Carrying the torch - Issue 172 - Magazine | Monocle

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When French designer Mathieu Lehanneur learned that he had been selected to design the torch and flame-bearing cauldron for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, he was overjoyed. “Then my second reaction was fear,” he tells monocle. “It’s quite rare to design an object that will be seen by four, maybe five, billion people. So I did the only thing that I knew I could do: I got to work.”

The designer is celebrated for imbuing his work with a sense of whimsy, weaving engineering, technology and function with art, craft and aesthetics. Lehanneur has been busy. He was named designer of the year at Paris-based design fair Maison & Objet in January after opening La Factory, his studio-workshop in Ivry-sur-Seine, last year.

In April, 2,000 copies of his torch will be used to relay the Olympic flame from Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, to the heart of the French capital. En route, his design will pass through the hands of more than 10,000 people over the course of three months. “Once it begins its journey, the torch won’t be mine any more,” he says. “It will belong to the world.”

Naturally, every torch is made in France from recycled steel, in partnership with Luxembourg-based manufacturer ArcelorMittal. “The briefing from the Paris 2024 committee about the design of the torch was almost empty beyond the dimensions and weight,” says Lehanneur. “I thought about the value of equality, which is symbolised in the design by the symmetry of the torch. Of course, it’s a reference to the French motto, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, but also to the parity between the Paralympic and Olympic Games, between female athletes and male athletes.” As part of this vision, Lehanneur asked the Olympic and Paralympic committees whether it was possible for both events to share a single design for the first time. In a testament to the designer’s conviction, they agreed.

Next, Lehanneur looked not to postcard monuments such as the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe for design cues but to the river Seine as an emblem of the French capital. (The Seine will also be the aqueous stage of the Games’ opening ceremony.) To illustrate this contextual clue, Lehanneur added a series of ripples that appear to reverberate upwards from the base of the torch.

“I only realised the power of the Olympic torch after designing it,” says Lehanneur. “When I show it to people, athletes and non-athletes, you can see how deeply moving it is as a symbol. They ask whether they can touch it as though it holds magical power.” On the night of the opening ceremony, Lehanneur’s cauldron, which will hold the Olympic flame throughout the Games, will be revealed. Until that moment, its design is being kept like a state secret. 

As we face war from Ukraine to Gaza, the deployment of national symbolism and the value of pomp and circumstance is a thorny issue for some. What did Lehanneur make of this political and social climate when designing an object intended to stoke national pride? “It’s beautiful to be proud of cultural differences,” he says. “The far-right has appropriated this concept to an extreme but national identity doesn’t belong to the political right or left. It’s time to reclaim it, without implying that one nationality is better than another, without putting up barriers around ourselves, because it makes life more interesting to meet each other. I wasn’t thinking on a national level but I am glad I focused on the notion of equality, because, as a Frenchman, I feel the need to defend this value.” — L

The CV

1974: Born in Rochefort
2001: Graduates from ensci-Les Ateliers and founds his design studio
2018: Launches his eponymous brand
2019: Opens exhibition space in New York
2023: Selected by Paris 2024 and the International Olympic Committee to design the Olympic and Paralympic torches
2023: La Factory opens as Lehanneur’s headquarters, workshop and exhibition space
2024: Named designer of the year at Maison & Objet

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