It would be an understatement to say that cardboard is the material of the moment. It is literally popping up everywhere – in furniture, in children’s toys and, perhaps most poignantly, in workplaces.
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.
Green=tech is a brand new concept and design philosophy by Andrej Statskij. Products combine glass or acrylic furniture with plants or even natural or artificial box-trees. Uniting the different materials and bringing harmony between ecology and technology can help modern urban inhabitants overcome the stress of everyday life. The Green=tech coffee table, seen here, is one of the first products following this idea.
Hierarchy is dying at work and Tom Vecchione, director of workplace strategy for Gensler Design and Planning, sees architects and interior designers working much more closely with organisations to create working environments that amplify individuals for the knowledge economy.
Words by Helen PartonLondon-based practice GMW Architects has overseen a consolidation of three locations into one for British American Tobacco, with a controversial move from cellular to open plan.I had a rather romantic image of smoke-filled rooms with people puffing insouciantly on Lucky Strikes, but of course post-smoking ban, that was never going to be the case. I doubt it was before to be honest – British American Tobacco’s offices don’t seem to be that kind of environment, certainly judging by the persuasion it took to let me in there in the first place. “It’s quite hierarchical and still is to a certain degree,” admits Tim Hardingham, partner with GMW Architects. The practice has been working with BAT for over seven years and garnered a British Council for Offices award for its work on BAT’s offices in Cannon St in 2001. The practice began developing concepts for this current project – at Globe House in Temple Place, just off London’s Embankment – in 2006. Entitled Project SEA, it was to be a test bed for design ideas to be rolled out across the rest of Globe House. Senior staff had been relocated from three different buildings to consolidate BAT’s European-wide operation into a single location, and as a result they have had to make the switch from cellular office space to a far more open-plan option. I get the impression this wasn’t easy in terms of physical reorganisation or employees’ prevailing attitudes towards having their own individual offices. “The brief was to get everybody together and reflect the values of growth and responsibility,” says Hardingham. He goes on to explain how GMW came up with the idea of “grown up open plan” to make the senior managers more accessible, while still acknowledging their status and encouraging interaction between the company’s various European functions (which previously hadn’t been the case). The solution GMW came up with consisted of making a serene atmosphere as opposed to a buzzy one, with plenty of informal meeting space and not skimping in terms of quality furniture – if those senior staff were going to give up their individual offices, they had to be compensated for that somehow, the thinking went.As we walk around the floor to compare the new elements with another part of the office, which hasn’t undergone the makeover, the lack of colour and comfy informal space of this “before” area are all too apparent. In the “after” part, primary shades have been used on the workstation partitioning to give the space a more playful feel. Bench style seating positioned in a staggered layout has also been introduced to maximise the opportunities for people from different teams to interact. The standout part of this project though is the break-out areas, with their collection of suspension lights from Artemide plus easy chairs, bar stools and sofas from Vitra and Ergonom – they are light, bright and contrast well with the rest of the office. Apart from the long, white, gondola-shaped solid surface material featuring striped upholstery, which may be a radical design step too far for the employees here, the rest of this more informal space seems to be well used. Indeed it may be a victim of its own success. I’m visiting this project at quite an interesting time, as the results of a feedback questionnaire are just in. While there has been demonstrably better communication and socialisation with the introduction of open plan, and staff have praised the break-out space, those for whom these areas were originally provided are now territorial over other departments using them. It seems you can physically remove the idea of cellular office space, but the idea of who is supposed to be sitting where is not shed so easily. GMW has also introduced a series of circular meeting pods, located in the middle of the floor for more impromptu meetings and, judging by the scribbles on the walls, they have proved a fruitful place for BAT staff to gather for brainstorming. Again there has been a positive response to the pods from those surveyed, particularly from senior staff. But in terms of developing the design, they will, in the future, be treated acoustically to prevent the floor from becoming too noisy. Other new elements developed for this interior in the long-standing relationship between BAT and GMW include phone booths and talk rooms, designed to deal with the perceived problem of a lack of privacy.
At Milan American designer Stephen Burks was busy launching a new desk and shelving system for Modus, side tables for B&B and collections for Artecnica and Boffi. He also found time to tell Kerstin Zumstein about his recent experience of liberation through handicraft and the junction between art and designStephen Burks is well recognised in the USA as one of the most innovative industrial designers of his generation. His New York-based studio, Readymade Projects, has developed conceptual designs for renowned clients such as Cappellini, Vitra, Zanotta, Moroso, Missoni and this year also B&B. On my way out to Milan the airport billboard at Heathrow was showing Burks’ design for Calvin Klein’s newest perfume range CKIN2U. The plan was to meet Burks at the Modus venue but we bump into each other at B&B’s store on Via Durini and sit down on Patricia Urquiola’s Fat sofa for a chat. Burks is spontaneous, energetic and a treat to interview in the chaos of La Fiera.
“In the furniture world Italy is the Mecca,” Burks says. “America still has a Europe-centric perspective when it comes to what’s going on in design and it’s no coincidence that my success in America is linked to early collaborations with Italian companies.”
In 2000, Burks first started working in Europe with Cappellini. A diverse range of projects followed including an installation for Missoni, where Burks used cut-off fabrics from a fashion collection to decorate vases. “People say it’s not my style because they view it as a decorative product but I always saw it as a recycling project.”
We continue to talk about Burks’ style, but he feels his work is more about ideas. “I don’t have a signature style and in some cases it’s been difficult to work with companies because they say, ‘We like his work but what’s his style?’” Burks doesn’t approach design with a form in mind – the product grows out of an idea, which he describes as being “intellectual at times, conceptual, even whimsical”. He traces this back to the difference in design education between the US and Europe (having himself studied at Illinois Institute of Technology, USA).
Burks feels in America it is more about the in-house designer as a corporate tool, while in Europe the designer is brought into a company to create a signature style. He sees himself riding the line between the two models. “Starck is a prime example for the idea of signature designer. But the theory goes all the way back to Achille Castiglioni adopting the auteur theory for design.”
While we’re talking, Antonio Citterio enters the B&B showroom. Burks jumps up to shake his hand and turns to me with eyes on fire, saying: “Citterio, he’s the man!” I had already decided that Burks was an exceptionally affable person but to see him so awestruck adds to the notion that Milan during La Fiera is a versatile melting pot of creative talents that has it’s wow moments for everybody, even accomplished designers. “I get nervous every time I see the man,” Burks confesses, “because Citterio has accomplished so much. He set a precedent of how design can influence business and this thinking is what I studied at Illinois: design more as a strategy or methodology and less about form.” At the same time Citterio is the contemporary model of the designer as auteur (lending his signature style to a company). So looking at Burks’ new launch products, how do they fit in with this idea?
Burks’ first ever B&B product is called Part – three different-sized, triangular steel coffee tables that nest together and can be used for indoors and outdoors. That was the brief, but when they first met to discuss the commission Burks simultaneously pitched an idea. “I thought of this part, a blank let’s say, like a piece of raw material that’s similar to a clothing pattern and can be cut and formed into a shape. It can be anything, a stool, a tray … B&B asked, ‘Can it be a coffee table, we need a coffee table,’ but for me, in essence, I saw it as a constructive idea, a polyfunctional object.” The tables – in combinations of black, grey and white, or red, orange and yellow – to me resemble folded serviettes.
Burks believes that while form is an expression of its time, it can also come through the materials, the production process, the conceptual reformulation of how we think about the home or the workplace. For him the design profession is more than being a stylist, it’s about communicating the systematic thinking about how things go together and with that educating the end user about design, sparking a deeper interest. But can you communicate the production process to your standard end user through a finished product? Burks points to the hole at the tip of each triangle, saying, “The aluminum cannot be bent into this desired form without leaving the hole. The material is restricting so the reality and function of the production becomes visible and therefore contributes to the aesthetics.”So there’s a signature. And Burks has developed the idea of creating furniture like folding paper further with his studio Readymade Projects. They are currently working on a project called Handmade showing at ICFF in New York next month. “It’s a response to what I see happening in the art world and its relationship to design at the moment.
Traditional crafts and making things by hand has suddenly become really important again.” In times of mass production where there are already many tables and chairs, unique pieces that convey a sense of personalisation are becoming more and more desirable. So Burks has been spending time in Peru, South Africa and recently Mexico looking at traditional craftsmanship and with that discovering a new way of working. “I used to be a slave to the computer and now find it liberating to be put back in contact with my hands and raw materials,” he says.At Milan this year it seems a few young designers are turning to handicraft methods for new inspiration in design processes and folding materials like origami seems quite a trend (see Stefan Diez’s Bent table for Moroso or Ligne Roset’s multifunctional stool/foot-matt in News, page 26). According to Burks, most contemporary design works via remote control, with designers sitting in different countries than manufacturers, and design being developed, generated and produced on computers and sent over via email. “Something gets lost. That’s why Italy stands out, because its design tradition is connected to architecture, a tradition based on the hand. The eye perceiving, the mind imaging, the hand creating … that’s how humans work.”
So it’s back to basics for Burks. For him this is the new art-meets-design junction. “It’s not necessary for designers solely to work towards mass production anymore – they can work towards a realm of ideas the way art does.” This notion echoes the auteur concept, expressing individual creativity in a commercial industry. Obviously functional constraints are inherent in product design but the movement and market for personalised products liberates the industrial designer like never before.
On the other hand Burks is actively working towards connecting the developing world to mass production. He is a consultant for Aid to Artisans, a non-profit organisation that is on a mission to enable the developing world to compete with the contemporary world of commerce. “It’s the other side of the coin. We are working to bring craftsmen forward from making souvenir trinkets to applying their craft tradition to products of contemporary value.” One example of this undertaking is on show at Milan: the Tatu tables by Artecnica, which are part of a Design with Conscience collection that consists of wire indoor/outdoor modular tables and accessories. And this collection was also used as part of the styling concept for Boffi’s new bathroom products during the show, where Burks launched a range of satin stainless steel bathroom accessories.
The Tatu tables were made by Willard Mussara, a craftsman from the poorest township in South Africa. “I saw him make souvenir bicycles by hand and said, ‘Do you want to make a table?’ We showed him a sketch and he made it good enough for Artecnica to produce.” There were of course a few hurdles in terms of redesigning for distribution, but Burks is excited about the prospect of “transforming through design” (explored in his documentary Making Things: Tranformation Through Design, filmed in Peru). “Aid for Artisans is funded by various US organisations and aims to get people in developing countries away from the drug and military trade. The Tatu example is what I call a successful design process. Through design we managed to solve the shipping problems and create three new products during that process: each table breaks down into trays, bowls and baskets.”
But Burks’ aspirations of re-engaging crafts in new commercial enterprises doesn’t stop here. The Sofa Pleat for Modus which he also launched at Milan tells another “signature” tale. “With Pleat, I challenged Modus to look at the surface rather than the shape. The sofa may appear traditional, in many ways undesigned, but it’s about the user experiences.” Burks asked, “What does the user experience when touching the surface?” I sit down on the square soft seater covered in a felt-like fabric with distinctive pleats and can’t help but run my fingers down them in a soothing, rhythmical motion. The sofa covers were made by a Scottish kilt maker, again taking a traditional craft and reapplying it to a modern project.
Modus was also showing an extension of Burks’ shelving system, Parallel, with a new simple desk. The second shelf cleverly turns into the desk surface, and despite the product working mainly in a home office – arranged in a line, with each desk mirroring the unique curve of the opposite – the constellation could work well in a small creative practice. The main idea stems from Burks’ first workplace project in 2002 for E&Y, called Workstation. It’s a flexible, small office system in steel that also has repositionable storage accessories suspended below the shelves. “I’ve no idea why it never found a dealer in Europe,” Burks says. “Its aim to effectively use small space would be ideal for London.” Half jokingly, he turns to Jon Powell of Modus to pitch the idea.
Burks is unstoppable. From our coincidental meeting at B&B to the crazy cross-city cab ride over to the Modus launch in Zona Tortona, Burks spurts impulses, ideas and stories. He continues to bump into people he knows from all over the world (Mexico, France, the UK) and he chats to each one of them, whether they are colleagues, journalists or students that have visited his lectures in the past. Despite having flown in from New York that morning Burks takes a dynamic approach to every situation thrown at him – he makes time to call his wife, speak to his baby boy and all the while keeps suggesting new product ideas to solve any problem we come across on the way. The guy is so full of energy, it’s contagious!
At an early stage in our conversation Burks said to me, “When I was at college we used to work on these big theoretical projects so when I first came in contact with the furniture world it seemed so small. I always thought I’d be designing new water solutions to save the world or something.” By the end of our time together I realise that idealistic approach of a young scholar wanting to change the world is still in there, just that Burks has managed to translate that aim into a realistic and successful enterprise. He may not have an instantly recognisable style but maybe exactly that is his signature. In any case, what this space!At Milan American designer Stephen Burks was busy launching a new desk and shelving system for Modus, side tables for B&B and collections for Artecnica and Boffi. He also found time to tell Kerstin Zumstein about his recent experience of liberation through handicraft and the junction between art and design