words Lesley Jackson
El Ultimo Grito were causing a bit of a kerfuffle down at the Crafts Council. “We’ve always been unruly,” confessed Rosario Hurtado. “We’re non-conformists. We don’t believe in rules.”
She and her partner, Roberto Feo, had been shortlisted for the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for furniture (they lost out to BarberOsgerby in the end) and had come along to install their pieces in the exhibition.
Unlike the other exhibitors, they balked at the idea of displaying their wares on custom-designed white plinths. “We can’t accept the idea of plinths in an installation,” insisted Rosario. “Our objects relate to each other. When you put something on a plinth it mystifies it. You don’t see it from a normal perspective.”
When I arrive the Gritos have set up camp in a corner of the gallery and are sculpting a lumpy landscape from bits of cardboard and sheets of foam, complete with hillock, benches and a tree. It’s all very improvisational and hands-on. Then they start plastering the whole ensemble with hundreds of circular stickers that spread onto the walls, columns and floor. The stickers are printed with a broken line pattern that looks like fur. Some are made from fabric, providing instant upholstery for the duo’s newly fabricated easy chairs. “The sense of improvisation is important,” declares Roberto. “You need to keep the freshness of the original idea. The more commercial projects we do, the more we need to experiment so that we’re ready to go when the right project comes along.”
Stickers have become something of an obsession of late. The pair recently installed a similar “tagged environment” called GauDIY at the School of Design in Barcelona, using stickers adorned with Gaudí tile mosaics. Last year they created an explosive window display at Selfridges resembling a Futurist painting for fashion company Griffin. There is something inherently liberating and provocative about using stickers, with their close ties to propaganda and advertising. But according to the Gritos, it is their graphic impact that appeals to them. “We don”t want to preach,” asserts Rosario. “We’re not trying to create a new utopia.” Yet for all their friendly reassurance, the Gritos are still the closest thing on the design scene to hunt saboteurs.
Another act of minor rebellion at the Jerwood was that, rather than showcasing El Ultimo Grito staples (like the award-winning rubber-topped Mind the Gap Table or their cork-seated Miss Ramirez Chair, the design that launched their career at 100% Design in 1997), most of the pieces they chose to exhibit were recent products or prototypes. The idea of mounting a retrospective is anathema to the couple. “We really believe in what we’re doing now, so we want to show this,” Rosario declared. “It’s like being in a band. We’d rather play our new record than our old songs.”
The Jerwood show highlights two recent accessory ranges – one hard, one soft – that blur the distinctions between furniture and toys. Pet Shirts are sock-like objects made from knitted jersey fabric, providing instant storage for household clutter (you just stuff your junk inside). Disarming yet thought-provoking, they range in scale from cute cuddly dogs and rag dolls to outsize saddlebags and a big pink elephant trunk. They are complemented by an ingenious collection of flat-pack furniture called All in One, made of patterned laminate, which just slots together without screws. The pattern derives from the cutting lines of the components, so that (theoretically at least) the design is functional as well as decorative.
Wry observations of everyday life provide the basic fodder for the Gritos’ designs. Drawing on their recent experience of parenthood, they have just designed a range of interactive children’s clothes for Magis called Me Too, which double up as toys and learning tools. Launched in Milan last April, some garments are made from two layers of fabric with intriguing pockets and hidey holes. Others are printed with numbers and alphabets upside down, so that they can be read from above. “We tried to imagine what it was like to live in a child’s world,” explains Rosario. “There’s a thin line between furniture and what you wear. We take the same approach to both. This collection isn’t fashion, it’s design. That’s why we call it Summer to Spring, because it’s not seasonal.” They have also developed a children’s seating concept for Magis, a curiously shaped bench-chair called Micos, which evokes the character of different animals as it is rotated, encouraging imaginative play.
For an experimental outfit like El Ultimo Grito, Magis is the ideal client. “The projects we’re doing for them are getting more and more interesting,” enthuses Roberto. “They give you challenges and they rise to the challenge themselves.” The Gritos are also pleased with the outcome of their collaboration with the Swedish firm Nola, an extraordinary planter-cum-public-seating-unit, called Land Ho. Made of roto-moulded plastic and produced in weird colours such as lime green, it looks like a giant bean with a thick trunk sprouting from one side.
Other clients range from the mighty Marks & Spencer, for whom they recently designed a nylon shopping bag, to the Japanese company Trico, which manufactures and distributes some of the Gritos’ quirkier products. The couple clearly value their independence, hence the high proportion of projects that they initiate. “Judgmental companies are no good to work with,” observes Roberto. “We lose interest in companies that don’t listen.” Teaching also provides a vital subsidy and stimulant for their design activities – Rosario is a part-time tutor at Goldsmiths, Roberto at the Royal College of Art. “We keep ourselves busy,” says Rosario philosophically. “We’ve found a way to make sense of it. There’s no pressure for us to go knocking on doors.”
Nevertheless, although the Gritos have embraced – and been embraced by – the British design scene, their Spanishness still sets them apart. This is partly to do with language, partly mentality. They admit that their rather baffling name arose from a stubborn determination to cling on to their Spanish identity. “El Ultimo Grito literally means ‘the last scream’,” explains Roberto (no doubt for the umpteenth time). “It’s a dated and rather funny expression to describe the latest fashion.” As far as I can tell, the closest English equivalent is something like “the last word” or “the bee’s knees”, but essentially the phrase is untranslatable, and is thus a consciously perverse choice.
“The dryness of our humour is very Spanish,” observes Roberto. “Spanish humour is very black. We laugh about difficult things as a way of dealing with them.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in a two-layered T-shirt called The Evolution Will Not Be Televised, pierced by faux bullet holes. The top layer folds back into a terrorist-style balaclava, exposing ironic slogans – “peace”, “freelance” or “sponsored by” – on a second shirt beneath. The Gritos are notorious for the corny puns in their titles, which they consciously exploit as a way of getting through to people. But when it comes to the designs themselves, they are adamant that jokiness is not their intention. “Our work is about funny observations, but the objects themselves aren’t funny,” declares Rosario. “Humour is simply a way of developing our ideas.”
At the heart of their design philosophy is a detached, deadpan way of looking at the world. Stripping away conventions, they penetrate to the core of a problem, often in a staggeringly simple way. Their Spin City lampshade for Mathmos, a dome of spun aluminium with a laser-cut slit down one side, provides a good example of this. Whereas most lampshades are fiddly to install, this one simply slips over the cable like a hood and sits on the plastic light bulb casing. The slit reveals a flash of intense orange or blue anodised colouring on the underside. Good Morning Miss Moneypenny, a self-assembly coat hanger made from a roll of die-cut polypropylene sheet, is even more pared down. Consumers create their own pegs by stuffing rolled up magazines through the holes. “We try to avoid mystifying design,” says Rosario. “We all have a designer in us. Design is a transferable skill. You can use it as a way of thinking. You can apply it to many things.”
These ideas are encapsulated in an ongoing project called The Adventures of Mini Man. Mini Man is the anonymous male icon used on public signage and his adventures are played out on a series of customised cards. Co-opted as a sort of Everyman, he can be placed in an unlimited number of different scenarios, exploring everything from the human condition to the nature of design. “Mini Man is a good tool for generating ideas,” explains Roberto. “The starting point is a person in a white space. The one common denominator is the person. Everything grows from this. The card can represent the beginning of the story or the end.”
Although the Gritos try to make a point of questioning the status quo, they don’t regard themselves as radicals. “People say we’re alternative, but I think we’re mainstream,” claims Roberto. “Our aim is to reduce design to a minimum,” adds Rosario. “We think we’re normal. We just do what we believe in; we’ve got no hidden agenda. It’s about going around with your eyes open.” Ultimately, though, it all boils down to perceptions of normality. The challenge for El Ultimo Grito is that what they perceive as normal tends to be viewed as abnormal by the convention-bound wider world. “Subversive is the only thing you can aspire to be as a designer,” concludes Roberto. “If everyone was complacent, everything would remain the same. If you have a problem, you try to find a solution. Design is a survival instinct.”
Jerwood Applied Arts Prize 2004 Furniture continues at the Crafts Council until 31 October