Picture Block

French designer Aurélien Débat has a graphic language that plays with modularity, perspective and the human scale of craft. We caught up with him to discover the foundations of his visual building blocks...

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Aurélien Débat, images from a series created with 'Tamponville' rubber stamps

Please describe your studio space to us...

I work in Endoume, a neighbourhood of Marseille not very far from the sea. I share a workshop with three architects, a painter and two graphic designers who I work with regularly. It’s a large space, not in great condition, badly heated in winter and with a lot of junk everywhere, but that’s what interests me. It’s quite a long way from the classic “office” with a drawing table and a computer and that corresponds more to my way of working – I can find a place to take photos, to test installations and I can use woodwork machines without worrying about damaging the floor or the walls…

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Aurélien Débat in his atelier

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Works in progress at Aurélien Débat's atelier

What are you working on today?
I’m finishing a book on cabins and dens which will be published in September (2017) by Les Grandes Personnes. Initially, this project was a participative exhibition which took place in Studio Fotokino and then at the Jungle Festival in Liege, with cardboard boxes, printed to imitate the format and patterns of construction materials: bricks, boards, beams, rocks, blocks of ice and banana leaves. These modules were available to the public to use to build huts, a labyrinth, to transform the space. It looks like a big playground! The book is a two-dimensional version of this project, a story of little pigs who build shelters. There will also be sheets of stickers so that the reader can make his or her own constructions.

What inspired you to become an illustrator?
There were a lot of books at home when I was a child and my parents are artisans, they work with leather and wood. Their workshop is connected to their house and I always had a little desk there where I could build things. Although I don’t have many memories of specific projects I did at this time, I can remember very clearly the pleasure of drawing or using tools.

I think it’s this pleasure that I try to recreate today. I prefer things that are more fragile or minimalist, which invite you to create things yourself rather than a virtuoso work which puts the spectator at a distance and which supports the idea of the artist having a sort of “gift”. The act of creating becomes more interesting than the result! It’s no coincidence that I am very influenced by the work of Paul Cox – one finds this notion of play and the pleasure of creating in his work.

What recent project are you most proud of?
A toy manufacturer, Moulin Roty, commissioned a collection. Working with them was a great experience. They put a lot of trust I me, they have great manufacturing experience and I was able to have a real dialogue with them about the object and the toy. One notable toy in the series that I am designing, is Tamponchantier, which is a set of twenty-three modular stamps that allow you to design machinery. It looks a little like a two-dimensional Meccano and, in a way, it is the starting point of all my current work, designing repertoires of shapes, graphical alphabets, tools which I make available to the public.

I had self-published this project in 2011 because I was almost certain I wouldn’t find a publisher. Then there was three years of work with another publisher but that didn’t work out either for economic reasons. So I don’t know if I am very proud of this project, but either way I am very happy that it has finally seen the light of day. 

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Aurélien Débat, toy packaging for products commissioned by Moulin Roti

You have used various interesting printing processes, from Risograph to rubber stamps – what's your favourite and why?
I don’t think I really have a favourite printing process and every project has to find its printing process. Stamps, for example allow you to compose unique and very different images from the same shape repertoire. I used them for Tamponville, by isolating precise graphical elements from existing buildings, generic materials (girders, concrete structure, bricks, boards) or elements that give a notion of architectural period, I obtain an alphabet of shapes, a sort of typology of the town.

These shapes, when separated one from the other, can seem almost abstract and it’s only when they are assembled that you can identify a building. What interests me in this process of assembling with stamps, is that it looks like the way a town can be constructed, where different periods, materials and types of use accumulate and are superimposed on top of each other.

Another thing that interests me enormously, is understanding printing techniques to play with them and accordingly adapt my project. Risograph or silkscreen printing allow you get involved in a very artisanal way in the printing process – to make colour tests, create printing accidents, or the possibility to turn the sheets to create different combinations, for example. These procedures correspond very often to small print runs where the author becomes publisher, printer and distributer: getting involved in this printing economy has a lot of repercussions on the artistic choices that one makes.

Geometry and three-dimensional forms often appear in your work – where does this interest come from?

It’s my interest in modular design tools that leads me to geometrise the space in this way. The construction grid in the modules of Tamponville for example, is very close to a tangram – all the faces of these elements correspond to each other and can thus be combined. Such geometric interpretations don’t necessarily correspond to reality but I find that the errors in perspective produce more interesting spaces than in a representation that obeys the rules of perspective. I am thinking in particular of the designs of Philippe Weisbecker, where he intentionally accentuates this sensation of axonometric deformation. Also Hockney’s A Rake’s Progress, inspired by William Hogarth, which enumerates all the “errors” in perspective that you shouldn’t’ make. The result gives an incredible image!

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Aurélien Débat, from a series created with Tamponville rubber stamps

The works of Sol Lewitt too, who has a very mathematical conception of space, influences me enormously. For my Bunkers series, I had been guest resident at La Villa La Brugère on the coast in Normandy [and artists’ and writers’ retreat / residency programme] and I was fascinated by the concrete blocks of the temporary harbour built by the Allies during the invasion of Normandy after the D-Day landings, which sink into the sand. I wanted to represent this divide, of the construction of the wall at sea and the deformations in perspective allowed me to create this ambiguity. Afterwards, these experiences in two dimensions and the possibility of exhibiting bring other questions about space.

You've done some great pop-up books for children – what's special about that audience and format?

I’ve only done these two pop-up books, Les Transports and Le Chantier, so I don’t consider myself a specialist… This project is inspired by Quillet encyclopaedias. These books are popular scientific dictionaries where vehicles, engines or machines are broken down by multiple flaps.

What was particular with this commission was that I was totally free to choose the things I wanted to represent, from how to break them down to the number of flaps. The text was only written by the author once the book was finished and I had to do a lot of documentation; It's not easy to find diagrams or plans for shovel engines... But I've met some really great, passionate people on construction machinery forums and railroad forums and I have learned a lot! I think one of the interesting aspects of these books is that an adult can take as much pleasure from them in discovering things as a child.

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Le Chantier, designed by Aurélien Débat, text by Sophie Amen, Editions Le Vengeur Masqué.

What would be your dream commission?
I still regularly draw for magazines or for promotional material for cultural events. This allows me, in part, to live and to finance more personal projects. I am working, for example, with the graphic designer Patrick Lindsay on promotional material for the Théâtre de Châteauvallon, a major theatre in the south of France. For the past six years, we have been developing modular systems that are used to compose all the visuals of the season. We are very free in our choices and this process is very close to our respective approaches. One could call this an “ideal commission” but I realise that I never feel as free as when I invent my own constraints.

Find out more about Aurélien Débat's work.

Photo credits: Maïa Izzo-Foulquier, Fotokino, Aurélien Débat

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Aurélien Débat and Patrick Lindsay for Théâtre de Châteauvallon

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Aurélien Débat and Patrick Lindsay for Théâtre de Châteauvallon