— Purple 76 Index issue #29 S/S 2018

Ïto ora

what do you design when you don’t want
to create objects anymore

portrait and interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by OLIVIER AMSELLEM
translation by PEDRO RODRÍGUEZ


OLIVIER ZAHM — So, tell me. You started off as a designer, working with virJérôme Sanstual objects.

ORA ÏTO — I hijacked brands whose logos had become symbols of their time — and still are, really. Apple, Nike, Vuitton.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And from these, you fashioned objects that were like 3-D logos.

ORA ÏTO — Virtual objects that didn’t exist and assumed the identity of those brands.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That overexposed the identity of those brands.

ORA ÏTO — It brings to mind a funny article about me: “What was he doing before? Pirating the big brands. What’s he doing now? Working for those same big brands.” That passage from hacker to having an agency for the same brands is pretty hilarious. That was 20 years ago now. In fact, that design work found its way into the Centre George Pompidou in Paris. It was the first digital artwork ever acquired by the Georges Pompidou Center. Because in addition to being an artistic act, it had repercussions. Busloads of Japanese were going into the stores to ask for items that didn’t exist. Galeries Lafayette placed an order for 35,000 lighters from BIC, and BIC was never able to honor it. That created some serious buzz and ushered in the era we’re living in today.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Was your modus operandi at the time to start with logos, with brand identities, and from there to develop a product?

ORA ÏTO — It was actually ego gratification. Since I didn’t have access to those brands at the time, because I was so young, I made it so that it’d feel like I was really working for them. I was imagining what I’d do if those brands were actually commissioning work from me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you’d work with a brand’s identity, with the graphics of fashion and brands.

ORA ÏTO — Of course. People could see that the bag was a Louis Vuitton, that the sneakers were Nike, that the computer was an Apple — because in the end what defines a brand is its territory, its identity. That’s what defines it and sets it apart visually from other brands.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This summer, you told me you were turning away from the world of objects.

ORA ÏTO — There came a moment when I didn’t feel a need to design objects anymore because it seemed to me that there was no further need for all those products. There are too many of them. It happened when I realized that all those plastic objects were ending up in the sea.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially plastic objects.

ORA ÏTO — Right. But this world is made of plastic. There is no object that doesn’t have at least one plastic component to it. Even a solid-gold watch has some plastic part inside — though the watch has the advantage of having been handed down from father to son since 1822. And when I admitted to myself that what I was producing was just more stuff for an ever more ephemeral market — because back in the day, objects had a life span, whereas today it’s reduced to a minimum because technology keeps advancing — I said to myself: “I’m driving straight into a wall.”


OLIVIER ZAHM — Same in fashion, which has to change collections every season.

ORA ÏTO — And design was getting to be just like fashion. The cycles were being shortened, just as they are in fashion. I’ve called attention to this ever since I started out in design. I’d say, “Let’s not let design become a fall/winter collection!” Because you can’t change your whole habitat every six months or every year. Objects should have a life span. That’s why, back in the day, designers were making objects with radical designs of total simplicity. They were giving function pride of place, so that the object was a response to its function.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So what did you decide to do when your enthusiasm for creating design objects faded?

ORA ÏTO — You know, I’m from Marseille and I always loved the hidden Cité Radieuse designed by Le Corbusier in the working-class quarter of the city. So the next chapter of my “design” activity was to convince the city, the building occupants, everyone, to let me create an art center called MAMO [Marseille Modulor] on top of it, in the semi-abandoned gym originally designed for the people living there. I renovated the whole roof, and I asked myself, “What can I do with this amazing architectural masterpiece that has no function anymore?  Make a penthouse to party with my buddies?” But I had to give this beautiful place my best effort. And so I turned it into an art center. At the same time, I renovated the whole concrete roof, pool, art school for kids, terrace — with its 360-degree view of the city, the sea, and the mountains — and the building’s running track. And today it’s a public success, a new destination in Marseilles and in Europe, and recently it’s become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It opens the door to people who’d otherwise never have free access to art. The price of the apartments in the Cité Radieuse has tripled, and the only person who hasn’t profited from it is me. But it’s all right. I have the roof to use as a new art platform. And then, after this success, outside of the world of industrial design, I asked myself what’s the next step? The project is eight years old. I opened it five years ago. It’s time to move on. Today, not a week goes by without the opening of another art center somewhere. Just the other day, Daniel Buren was telling me, “I’ve never been as busy as I am right now. Everyone’s opening an art center and asking me to show.”

OLIVIER ZAHM — But you established yourself as the curator, so don’t you have to come up with the shows and invite the artists?

ORA ÏTO — Totally. That’s my job as “curator.” I select the artists and feed them with stories about the building and its history. Every artist who’s come has had a real reason to come. For Dan Graham, it was the glass and its opposition between the concrete, the full, the empty, the solid, the light, the heavy, the mineral, the transparent, and the opaque. For Daniel Buren, the connection with the building was more theoretical: he embraced Le Corbusier’s “Modulor” concept. I’ve been calling him “Burelor” ever since because all of his bands fit right into the Modulor. It was incredible. All the volumetrics he set up and the objects he put into the space were related to the golden mean, and thus to the Modulor. Then came Felice Varini, who projected decomposed images that fragmentally covered every single element of the building. Not a single element went untouched. In the end, from one point of view, all the fragments formed a single image. Xavier Veilhan
created the inaugural installation for the inauguration, with a 3-D digital sculpture of the architect on the rooftop, in pale blue like the sky, working at his desk. No two artists have taken the same perspective on the same enclosed space. So we discover a new part of the building with every event.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And now? What’s your next adventure?

ORA ÏTO — I bought a piece of land, a small island in front of Marseille, the cape of the Île du Frioul, which is an archipelago of three islands, including the Château d’If. I bought the cape of Brégantin, which is the island’s 35,000-square-meter peninsula. It’s an island that belongs to the state. Mine is the only private property. I’m working on a project for the whole island.


OLIVIER ZAHM — Whom did you manage to buy that from?

ORA ÏTO — An artist who’d bought it from the army when the army was selling it to the city. When the army sold it to the city, they kept a private enclave that’s the jewel of the isle, for a friend. He sold it to a friend of his, who in turn sold it to me. This fits in with the peculiarities of the city of Marseille, which I’ve been able to take advantage of. The solarium and gymnasium of the Cité Radieuse were not for sale, strictly speaking. They were communal areas. The owners got together and decided to privatize the communal areas. That’s another story, though just as fantastic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You find your niche in regulatory loopholes.

ORA ÏTO — We live our lives through places, so as long as our surroundings fail to be extraordinary, we’re wasting time with our lives. This place is my escape. When you turn 40, you tell yourself, “I’ve got to do a project that ties together everything I love, but under conditions that I love, and with people I love and who mean something to me.” I came up with the idea of an environemental project, devoted to the sea, called Marsa on this Island. It’s  an extraordinary place where I can invite guests, artists, scientists, writers, intellectuals, photographers, like a kind of Villa Medici, in a Mediterranean environment, based on a future devoted to nature. I’ve gathered a team with the likes of Jacques Rougerie and the foundation Parley for the Oceans to come and help create an ecological ecosystem of life that mixes art, ecology, and technology. These are for me Marsa’s three bywords and pillars. Why? Because art and technology are the sources of innovation today, and technology and ecology should work together. The days of old-fashioned ecology, with its archaisms, are over. We’ve entered an age of pure technology. We’ve entered the future. Are we going to use this technological explosition to worsen the catastrophe or to prevent further catastrophes?

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s already on the island? A new building?

ORA ÏTO — There’s already an old building, a military fortress. There will also be one in the city, at the port, which is going to draw from all the sea-related technological institutes, like the DRASSM [Department of Subaquatic and Submarine Archeological Research]. Institutions will be coming to us. The idea is to gather all those players for mutual benefit and informational exchange.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So design for you now is ecology? It’s not producing objects anymore but engaging in research, and scientific and technological explorations?

ORA ÏTO — There is so much research to do to understand the sea. For example, we will design basins to test technologies in underwater conditions. We want to have sea-orbiters, a vessel for ocean research. We will explore tomorrow’s materials and how they oxidize in the sea. We will also work on new pharmacology, the pharmacy of the seas. The ocean covers 88% of the planet — 72% officially. Before we go colonizing space, we better see what’s under the sea. We don’t even know the whole thing. There’s a company that’s building underwater drones to take observations of the ocean floor. We’re only just starting to develop the technologies we need to explore the ocean. We’re embarking on an era of extraordinary discoveries. I mean, if God has already given us so many resources on just 28% of the surface of the planet, I can’t imagine the resources we’re going to find. That’s what interests me today. This is design to me now. This doesn’t mean I will totally stop making objects, or stop creating new architectural spaces, or give up my trade. It means finding a new direction, an orientation toward something that makes sense, toward the new objects that are going to take shape from all this research.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So you’re a dreamer?

ORA ÏTO — No! I’m looking for new territories. New ideas for creativity. Why don’t we invite a sociologist, an artist, and a writer to the island tomorrow, with a 3-D printer on hand, and ask them how we can protect the coral? Somebody is going to say: “So, why don’t we grow artificial coral? Smart coral, new coral that’s going to regenerate itself, that’s going to become a rhizome, and go fractal?” Me, I’d love to design that stuff! And, with my rapid prototype development, it will happen… I want to be part of this new blue economy and develop products that are in phase with the urgency of our times.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’ll be both safeguarding and inventing.

ORA ÏTO — Sometimes things will be of purely scientific interest, and sometimes they’ll be practical. Like Parley’s just done with its Adidas sneakers. We know now that this isn’t profitable for brands, but brands need to make this shift to understand what’s going on. They need to understand the urgency, to say yes. Gucci is giving up fur definitively. What does that mean? It means that we’re truly living in a world where little by little, all these brands are actually gaining awareness. They’re organizing internally to respond to these problems. Because otherwise they’ll die off. We need to start projects in areas that will help these companies along and allow them to serve as launching pads.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you started work on the island?

ORA ÏTO — On the island, we’re doing restorations. There’s a château, a fort, and a village. It’s going to be a summer place, a place with studios, workshops, and conferences, and where people can meet. There’ll be scientists and artists. You’ll find yourself in a sublime environment.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Julian Schnabel is participating?

ORA ÏTO — Yes. He’s going to handle the reception tent.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And this for you is the next step in your evolution as a designer?

ORA ÏTO — Yes, as a designer today, with a clear and strong environemental sense of responsibilities. I’v done enough damage already, and I’m not the only one.

OLIVIER ZAHM — As a consumer, as well?

ORA ÏTO — Less and less, because I actually consume very little. I only buy old stuff. What I mean is that I needed to reinvent myself, as well, because I think that design as a trade has now been co-opted by Pinterest. How can you claim these days that this or that belongs to you? How can you expect to have yourself a territory? How can you expect to profit from your experiments when as soon as your work is done, it’s practically already in the public domain? It’s instantly copied. I don’t produce a single object that isn’t instantly copied. At first you sue, but in time you give up. I also had to find a project to go along with the other one. You have a project when you’re young, and you don’t care. You’re all rock ’n’ roll, and you have a blast. But later on, you calm down and start looking around for a real reason to exist.


[Table of contents]

Purple 76 Index issue #29 S/S 2018

Table of contents

Purple Index 76

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