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Q&A: industrial designer Konstantin Grcic

The German designer talks about the futuristic visions in his Vitra exhibition and the thrill of making irritating furniture.

Life Space at Konstantin Grcic’s “Panorama” exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum

By playing with ideas of modular living, and setting the Public Space of the exhibition at a hypothetical, offbeat space near an airport, Grcic wants to challenge how we think about our future living spaces. “At a certain point, it challenges a rethinking of how we look at our homes, our values and customs and rituals. I want to question them in a soft way, since we’ll need to think about how to adapt. Think about 100 years ago -- nobody would have thought living in a loft or a factory building would be desirable. Now it ranks as one of the most desirable living spaces. I want to bring up these ideas in order to create a discussion. I’m making a proposal, more than just scenery.”

 

Rendering by KGID

“We just came from years and decades where technology was just all amazing, and we all just went for it blind,” says German designer Konstantin Grcic. “New was always better, we need more and more, we’ve seen that. Now technology is an integrated part of our lives, but we need to be considerate about how we use it.”

Coming from an industrial designer revered for his forward-thinking aesthetic and technological integration (consider the use of die-cast with Chair_One), it strikes a cautious note. Grcic’s sprawling exhibit at the Vitra Design Museum, which looks back on his process and peers forward into the future, suggests otherwise. His thoughtful, methodological approach also incorporates social insights and playfulness, and he’s not afraid of challenging pieces. “Panorama,” his biggest exhibition to date, combines three scenographies—laboratories, in a sense, where Grcic waxes poetic about the future possibilities of work, private and public spaces—with a small section dedicated to objects, such as a now antiquated Mac computer, that have influenced him.

Dwell asked Grcic about the visions for the future he laid out at Vitra, and the details behind two challenging furniture projects released earlier this year.

When you started putting the Vitra exhibit together, you appeared to be looking forward and looking backward at the same time.

The Vitra Museum proposed this exhibition. Originally it was a retrospective exhibition, but then in discussion with Mateo Kries, the director, we decided it shouldn’t just look at what is, but apply these things and thoughts to the future. We wanted to create spatial installations, rather than a more graphic museum display, or objects in a case.

In the Life Space, you focus on modular living and letting people design their own space. Does that desire for more personalization make it more difficult to design products and pieces people want to use?

Good question. We always think that way, so I don’t know if it’s become more important. I agree it is definitely an issue, and it’s an important issue nowadays, when people are leading much more complex lives. A lot of the context is digital. With dematerialization and customization, we need to create a focus again on physical things, personal things, things that you keep for a long time, rather than things that keep changing all the time and keep getting updated. The personal object is of value in today’s times. Space is also, in a sense, time; it’s very personal and has to focus on what matters.

In the area where you display artifacts that have inspired you, there’s an old Mac computer, which now seems ephemeral. These tools and objects will be around for such a short time.

Working in the furniture industry, it’s very special to design pieces that theoretically will be around for a long time. Other objects with more of a technological aspect clearly can become outdated. With furniture and other simple everyday objects, you can really look at a full life cycle.

According to the show description, Life Space was inspired by a painting called “St. Jerome in his Study.” What were some of the more modern influences that went into the design of the exhibition?

It’s a very anonymous space. The space with the window looking out onto an airport creates an irritation and a question. Why is this private space located at an airport? There are two meanings. One is the pessimistic view; it’s out of necessity, I can’t afford life in the city and have been pushed to the periphery, in these kind of non-places near a motorway or airport. But it could be positive, a citizen who lives there by choice and considers it a luxury. Living near a hub, you can travel everywhere and people can travel to you. It’s 24-hour-a-day infrastructure with everything you need, shopping and restaurants. At first glance, it’s negative and irritating, and feels threatening. At a certain point, it challenges a rethinking of how we look at our homes, our values and customs and rituals. I want to question them in a soft way, since we’ll need to think about how to adapt. Think about 100 years ago -- nobody would have thought living in a loft or a factory building would be desirable. Now it ranks as one of the most desirable living spaces. I want to bring up these ideas in order to create a discussion. I’m making a proposal, more than just scenery.

How does the Office Space in the exhibit reflect your office space?

Both are filled with physical things: models, mockups and works in progress. The atmosphere and the architecture of my space is different than the space in the museum. Like the airport setting, it’s kind of an extreme experience. It has no windows. It could be the only available space, or it could be by choice, an underground space or a cave. It’s deliberately removed.

There’s a part in the exhibit, the object space, where you display objects that are important to you, such as an early Apple computer and a Marcel Duchamp print. What are some other everyday objects that you have a very personal connection with?

Big question. Well, I could think of many things. I think of images more, images are important. If there’s anything I do collect, it’s printed matter. I look at things that come through the post, printed material, flyers or periodicals. I’m attracted to beautiful images, photographs, typography, the quality of the paper, the format and the feel of the material.

You also just made a set of glass furniture for the “Man Machine” exhibition at Galerie kreo.They’re beautiful, but I’d be afraid to sit on them. Can you explain the process behind designing those pieces?

The gallery provided a laboratory, or a free space, to experiment. I wanted to use this free space to do something that I couldn’t do for industry. It’s experimentation that might lead to a more industrial application. But it’s not provocation or something that is impossible, It’s a serious investigation of what happens if we make furniture from glass. You said you’d feel strange or irritated sitting on it; it’s a very strong reaction to something as simple as a chair. It means that I can still make a chair that would irritate you. It’s quite amazing.

You don’t want to annoy people, but it would get people to talk.

It’s a chair for certain situations. I’m putting it out there to see if it works or doesn’t work. I’m not offended if someone says it doesn’t work. I’m interested in exactly these kind of reactions, good and bad. They also have mechanical parts, which make them even more extreme. The glass itself is scary, and now I’m telling you to touch it, press that lever and move something. I’m forcing you to interact, to interact physically, and experience something. The beautiful action of these pistons gives you a lot of confidence and assurance. There’s a lot of psychology to this. You approach this glass furniture, and it seems cold, and then by touching it, you experience some kind of assurance. I don’t yet know how to translate this into a commercial or industrial project.

Another somewhat recent project of yours was the Rival Multifunctional Task Chair for Artek. How did you approach the task of making a unique piece of office furniture?

We started the project two-and-a-half years ago, and it’s important to point out that Artek was not Artek/Vitra, yet. We started the whole project as an Artek chair. The briefing came from them, it was their idea. They wanted the chair for home working. I think home working is not necessarily working at home, it means working at the office, since the office environment has turned into more of a home, offices don’t really look like offices anymore. It was very enjoyable working with Artek; we worked with a few people, really direct dialogue. Artek is about straightforward and simple, and we incorporated a swivel mechanism to add a nice element of comfort. We had, more or less, designed the chair, when last year, news broke that Vitra bought Artek. The whole situation changed. It was lucky we designed the chair before the arrival of Vitra, because it made the whole process very simple and straightforward with a few people. We were lucky also that Vitra came in and helped us with engineering—they solved an important problem with the central joint that joins all the pieces together.

I read that the legs were milled in a very particular way to have the appearance of plastic.

The word plastic made me pay attention, because in the original concept, there’s a piece of plastic that pulls everything together. I thought it was important for Artek to make a move from just wood. It’s always a big challenge for a designer working for a company like Artek that has a very strong identity. Most people would say Artek is about wooden chairs, and I wanted to challenge that.

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