Cecilie Manz in her Copenhagen studio. Photo: Casper Sejersen
The Designer of the Year at Maison & Objet 2018, Cecilie Manz talks to Elizabeth Choppin about shaping the New Scandinavian movement
This year Cecilie Manz was anointed Designer of the Year at Maison & Objet – a deserved accolade for the Danish talent, whose thoughtful, understated work has helped define the New Scandinavian movement over two decades. A retrospective of Manz’s furniture, lighting and objects took front and centre at the Paris show. Icon spoke to Manz about the virtues of Danish design, cardboard prototypes, and why young designers should get a good lawyer.
ICON Being crowned Designer of the Year comes with its fair share of praise and scrutiny. Are you comfortable in the limelight?
Cecilie Manz I’m very honoured, of course. And I’m very happy to have the chance to take part in this exhibition. But I’m not very comfortable being on the stage, no. So that’s the difficult part of the job but I’m learning. Of course, I really enjoy sharing my work and having discussions with people coming to see it.
ICON How much do you discuss your work with other designers, or look to other creative disciplines for inspiration or feedback?
CM For that I have a very nice team in my studio. I ask, ‘What do you think?’ And they might say something I didn’t expect, and maybe I’ll disagree. But that’s OK. In that way it’s a very good thing, like playing squash or something.
ICON A rally.
CM Yes. I have very nice colleagues in that sense. But I find most inspiration is within the task in front of me, or the brief I get. I read it and try to understand what the brand does, and which direction it should take. As in, this is a chair that should be used in this or that situation. It could also be a material, or in the case with Bang & Olufsen, there were quite strict rules and parameters. The speaker I designed for them had to be 1.5 litres, which was a constraint from the beginning. And a limitation like that makes it easier, actually. You also learn and gain knowledge through a process like that.
Cecilie Manz P2 M for Bang & Olufson. Photo: BO PLAY
ICON What happens when you challenge a brand that has been producing things the same way for decades to do something different? Have you experienced that?
CM You could say it’s a balance because I should push to try new things, and on the other hand it’s also about timing. The idea could be very nice, but completely wrong for the company. We’re usually led by a brand’s craftsmanship capabilities, in upholstery or woodwork or whatever it is, and we use it. That’s also part of my job – to look at what they’re really good at and what they’re maybe not so good at. Then sometimes I need to push; maybe they’re not good at it but they could be.
ICON You launched your studio in 1998. At this point you can probably pick and choose the projects you want to take. How do you decide what to do?
CM It’s very much about intuition and gut feeling. When meeting new brands it’s really like meeting a new person. Are we aligned, and do we have the same humour, do we work in the same way, or do we feel comfortable in each other’s company. That’s very important. Then of course, I look at the quality.
ICON You’ve undertaken such a broad spectrum of projects – furniture, technology, lighting and ceramics. What do you want to do next?
CM I’m often asked about car design and I’ve always said, ‘No, I will de nitely not do a car.’ But it’s also about evolving and growing, and maybe I’m at a point where I could take part in a project like that.
ICON So, a car is the dream project?
CM Maybe, yes!
ICON Let’s talk about colour. It’s integral to what you do, yet it’s often seen as super uous to function – an afterthought.
CM It’s the other way around because colour is de ning … [points to a tower of bone china dishes from Kaolin on her stand]. If this whole stack of dishes was black it would be completely changed. It would be a different experience eating from them and seeing them and everything that comes with it. Colour speaks to the senses – maybe it’s a sense of rationality or maybe it’s emotional.
ICON Do you consider your work to be more rational or emotional?
CM I think actually I am a very organised, rational person but I use my gut feeling and I use my intuition. I try to balance creativity with the practicalities of manufacturing, and simplifying ideas until they are resolved.
Cecilie Manz’s Luv bathroom. Photo: Duravit
ICON Some of your pieces, especially the electronics, have a similar simplicity to that found in contemporary Japanese design. There seems to be a strong connection between the Scandinavian and Japanese approach. Do you see that similarity?
CM It’s very hard for me to see what I do from the outside. But I consider myself very Scandinavian because I try to pick the right material to be used in the right place. And I think this is a Scandinavian virtue, maybe especially a Danish virtue, from the golden age. If you do a wooden chair then do it perfectly, in wood, in a particular way. And I think in that sense I feel quite lucky that I was educated 20 years ago because there was still a lot of focus on the actual craftsmanship. We had a lot of workshops in Denmark, and that has changed. Not that it’s a bad thing but it’s just … I’m quite happy personally that I got this knowledge. This is also, I think, why I’m still doing prototypes in foam and cut board, really old school.
ICON Instead of using modern equipment from the start?
CM Yeah. We do use it, especially with B&O – the detail is so important, so we do 3D prints afterwards. But rst it’s this light green block of foam. It works well for me to materialise it. Sometimes I do the most horrible models because it needs to happen very fast. I have an idea, and we have to do it right now. It looks shitty but then I can move forward, and have one of my lovely colleagues make a nicer one.
ICON What do you think about the current state of Danish design?
CM I think it’s in good shape. Ten or fifteen years ago there was a dip, but we are on a good track now. There are many new designers and… we are still here.
ICON There is an argument that Danish design was such a powerhouse for so long that there’s a bit of resting on laurels, as it were.
CM Yeah. There is a lot of that. Maybe 20 years ago when I was finalising my studies, it was not good conditions. It was only about doing the old classics. Nobody was inviting in new designers and so it was really hard – a tough way to get started.
ICON Brands just wanted to rehash old ideas?
CM Yeah. And I think then came along Hay and Muuto and all these new companies, and the establishment got a kick up the backside. But then it’s very easy just to blame the old guard. Fritz Hansen introduced Objects, and I think that was a really a good move. It was moving forward. So it’s possible to keep the old companies fresh too.
Cecilie Manz’s atmosphere dining set. Photo: Gloster
ICON What was the moment when you rst knew, or decided, that you wanted to pursue design?
CM Both of my parents are ceramists. So I was quite rm that I would de nitely not go in that direction. I really tried to be in rebellion and not to go to design school, so I applied for the Royal Academy and I wasn’t accepted. But I was accepted at the design school. And I was so pissed o , thinking ‘Argh, this is not what I want!’
ICON You wanted to do the opposite of your parents.
CM Yeah. At least something slightly different. But I learned a lot at home, watching them.
ICON And now you’re front and centre at Maison & Objet. Do you think there is still a place for the conventional design fair? Over the years there’s been talk about the dynamics between brands and designers – about royalties and the nature of the fair, in that a lot of the work is used as a marketing tool.
CM Yes. That’s a thing … If young designers come to me, I always advise them to get a lawyer for the contract. Don’t be bullied. Just set the rules from the beginning because although it’s a lot of money in lawyers’ fees, if you negotiate the right agreement it will be a lot nicer in the end.