words Alex Wiltshire
Jerszy Seymour’s laptop is a mess. Its cracked case is covered in gaffer tape and skate stickers, the fan buzzes and the screen has a thick line running down it where it doesn’t work. Right now it’s pumping out a stream of music from Simian, which the designer excitedly chose because it is described on a website as “incredibly strange”.
And it is. But not as weird as the great electronic burbles and whines that his huge German techno musician friend Dreesen is making in the corner of Seymour’s large unkempt studio. Meanwhile, the photographer, another friend called Michael, is taking picture after picture of us like a kind of hippy paparazzo. Welcome to Jerszy Seymour’s new eastern Berlin home.
Since Seymour and his fashion designer wife, Grit, moved here from Milan in September last year he’s been pretty busy. For Tokyo Design Week he created a skatepark, a huge purple cave made entirely out of Scum, the bubbling globs of polyurethane foam that have become his trademark. Scum is his personal project, used to create installations and objects that are at once fascinating, disgusting and beautiful. He has used its billows and drips to encrust clothing, walls and furniture at the Diesel Denim Gallery in New York, trickled it delicately over lampshades, and constructed entire buildings out of it, like the skatepark, which he made while a typhoon was raging. Similar to graffiti in that it is sprayed in a “live” and immediate manner, it is a way of branding objects and spaces. Because Scum’s shape is derived from the nature of the polyurethane, it questions traditional branding, which is usually imposed on materials regardless of their inherent natures.
Seymour has also finished a new plastic chair for Magis and just the previous night completed the spring collection for Tape, his joint fashion label with Grit. All this activity might explain why there are still unpacked boxes and piles of magazines and books, as well as a clutter of prototypes and material samples lying around. But, actually, you get the feeling that this distinctly chaotic state is natural for Seymour. His life has been based all over the place: born in 1968 in Berlin to ballet dancer parents, he moved to Canada as a young boy, then to London. After studying at the Royal College of Art he moved to Milan, then to New York, back to Milan, and finally to Berlin.
Appropriately, he’s a bundle of energy, shifting back and forth in his chair and fidgeting, before rushing off enthusiastically to find bits of stuff to explain his points. And he talks all the while; sentences starting, going off on tangents and coming back on themselves. He says things like, “I want to fuck!” and, “Let’s destroy the world!” before rooting through some boxes to find his first ever product, the bulbous Pipe Dreams watering can, which one unauthorised entrepreneur is trying to turn into a bong. “Someone in Australia wants to make a black market adaptor for it,” he exclaims. “Magis never realised a thing!”
His Scum installations corroborate this image perfectly but, as haphazard as Scum and his life in general appear to be, Seymour’s attitude to his work is rigorous. Though he says that Scum is about the freedom of the material at the moment it is sprayed, it is the result of careful experimentation with chemical reaction times and densities to learn exactly how it behaves. He jumps up and retrieves a catalogue for a spraying machine and explains, quite seriously, how he would love to get one for his birthday.
Seymour has a deep respect for materials. He points at his new Easy plastic stacking chair for Magis (one of the few around the studio that isn’t covered in skate stickers), and explains how its shape, all graceful curves and rounded edges, is about being true to the logic of how plastic molecules work. As part of his proposal for Magis he wrote a text called An Evening With a Plastic Molecule, in which he asks one what it likes to do. “Plastic just likes to flow in easy shapes, and not have sharp corners because they cause stress and weak points,” he says. “So these forms grow with a specific reason.” He’s very proud of the chair passing the top test for contract use, and on his laptop shows rainbow-hued stress diagrams of it withstanding 250kg forces.
Seymour grabs his mobile phone and eagerly searches it for pictures of the injection-moulding machine that makes it in Italy. He reckons he can make Scum from plastic shot through the injection nozzle: “Perhaps they’ll let me play with it now they like me!” he says. He describes how the manufacturing process is finished off manually with a man cutting off the flashing with a knife in a single cut. He loves working with skilled artisans, especially Italians. “They really give a shit about what they’re doing,” he says. “The owner isn’t just in the office – he’s there, polishing the machine on the floor. They’re some of the best artisans in the world. The way they dress is very preening but that translates when they’re being artisans into really caring about it.”
He particularly loved working with a Milanese metalworker who helped him make special brands for his Ken Cuts glassware range. The brands were used to press symbols and swearwords into cooling glass, a process that is very similar to his Scum work because it involves working with a “live” material. But the metalworker failed to teach Seymour how to arc weld the brands himself: “He said, ‘Look Jerszy, you’re a really great guy but you’re just too nervous to work it!’”
Seymour is interested in understanding materials because he wants to do new things with them. “If you want to make a new language you’ve got to understand what the material is going to do integrally,” he says. “It can’t be a surface idea, so understanding materials lets you find out how they have to come out.” He dislikes the clean machine aesthetic of forcing materials into shapes unspecific to their inherent qualities. At the centre of this viewpoint is Scum. He explains that it isn’t just playful and fun, nor an anarchic attempt at “anti-design”, but rather about creating a new language that challenges preconceptions of beauty.
Here Seymour goes into the political basis to his design. He’s very serious about it, though his views are a little unspecific. The current challenge to design, as he sees it, is to build new collaborations that are freer from corporate industry. He’d love to do a line of products with Greenpeace to show how business can be conducted in a way that isn’t all about satisfying shareholders. “Something with all the passion and seduction and beauty – I’m not saying that…” – he stalls a little, but gears up again: “We’re social animals; part of us says we’re going to do the good thing and part of us just wants to fuck. And I want to fuck! I want to go out and have fun, but at the same time I want to be cool with the people around me. But in the corporate world even to fuck is boring.”
On the other hand, though he respects and loves to work with non-corporate family-run businesses like Magis and Kartel because they care about what they’re doing, he feels they just aren’t relevant to the real world. “It’s like they’re playing fantasy, they’re making things to make people feel better in the world, that say everything’s OK. Of course, that’s the luxury tradition a lot of the Italian companies are coming from. And that’s a shame. Design doesn’t have to be bourgeois if we can find the right way of working.”
So Scum is in part a way of investigating this “third way”, a sort of utopian socially inclusive design that retains all the allure of the stuff to which we’re accustomed. It’s a bit nebulous and it’s a little hard to understand how Seymour can still work with brands like Diesel and Armani (for whom he did a prototype perfume bottle), and be in talks to do a Scum installation for Nike. He ums and ahs a little. “When people approach you there’s not many other ways of moving forward,” he starts. “It’s not meant to be hypocritical, but actually at the moment it might be the only possible way – to change it from the inside.” He has begun developing a product range with a domestic electronic appliance manufacturer that he can’t yet name that will espouse these views – a range of mainstream products with “good” design. He points toward Jasper Morrison’s range of appliances for Rowenta as an example of this having happened already.
Seymour could come across sounding rather righteous and pompous, but he doesn’t. He’s not expecting to be able to change the world: “Maybe I’ll be completely wrong and I’m not in tune with what the mass of people are in tune with, and I’ll have to go off and do my little Scum things. And that’s fine,” he says. “We can’t say as designers that we can change the world, but on the other hand to assume that we can’t is equally futile. Yeah, we have to do something – take seriously what we’re doing and all the time we have to challenge our role. Are designers just a tool or are we going to play an active role in the future?”
Seymour has kept himself at arm’s length from the greater design world, finding more stimulating ideas coming from musicians like Dreesen and from graffiti artists. He has a healthy hatred for the “design makes a better world” mantra and gets a huge kick out of people outside the design world appreciating his work. “The design world is too referential to its own history,” he says. This attitude has given him the freedom to work across a broader range of design, like his project with his wife, Grit. Their Tape clothing range references his interest in playing with materials. They adapted the plastic tape that is used to seal waterproof jacket seams and used it to adorn and construct a complete range of clothes. Each season reveals a new use; this year they applied the tape while the clothes were scrunched around models to retain their body forms. He rushes off to find the jacket they made and poses proudly for Michael.
We go off to lunch with Michael, Grit and a member of the studio at a pizza restaurant nearby that Seymour likes because it’s run by Italian punks. He clearly loves to explore new cities, enthusiastically describing the quiet neighbourhood we are in, close to Alexanderplatz. He likes Berlin’s urbane calmness: “When I get into a project I get really” – he makes a buzzing electricity sound – “so it’s nice to be in an area that doesn’t give a fuck so I get to work some steam off.” While he began his career in Milan and its companies continue to nurture him, he finds the general society there too conservative and couldn’t see it as any kind of home. But despite his southern English accent, he doesn’t really feel fixed in any place at all.
This relative distance from the design world and a particular nationality has allowed Seymour to develop his work with valuable freedom. While his politics seem a little vague, his deep respect for materials has lent his work a coherence that is attracting mainstream manufacturers. It will be interesting to see how Scum-thinking translates into mass-market objects.