It’s a warm evening in Barcelona. Probably warmer than we have a right to expect, but Spain and its tourist multitudes are enjoying a long, drawn-out summer. I’m here to meet Gabriel Teixidó, a man described as a “rock-solid survivor” of the Spanish design scene. Given the financial woes the country faces, surviving is a sought-after skill, but the description does him a disservice. Over his long career, Teixidó has worked with pretty much any Spanish company you would care to mention and teaches at EINA, Barcelona’s school of art and design. More than a survivor then, and as good a man as any to ask about the Spanish design scene.
Conscious of the tendency to lump Spain and Italy together I try hard to avoid the comparison, but Teixidó wastes no time in doing it for me. “Spanish design always gets compared to the Italians,” he says as we sit down to eat. “There has always been design here but the country was closed off for 40 years. You did not know what was happening on the outside.” The legacy has been a country that has been too inward looking and a little unsure of itself. He speaks from experience. Born in Barcelona just after the war, he began his career in the early 1970s when the shadow of Franco loomed large over the population. Quaffing vino in Barcelona’s marina, it’s almost impossible to connect the two realities, and Teixidó confirms the strangeness of those times: “When I said what I did, people were confused. They did not know if I was a hairdresser, in fashion, or gay. Now everyone is a designer,” he smiles. Despite the jokes, he professes admiration for the today’s design students. “They eat information, they can do in two years what it would have taken me 10,” he says. The question now is whether the new wave can drag the industry from the economic mire.
Like much of Europe, Spain’s economy has taken a nosedive. The furniture industry suffered with the rest, its woes compounded by the rise of China as a manufacturing power. Designer and architect Niall O’Flynn traded London for Barcelona in 1990 and has seen the landscape shift from exuberant post-Olympic boom to spluttering halt in around 2007-8. “There was a lot of cheap labour and manufacturing here which has simply disappeared because of China,” he says. “The crisis of the last three to four years has wiped out a lot of firms.” O’Flynn believes that Spain has to sell itself more, but, has hitherto lacked the confidence to do so. “It’s cultural. Spaniards are famous for knocking themselves, and in a way the tragedy of the crisis was that Spain was finally gaining in confidence.”
One high-profile casualty has been Concepta, a Barcelona-based company founded in 1970 by Carlos Jané Camacho. By the noughties it had developed an extensive product list and owned a factory just outside the city. Sadly, the recession bit hard and the factory closed last year. The story, however, does not end there. From the still-smouldering ashes Camacho’s daughter May Jané and her siblings have started to rebuild the company. Concepta collaborator and friend O’Flynn is on board, as is a new young talent Gaspar González. I meet them at Gonzáles’ new studio, a beautiful space in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, to talk Spanish design and what the future might hold for the reborn Concepta.
“Our collection became without unity or coherence,” says Jané, who previously worked in the sales wing of the company. “We have to redefine our strategy in terms of product and design.” With the rug whipped out from beneath the lower end of the market, the logical step facing Spanish companies is to swim into high-quality design waters. The good news for Concepta is the new stripped-down portfolio (reduced from 200 to around 20 products) features strong work from established designers. Jane is also courting the country’s new talent such as Serra y de la Rocha and of course Gonzáles. The latter’s Surprise! chair for Concepta has a cheerful simplicity, with a brightly coloured seat appearing to float on the beech-wood frame. It made its debut in Milan and if all goes to plan armchair and stool versions are set to follow it into production next year.
This is the sort of thing the Spanish do well and evidence of what Gonzáles (who has studied and worked in the Netherlands) describes as emotional nature of Spain’s design education. “We design more artistically or intuitively. Other schools are more technical,” he says. He brims with puppyish energy, enthusing about the potential strength of the Spanish scene. “I am optimistic for the future; I see new designers from Europe and I think we are at this level.” The problem has been complacency: “In Barcelona we think we are the best in Europe, but you study in the Netherlands and realise no one knows us.”
On Barcelona’s city limits in a slightly grubby industrial area I meet Mobles 114. In Milan this year the company unveiled Green, a prototype chair by Javier Mariscal that is both 100% recycled and 100% recyclable. It heralds new direction for the company and at the time of writing production was due to complete in the next week or two. It seems a well thought-out step: the price of raw material is going up, demand is going down and factories are struggling to maintain standards as they lose workers. “Green is going to be successful for three reasons: first because it is Mariscal, who is quite well known, second, the eco-design, and third, the price,” says Mobles 114’s Marta Tremoleda.
Valencia, 300km south, is seen as more conservative than its Catalonian cousins, and the city’s beautiful mix of gothic and baroque architecture belies the city’s recent history as an industrial centre. Despite an annual furniture fair here, design has normally played second fiddle to manufacturing. However, Valencian company Andreu World kindled an interest in design by recruiting superstar designers like Patricia Urquiola to invigorate its collection. The move raised the bar and has galvanised another local company, Capdell, to expand its horizons. Capdell is well known for its use of wood and its enduring collaboration with Vicente Soto. Although well respected, the company could not escape the downturn and has shed nearly half its staff. Gauthier De Nutte, Capdell’s commercial director, greets me in the office above the factory and begins by explaining how the company is revamping its image. “We had been repeating ourselves too much. We were too Spanish and too focused on the Spanish market,” he says. With this in mind Capdell has approached 10 big-name international designers whom they hope will modernise and widen their appeal. “We need to convince them that something exciting is happening here and there is a challenge for them.”
The new direction is already taking shape with collaborations with Edestudio and Jaime Bouzaglo. As we talk, another piece from the steadily assembling jigsaw arrives, Valencian designer Carlos Tíscar. Describing himself as a bridge between Soto’s generation and the new wave, Tíscar has plied his trade for Offecct, Girsberger and Karl Andersson, invaluable experience that has helped develop a more international style. Today, the designer is here to examine his prototypes, hot off the production line for Valencia Design Week. Watching him engage with the craftsmen on the factory floor one feels he is a wise choice. The most heartening thing, though, is Capdell’s determination to work with its Valencian cohorts and see the bigger picture: “We don’t want to fight against Andreu World,” says De Nutte. “We believe that with them and other smaller companies we can be an alternative to Italian design.”
In contrast, nearby Viccarbe has been taking on the Italians since designer Victor Carrasco founded the company in 2002. The charismatic designer set his sights on the international market from the outset. “The Italians do high-end design at a high-end price. We saw we could do high-end design but for slightly cheaper,” says CEO Daniel Benedito Gonzalez. Undercutting the Italians has proved an extremely successful strategy, made possible by superstar collaborators such as Arik Levy, Jeffrey Burnett, Patricia Urquiola and Piero Lissoni, a testament to Carrasco’s pulling power. Gonzalez reveals that many clients think the company is Italian, an impression the company would be foolish to discourage. “Italians have always had the name. With the Season Bench [by Piero Lissoni] they said ‘you are taking another designer from our country,’ but this is an opportunity. We can offer the same level of design and the same designers.”
This journey began with a comparison of Spanish and Italian design, and so it ends. As I fly home from sweltering Alicante, I’m left with the impression that there is much to be optimistic about. The recession may have hit hard, but in the long run it looks set to force the Spanish to concentrate on what they’re really good at: designing. It may even mean they shout a little louder about their undoubted talents. In a modest and polite way, of course.
Photography by James McLachlan and Capdell