The Slovenian designer on drama in design
A strong narrative underpins Slovenian designer Nika Zupanc’s work, from her coquettish Lolita lamp for Moooi, which launched her on to the world stage, to the fetishistic Self-Discipline series of study-oriented furniture. These stories reflect her view that designed objects are not simply about beauty and function, but are elements on the stage on which we play out our lives. As she prepared for Salone, she spoke to us about her brand of ‘lyrical modernism’.
ICON It sounds like this year’s Milan Design Week will be a busy one for you. What are you most looking forward to?
NIKA ZUPANC I’ll be showing many new products, including a coffee set produced with a traditional silver workshop for an exhibition called Doppia Firma that brings together designers and Italian artisans, a daybed and dining table for Sé, lights for Contardi and a cabinet for De Castelli. The largest collection I’m launching will be 88 Secrets, for new Indian brand Scarlet Splendour, which includes a cabinet, chair, carpet and some metal objects. It was a special challenge because, when you work with a new brand, you’re also in a sense developing its footprint. They wanted to keep the essence of their Indian origins, but translate that into a global language. Our starting point was a workshop that does wonders with wood – creating soft forms and curves. The brand also wanted the collection to be easy to use in the context of interior design, so despite having a poetic quality, it’s functional and easy to produce.
below Cabinet and bar for Scarlet Splendour, showing at Rossana Orlandi during Salone
ICON You’re also showing work at the exhibition celebrating 20 years of Salone Satellite, the show for emerging designers that you took part in 11 years ago. How have you, as a designer, changed since then?
NZ I now understand why it takes so long to gain the trust of companies. If you’re doing injection moulding, for example, it’s a big investment, so it’s difficult for a company to start working with a young designer after seeing only one or two of their pieces – they can’t know you can maintain that quality. In terms of my personal approach, I don’t think that has changed. It may not always be obvious, but I’m very much an industrial designer. Of course, I work on limited editions and produce some items under my own label, but my true essence is in working in a relationship with companies. That’s where I really challenge myself, as I like to work inside
ICON How does working with craftspeople, for example the Italian silversmiths and Indian woodworkers you mentioned earlier, fit into this?
NZ In a way, it’s part of the same thing. As an industrial designer, I want to get to the essence of a certain technology or to explore its edges, which is where you find the most interesting solutions. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re working with injection-moulding technology or silver – you still need to understand the technology to innovate.
Lolita lamp for Moooi (2008)
ICON One of your most significant collaborations has been with the London-based brand Sé. How did that come about?
NZ In 2011, Sé had an exhibition of its collection with Jaime Hayón at Spazio Rosanna Orlandi. I remember thinking wow, this really is [Jaime’s] best work and I sensed it was the company pushing him in that direction. Sé’s founder Pavlo Schtakleff and I didn’t know each other, but when we met it felt natural to work together. He would give me a really loose brief – just say, ‘I like the television series Mad Men’, for example. He didn’t need to speak a lot but I knew where he was looking and, whatever designs I sent him, he liked. It sounds rather romantic, but when I decide to work with a brand, there needs to be some chemistry. With some brands you have it, and others you don’t.
ICON But is there a common thread that runs through your work, exclusive of the company you’re working with – a Nika Zupanc style?
NZ I wouldn’t say it’s a style, but there is an element of storytelling to all my work. I like to take something basic – whether it’s an iconic shape, a colour or a material – then give it an unexpected, contemporary twist. If I had to put myself in a box, I’d call myself a ‘lyrical modernist’. I work on modernist principles: I never add, I never do decoration – everything has its own reason. But I try to inflate that with a sense of drama, which is the ‘lyrical’ part.
Stay Daybed for Sé will be revealed at Rossanna Orlandi during the Salone
ICON You mentioned storytelling – are you telling a story about yourself or playing a role?
NZ No, no, I’m playing a role. I see our environments and interiors as a stage and my designs are elements on that stage on which we live our lives. Whatever we do, we’re always surrounded by furniture.
ICON As a female designer, you’ve described yourself as ‘challenging the boys’ club’. Do you think you’ve been successful?
NZ First, I’d say that I don’t like to use the word femininity in the context of design – design is genderless and gender shouldn’t have to have anything to do with the profession. If you speak about this subject, I feel you’re giving attention to something that shouldn’t even be a debate any more. Then again, in reality the industry is still a boys’ club. As a woman, you need to be even better or more determined to make it work. I feel though, through my work I have addressed objects or themes that had been pushed into a ghetto [for being perceived as ‘feminine’]. For example, ten years ago when I did the Lolita lamp for Moooi and decided to do it in pink, it was sort of a challenge, to bring something like that into the contemporary spotlight – but today pink is everywhere. I think more and more it’s becoming understood that we’re not speaking about femininity – it’s about timeless elegance, beauty and a certain type of feeling, which can address a woman or a man.
Cherry lamp in gold for Qeeboo (2013)
ICON Do you have a specific user in mind when you are designing?
NZ No. Even if I have a person in mind, it’s usually just someone I like – I never think, in a corporate way, ‘this is the user’. That’s so artificial. When I design, I usually try to respond to something that moves me in a personal way. For example, the Black Cherry lamps happened because I loved a song by Goldfrapp called Black Cherry, and I was listening to it on repeat.
ICON You’ve said in the past that comfort isn’t always a priority for you. But isn’t comfort an essential element of furniture?
NZ I think comfort in general is overrated – you need to leave your comfort zone in all senses of life to get somewhere. Of course, design should first of all function – there’s no sense in doing a dining chair if it’s hard to sit on it. But I don’t think all furniture is just about relaxing – it also gives something a frame, for example, or speaks about importance. Certain objects are never just about comfort or function. There are so many levels on which you use furniture. Comfort needs to be there, but it shouldn’t be the major one.
ICON What are your ambitions beyond furniture design?
NZ I would love to do interiors and architecture – I’m interested in big gestures, big spaces, and I think I have a lot to say in that area. I did one interior project in Ljubljana: a restaurant. I would love to do more hospitality projects and public spaces. And I would love to do a gym: I think the border between the gym and living space is softening in contemporary Western society and there I see lots of space to explore.
Ribbon chair for Qeeboo (2016)