Growing up in the lush green countryside of Luxembourg, one would expect designer Michaël Harboun to have had ample opportunity to draw inspiration from the prolific nature surrounding him; the dense clusters of fairytale-like forests and the layers of moss creeping over old stone buildings providing an ethereal yet vibrant font for the imagination. Though Michaël spent a fair amount of time exploring the world around him, he maintains that his first true muse was none other than an old Nintendo console.
Michaël and his brothers playing Nintendo last Christmas.
“When I first came to the states, one of the few things I brought with me was my Nintendo console. It’s a reminder of where I come from. This console represents the origin of my creativity. That’s what sparked my first sketch.”
Michaël shows off his prodigious video game collection while explaining how they laid the foundation for his creativity. The youngest of three brothers, Michaël would sketch imagined video game characters alongside alongside his older siblings. Mega Man was an old favorite, with its eclectic array of villainous robots each adhering to some elemental or animalian theme. Where the game ended, Michaël and Patrick’s minds went on, filling page after page with newly imagined villains.
Michaël and his brothers
“From there, it allowed me to shape an aesthetic sensitivity. No one is born a good sketcher, but it’s through exercise and practice that you develop a style. You understand what good looks like and why.”
As he grew older, Michaël began to develop other interests. At 7 he started producing short films about aliens in the forests of Luxembourg. Still, his fascination with video games remained a huge influence in his taste and aesthetics; his brooding phase came with the advent of Silent Hill, a game that inspired a series of David Lynch-esque short films during his teenage years exploring themes of identity and consciousness.
Working in the creative industry became a clear vocation and Michaël decided to study art and design by the age of 16, a crucial age in Luxembourg when students are asked to make their first career decision.
“I went to Paris, to this school called Penninghen. It was an amazing school, but known to be one of the harshest schools in the country. It was like that movie with the angry composer—Whiplash! But with art.”
Michaël explained how the experience was unlike any he had previously. Draconian teachers would leer over his shoulder as he worked, taking an ever-critical approach to deconstructing his art.
“It did help. I did want to make progress. It was tough, but I loved it.”
Nevertheless, while completing his studies Michaël began to question his path and wonder if he was not better suited for something else. In a serendipitous moment, he came across a flyer advertising another school’s program in product design. Michaël claims he felt goosebumps while scanning over the car designs, and had a sudden urge to reroute his course.
“I changed everything and decided to go to that school the next year.”
While working on product design, Michaël delved into designs of more pragmatic products such as chairs and lights. He took up two internships in Paris, the latter of which triggered a new insight.
“The last internship was revealing. I worked for a famous designer and I’d be designing this chair for hours and he’d look at it and make a few comments. I wouldn’t have any say, and if the chair ever got released it’d be his name on it and I’d be in the shadows.”
Struggling with his growing disillusionment with the industry, Michaël again was plunged into uncertainty as to whether product design was the right fit. Fortunately, it was at this time that Michaël made an inspiring connection with one of the school’s professors.
“There are very few encounters in your life that change the course of things. He was one of them.”
Michaël enrolled in a new class offered by Professor Dominique Sciamma in interaction design, a highly experimental field that dealt with theories of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and societal transformation.
“It was magic to my ears. Suddenly I was in the digital world again, the one that inspired me in the first place with videogames. Interaction design bridged the digital world to our everyday lives, and I couldn’t stop but thinking about the possibilities. It didn’t make sense to design chairs anymore, not with so many challenges out there needing help from designers.”
The lessons Michaël had throughout his interaction design course were a far cry from the conventionalities of typical design lectures. Rather than designing for immediate consumer appeal, the class was involved in speculating and sparking debates about the future. They discussed and explored challenges and opportunities found at the intersection of technology, human science, and ethics.
“I’ve always been interested in the future. The notion of zeitgeist: that there’s something about this moment in time that connects everybody. Technology is always a fundamental layer of our zeitgeist. I felt a vocation to be part of that. I didn’t want to be left behind.”
Towards the end of his studies, Michaël landed an internship designing apps with a few students at Harvard, an opportunity that brought him to the United States for the first time as an adult. During his short stint in Boston, Michaël couldn’t help but notice glaring differences between the city and his quiet hometown in Luxembourg.
“One of the first things I remember was when we went to buy groceries. We went to that giant place where they sell everything, the Costco. It just felt like being Alice in that part where she gets small. I was thinking ‘Everything’s just so big. These products, how do you even get them out of the store?’ There was like a tank for everything.”
Oversized portions and rampant consumerism aside, Michaël soon found that he had developed a fondness for the American lifestyle. He identifies a industrious productivity within the culture that draws him in; something that spurs the people to constantly try bolder and better things.
“Here there’s this not being afraid of trying something and seeing if it sticks on the wall mindset. I don’t think it exists in many places; I think many places aspire to be like that. I think it’s because America is like a teenager in the world. As a culture, they’re not that old, so they sort of have permission to try new things and experiment.”
After completing the internship and returning to France, Michaël began sending out his portfolio in the hopes of getting picked up by a design agency, his two top desired locations being Japan and the United States. Four months after sending out his applications, he heard back from IDEO in Chicago.
“I did the interview over Skype. I remember being really nervous and putting on nice clothes and everything. Right before I started though, I realized one could see my giant hookah in the background of my video chat, so I had to run and throw it out of sight.”
Michaël landed a temporary internship for 6 months and was on a Chicago-bound plane within 2 months. Once he had arrived, he quickly found a support network of others who had just immigrated to the states working alongside him. Heartened by the camaraderie of such an eclectic group of artists, Michaël adjusted well to his new life and home. After completing his internship, Michaël received an offer for a full-time position.
“I remember thinking, ‘A six-month internship? That is so long to be far away from home.’ Now it’s 6 years later and I’m still here.”
Playful cows in front of Michaël's house.
Though he feels well integrated in his new home, Michaël revealed to us that he does from time to time miss the rolling green hills and cow pastures of Luxembourg. Since starting his work in the states, Michaël has visited home a few times, but describes a peculiar sensation that occurs whenever he does.
“When you come back you automatically become the person you were before you left. It’s a mind-shift that you have to be okay with. People look at you the way you always were, but you have changed by being here and there’s a clash of perceptions.”
Despite his personal evolution, Michaël has never forgotten to look back at his roots. Amidst all his changes, his muse has remained the same after all these years.
“My Nintendo is a relic. It reminds me of my family and my brothers, the countless hours we spent designing our own worlds together. Whenever I feel uninspired, I look back at it and think of the unbridled imagination that shaped us as kids growing up in suburbia Luxembourg.”