In 1982 the Ford Motor Company replaced its much-loved Cortina with something strange. I was 11 at the time and I’d never seen anything quite like the Sierra. Where its predecessor had been reliably boxy, this new car was weirdly angular and should be considered, I concluded, plain ugly. Later, of course, when the shock of the new faded I came to appreciate its styling and in fact briefly toyed with the idea of buying the (extremely lively) Cosworth version.I mention this because Konstantin Grcic’s work has, on occasion, inspired a similar response. While designers gasped in admiration at Chair One, manufactured by Magis in 2004, I remained firmly agnostic. Sure I could appreciate the technical prowess that allowed this fractal-shaped chair to be made in die-cast aluminium, but really, my argument went, it isn’t very pretty is it? By the time I was being forced to admit that I might just be wrong, he released the Myto chair. Launched by Plank in 2008 and manufactured from BASF’s Ultrdur High Speed plastic, it left me scratching my head as others sang its praises. Once again I understood the brilliance behind the manufacture and the fact that it’s only the second plastic cantilever chair ever created. And, yes, I know it won the furniture category of the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year yet I fail to see an environment in which it can comfortably be specified. Interestingly SCP’s Sheridan Coakley, in praising the product to another design critic, unwittingly put his finger one my problem with it. The Myto, he declared, is “a fantastic design exercise”. And he’s quite right of course – to my mind it feels like a product designed to speak to other designers.By the same token he’s produced pieces that I adore. The Mayday for Flos, designed in 1999, is a witty portable light reminiscent of the lamps mechanics use as they inspect the undersides of cars, while the more recent Miura bar stool (again for Plank, and plastic injection-moulded) shares something of Chair One’s angularity but is a softer, more accessible product. The point is that Grcic’s portfolio is a study of contrasts. He may describe himself firmly as an industrial designer but he’s also produced limited edition pieces for Gallerie Kreo. And even within the industrial milieu, he frequently mixes the experimental with the commercial, the simple with the complex. Zoe Ryan, who has curated a forthcoming exhibition of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago, believes: “He never sees something as failing. His thing is: ‘Let’s try it out, let’s see what the response is.’ And a negative response is almost as interesting to him as a positive one.”All of which accounts for why he is probably the most challenging and frequently surprising designer working today. One that refuses to take easy options, constantly pushing both his client’s manufacturing capabilities and his audience’s expectations.Born near Cologne in 1965, perhaps the key to his creative restlessness lies in an upbringing he describes as liberal. His lawyer father, an immigrant from Yugoslavia, was significantly older than his mother, who worked as an art dealer. While he loved 18th century drawings and antique furniture, she bought plastic furniture from Italy. “The different work lived together,” explains Grcic over the phone. “My sister and I grew up in this house where old and new naturally sat alongside each other. It’s very important in my understanding of this work.” Certainly it goes some way to explaining how he can combine a profound interest in design history with a desire to constantly innovate.After school, he traveled to the UK to enroll at John Makepeace’s Parnham College. At first glance it seems a curious blip on his CV – Makepeace is after all known for his love of the arts and crafts, for florid furniture made from wood. Dig a little deeper however and it makes perfect sense. Grcic has long been obsessed with the craft of industrial manufacture and Parnham helped show him how things were made. “You learned the skills,” he tells me, “but more than that what they showed us was really an attitude of mind. Understanding what work is. What we learned from John Makepeace was the precision, the care and also the passion and the love for making.”Subsequently he went to the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1990, and worked briefly in Jasper Morrison’s studio before setting up his own practice in Munich. The first big break came in 1991 when SCP manufactured his simple but elegant Tam Tam and Tom Tom side tables made from painted steel and wood. Coincidentally Coakley re-issued the tables at the Milan Furniture Fair this year, where Grcic was also launching a table with a top made from extruded aluminium for Barcelona-Design, a subtle new timber and plastic chair for Plank and, perhaps most controversially, a new office chair called 360º for Magis. Made of a set of simple geometric shapes butt-jointed together, it provoked more than a little head shaking at the Salone. The reason? Well it’s pretty uncomfortable. “You say the chair isn’t comfortable which is partly true,” he retorts when I put this to him. “But you said something typical – that you only tried it for a very short time. At the Magis stand I was surprised at the number of people who wanted to try that chair which I thought was good fun and great. But it is a chair for short-term sitting. In the fair you sit on it and you feel uncomfortable just because of the situation you are in. I think you have to test it properly next to a desk.”It’s a valid point. “What drives me is always something quite rational,” he adds. “Even things that are seen as quite radical, for me they still have a fundamental logic. I feel they are the right thing to do for this company. They’re not just provocation, they’re not just my own fulfillment.” The 360º plays on a topic that has long fascinated the designer, something he describes as, “the uncomfortable comfort or the comfortable uncomfort. I never sit still. I’m restless. I fidget and I move around on chairs a lot. Therefore I think the ideal form of a chair is never ideal. In my car when I’m driving I sit still in a perfect position and I appreciate that the car really gives me comfort and support in exactly that position. But otherwise we’re moving around the whole time and a chair needs to enable that.” While this is true, the 360º is likely to appeal to a very particular audience. And possibly one that’s gender-specific too – anecdotally all the women I’ve spoken too were terrified to sit on it.Typically of Grcic, another office product is released on to the UK market this month that could hardly be more different. Muji manufactured by Thonet is a collaboration between the German manufacturer, Japanese retailer and designers James Irvine and Grcic himself. The former has reinterpreted (quite beautifully) the classic No14 steam bent wooden chair first made by Thonet in 1859, while Grcic has been set the challenge of refining Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel furniture. Despite being trained in the 80s, when it was fashionable to dissemble the tenets of modernism, the Bauhaus was an influence of the young designer. “It’s where I started I think. And Breuer in particular was somebody I loved a lot. Parnham had a small library and one of its books was the Breuer catalogue from the Museum of Modern Art by Christopher Wilk. I knew it by heart, every page, every photo.” Interestingly too there are faint parallels in their careers. After all in 1920 Breuer trained in the cabinet making workshop of the Bauhaus in Weimar, producing work in timber such as the African Chair and the Slatted chair, before his radical experiments with tubular steel began with the B3 (or Wassily) chair in 1925.On several levels this is an intriguing project, raising questions about the importance of a designer’s signature on a product. After all in between Muji – the brand with no brand – and the Bauhaus where does Grcic fit in? It’s a subject that elicits a slight laugh. “It is important. I think that all I want to do is to work on projects where my role as a designer is to give it a signature. But not in the way it all has to look the same. Not in the way that signature over-rules everything. Signature for me is the whole approach to work and making certain decisions. It’s the subjective decisions that go into a project, they create the signature. So it’s not about style, it’s about the personality that you put into the project.” While 360º will have to find its niche, the Muji/Thonet is aimed squarely at the home/office market. It’s a beautifully refined product which at £215 for the chair and between £250-£295 for the desk is reasonably priced too. My one qualm is the additional drawers that at £110 feel a little expensive.Where the two projects have common ground is in their simplicity. Myto and Chair One required high levels of technology and new tooling, the Tubular Steel collection, 360º – and indeed his new Monza chair for Plank – take a more back to basics approach allowing him to, in his own words, “enjoy again the much more limited tools”. In fact when asked how he felt about seeing the Tam Tam and Tom Tom again after so many years he sounds a little wistful. “It’s still a nice and fresh looking thing. I don’t feel like this about all of the old stuff … It was so simple back then, doing work like that. Not easy but there was something very clear, very straightforward. And now sometimes I find the things we do become too complicated.”It seems unlikely to me that Grcic will stick with the simple life for long.
Artmodul’s website offers an interactive furniture configurator with 900 different components, to help users position furniture in their interiors. Colours, materials, handles and sizes can all be varied, making each creation unique. Pictured is Artmodul’s Lowboard Lemon, which is manufactured exclusively in Switzerland. Fronts can be constructed with wenge, walnut, birch, aluminum and zebrano, making Artmodul also suitable for use in the home.
Eveline is a light, elegant and comfortable stackable chair designed for private and public spaces, featuring fluid and continuous lines that reflect on its glossy surface. The chair is designed by Raul Barbieri and is moulded in one piece in different transparent or solid colours. Rexite produces office furniture and accessories, including chairs, stools, tables, desks, bookcases, coat hangers, clocks and more.
A timely office fit-out by 11.04 Architects shows how modest budgets can boost inventiveness.
This is the short-term future of workplace design,” Chris Roche from 11.04 Architects sums up his latest office fit-out.
Waiting for designer Bertjan Pot to pick me up at the train station in Schiedam, the small city outside of Rotterdam where he has his studio, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
I knew he had joined the ranks of celebrated Dutch designers with pieces like Random Light for Moooi and Slim Table for Arco. I also knew a prerequisite for this interview was that any pictures of him obscure his face. Might be a bit of a pain, I thought.But then Pot turned up in a beat up old van, every bit the gentle giant, and washed away my hasty misgivings. “The press is getting to be too much about design stars,” he explains slowly and quietly. “It’s too much about favourite colours and favourite songs and what I like to eat for breakfast. What has that got to do with design?” Fair point, but as I’m led into his Wonka-esque workspace a few minutes later - a wonderland of bobbly bits, shiny surfaces and colourful scraps - I silently decide that I’m curious about those things myself. It’s true that the design world’s cult of personality has reached a feverish pitch - but some people might still be curious to know what was for lunch the day Pot conceived of an electric blue, baroque-inspired folding table (Balls, 2006) or which song was playing when he made the word ‘ass’ out of pink foam. Same goes for a patchwork couch (Shared Space project, 2007) accompanied by a used carpet with strips of coloured tape, which sit front and centre in his studio.
But alas I am here to discuss Slim Office, the latest incarnation of his Slim Table for Arco, so we veer away from the superfluities and straight into his vast workshop. Boxes of vibrant textiles are stacked high against the walls. Running the length of the room is a series of tables with half-finished projects ranging from a skull-shaped hot air balloon to a model for the interiors of the Social Security offices in Amsterdam. The effect is sort of carnival meets laboratory.
It’s a ‘non-concentrated’ approach to work that proves most fruitful, says Pot. “We can leave projects overnight, we can leave them for two weeks - that way things can be ongoing. You can walk past it every day and whenever you have a small idea about something, you concentrate on it,” he says. And some of the projects are just for fun. “I have this whole studio full of stuff that has appeared when I play. And when I get a serious question from a factory I can just see if I have a project that they can take up,” he says.
It’s a remarkable statement coming from a designer who, at 34, has had substantial commercial success - manufacturers such as Montis, Pallucio and of course Arco and Moooi have put his designs into production. But on the face of it, he seems to be more wrapped up in materials and his own curiosities and preoccupations than in getting things produced, in the conventional sense. “Maybe for someone else it works to be more pragmatic, but not really for me.”
Some obvious themes emerge in his work, though, such as the idea of a structural skin or layers. Slim Table, produced in 2005 for the 100-year jubilee of Arco, uses a steel frame covered with a wooden veneer. “Metal for construction and wood for upholstery,” says Pot. Random Light (2002) and later Non Random Light were created with fibre glass drained with resin, coiled around a balloon that was then deflated. In 2003, Random Chair came as a follow up to Random Light, using the same material coiled over a single-sided mould, and in 2004, Pot made limited edition lampshades from the hollowed skins of gourds.
Aside from Slim, the materials are not slick and smooth, which is refreshing in an industry where texture is generally erased out of things. “When I started studying (in the early 90s at the Design Academy in Eindhoven), design meant to straighten out a product - to make it smooth, slick, inorganic. I think I was reacting against that.”
In that same spirit of rebellion, he often takes on projects because the brief, or ‘question’, rubs him the wrong way. Slim Office, which is basically the Slim Table with magnetic accessory add-ons (rubbish bin, drawer, cable management device, vanity board and matching message board), was an example of a manufacturer asking Pot to do something he’d rather not: cut holes into his table.
“Sometimes when a question or assignment is annoying, I would like to prove that the actual question posed is silly ... or that the result can be so much different than what they are expecting. The first thing I do when I get a question is wonder why I got it so I can give the best answer.”
The idea for Slim Office didn’t come out of a genuine exploration or concern for what an office needs, as it turns out. It is the one tactical, commercially driven design that we chat about during the interview: “This project is really more about what Arco could do as they are having a tough time just like all the other furniture companies. The main thing was to think of something that they could sell and that they would be good at.”
Pot likens the evolution of the design to loose pub talk, where the idea of using magnets was put out there, layered upon, and even joked about. “We said, ‘imagine what problems we could solve for cable management!” But then, of course, the proposal was taken seriously and Slim Office was born.
“I think the Slim Table is good for an office because there is so little about it that so little can be wrong, and therefore its very multifunctional,” Pot says. “There are two ways to achieve multifunctionality. One is to be like the Swiss army knife and the other is to be like the paper clip. I generally prefer the paper clip because with the Swiss army knife, the only thing you experience is that you’re missing out on something. It’s weighed down with all the functions. The more functions it has, the less functional it becomes. But the paper clip, because it’s nothing, it can be anything.”
There is no denying that designers are vying for the thinnest, most impossible looking table - and Pot’s Slim is a contender. “It’s like the fastest car, you know, it’s the thinnest table,” he jokes. But Slim Office, and the idea of multifunctional furniture, is right in step with workplace trends. “It’s a sort of 1980s modernism to have less of something. Now if you see what students are making - they are all making art design where they can express their feelings through a product,” he says, with an impish chuckle. “But now I’m being cynical.”
Which is something to watch out for with Pot. It dawned on me, as he described a revolving chandelier he had started to make for a Michelin-starred restaurant (it’s got a black and white stripey core and floppy pieces of reflective polyester sheet, slightly silly), that there is an element of mockery in some of his creations. “I wanted to make something that was like a chandelier but a modern version of it. If you get food at this restaurant, on the plate you will have maybe a bit of jelly here and something else there. You eat it and it’s … magic,” he says, grinning. Are you taking the piss out of them, I ask? “I’m being quite sincere although I realise with everything there is a double layer. There is a funny side to it too and maybe I’m addressing that side as well.”
In any event, the chandelier is not likely to go into the restaurant but was eventually shown this year in Milan along with a honeycombed back chair for the launch of a new Italian furniture company, Skitsch.
After leaving Pot’s studio, I was struck by what a funny character he is and how that comes through in his designs. However cynical, there is still a real joy in his work, almost as if he is winking at the world. I emailed him later to ask whether this was true.
“It’s not about the humour itself. It is more about looking at the stuff differently than other people do,” he says. “The outcome can be funny, but that is exactly what makes a joke funny. It is twisting the truth in an unexpected way. If there is nothing true about a joke, it’s not funny. If nothing is twisted, it isn’t either. Making jokes is not my goal but I do like to twist things.” And that, in a nutshell, is Bertjan Pot.
Since 1957 the Italian furniture maker Scab has been renowned for its top quality home and garden furniture, so its’ exhibit at Milan is eagerly anticipated. The Cokka chair, designed by Luisa Battaglia, is a stackable air moulded, injection printed polycarbonate chair. Suitable for indoor and outdoor use, the Cokka chair is very sturdy and is available in different transparent and glossy colours and can even be gold-coated.
WOD is a stackable stool developed from the idea of a modern timber joint and has a pure clear design. It was first created as green furniture, emphasised by the use of sustainable CNC based production of oak hardwood and plywood. The stools can be stacked up to eight high, which create an art piece and are suitable in domestic and commercial environments or where movement of furniture is required.
We meet by a sculpture of Ozymandias in the atrium of Kings Place, best known as the new home of the Guardian newspaper in Kings Cross. But unlike the protagonist of the Shelley poem, which is concerned with the hubris of mankind, this office building’s architects and developer have something more philanthropic and inclusive in mind.
With a wide range of colours and finishes, JG Group has created YLife; their first series of 100% personalised office furniture, which can incorporate a company logo or image. YLife is a complete system designed for individual or multi-station configurations, featuring desktops with built in ergonomic solutions, extensive and flexible wiring systems, height adjustment systems and a built in anchoring system for laptops and other computer equipment. Made from state of the art materials, the production process is environmentally friendly and the components in the furniture are easy to separate and recycle.
100% Carbon by American designer Dario Antonioni was inspired by space exploration. The Los Angeles designer unveiled his latest experiment from his studio lab Orange22 – a line of signed limited-edition 100 per cent carbon fibre furniture. Each Carbon Slip Stool undergoes a series of precision computerised processes after which the final piece is meticulously hand-laid by the same engineers that build military jets and spacecrafts.