Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sunday Reading : Konstantin Grcic, a repost from COS


Konstantin Grcic somehow resembles his own creations. Angular, yet suave, he has a perpetually on-edge quality that is as attractive in him as it is in the chair, stool or sofa. Grcic’s most celebrated pieces – such as his Chair_One, designed for Magis in 2004, the Miura barstool he created for Plank in 2005 or the side chair Chaos he made for ClassiCon in 2001?– do not invite one to lounge or sprawl. Instead, they make you perch upright, as if ready to spring into action. Created using a spectrum of techniques from traditional upholstery (Chaos) to the most advanced methods of injection moulding (Miura), Grcic’s pieces share a certain dynamism. Be they plastic, metal, concrete or cloth, his designs appear to be poised in the moment, straining toward the future. “I would always like to think of myself as a modern person,” Grcic says. “I’d like to be contemporary. I very much want to live in today’s world; I have no nostalgia for the past.”
The son of a Yugoslav father and a German mother, Grcic was born in Germany in 1965. He attended secondary school in Wuppertal, the small town later made famous by the dancer Pina Bausch. His first point of design reference was the Bauhaus. “It is part of German history and culture, so that’s not unusual,” he explains. “I was drawn to it and especially to Marcel Breuer. I liked the way he always claimed that he started everything from scratch and that for him there was no history. I liked that self-confidence, and of course I liked his designs. I really like the word modernism and I find it extremely precious. Modernism was a movement that had such a clear goal: to change society on all the different levels. It was a different time than today. I’m not saying it was easy; it was pioneering, but now our world has become so much more complex: there is no longer one direction in which to push.”
Grcic has rediscovered certain modernist materials, in particular the Breuer favourite, tubular steel, in several of his recent projects. The first of these was a joint commission from the Japanese company Muji and the German furniture manufacturer Thonet, the firm that first produced Breuer’s celebrated cantilever chair in the 1930s. “The project was an amazing rediscovery for me of the material and the language of these modernists,” says Grcic. “It seemed so simple and contemporary to be making something from a bent piece of tube. For so many years I had completely forgotten about it because I’d been working in plastics and using injection moulding. Everything had become so complicated, so this project was a revelation.” Creating a series of beautifully minimal desks and chairs that were launched by Muji in 2009, Grcic was sufficiently enthused by the process to continue working with the same material for a next project, an outdoor chair for the Swiss furniture company Vitra.
“Vitra is an amazing company, one that is all about very sophisticated technology, and it was my plan to force them into something really simple, which they found very irritating!” laughs Grcic. “Everyone, including the founder of the company, Rolf Fehlbaum, kept asking me: ‘Is this it?’ I really had to push for staying so simple with the basic structure.” Made from a tubular steel frame, with a cloth hammock inside, the chair, which goes by the name Waver, represented ‘a combination of two worlds’. While the frame casts back to the Breuer furniture of the 1930s, the seat has more in common with the very latest sports equipment. “Stuff you would find in sailing or mountaineering. I love the new materials they use in those sports,” enthuses Grcic, “the amazing little hardware fittings and so on.”
Grcic’s current interest in working “very economically” and achieving “a lot with simple means” harks back in part to the earliest days of his formal design education at Parnham College, in Dorset, UK – a college that began life as the School for Craftsmanship in Wood. Spending two years there training to be a cabinetmaker before going on to study industrial design at the Royal College of Art, London, Grcic learnt various elementary construction techniques that he continues to use to this day. Most recently, while making a small wallhanging table named Bebek for the Italian marble manufacturer Marsotto, he employed “a very traditional cabinetmaking principle of two wedge-shaped rails: one attached to the wall, one attached to what you hang from the wall.” It was shown in Milan during the design fair in 2011, Grcic’s second year of working with the company, and his aim was to find a way of making marble furniture at minimal cost. “Marble itself is an abundant material, and it is so beautiful and appropriate for certain things, but it tends to be expensive because of the labour involved in crafting it,” explains Grcic. The key to the design of Bebek was the discovery that sheet marble could be produced relatively cheaply. It’s constructed from two thin slabs: a wall-hanging square and a round protruding surface. “I’ve always enjoyed designing small tables,” Grcic adds. “It is always useful to have a small surface to put things down on.”
Continuing in the same demystifying vein, Grcic says: “Furniture itself is actually quite primitive. A piece of furniture is not a car or a rocket. It is something to sit on or to put something down on.” This is undeniably true, but among Grcic’s most recent projects is a set of limited-edition, hand-lacquered tables that suggests he sometimes fantasises about things being otherwise. Called Champions and decorated in a style that brings to mind the latest models of skis, racing bikes or Formula One cars, the series consists of four large and four small tables, each made from a graphically enhanced aluminium trestle with a floating glass top. Grcic admits to finding decoration “something quite strange”, and says of this project: “It was a first for me to work with graphics or any kind of pattern on a piece of furniture.” He explains: “Even though I don’t necessarily like the graphics on sports equipment, I like the meaning they have. They make me believe that the ski, or whatever it is, has all these special technical features. They are very powerful in that they make us project qualities onto the equipment, so I thought it was worth an experiment to see if that would work on furniture.”
Particularly inspired by the American mechanic who “put a big yellow stripe down the centre of the racing car: the first go-faster stripe,” Grcic spent two years formulating the appropriate graphic idiom. “It’s like learning a language,” he says. “We studied it carefully and we learnt by trying things out.” Grcic’s designs for the graphic forms look remarkably authentic, as ugly as anything on the Formula One track, but once transferred onto the furniture by ex-racing-car-driver-turned-lacquer-craftsman Walter Maurer, they become surprisingly lovely. In Maurer’s expert hands, harsh colour contrasts become exquisite fades, and awkward graphic forms spring to life. “It’s not that from now on I will go overboard and spray-paint everything,” says Grcic. “But, somehow, doing these tables now, I don’t think I’m working against the ideas of modernism. It’s almost the opposite. I feel that there are so many things in furniture that we never question and we never provoke any change.”