In the run-up to Konstantin Grcic’s office desk launch with Thonet and Muji, Grant Gibson unravels the contrasts in the German designer’s inventive yet logical approach
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.”
“What drives me is always something rational. Even when things are seen as radical, they still have a fundamental logic. They are not just provocation”
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.