words Alex Wiltshire
I went to Munich to see Konstantin Grcic but he wasn’t there. He was actually in Paris.
It’s a bit of a disaster, especially as Phaidon, which is about to publish a book on the German-born industrial designer, has paid for my flight.
Standing in Grcic’s studio, which occupies the second floor of a grey-painted block near the centre of the city, the misunderstanding took very clear shape: evidently, I had arranged the meeting for April, and he had arranged it for May. Nitzan Cohen, one of Grcic’s three designers, breaks the news gently and offers me a cup of tea and a seat at a table in the middle of the large, ordered space. An expensive-looking hi-fi system is quietly playing rock music next to Grcic’s empty desk, and the other members of the studio have gone to lunch.
Since I’m here, the best thing to do is to have a good look around. Grcic is best known for the complex geometries of pieces like his chair_ONE for Magis, but he and his studio are working on a wide range of different projects, from kitchen appliances for German manufacturer Krups to an interior design for the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich.
Cohen shows me a broken prototype of the new Miura stool for Plank that was launched at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair. The prototype fractured when someone tried to sit on it, but the finished model exemplifies Grcic’s approach: its angular structure makes it extremely stable but, because it is made from a single piece of fibreglass-reinforced polypropylene, it flexes comfortably. Like all of Grcic’s work, Miura’s materials and shape are heavily informed by the modern industrial production process. He later explains to me during our telephone interview: “The idea of doing a new chair alone is not so interesting, but the materials and technology can trigger that angle of what kind of chair and how we design it. [They can] inspire that pure interest and fascination.”
Grcic was born in Munich in 1965 but studied design in the UK. Ironically, considering his interest in industry, he first trained as a cabinet-maker at Parnham College in Dorset. There, through learning how furniture is created, he developed an interest in how work and production are organised and a love of seeing large machines in action. He went on to study at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1990. He then spent a year working for Jasper Morrison before setting up his studio, Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design, in 1991. In the following years Grcic produced a wide range of products, including the TamTam and TomTom tables for SCP and 2-Hands plastic basket for Authentics. But it was the Mayday lamp for Flos (1998) that first brought him to attention and established his design approach. A mass-produced light with a hook so that it can be hung up, it is practical and tough enough for use in a workshop. “It was his breakthrough, not because it represents a big swing from what he’d been doing before but because it was a more industrial product, and Konstantin’s design language appears much more radical produced in big numbers,” says his former boss, Jasper Morrison.
Next to the Miura stool is a prototype of a stool version of his chair_ONE. Cohen tells me that Konstantin isn’t very happy with it, and it’s easy to see why. Where chair_ONE’s delicate geometric mesh is structurally logical and essential, it has been applied to the stool in way that feels slightly awkward and redundant. It strikes me that not having Grcic here is actually rather liberating because I am getting to see things that most designers would prefer you not to. We turn to a bench behind the stools, where the metal prototype of a gas barbecue grill for Krups is sitting. Krups want it to be double-sided for the US market: a griddle for burgers on one and flat for eggs on the other. But, again, Grcic is unhappy – the current solution, a heavy reversible top that lifts off, is difficult to flip over and likely to cause burns.
I begin to get the image of a severe and exacting Grcic, the sort of person that would be rather dismissive of a journalist who can’t turn up to his studio on the right day. He certainly seems to look that way in the portraits I’ve seen, and I’m more than a little nervous about the telephone interview we’ve arranged for a few days later.
But I’m totally wrong. The first thing Grcic does is apologise profusely. He has a gentle, earnest voice with a light German accent and he seems very relaxed. The studio reflected that character perfectly: it was ordered, with each project given its own pristine black folder full of sketches, 3D schematics and notes, yet it felt easy-going. The central table was surrounded by a hotchpotch of different Grcic chairs: wooden, metal, coloured and upholstered. His designs demonstrate a similar personality: they are formal in the sense that their forms rigorously adhere to material qualities and the production process, but they manage not to feel sterile or unfriendly.
“It’s a compliment if you see that,” he says. “It reveals some sort of personal signature, and that as a designer I’m not just giving a surface, not just a technician. Good design has room for very personal thinking. Industrial designers are concerned with a lot of technicalities, but I see it as my role to put a personal touch or signature that makes it worthwhile.”
It therefore seems odd that people sometimes describe his work as minimalist. He doesn’t particularly mind the label, though he’s careful to define his work specifically within it. “I think a lot of things labelled as minimalist are boring – they have no soul or life. But I strongly believe in simplicity – chair_ONE I think is very simple. It has an inherent logic and a bare structure, but I don’t think people would describe it as minimalist. It is very complex. That’s how I like the idea of minimalism, radical in that it really goes to the roots and bare essentials, but keeping a note of something quite irrational because that’s where the personality comes from. The human touch.”
His interest in industry comes from a fascination with “big machines doing physical work”. But he disregards the notion that “good” design needs to be made economically accessible. “I have realised that bringing good design to the masses is full of contradiction and compromise,” he says. “If good design only reaches an elite that still makes it worthwhile. More important is the idea, the concept, the next step in the development of our culture of objects. It’s very hard to do something new that will reach the masses immediately. It’s more relevant to reach the few people that can respond to it, and it will trickle down and have an influence on other products and designs to reach the masses.” He suggests that Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis Group proves this can work. Though it only produced prototypes and exhibition pieces during the 1980s, Memphis had a profound impact on subsequent material culture.
Grcic takes his work very seriously but he remains modest about it, never feeling projects are truly finished (“I see them as frozen in a particular state”). He often looks back on older projects and worries that he should perhaps have taken them in different directions. Seeing the number of different approaches the studio tried in developing a sheet-metal chair for Magis (in its current state it has three legs, a triangular seat and an iridescent zinc finish), it’s clear that his projects develop very freely.
Given the way Grcic thinks about his work, he was apprehensive about the idea of a monograph. “I didn’t actually want to do one,” he laughs. “I dreaded revisiting and pulling out all my years of work. How to be selective?” But he agreed to go ahead when his friend, photographer and graphic designer Florian Böhm, proposed to work with him. Instead of gleaming finished product shots, the book candidly shows the processes behind his designs, with scratchy sketches and photographs of the team at factories. “I wanted to demystify the process of how in the end we have a functioning espresso machine. A lot of my work comes from that, and it has a lot do with the factories and people we work with,” he says.
Had he been in the studio when I visited, perhaps I’d have seen just as many of the broken prototypes and unfinished projects. “I’ve grown a confidence that not everything we make can be brilliant, and we make mistakes,” he agrees. “Most things start off very primitive but I have the confidence to show that – it’s the way it is. I don’t need to make it sound more or make it more than it is.”
KGID (Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design) is published by Phaidon, £39.95