Patrick Jouin: New Cab-Roof Light – Signage Gamma 7 Reconciles Aesthetics with Functionality

Nélida Nassar  06.22.2013

Among the professional obsessions of French designer Patrick Jouin are sensuality, elegance, and fluidity mixed with a sense of tradition and modernity. Jouin, who already conceived the Vélib, the bike-sharing program that is used in cities worldwide, is concentrating his efforts on the city’s everyday objects, highlighting both the beauty of their form and function. He has just completed an aerodynamic devise for the French taxicab hood lights. I contacted Jouin in his office in Paris where he modestly explained that: “The French cab hood-light or Gamma 7 is a small project intervention.” Jouin, born in 1967 in Nantes, is both discreet and famous. Since 2010, he has constantly adhered to a philosophy that he articulated earlier of discretion and minimalism: “I do not design for the monumental Paris but rather for the small Paris at the level of the daily object.” In 2007, he designed the Vélib, followed in 2012 by the Paris’s sanisettes or automatic public toilets, as well as the high tech concept-bus stop shelter with a digital totem installed as a twelve-month experiment at the Bastille terminal, all four projects are in partnership with the JCDecaux the world’s number one outdoor advertising company. This year, his collaboration with the Gamma Company has resulted in the new taxi light.

Jouin is the founder of Jouin Manku Agency, in partnership with architect Sanjit Manku. One third of its commissions are in architecture, another third in interior design, and the remaining third in product design and scenography. He oversees a team of two-dozen people. A 1992 graduate of the prestigious ENSCI Les Ateliers – École nationale supérieure de création industrielle (National School of Industrial Design), he has designed several restaurants and luxury hotels, ranging geographically from Paris to Shanghai to New York (including the five-star Jules Verne and the Plaza Athénée restaurants in Paris), as well as several objects for Italian furniture manufacturers. In 2010, he designed the NightCove an innovative wellness, sleep and wake-up device developed in partnership with Zyken, and Professor Damien Léger, a scientific expert with a worldwide reputation in the field of sleep research. NightCove combines scientifically validated high-powered LED technologies with advanced acoustics to provide hotel guests with a high quality ‘wellness and sleep experience’.

In 2011, he received the important Italian Compasso d’Oro for the pasta pan Pastapot that he created in collaboration with chef Alain Ducasse (and is manufactured by Alessi). His “latest signature design” is a minuscule part of a cab, its roof light, which usually anonymous and barely visible.

Jouin states matter-of-factly: “I wish to involve our agency more in this type of project, which is neither decorative art nor a signature statement. The industrialists, apart from those in the luxury furniture or objects sectors, are afraid of “signatures.”” They see the designer as a stylist who is more expensive, and who does not possess a sophisticated understanding of technology and manufacturing techniques. I would like to prove to them wrong.  I would also like to demonstrate that the city’s technical objects, its everyday objects, deserve design attention.” In view of the worldwide economic climate, it seems that there will be no economic recovery without a creative recovery, which will not occur if designers do not work with the small enterprises that are completely cut off from new currents in design thinking, and that are in dire need of innovating in order to make a difference. “A taxi, like street furniture, needs to be properly valued.”

There are 50,000 cabs in France. Since July 15, 2010, they have been increasingly equipped with Jouin’s new illuminated sign: a green light indicates the cab is available, and a red light it is occupied! – a simple innovation that in itself offers customers greater clarity and legibility. Since June 2010, another guideline has been issued in Paris; it strongly recommends – but does not require – that the entire cab be black, or that at least its roof be that color. Unlike New York, where the color code for a cab – a global icon by now – is yellow, Parisian taxis have no special color identity. Black was selected to suggest the chic look of the capital, or, perhaps, as a metaphor for the small black dress traveling across the city. The entire cab fleet has not yet been renewed, but the majority of new cabs are now black. The new light Jouin designed, called Gamma-7, is a small intervention that is part of this new trend, offering a new silhouette for the old French taxicab fleet.

Patrick Jouin likes to come up with an idea, a form, a trick or an ingenious solution “in the course of a conversation or while brainstorming with a team.” The Gamma 7 is very different than the Vélib, of course, and it is difficult to compare his collaboration with JCDecaux, a very large conglomerate, with his work with Gamma, a small company composed of 10 people. Jouin had to explain everything step by step to the client from the role of design, to its added value. He also had to collaborate with the consultants and engineers. He learned a great deal by talking with Parisian cab drivers and asking them many questions. Since, if they wish to change the roof light, they have to pay for that out of their own pocket, this means that it should not be more expensive than the type they are replacing, as well as being stronger and better performing. Drivers often rant against their “small lights” that snap, and sometimes whistle; and in case of total failure they face fines. They have no need for a sculpture on their cab’s roof, says the designer. It’s like the Vélib, the consumer does not care who designed the piece, it’s just a service!

A compact object, the new Gamma-7 is made of a transparent, rounded plastic membrane that wraps around the entire apparatus, unifying its components into a single piece. It also allows better air penetration. It either sits on magnetic plates or fits on the car’s roof bar. A black border accentuates its flowing shape, and it doesn’t whistle! The lights themselves are better protected, as are letters, and device is equipped with LED bulbs, which are economical and more efficient in direct sunlight. The design strategy is similar to that of
a lighthouse.

Technologically innovative, conceptually simple and smoothly functioning, this sign required two years of design and manufacturing development. Jouin states that “it was much more difficult than designing a chair, as in this small object there are lots of issues to solve and understand.” The signage and the graphic order has been changed and organized into three rows: “The word Taxi appears on the top row, followed by five circles in the center row containing the letters ABC that indicate the different cab rates – Paris, suburbs, night – and the bottom row refers to the city, such as Parisien.

Stéphane Puis, manager of the Gamma Company and a member of the G7 design group, shared with me his view of this collaboration. “We are one of the three French taxis products manufacturers – which constitutes a very small niche. The previous light, which had the form of a policeman’s hat, was created in 1954 by Gamma’s technicians. It had not changed since and was no longer suitable for the new and contemporary cars. This is the first time we hired a designer. Patrick Jouin pushed us further in our reflection regarding the function and usage of the object. He had a global vision in mind, going well beyond the simple form. For this highly regulated item, he opened up new possibilities, enabling us to position and brand ourselves in new ways. It is not more expensive to work with a designer, and Gamma-7 has been well received at the February Taxis Salon. Fifteen drivers are testing it across Paris, over a combined distance of 200,000 km. In two weeks, it will be available at Gamma’s 115 dealers across France.”

This is a design for a generic object not a spectacular one, but it possesses a certain little something –  it is less cold and technically different from products that would be designed by an engineer. “Designers need to have more impact on daily life,” says Jouin. “Design should address and reach everyone, not be reserved for just the ‘lucky few.’ There are so many things poorly drawn, and non-functional in the city, such as the railway terminals or the subway benches. Nowadays, France has become a de-industrialized country. There are no longer benchmark French-designed objects such as the emblematic Citroën DS or the Concorde airplane. We have the luxury brand Chanel, but between these brands and the small and large enterprises, there is a chasm. Where is our modernity? ”

Jouin asserts that design must be present in the streets and permeate all aspects of society, from schools and workplaces to hospitals and police stations. He is also very proud to have been chosen as designer of the future Defense Department headquarters at Balard. For this huge assignment, he will collaborate with Steelcase – an American company that manufacture in France — on 10,000 pieces of furniture. Each office will cost no more than a standard generic model ordered from a catalogue, since they will be produced in large quantities. “The design profession is changing, becoming international and a real cultural hybrid. With the emergence of new technologies such as stereolithography, France should embrace prototyping machines, called 3D printers, currently are all American-made, but France is capable of manufacturing them as well. The relationship to arts and crafts is also evolving. We must reinvent our practices, for example our approach to wood, which is becoming an essential contemporary material.”

Wood Craftsmanship
Jouin will also lead Hermès first academy dedicated to wood craftsmanship. For the park in Chaumont-sur-Loire, he designed a very poetic bench. In this historic park, he raised-up the fallen tree trunks, resized them and attached them to a steel pillar, creating seats from intersecting fragments. They are like punctuation marks –  moments of meditation or rest.

While waiting to ride the new Gamma 7-equipped cab, everyone knows that it will still not be easy to hail a “rodent  (rongeur)” (the slang word for taxi) in Paris. Sadly, this is no longer a matter for the designer’s realm. Jouin, by his sophisticated understanding of technology and by pushing the boundaries of  manufacturing, has mastered the art of making complex design look easy.

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