in Profiles | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

Make and Do

Born in Munich in 1965, Konstantin Grcic trained as a cabinet-maker and then studied design at Royal College of Art in London. After graduating he worked in Jasper Morrison’s studio before opening his own practice, Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design (KGID), in Munich in 1991. He has designed products for companies including Authentics, ClassiCon, Flos, Iittala, Magis, Muji and Plank. KGID, a monograph on his work, is published by Phaidon

in Profiles | 14 NOV 05

Emily King: There was a moment in the mid-1990s when designers were preoccupied with the idea of normality, designing the normal chair or the normal bottle, for example. The assumption seemed to be that the familiar form, being the product of years of use, must be the most appropriate. You, however, seem to believe the opposite: that the most appropriate form might be the least expected. What is your relationship with the normal shape of things?

Konstantin Grcic: There was a point in my career when I felt I was limiting myself, although I do believe that normal is right and that archetypes have a strong significance, but now I am trying to take my knowledge, respect and love for them to another dimension. We must create new archetypes, because we can’t always quote and sample. A lot of creativity in the last decade went into using existing material and putting it together in another form. Now I think it is time to try to create something new, to find a language that is of our time. Which is not to say it should reject the past. I began my career working for a furniture restorer, looking at old furniture; some really old pieces were very fresh and modern.

EK: Do you ever refer to existing designs in your own work?

KG: Yes, almost everything I design has some kind of reference to something else.

EK: Are your references deliberate or inevitable?

KG: Sometimes deliberate, other times not. For example, my Cramer chair (1995) refers to a chair that Ferdinand Kramer designed for Thonet in 1927.

EK: In your book you imply that you have more respect for historical technique than historical form. When you make a reference, is it more about how an object is made than how it looks?

KG: Beautiful forms derive from technique. I have always been interested in how things are made. The Thonet chair looks as it does because of how it was made.

EK: Your Mayday lamp (1998) is a depature from the archetypal domestic lamp. Can you explain how it came about?

KG: Well, sometimes you slightly change the DNA of a product, but it is not as if this kind of lamp never existed before.

EK: What does it refer to?

KG: The main reference is to lamps used in garages; neon tubes, with a hook and a cable. Of course, the other reference is a torch; in some ways Mayday is more of a torch than a lamp.

EK: Do you think people use it as a tool?

KG: I don’t know or mind. The nice thing is that people see it, and they immediately understand how to use it. It looks very familiar in a way.

EK: You claim never to design without a commission, but didn’t the idea for this lamp pre-date Flos as a client?

KG: A lot of my commissions don’t involve a brief as such, but I never design anything without a client. In this instance we were already working with Flos. I was designing a very technical light, and I became very frustrated with its limits. So I thought, ‘OK, since we are working on this lamp, maybe I can slip in another product’, and that’s how it came about. I love this piece. I think it’s really strong, but it is rare that something of this kind happens. It was designed without an applied strategy; we didn’t have an object in mind.

EK: Why do you need a client?

KG: For me a client is essential to design. The way things come together is like ping-pong. The designer is one player in the game. We play the first ball, and then somebody hits it back, and then we react to how the ball was played.

EK: What is the starting-point of your work?

KG: It’s easier to speak in terms of a concrete project: the chair for Magis, for example – chair_ONE (2004). It was Magis’ idea to make a chair in die-cast aluminium, which is a very specific way of using aluminium. It’s like injection moulding with hot metal, which creates a lot of freedom in terms of form. I was inspired by the idea of liquid metal under a lot of pressure shooting into a mould. It’s amazing! Injection-moulded plastic is created in a place like a laboratory. It’s very clean, and there is no excess material and the object falls out perfectly formed. With metal they inject more material, and then they have to trim off the excess and remelt it. There are huge buckets of hot liquid aluminium, and steam and fire. It’s quite wild. The decisions that led to the form of the chair had something to do with my understanding of the process. I found that by creating branches or veins I could create a structure, and this led to the possibility of making a controlled three-dimensional form. It was not designed for sitting on for a long time, or even sitting on at a table. I always saw it as a piece of furniture somewhere in public, somewhere to rest for a short while.

EK: Is the concrete base a joke on heaviness?

KG: No, it’s not a joke. It is seriously heavy.

EK: Well, it’s laughably heavy.

KG: At first we wanted a heavy base for security reasons, because it’s public furniture. Our original design was slightly smaller, but after testing it we had to enlarge the footprint of the base and its weight in order to get safety approval. The weight is not arbitrary – it’s what you need in order not to fall over. I strongly believe that some chairs or furniture can be too light. We had this problem with the bar stool Miura (2005). A tall stool creates a psychological need for a certain weight, to give you the feeling that it will actually support you.

EK: How did you get the weight? Has it got a heavy armature?

KG: No, it’s solid plastic, and that creates a nice weight. We didn’t control it, but it turned out just right. The original idea was to make it hollow, but then it would have been too light.

EK: Would you describe it as a computer-generated form?

KG: Kind of, but we always work very physically, making models. I start by building a structure, but in this particular case we modelled a skin over the skeleton using the computer. chair_ONE has no extra skin, it is still the bare structure, but Miura has a softer shape. The stool was designed for the Italian company Plank. They had a certain idea of what they wanted – they know who will buy bar stools. It was a real process, which took a long time, with many different versions, but there was a point when it came together, looking more or less like this. Even for us something felt great about it. There was an immediate feeling: it had an aura.

EK: In KGID you claim to enjoy working within restrictions. Do you mean technical ones?

KG: Yes, but I also like working with the restrictions that come from the company. All companies have a certain set-up – not necessarily a technical one, it might be their catalogue, or what they have produced in the past. I like to create a dialogue with the other things in the catalogue.

EK: Do the restrictions of the market interest you?

KG: No, because I simply don’t believe in them. A lot of those marketing strategies are really banal. They work on an assumption that, if something works already, then we’ll do the same and it will continue to work. But there are so many examples of things that suddenly pop up, and people want them and like them. They know how to use them, even though they never existed before. Of course, I try and design things the best way possible, always bearing the people who will use them in mind. I would never try to design something to be a commercial success. I want things to work; if it’s a chair that means you can sit on it and feel OK, but also that you like it and you want to have it. It also has to work for the company producing it. They must be able to make it and pack it and ship it. When I say, ‘I want things to work’, I mean on many different levels. Success just follows on, or not. What makes a project commercially successful is very difficult to anticipate, or understand, and I think a strong statement is worth more than large distribution or success. Having said that, of course I enjoy success. I think the Miura stool will be very successful. There have been a lot of orders for it; it is a product that works.

EK: There are so few contemporary bar stools around.

KG: Yes, there is one by the Azumis, a very minimalist one, and Stefano Giovannoni did one for Magis. I don’t know of any other type of furniture where there seems to be only two products on the market. I think our bar stool will be a real alternative.

EK: In your book you imply that the Chaos sofa, designed in 2000 for ClassiCon, represents a shift in your approach. Can you explain how?

KG: This goes back to what we were talking about earlier. Before I designed Chaos, I believed a chair should look like a chair and a table should look like a table. But Chaos looks different, and so did other things after it.

EK: What happened in 2000?

KG: I was frustrated with my situation at the time in terms of what I was doing and how it was perceived. Also, looking around at the design scene, there were only sofas that looked like sofas. It was the beginning of all this B&B Italia stuff, and they were promoting this beautifully clean and very slick idea of how we should furnish our homes. I knew I wouldn’t want to live that way, all done by an interior designer. I love individual pieces – I have never wanted to buy sofas by the metre, or shelves just to clad a certain-sized wall.

EK: When you designed it, did you deliberately make it ugly or awkward?

KG: At the time I was not preoccupied with having to please anybody. I just wanted to work with the way that the sofa was used, and I believed that that would create a certain shape. We made it in the way we like to do things, by building a cardboard model. That’s how this ugly thing came about.

EK: Were ClassiCon supportive?

KG: Well, they are a small company, and small companies sometimes make room for a product as an idea. This piece of furniture has its followers, and it has stayed in the catalogue for years. It sells very little, but it has become an icon for the company. It is also an icon for my work, and that’s why, over time, it has gained a meaning.

EK: Do you believe in modernity?

KG: Yes, absolutely.

EK: Would you call yourself a Modernist?

KG: Well, no, I wouldn’t use the term myself, because for me it belongs to a certain era. What I am interested in is today, more today than tomorrow, and definitely not yesterday. I think I know the history of design quite well, but that doesn’t mean that I design as if it were 20 years ago. I believe in a Zeitgeist. Designers are meant to be people who can anticipate the future, but I don’t think I can. Trying to get things right, to make things that have a spirit of today, is hard enough.

EK: So you are not interested in timelessness?

KG: No, it’s not an issue for me. The reality of the products I design and of the companies producing those products is, first of all, to be on the market for about five years. Some things will continue selling and being valid for longer, but that’s not what we think about.

EK: Do you think things survive because they’re good?

KG: Yes, I think so.

EK: So you don’t seek out timelessness, but if that happens, then it is a positive outcome?

KG: There is a kind of ideal product that will continue to sell for decades.

EK: Do you think an object like your bar stool won’t survive because, however good it is, its success is linked with fashion?

KG: Probably, but that’s not a problem. If it sells for five years, then that’s already an achievement. Take the Panton chair, for example; it’s a very fashionable object that’s been around for a long time and still looks so fresh and good. I don’t want to compare my stool to the Panton chair, but I think that something that is fashionable can still survive.