words Kieran Long
Martí Guixé usually looks pretty frightening in photographs. Before I met him, I’d only seen a portrait of him wearing a black leather jacket, lowering out of a dark background.
“Were you scared?” asks the Catalan designer, when I tell him about his intimidating image. “I am not so aggressive, so for this next one, I have to laugh.”
In person, 42-year-old Guixé is more amiable curmudgeon than firebrand. We meet in a rainy Berlin, where the designer spends around half of his time, despite nominally being based in Barcelona. His angry reputation probably comes from his rejection of so many of the bizarre conventions of the product-design star system. Calling himself an “ex-designer”, Guixé has for the last ten years developed a remarkable body of work consisting of exhibitions, interiors and products that critique the bloated world of product and furniture design. He is fiercely independent, highly respected and as uncompromising as it’s possible to be in an industry with consumerism at its heart.
Guixé began by studying interior design in Barcelona, before moving to Milan to pursue product design. He finished his studies in the mid-1980s (“It was another time then,” he says, “without computers”), and returned to boom-time Barcelona. “The 80s in Barcelona, was, like, whoosh! With these design bars and everything. And in 1990 I had a studio with a partner for three years, doing product design, very hardcore design.” This early incarnation of his design practice did not suit him, and he decamped to the more bohemian, edgier city of Berlin in 1993, after spending summers there throughout the early 1990s. He even watched the vaunted 1992 Barcelona Olympic games, the crucible of that city’s creative renaissance, on TV in the German capital. It was working from his home in Berlin that he developed his more conceptual orientation.
He seems to have a certain disdain for the mythology that surrounds Barcelona, as he talks about his home city as more and more at the mercy of British hen parties. For two years he employed several designers in an office there, but is now working alone again, because, he says, he “felt too tied to Barcelona.” “If you go to Barcelona to the trendy bars,” he says, “They are all like London bars. That’s a completely provincial attitude. They feel they are not like a city like London, so they imitate it.” In a series of interiors, products and branding exercises for Camper, he has attempted to take a different attitude to a global market, retaining a distinct local identity as a unique selling point. “I don’t know why more brands don’t do it,” he says. His association with the Mallorcan shoe brand began with the opening of two stores designed by him in 1998, in London and Barcelona. Guixé’s iconic, low-tech approach (shoes were simply stuck to the wall with lines of velcro) made them two of the most significant interiors of the late 90s.
This has been an ongoing collaboration, and more recently he has designed interiors for Camper’s fast food brand Foodball. The two shops so far, in Barcelona and Berlin, imitate the urban life of the city, creating a street-like atmosphere with an outsize staircase as seating. Guixé has had a unique relationship with Camper for the last eight years, but the brand is now opening up to more designers. A book, to be published later in the autumn, will document Guixé’s work for the brand.
Guixé’s desire for an uncontrived social life is a recurring theme of his work, from the gestures in the interiors of the Foodball stores, to his football tape – a roll of sticky tape that is used to make paper footballs for informal office kickarounds. He laments the commercialisation of Barcelona and its will to brand the lifestyle of its inhabitants: “We now have areas and events and organised leisure activities. But that’s not culture,” he says.
Perhaps his least successful projects are those that knit his anti-craft, Pop-art sensibility with his desire to create places of social interaction. Urban Post-it, a giant Post-it note that can be fixed to buildings as a sun shade or canopy, is at best an amusing joke. At worst, it feels pat of him to describe it as the “pollution of urbanism”. Guixé’s work perhaps falls down at this scale – Pop art and the demands of an urban environment rarely mix well.
Much of his work has a social dimension, but his product design also contains something extra – an implicit attack on the continuing myths of craftsmanship, authorship and artistry that define the design industry. His work is a seductive and implicit critique.
He’s not really a product designer at all, and his furniture projects rarely get off the ground. He says that at the moment he has projects in development with a number of brands, but that the furniture pieces usually turn out to be complicated and expensive to produce. But his method exposes the assumptions of an industry bent on marketing celebrity.
One of the best examples is his Do-Scratch lamp for Droog (first exhibited in 2000), a supposedly enlightened, avant-garde producer. The lamp consists simply of a square lightbox, painted in matt black. The user can then scratch off the paint in their choice of pattern and the light is fully customised. Guixé says that the Dutch found it hard to understand his way of working. “They asked me to design a lamp, and I said, take a standard lamp, paint it black and you have the scratch lamp,” he says. “So they did that. This way of doing design makes the result completely different from somebody who does a shape. For me it’s because I’m not related to handcraft, and I’m not interested in building lamps for Droog Design. So I gave instructions to them, and said they should build from that. But they don’t understand it. They say, no, you have to work. But I don’t know why I have to work. If I have no studio and I work alone, I can not spend time searching for materials and doing nice shapes.”
But it’s not just economic expediency that makes Guixé reject the idea of designers being sculptors. He sees the whole culture of authorship as just another part of consumerism. “It’s the idea of craftsmanship,” he explains, “You have to do it by hand, and then they can sell it and it’s a piece of you. It was very difficult with Droog – they are craftsmanship people. All the movement of Dutch designers is based on doing things by hand.”
And he’s right. Guixé’s ability to cut through the crap of product design culture is extraordinarily refreshing. He says that he did still get a percentage of the sales on the lamp, but also admits in the same breath that “you can not live by doing product design”, exposing as few others do the ludicrous economics of the industry. Most of Guixé’s revenue comes from his advisory work to brands like Camper. He is also a partner in a new product brand that is launching in Barcelona, and is designing the identity for the upcoming “Alice in the City” section of the Rome film festival.
In his laconic way, Guixé challenges the ways in which product designers believe themselves to be artists with a witty economy. There is no craft in his work, and very little glamour – just a quiet, rather nihilistic intelligence. Guixé is scathing about other designers and it would be unfair to mention the people he dismisses as “too trendy”, but it potentially includes a majority of those inventing ever wilder formal languages. However, his work is still hugely optimistic about the potential of objects and places to bring about moments of sociability. This might be scary to you designers, but to the rest of us it’s a relief.