In 1964, Zeev Aram founded his design store Aram (to some controversy, because it was so uncompromisingly modern), but it remains to this day a go-to spot for the best of established and emerging design. onoffice picks his brain about everything from his old friend Ettore Sottsass, to examining Konstantin Grcic‘s graduate show.
What does modern design mean today?
It’s difficult to ask someone, “are you a modernist or are you… what?” because if you live today, you are modern. We must differentiate original, innovative, creative design, the very pillars of quality creative work in the design field; in other words, substance. Not new because it’s new, but new because it’s valid, otherwise it becomes cosmetics and fashion. Eileen Gray was challenged by her peers to do something different, something more of modern spirit that wasn’t art deco. She anticipated what was happening and how life was changing.
Some think of Konstantin Grcic as a modernist thinker – what do you think of his work?
He’s great – I was his external examiner at the Royal College and I gave him a distinction, because he was very promising. He’s considered a big name now, but he’s a little bit of a maverick. He’s very intelligent, very creative, he always looks at things sideways and comes up with an interesting solution. At the same time, he’s not overtly full of himself, but he knows his value. In Germany, he’s thought of very highly. I spoke to a guy at the Vitra Design Museum when they had an exhibition about him, and he talked about Konstantin in awe. I said, “What you would’ve said if you’d met Charles Eames!?”[laughs] He didn’t know what I meant.
Meaning that Grcic’s got a long way to go? He’s still developing as a designer?
Yes, absolutely, and that’s good. He’s working very hard at it, and I’m pleased to see he that he’s reached a level that validates my distinction! [laughs]
What’s your opinion on postmodernism?
It had a flash and was gone. I knew both Ettore [Sottsass] and Charles [Eames], and for me, although I liked to be in the company of Sottsass because he was very amusing and flamboyant, Eames’ [work] was more substantial, in the sense that it had more solidity, rather than in a creative way. Sottsass was very creative, a lateral thinker.
Memphis, though, was a whim. It became a phenomenon, but I said: “Don’t look at the emperor; look at the clothes, and see what there really is.” It wasn’t a disservice to design, it opened doors, but nowadays designers don’t have to push, all the doors are open already.
One thing that does a disservice to designers is ‘design art’. It’s good for young designers to make money – and for collectors who have more money than brains – but to connect it with design shows the ignorance of whoever coined the phrase. There’s no such thing as design art. The two are entirely different.
Why do you think there has been a surge in the popularity of wood and craft?
I think the use of wood industrially is a reaction to the over-use of plastics, metals, polyesters and non-natural materials, and sometimes people crave to touch wood. It’s a natural thing. So manufacturers use that, but make it in an industrial way. Mattiazzi computerised the system of woodworking, meticulously and carefully. Then Sam Hecht designed the Branca chair for them and they made it beautifully. It’s as near as you can get to craftsmanship on an industrial scale.
A CNC machine makes the chair, but when the guy takes it out of the machine, his eye decides whether it is pulped or used. The point is, you can industrialise to a point, but in the end, the human touch and the human eye will decide.
Do you think 3D printing is the future of manufacture?
3D printing was the dream. Designers dreamt about a machine that could make complicated things. I saw one in Heatherwick’s office once, and they left it overnight to build something. The really useful thing is that [3D printers] can make heart valves or motorcar valves.
Look at the Solar Sinter by Markus Kayser [a solar-powered machine that uses the sun’s rays to melt sand into solid glass objects]. It was experimental, but imagine what it’ll bring when materials are running out, but we’ll still have sand galore. We are at the very beginning of this; we’ve barely opened the first page.
Do young designers have a lot more at their fingertips now?
Absolutely, but the paradox is that young designers have never had it so easy and so difficult. The easy part is the availability of information and technology, and the ability to make new shapes that couldn’t even be drawn before. The difficult part is that everyone’s doing it – so how are you going to make your stand, and make your voice heard, and your product appreciated? Not just variation, but something original.
Do you think brands are embracing the talents of young designers more now?
A problem I’ve seen over the years is when a good, promising designer is picked up like a footballer and all these companies are willing to pay millions, and it’s ultimately detrimental to the designer’s output. Designing is not baking, where you put the ingredients in, shove it in the oven and 40 minutes later you’ve got a cake. There’s a limit to the creative resources a person can put together.
It’s a question of designer and client, how they work together. The same designer doesn’t produce his best when the client is not the most enlightening. I know designers who produce a great design for one client, and for another, mediocre.
Why do you think that is?
Once upon a time the boss of the company was the guy deciding what’s going on. [Eugenio] Perazza from Magis is one of the remaining ones. He’s the boss, he’s working with the designers. When Jasper Morrison designed the Air chair for him, he was very active in developing a new manufacturing process because the design demanded it.
Some other companies become a big pyramid, and by the time it comes down to communicating with the designers, it’s a director that perhaps has an interest in design but not much influence or power in the company.