"My mum only recently started to understand what I do" says Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian


Experience designer Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian enjoys the fact that people find it hard to pin down exactly what she does and believes others should embrace her “non-linear” approach, she tells Dezeen in this interview.

“I love people not fucking understanding what I do,” Ben Hayoun-Stépanian told Dezeen. “Bottom line is, they don’t understand what I do. But I do a lot.”

Ben Hayoun-Stépanian, who describes herself as a “designer of experiences”, has created projects for extremely well-known organisations including NASA, Porsche, Lego, IKEA and Nike as well as running the Tour de Moon touring festival as part of the UK’s high-profile Unboxed festival.

“I’m a designer of experiences”

With the experiences she designs, Ben Hayoun-Stépanian hopes to make people consider the world around them.

“I’m a designer of experiences, which basically means that I design volcanoes in people’s living rooms, lift-off chair inside your lounge or make dark energy in your kitchen sink,” she explained.

“So I’m very much interested in this idea of extreme: what does it mean to make people feel something at a point in time where, you know, we don’t know how to think critically about the world that’s around us?”

“And so for me, experiences are a good way of getting members of the public to critically reflect on some of the big topics, big ideas that we are confronted with today, whether it’s in politics, sociology, and so forth.”

Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian has worked for numerous brands including Porsche (above)

Ben Hayoun-Stépanian has a varied academic background with a degree in textile design, a master’s in design interactions and a geography PhD. As design is a relatively new discipline, she believes there should plenty of room for experimentation.

“Design as a discipline is very young compared to architecture or the arts, and with this comes the potential for experimentation,” she said.

“Because it’s so fresh, you can kind of make it what you want it to be.”

“I think a lot of people fear big ideas”

Despite numerous prestigious projects, Ben Hayoun-Stépanian’s focus on experimentation and experiences means that many people – including clients and even her own family – don’t fully know what she does.

According to the designer, her mum only began to understand what she does after reading an article about Ben Hayoun-Stépanian being turned into a Barbie by Mattel.

“My mum only recently started to understand what I was doing,” she explained. “We have this local newspaper in Valence, where I’m from, called Le Dauphiné Libéré and it had an article about my Barbie and my practice.”

“And that was the first time I think that my mum actually understood what I was doing – she said ‘so you design experiences, you do this work at NASA to try and get members of the public to reflect about the future of humanity in space’.”

Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian Barbie
Mattel created a Ben Hayoun-Stépanian Barbie

Through her experience design, Ben Hayoun-Stépanian aims to help people think about complex and confusing ideas.

“I’m much more interested in the fringe,” she continued. “I’m interested in counterculture. I’m interested in everything that doesn’t have a name for itself.”

“I think a lot of people fear big ideas,” she explained. “And whenever you cannot pin down a lexicon, or it doesn’t fit in some some kind of regimented compartment in your brain that you’ve been taught by your school, then they become uncomfortable with it.”

“I love the fact I exist in this alien territory”

Although people don’t immediately understand what she does, Ben Hayoun-Stépanian describes being hard to pin down as a “positive”.

“I love the fact I exist in this alien territory,” she said. “You could say that it’s more difficult [than for those working in more traditional fields like furniture design], but at the same time it is my KPI, it’s my trademark.”

“People come to me because they know that what they want to achieve is impossible. Or they come to me because they don’t understand what their next phase is going to be in technology, or with a company, or with a brand.”

Ben Hayoun-Stépanian believes that more designers should be working outside of the traditional bounds of the discipline, highlighting the work of Tigris Li, Mirrored Fatality and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley.

She hopes that more designers will embrace “non-linear” approaches to design and their practices.

“I’m always trying to embed in all our installations and in all the work we a non-linear way of thinking and telling stories,” said the London-based designer.

Ben Hayoun-Stépanian founded the University of Underground
Ben Hayoun-Stépanian founded the University of the Underground

“Your practice doesn’t need to be linear – you can start in design, you can find yourself going into an art and political theory, you can talk about decolonisation through your practice, then you can go into space exploration,” she continued.

“And all of these are part of the way that you want the member of the public to experience something, because we are complex humans. And I think that has been forgotten and it’s really sad.”

For Ben Hayoun-Stépanian, this linear thinking is due, in a large part, to the way that design is taught in schools and universities.

“It really comes down to schools – there are not enough independent schools, universities and platforms for people to just experiment,” she said.

“It’s really important to us to remain pluralistic”

In response to this lack of independence, Ben Hayoun-Stépanian established the University of the Underground in 2017.

Described “a free, pluralistic and transnational university based in the basement of nightclubs”, the institution aims to provide an alternative to traditional design education.

“If you look at education, the way it’s been structured always responds to nation states and the agenda of one government,” she said.

“It’s really important to us to remain pluralistic. So not to depend on any governmental funding or governments or nation states. So we can always be free in our way of thinking.”

Ben Hayoun-Stépanian recently released her fifth documentary, Doppelgängers, at the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. It follows a film released last year that documented the “chaos and radical imagination” of Tour de Moon festival.

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