Inaugural lecture of the Chair of design Jean Prouvé

Lévy, P. (2022). The moment of design - Inaugural lecture of the Chair of design Jean Prouvé, presented at Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris, France. May 13th, 2022.

Inaugural lecture - Les moments du design

Pierre Lévy
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The moment of design

Inaugural lecture of the Jean Prouvé Design Chair, May 18, 2022

Thank you Ruedi for this warm introduction. Your mentorship of the Chair can only be a good omen for what it can and will become.

Dear General Administrator, dear Marc, dear Jean-Claude, dear colleagues, dear friends, dear family, dear listeners present here or somewhere online, it is a great pleasure to be able to start this inaugural lecture today at CNAM.

Lucie and I decided to do our inaugural lessons together, because we think it is an opportunity to emphasize the closeness and complementarity of our subjects and ways of doing, and to celebrate what CNAM is for all of us: a place of learning and development, as well as a place of interdisciplinary and interprofessional exchange and sharing.

It also requires that our lessons be about 40 minutes each, so that it remains a celebration and an enjoyable time, and does not become an ordeal for you.

So let’s get started.

1. Jean Prouvé

// where design is part of a history of materials, of doing, of society and of attachment to everyday life

It is an event for a Chair of design and an honour for its holder that the name of Jean Prouvé is associated with it. And I would particularly like to thank Mrs. Catherine Prouvé, for her presence here today and for her precious help in making this association a reality.

This association is, of course, within the filiation of the Chairs at CNAM - and in particular between the Chair of Applied Arts and Crafts, which Jean Prouvé held from 1958 to 1971, and the Chair of Design Jean Prouvé, which symbolically begins today. But this association also plays the role of mediation, allowing for a moment of dialogue and advocacy on what the Chair of Design Jean Prouvé intends to be.

I therefore propose in this first part to discuss this filiation, not from a historical perspective, but rather to find in it an inspiration of what a Chair of design at CNAM can be today, in today’s society, with its own social, economic, technological, and of course ecological challenges. Instead of looking in the rear-view mirror for too long, we should see this filiation as a way to look ahead, and to help us reflect on what we can do here and now in view of a future that we still have to imagine and make.

1.1 A path

To me, Jean Prouvé embodies an essential position in design. Jean Prouvé was an ironworker, an engineer (self-taught), a designer (self-taught), an architect (self-taught), a member of the Resistance, a player in the post-war French reconstruction program, the mayor of Nancy, and a partner of Abbé Pierre in the creation of a House of Better Days. Coming from traditional ironwork, he contributed to a modern look at materials, forms and uses. His attachment to a design for use and for all, and in particular for the most modest, makes him an important post-war actor not only for the world of architecture and design, but for society as a whole.

And as such, Jean Prouvé places design where it is wanted: as a societal actor, producing ingenious proposals for material arrangements whose value emerges from their use and their potential for transformation. In other words, the value is to be found in the appropriation of the designer’s proposals and their consequences for society.

It is thus a question of working on what I call the “contexture” of the environments in which we evolve, i.e., on their form and their texture. I will come back later to this notion of contexture that I have developed through my research.

1.2 The doing, the reflecting, and the envisioning

Moreover, the art historian, architect and sociologist Nils Peters, who wrote a biography on Jean Prouvé1, reminds us that during his classes at CNAM, “Jean Prouvé rarely said much. Instead, he made drawings and continually visualized his ideas on a chalkboard. What he illustrated here, true to his own convictions, was that the practice of theories was paramount and that any knowledge that was acquired only academically could hardly inspire creativity.” It is therefore an attitude towards the relationship between practice and theory in the field of design in the broadest sense: that of studying, understanding, involving scientific, technological, social, and ecological developments, and finding a place for them in society within the daily lives of each and every one.

Design is therefore presented as a practice and as an attitude, questioning possible worlds, in order, as the political scientists Trevor Hancock and Clement Bezold2 propose, to move towards preferable futures. Design is therefore not just about creating artifacts, a commercial offer of stuff. Working on these futures through design requires that the practice be accompanied by societal, political, ethical, and ecological reflection, and that this reflection take place in action, that is, at the very heart of design practice.

And therein lies the first aspect for which the Chair of design claims to be in the continuity of Jean Prouvé: an attitude at the crossroads of doing, reflecting, and envisioning.

1.3 The everyday

This dedication to exploration and the powerful understanding of material, technique, and the aesthetics that can emerge from it are at the foundation of the excellence of Jean Prouvé’s work, and resonate with the Nancy school that strives to revitalize art, and to have it permeate everyday life.

This environment - what I will later call this tradition - probably contributed to making Jean Prouvé a craftsman, a Jean Prouvé explorer of new materials and new projects, with a strong sensitivity to the everyday and a particular attention to the societal dimension of his art. What the architect Jean Nouvel also notes when he says, speaking of Jean Prouvé, that “rarely that ethics have created such a clear beauty”1.

1.4 A societal posture

Design is therefore a practice, an attitude and a societal posture:

And therein lies the second aspect for which this Chair of design claims to be in the continuity of Jean Prouvé: the ambition that design and craftspersonship be at once practices, an attitude and a societal posture at the service of the transformation of everyone’s everyday life.

2. Design

// where design is an attitude and an activity situated and built on ambivalences

We have thus established the societal posture aimed at by design, or at least aimed at by the Chair through its future activities. But the question of design remains, and even if the road is full of pitfalls, let’s take it, at least a little.

2.1 What design does

Indeed, the definition of design has always been a difficult issue - a long history of intense discussions and failed conclusions - and thus a hitherto unsatisfied question. A recent article by design professor Alethea Blackler and her colleagues3 reports on twenty years of global discussions about the definition of design with no real consolidated result. Through a strategy that is quite popular these days, the authors then invite us to reflect instead on “the importance of design’s role in the global conversation about transdisciplinary approaches to researching and designing future scenarios and emerging pathways for humanity.”

In my opinion, this approach is not satisfactory, because once again it turns away from the question of design. But if we cannot determine what design is, and knowing that it is at least a practice, an attitude and a posture, then the effort of clarification should turn to what design does.

2.2 Design is situated

This can be based on an essential principle of design: that of its situation. By this I mean that design is situated: it finds its relevance through what it can propose as potentially transforming arrangements. In other words, design is lost and cannot, or even does not know how to act in the abstract. It is here on the ground, where experience takes place, where design rubs up against matter, bumps up against experience, that design acts and establishes its practice. So let’s keep this in mind: design is situated.

2.3 Design is coloured

I also take up with interest the point made by the design philosopher Johan Redström4 that design is fundamentally and historically structured on dichotomies. We are particularly interested in the dichotomous relationships between methods and practices, between everyday life and global issues, between art and industry, to name but a few. These dichotomies are places of friction, what I call irregularities, inspired by the writings of the Japanese thinker Yanagi Soetsu5,6, and I will come back to this notion later, which invites design to constantly question its positioning and its action.

The practice of design is therefore fundamentally reflexive. As a practice situated in a complex context, as we have already seen this reflection is on what it does. Yet design does not find a definitive answer here either. This answer is always changing. Therefore, design is elusive. In other words, and complementing Johan Redström’s words with those I have proposed with Professors Ambra Trotto and Caroline Hummels, and our colleagues through Transformative Practices7, it is complex and colourful, that is to say, rich in its variety of practices; it is resilient and learning, engaged and transforming.

2.4 Attitude

Within the practice, the designer engages knowledge, know-how, and an attitude. In this commitment, it is important to carry out quality work as an end in itself – this is what the sociologist Richard Sennett8 suggests. It is important to use and trust one’s senses and imagination, one’s intuition and curiosity – this is what design professor Kees Overbeeke9 reminds us. Finally, it is important to use one’s skills and knowledge either to do (i.e., to work and interact with the material) or to think (i.e., to work and interact with ideas).

2.5 Sustainable instability

Immersed in the practices as they are lived and as they are realized, the design is moreover interested and situated in a complex world. It makes, questions, reflects, opens towards possibilities, without never putting aside the ambiguity and the uncertain… in short, what resists, the world as it is lived.

It advances, and thus progresses in a form of balance which is in fact only apparent. It is formed by a multitude of temporary imbalances. Caroline Hummels and I have called this the sustainable instability of design, which qualifies the dynamic in which design works. Instabilities are moments of potential changes in practice: reflections in and on action allow for change, necessary to maintain coherence in practice, necessary for learning and development through practice10.

Therefore, it seems relevant to call on phenomenology, and more generally on the philosophies that gather around the notion of embodiment. To make a long story short, these philosophies show that we perceive the world by interacting with it. This perception, fundamentally active, requires a body and skills. We perceive the world through the potentiality of our actions (what we can do), and by interacting with it (by what we do). Hence, there is a primacy of the body over action, and a primacy of action, or at least of the potential for action, over cognition. This in no way evacuates the importance of the symbolic in human experience (at aesthetic, social and cultural levels).

2.6 Symmetrical anthropology

To summarise, we have seen that design is a practice whose perspective is both individual and collective, social and political, transforming and virtuoso of complexity and norms.

It questions how the material arrangements it proposes can transform practices, those of others and its own, and in a complementary movement how these practices are the moment11 of an appropriation of the proposals made by design.

Design is therefore a bearer of meaning that potentially modifies the context in which people and practices evolve. It is a mediation that makes transformation possible, by giving the action and its actor the possibility of discerning and thinking about its condition and its possibles, which will then be selected and appropriated.

In design, it is thus a question of what we can do with our personal, social, ecological environments… and what these environments do with us. A form of symmetrical anthropology.

Therefore, we are asking ourselves the question of the aesthetics and ethics of the contexts in which we live and in which the practices perform. This is what I named in my HDR work “contexture”, the texture of the context of our practices5, which allows the transformation of these practices through the mediation of design.

3. A perspective

// where tradition, irregularity and moment structure a societal design

With the design landscape thus described, it now seems important to move forward in this lesson by positioning the Chair and its work within this landscape.

To do this, we must take sides, that is, we must structure and formulate an approach and a perspective from which we will work. And it is primarily the perspective I propose for the Chair that I will now develop.

3.1 Craftspersonship

3.1.1 The handling

To begin with, it is important to emphasize the proximity of design to the arts and crafts. Already at an institutional level – which is particularly the case here in the close relationship built between CNAM and the schools of crafts and design –, and also because they are both socially situated and committed to the proposal of a beautiful with societal value through use and usefulness.

And it is indeed necessary to briefly recall that the contemplation of the works produced by the crafts is not sufficient to appreciate them. It is through their handling that their materiality is expressed and revealed. It is through their handling that their usefulness and value take on meaning. Just as for design, it is through their handling that their aesthetics are fully discovered.

If the crafts have a social role as works12, it is indeed that this materialization of the beautiful through the useful and the durable has a societal and ecological relevance, which our time needs.

3.1.2 Quality

Besides this, the development of industry, i.e. segmented, mechanical and informational production, which has allowed impressive development and innovations in the last centuries – and CNAM is rich of examples and of experiences, also challenges the production of applied arts and the importance of quality and workpersonship in everyday life.

And make no mistake, industry is needed to serve a population that continues to grow (aren’t we talking about 10 billion humans13!). And it is the role of the designer (who in the imaginary can be an engineer or a designer, and who in reality is a multidisciplinary, multicultural, multi-profession group of people who together design and produce) to project proposals to move towards a better world. And in this proposition, the quality of the proposed material arrangement cannot be absent. Let us reason by the absurd and we will quickly see the absurdity of a world that would doubt the necessity of beauty.

It is therefore for the craftspeople, designers and engineers, not only to keep the gesture and the tradition which enable a creation of quality, but also to reinforce the one produced by the machine. Let the manufacturing process take advantage of the skills, the sensitivity, the attitude of the craftsperson in order to improve the machine, its use, and its deliverables! It is then for the craftsperson not to distance oneself from industrial production, but on the contrary, and I think as did Jean Prouvé, to contribute to its use in order to improve both the craft that integrates the machine in its practice and the quality of what it produces. And we will see later the example of the textile designer Minagawa Akira who illustrates this situation beautifully.

In order to move forward, I will focus our attention on three aspects that are relative and common to craft and design, which I have already mentioned, and which seem fundamental to the structure and conduct of the Chair: tradition, irregularity, and moment.

3.2 The tradition

It is important to realize that the crafts produce objects of very high quality because the exigence of the profession demands it and because its environment enables it.

3.2.1 The exigence

The exigence of the profession demands it, because it is sensitive to the beauty of the work and its handling, and claims its importance. It recognizes the talent, of course, but does ask as well for an attitude.

3.2.2 The environment

Its environment enables it, because it carries the tradition in which the craft is registered. The notion of tradition that I use here is directly inspired by the writings of the Japanese thinker Yanagi Soetsu, who describes it as an environment made up of a culture, a collective dynamic, and a vitality centered on a know-how. A tradition is in no way static. On the contrary, it is nourished by experiences and individual daily lives to continue making the community evolve.

To return to the craft, even if its execution is sometimes individual and that one finds a certain freedom of action and creation in the workshop, the practice, in the broad sense, is plunged in a cultural and socio-economic environment which enables excellence. The craft profession finds its strength and excellence because it is part of a tradition.

Yanagi14 teaches us that the beauty and greatness produced by the hands of the craftsperson are not simply the result of one’s own skills (individual power), but also of what the environment provides (power beyond [individual mastery]). 

3.3 The irregularity

Before continuing, I would like to make a small parenthesis on Japanese philosophy, which has been developed at the crossroads of Buddhist thought and phenomenology15. Having spent about 10 years in the beautiful country of Japan, including my doctoral research years, this philosophy, as well as Japanese thought in general, has influenced and inspired me a great deal and helped me to reflect on our affective relationship to the world as it is lived, and on the experience of beauty in everyday practices. The references to Japanese literature that I will cite here are therefore fundamental in the construction of my reflection on design and on the everyday.

To extend this parenthesis beyond my own experience, I hope to give here a new dimension to the colouring of design. Let’s remember that design is colourful, rich from a great variety of practices. It is also rich from a wide variety of cultures, which is poorly reflected in current design literature and discourse, heavily tinged with Western culture. Culturally decentring design, through its exposure to worldviews based on other thoughts and cultures, may allow for a broadening of the worldview through which design operates. This clear post-colonial positioning envisions the formation of more relevant perspectives and approaches to topics to which design can effectively contribute. Needless to say, the Chair will support this effort to culturally enrich design, beyond Japanese culture.


Let’s go back to art and design, which recognize the strength and importance of the gesture in what it expresses of human, in what it expresses through its imperfection.

To understand what is at stake in this notion – imperfection – let us take up the notion of perfection and what Yanagi Soetsu14 tells us about it. He describes it as a closure since there is nothing more to change. It is perfect! It is static and final, with no horizon of possible transformation. The end of history. The absence of freedom. To it is opposed imperfection, which invites to change, to a possibility of transformation, and thus to a form of freedom. But Yanagi is not satisfied with this form of freedom, which is in fact bound to imperfection, itself posed in opposition to perfection. He then invites us to go beyond this dichotomy asserting that what he calls “true beauty” (奇数の美 - kisuu-no-bi) is in a non-dualistic totality - we are evolving here in a Buddhist thought. He then suggests that this beauty emerges from what he calls irregularity (歪み - yugami), when imperfection becomes identified with perfection and that “something unexplained” (不定形 - futei-kei) remains. Yanagi puts it this way14: “The love of the irregular is a sign of a fundamental quest for freedom.”

3.3.1 The gesture

Such irregularity can be the expression of the gesture, that of the craftsperson for instance. But we must also think about the tool and the use, other moments of interaction and appropriation.

3.3.2 The tool

Hamada Shōji, a great Japanese ceramist who became a Living National Treasure in 1955, had a kiln capable of holding about ten thousand pots. When asked about the need for such a kiln, he replied that he would be able to completely control a smaller kiln, and that he would then be the master and controller. With this large kiln, the “individual power” weakens so that he cannot control the kiln, and what had been called “power beyond” is needed to get a good piece16. Therefore, he wants to work with grace from that power beyond, not toward a perfection that his mastery would impose.

This idea of power beyond and irregularity, dear to the beauty and ethics as expressed by Yanagi, is also found in the work of Minagawa Akira. Minagawa pushes industrial embroidery to the limits of its mechanical capacities, in order to produce unpredictable and a priori unexpected imperfections, that is to say a form of irregularity, source of a unique and poetic beauty. Minagawa himself says: “I want the fabric to convey the feeling I experience myself when I make sketches. The embroidered patterns I create not only use thread to sew the design, they create a three-dimensional relief by overlapping stitches on top of each other, piercing the fabric randomly while remaining true to the light and shade of my original sketch. This way of doing embroidery without a fixed rule gives the feeling of hand-drawn lines.”

In Minagawa’s work, as in Hamada’s one, it is the designer-tool pairing that makes this irregularity possible as a new craftsperson embedded in both a tradition (ceramics or textiles) and industrial engineering.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to explore this designer-tool relationship again during a project with one of the students, Yamada Shigeru, whom I was accompanying for his master’s degree at Eindhoven University of Technology. We made Japanese tea ceremony objects in 3D printing based on parametric models. It was a question for us to work on the speed of impression of the machine so that on this one associates with a power beyond. These objects were printed at the standard speed, then 2, 3, 4, 6 times faster. The evaluation made by several Japanese tea masters allowed us to conclude that the object printed with a doubled speed of impressions made precisely an aesthetics of the irregularity appreciated by these tea masters17.

3.3.3 The use

But this irregularity, if it offers freedom and the possibility of transformation, must also manifest itself in the user’s experience. Without it, the everyday would be an experience without surprise, without the possibility of change and therefore without freedom. For the everyday to be worthwhile, what the philosopher Bruce Bégout calls the process of quotidianization18 must be accompanied by irregularities placed in the usual or in the expected, what George Pérec calls the endotic19. And then the everyday becomes a moment in permanent evolution, and a space of imagination, creation and freedom.

Focusing on irregularity in everyday use, three concepts come to mind, which unfortunately I will not have time to develop today:

3.4 The moment of design, the moment of use

There are therefore two moments in which irregularity can offer opportunities for transformation: the moment of design and the moment of appropriation. And it is on these two notions that I would like to conclude this reflection on design.

3.4.1 The moment of design

These two moments, of design and of appropriation, are moments of creation. And the artefact, proposed and then appropriated, forms a link between these two moments. For design, it is therefore an essential, social and humanist role to propose the conditions for creation within use, that is to say for appropriation.

The position I take in projects and in research is to defend and structure this precise idea according to which the designer must think of the human being essentially by one’s capacity of appropriation and creation of one’s environment, and by one’s capacity of reflection and responsible decision. This is not trivial and not always shared when we hear what is prescribed following “user tests” or sometimes under the unfortunate name of “good user practice”.

For this, two things are needed. One has already been discussed at length. It is of course the irregularity that allows reflexivity and choice. The other is what I call the artefactual emptiness, a concept also inspired by Japanese philosophy, which denotes the space of opportunities offered to the user. The artefactual emptiness corresponds to the idea that the artifact must open up possibilities of appropriation, which it will mediate through irregularity. It is in this artefactual emptiness that appropriation takes shape.

Keeping in mind the history of design and crafts, the Chair will strongly assert this societal proposal of its practices and their production. This proposal is based on the primary considerations of the capacity that each person has to create, the need for a collective and an ever-evolving tradition to move forward together, and a Jonasian categorical imperative of a social, ecological and responsible life23.

Conscious of producing and disseminating proposals in a complex context and through a practice that is always in a state of enduring instability, the Chair will continue to keep its production open to questioning by all, beginning with itself.

3.4.2 In practice

In practice, it will first be a matter of clarifying more clearly the role and manner of design in the moment of its own practice, outside of and yet linked to that of everyday life. This effort will lead to a reflexive practice of design, and to question its anthropological, humanistic, social, ecological, political and philosophical implications.

4 Programme

// where the Chair intends to become a societal actor through designing, for training, research, and social commitment

Now that we have positioned ourselves on the practice of design, all that remains is to highlight the programmatic elements of the Chair.

Within CNAM, the Chair puts forward training and research approaches through design, arts and crafts and culture. Its ambition is to create and to develop collaborations in training, research and projects within and outside CNAM, in France, in Europe and internationally. It therefore aims to be an actor in an ecosystem that goes beyond CNAM and beyond design, and that will take as its horizon the possibility of a societal transformation of everyday life, through that of design and arts and crafts practices.

The Chair dialogues with numerous training institutions, and is part of the dynamic of the Campus des Métiers d’Arts et du Design. One of the major visions of the Chair is to confirm the possibility of a continuum throughout the initial training of the arts and design professions, from the vocational schools to the doctorate, and of lifelong learning. Particular attention to this subject, which is dear to me, is focused on the fundamental and very CNAMian idea that one must learn to learn.

The Chair contributes to research in design and in the arts, culture and creation, at the intersection of epistemological, craft and industrial, societal and ecological considerations. This research is situated and engaged through practice. The Chair therefore proposes and promotes research through practice, that is, research that involves practice in the research activity itself, and not adjacent to research. It invites pragmatic approaches, based on reflective practice10.

The Chair is also involved in projects with a clear societal contribution. Historically, design proposals have always contained a political dimension, and the Chair intends to place this consideration at the center of its questioning and its work.

Finally, the Chair wants to be constructively provocative. While questioning and proposing possibilities of societal transformation through practices, it is committed to questioning its own questioning, its own proposals and its own practices.

5 Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Thank you.

6. References

  1. Peters, N. Prouvé. (Taschen, 2017).
  2. Hancock, T. & Bezold, C. Possible futures, preferable futures. Healthc. Forum J. 37, 23—29 (1994).
  3. Blackler, A. et al. Can We Define Design? Analyzing Twenty Years of Debate on a Large Email Discussion List. She Ji J. Des. Econ. Innov. 7, 41—70 (2021).
  4. Redström, J. Making design theory. (MIT Press, 2017).
  5. Lévy, P. Le temps de l’expérience, enchanter le quotidien par le design. (Université de Technologie de Compiègne, France, 2018).
  6. Lévy, P. Designing for the everyday through thusness and irregularity. in Proceedings of the International Association of Societies of Design Research Conference 2019, IASDR19 (Manchester Metropolitan University, 2019).
  7. Trotto, A. et al. Designing for Transforming Practices: Maps and Journeys. (Technische Universiteit Eindhoven, 2021).
  8. Sennett, R. Ce que sait la main: la culture de l’artisanat. (Albin Michel, 2010).
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  13. dix—milliards—humains. dix—milliards—humains. dix—milliards—humains (2021).
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  15. Stevens, B. Invitation à la philosophie japonaise: autour de Nishida. (CNRS, 2005).
  16. Yanagi, S. The Responsibility Of The Craftsman: And Mystery Of Beauty. (Literary Licensing, LLC, 2013).
  17. Lévy, P. & Yamada, S. 3D-modeling and 3D-printing Explorations on Japanese Tea Ceremony Utensils. in Proceedings of the Eleventh International Conference on Tangible, Embedded, and Embodied Interaction - TEI'17 283—288 (ACM Press, 2017). doi:10.1145/3024969.3024990.
  18. Bégout, B. La découverte du quotidien. (Éditions Allia, 2005).
  19. Perec, G. L’infra-ordinaire. (Seuil, 1989).
  20. Fukasawa, N. Micro consideration. MUJI無印良品: 無印良品とクリエイター (2015).
  21. Cox, A. L., Gould, S. J. J., Cecchinato, M. E., Iacovides, I. & Renfree, I. Design Frictions for Mindful Interactions: The Case for Microboundaries. in Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems 1389—1397 (ACM, 2016). doi:10.1145/2851581.2892410.
  22. Lévy, P., Deckers, E. & Restrepo, M. C. When Movement Invites to Experience: a Kansei Design Exploration on Senses’ Qualities. in Proceedings of the International Conference on Kansei Engineering and Emotion Research, KEER 2012 366—372 (National Cheng Kung University, 2012).
  23. Jonas, H. Le principe responsabilité  une éthique pour la civilisation technologique. (Flammarion, 1998).
  24. Yeats, W. B. La Rose et autres poèmes. (Seuil, 2008).

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