Konstantin Grcic is on the edge of his seat. Granted, the elegant, somewhat retiring 45-year-old German industrial designer is about to give an interview. That, and his upholstered Chaos chair from 2001 features an upturned seat so shallow that there is really only a slim edge on which to repose. "Designing chairs touches issues of society, how we live," he says, beginning to lay out the philosophy behind his sometimes very unusual designs. "How life changes—–that’s most interesting. How our needs change."
He gestures at the Chaos chair he is sitting on. "For example, the idea most people have of ‘comfort’ is rather simple. Comfort is equalled with sitting in a deep sofa. But when you think of it, in some situations a soft sofa is not comfortable at all. Talking to you," he says, doing his best to flop, sofa-style, on the Chaos chaise, "I don’t want to be sitting like this." Then he sits back up in the active, erect position the chair encourages (I know, because I am sitting on one, too). Grcic smiles, then makes his point about the tilted, awkward-looking-but-in-fact-supportive chair, which he imagined being used for lobbies and waiting rooms—– places where people stop briefly, on their way to somewhere else. "In some situations, this is more comfortable."
If there were a German version of the French concept of jolie laide—–maybe the Teutons would choose something closer to "ugly cool"—–Grcic’s work would be it. His creations are a little weird, full of hard edges, and not necessarily approachable.
At the same time, they’re stylish and functional; they know what they’re up to, even if you haven’t figured it out yet. Thanks to Grcic’s near-obsessive engineering-oriented design process, in which he deconstructs an everyday object then reconstructs it so that it is optimally suited to its own, very specific purpose, as often as not it’s true: This is a chair (or salad tong or desk) that knows more about what you want than you do. "He is very mindful of how we interact with and use objects," says Zoë Ryan, who curated the Grcic exhibit, the first solo design show at the Art Institute of Chicago’s new modern wing last year.
Grcic, who is based in Munich, has made everything from lamps and jewelry to umbrellas, a plastic bucket, cutlery, and a pen. He curated the 2009 show Design Real at London’s Serpentine Gallery, where he chose brusque, useful objects like a Volvo tail light and a polypropylene broom to illustrate his concept of good, "real" design. But it’s furniture—–the chair, in particular—–that has his heart. "I like the scale of furniture, the relevance, the place it has in everyday life," he says, standing in the slightly cluttered, chair-strewn loft that has been his office for almost 20 years. "Furniture reflects how we live."
A Munich native, Grcic grew up in Wuppertal, an industrial center in western Germany. After high school, he tried to find a woodworking apprenticeship in Germany. Unsuccessful—–perhaps because his schoolwork tracked him for higher education—–he left for England, where he trained as a cabinetmaker before getting a degree in industrial design in 1990 from London’s Royal College of Art.
He describes his experiences in England as stirring his creative potential. "In Germany," he says, "we have this traditional handwerkskultur"—–artisan culture. "It has very high standards, based on formal training. If you call a plumber in Germany, you’d find someone who really knows his trade. But there’s also something lacking with this. In England, if you call a plumber, you might get someone extraordinarily ingenious. This ingenuity and individual creativity is what I sometimes long for in Germany."
Grcic’s work blends these two modes. He credits England with opening his eyes to approaching his full creative potential, but his penchant for amassing large amounts of data before he starts to work is nothing if not German. "Information is the only tangible," he says. "Otherwise, designers are totally subjective. There has to be a foundation of knowledge."
For a recent project designing school chairs, he and his team of five read official reports about what children’s bodies need, conducted interviews with teachers and students, and learned about how financing impacted the school furniture industry.
And, of course, they watched people sit. "I watch people endlessly," he says. "How they sit, why they sit, do they feel comfortable? Who is sitting in that chair, and how, and when?"
In his office, he points to a gray stool-like item whose seat looks like a capital L lying on its back. "This," says Grcic, "was my own little obsession. I wanted to contradict the idea of what a chair should be." He looks at me. "I think you should sit down on it."
Once seated on the 360° chair—–designed in 2009 for Magis and so named because it swivels in a complete circle, the degrees of which are marked on the chair’s base—–it’s easy to imagine its uses. It would be great for pulling over to somebody’s desk, swiveling to chat with a colleague, then rolling over to the next desk. You may not want to sit here for hours, but something about it feels right.
"Objects have a certain reading, based on intelligence and experience," he explains. "You sat with the upright part sideways. This was more or less correct. But if someone reads it like a chair, and uses the upright element as a back, it’s uncomfortable. Then the question is, do people try again?"
High-end manufacturers like Magis, Flos, ClassiCon, and Plank commission most of Grcic’s work, which gives him the freedom to ask this kind of question. "Because we work for small companies, I can design more radical things—–we don’t have to please a broad market." Nonetheless, he hopes that some of his ideas might be picked up by a wider audience.
Taking a seat in his plastic cantilevered Myto chair from 2008, Grcic describes his pursuit in terms that sound almost existential: "Everyone has to find their own ways to put some kind of order into all this material—–what you see or hear or know. Otherwise, it’s just chaos," he says. "We think about chairs more than normal people. Why does a chair have to look like a chair? No, it’s more specific: Why does a specific chair have to look like a specific chair? It gets to the roots of understanding."
So, what does he do in his free time? Stand up? Grcic laughs. "Jump in the air!" he says. "No, no. Work is life and life is work. It’s never easy, it’s still hard work. But we can do the hard work because we enjoy it so much."
He pauses to consider. "I don’t have a settled family life," he says, adding that he keeps his books and music at the office because he prefers to spend time there than at home. "I have friends who have families," he says, "and the way they interact with their furniture, it’s totally different. That’s one set of information I’m missing."
On the way out, we pass a kind of cardboard throne that curves in a single sheet creating a protected, hidden-away place that invites passersby to stop and rest. It’s something to sit on, but it is not a chair, as such. Rather, it’s a vehicle for showing a new type of laminate developed by Swarovski in collaboration with Abet Laminati. Grcic takes a seat in the cardboard display, and a few moments later, he stands up again. From behind the thick brown plastic frames of his glasses, he studies the cardboard model. "In the end, it is a chair," he says, quietly. "I want people to sit in it."
Writer Sally McGrane flew to Copenhagen from her home in Berlin to visit the Mountain Dwellings. She was particularly impressed by the Victor Ash murals in the garage of wolves and moose atop wreaked cars. What she found hard to believe, however, was that David Zahle, a resident and one of the architects who helped design the building, has never had any dreams about the "car cathedral" under his home.