words Lesley Jackson
“My designs are often about normal things that have gone a bit strange,” says Gitta Gschwendtner. “Obviously functionality is important, but I want my work to be more demanding. Some pieces take on a life of their own.”
Gschwendtner is a blonde bombshell in the slightly terrifying Uma Thurman mould, or so she appeared recently setting up an exhibition called Import/Export for the British Council in India. Even a dose of Delhi belly wasn’t enough to slow her down.
Since her sinuous, show-stealing design for An Industry of One at the Crafts Council three years ago, she has become one of the hottest exhibition designers on the gallery circuit. But in furniture and lighting (her core métier), she is still on the lookout for her big breakthrough.
Import/Export explores the growing hybridisation of contemporary British design, focusing on foreign-born designers based in the UK and British designers working with foreign companies. German-born Gschwendtner is a prime specimen and, as well as designing the show, she herself is one of the 14 featured designers, along with Eley Kishimoto, Clements Ribeiro, Tord Boontje, El Ultimo Grito, the Azumis and Sebastian Bergne.
Gschwendtner’s brief was to design a robust, demountable structure that respected the individuality of each exhibitor, while forging a strong, coherent identity for the show. Her solution, a series of long, low platforms, leggy tables and high criss-crossing bridges set askew, combines the geometry of the Bauhaus with the dynamism of Malevich in a palette of shocking pink (think glam rock and Elton John). “It’s a challenge to show so many objects by so many different designers in a way that unifies them and does them all justice,” she comments. “My design, which is based on tables of a variety of scales, creates a freestanding environment, providing ceilings, lights and walls. A bit like in my furniture, a humble table has mutated into an array of structures. I just love the pink!” The colour went down a storm in India.
Import/Export reveals a lot about Gschwendtner’s design philosophy. For her, design is about storytelling rather than styling, a concept she applies to both objects and exhibition design – like a good plot, it requires twists and turns. “I enjoy design that has an idea or narrative at its heart,” she explains. “Humour and surprise are important ingredients too.” Her Strangled Lights – contorted funnel-shaped ceramic pendant lamps asphyxiated by their own electric cable – encapsulate these ideas. Similarly, each of her three newly-launched contract lighting designs for CTO has a different story to tell. In Ghost, a plain white shade is caged in a coloured Perspex box, suggesting two-way mirrors; Nostalgia conjures up the illusion of an old tasselled lampshade from a forgotten age; while in the clown-like Cascade, a column of topsy-turvy lampshades are juggled like spinning plates.
Her tendency to pervert normal appearances is evident in the lamps she designed for an exhibition at Pitshanger Manor called The Uncanny Room. Co-opting the generic forms of innocuous pleated silk lampshades, they assume a weird, sinister, animal-like character, crawling around table legs and climbing up walls.
Transformation is a key element in Gschwendtner’s work – objects that morph from one thing into another, as with her Magazine Rug, a fur runner that buckles up at one end into a series of stiff waves. “Active objects frozen mid sentence” is how she herself describes it. But although her designs are often dual purpose, as with her Hidden Mirror for Habitat – a hall mirror that sprouts coat pegs and cubby holes, co-designed with her RCA mate Carl Clerkin – Gschwendtner is adamant that multi-functionalism in the space-saving sense is not her primary concern. What really interests her is personal interaction between the user and the product, as though the object is incomplete until somebody engages with it. “My designs won’t shut up and blend into the background,” she warns. “I create attention-seeking products that want to enrich your life.” What makes her approach all the more intriguing, though, is her curious lack of ego. She’s not seeking to impose her own personality, as so many designers do; she wants to lure people in so that they become part of the creative equation.
At the heart of the Gschwendtner enigma lies a fascinating duality: Teutonic rigour mixed with wayward English eccentricity. Even as a child growing up in straight-laced Hamburg, she confesses to spending most of her time creating strange objects in her bedroom, so clearly these perverse tendencies were always there. But what reactivated them was her exposure to the anarchic British design education system. She came over in 1992 to do a foundation course at Central Saint Martins at the age of 20, but got hooked and stayed on to study furniture at Kingston and then the RCA. When challenged about her split design personality – the rational Gitta vs the irrational Gitta – she assures me it’s not a problem. “There’s definitely no conflict. They complement each other. I have to be organized and rational to be able to do my job well, but I also need to be playful and irrational to be able to design.”
Although Gschwendtner is independent-minded and decisive, she enjoys collaborating with other designers, such as Fiona Davidson. “I don’t think I’d like to form a partnership with another designer, but collaboration is the best of both worlds,” she says. For the last six years she has shared a studio with Carl Clerkin, initially at Oxo Tower, now at Southgate Road in Hackney. “Carl and I have quite similar approaches, but different aesthetics,” she remarks. “Our projects are a good mixture of serious and silly. Probably more serious than you’d think.” Shortly after leaving the RCA in 1998 she and Clerkin were invited to customize a Peugeot 206 for the launch of the Peugeot Design Awards. Playing on the idea of the car as a sex machine, they flocked the entire vehicle, inside and out. When visitors came up and stroked the car, touch sensors triggered groans of pleasure (in French of course). Perhaps not what the sponsors had in mind, but brilliantly cheeky and fetishistic nevertheless.
As in the case of the Peugeot project, tactility and plasticity – real or imagined – are often primary elements in Gschwendtner’s designs: hard materials that look soft, like her scribbly Strip Light made of Corian; or soft materials that look hard, as in her concertina-shaped Pull Up Vases made of dip-moulded PVC, both co-designed with Fiona Davidson. Originally developed as experimental prototypes for the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers, but now produced by Innermost, the Pull Up Vases look brittle, like ceramics or glass, but are actually pliant and can be tweaked into various shapes. Objects that stretch and bend seem to be something of an obsession. In her expandable wall-mounted bedside table, elasticated bungee cord holds the unit together instead of screws, so books and magazines can be stuffed in between the drawers, as well as inside and on top.
In spite of her early successes, Gschwendtner admits to having been impatient during her first few years out of college. “It took a while to realize that non-commercial product design is always going to be just that: non-commercial. I never really enjoyed producing products myself, and I hated the expectation that designers should be manufacturers. I wanted real manufacturers to pick up my prototypes, or to commission me from scratch.” Although still frustrated by the attitudes of some manufacturers, and the length of time it takes for a design to enter production, Gschwendtner seems remarkably content with her present lot. “I think I’ve achieved a good mix of projects. I’d like to continue as I’m doing now, but maybe with the scale of projects steadily growing,” she says.
Discovering exhibition design was clearly a major turning point in her career. “I absolutely enjoy it as a counterpart to product design,” she enthuses. “In a way it’s much easier to express yourself in an exhibition design than to cram all that storytelling into a chair.” Exhibitions provide the perfect springboard for her inventiveness. In 30/30 Vision at the Crafts Council last year, she used strips of undulating bent plywood as display stands, marked out like tape measures to signify milestones in people’s careers. For Milan in a Van at the V&A she co-opted wooden packing crates as impromptu plinths. And it’s not just the art fraternity who appreciate her resourcefulness. Gschwendtner has also designed two exhibitions at the Science Museum for the Wellcome Trust, Treat Yourself and, most recently, Pain. “The Wellcome Trust exhibitions are an interesting change from design exhibitions, combining medical objects and fine art. I’ve had the opportunity to create quite large architectural spaces for some wonderful and intriguing objects. Despite strict conservation requirements, there’s still a lot of scope for creativity and narrative.’
Her next major project is an exhibition called Them Indoors at the Geffrye Museum, London, in September to coincide with 100% Design. This time it’s a three-way collaboration between Gschwendtner, Carl Clerkin and William Warren (a dream team of YBDs), merging product design with exhibition design. “The gallery will be divided into three areas, one for each designer,” she explains. “Each space will combine new work with existing pieces and sourced objects. The exhibition will present individual interpretations of domestic environments, exploring how a house becomes a home through engagement, care, love, personality, pride, use and history.” True to form, inclusiveness and interaction play a crucial role in the concept. Visitors will journey through the installation and get drawn in, rather than passively walking by. When you enter Gitta’s room, be prepared to step inside a rather extraordinary mind.
Them Indoors is at the Geffrye Museum from 23 September 2004 – January 2005. www.geffrye-museum.org.uk
Import/Export tours in India, Australia, Scandinavia during 2004-5, culminating at the V&A. www.britishcouncil.org
Lesley Jackson curated Import/Export