Konstantin Grcic may be disenchanted by the industry, but his Myto chair, is furniture category winner of the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year, and shortlisted for the overall prize which will be announced next week. Caroline Roux interviewed him for the October 2008 issue of Blueprint
I suppose if you’re going to create an instantaneous design icon, you might as well call it ‘myth’. That’s what Konstantin Grcic has done anyway, naming his new chair, Myto – a corruption of the Greek word mythos. Coming from anyone else, it could seem like an ugly act of hubris. Grcic, however, appears to specialise in the iconic – from the crystalline formation of his Chair One to the minimalist flair of his polypropylene waste basket, Square. With Myto, he is simply adding to the list.
Myto is the world’s second plastic cantilevered chair (if Panton’s is the first), and was launched in Milan in April. Then, Alice Rawsthorn described it in the New York Times as ‘strong, comfortable, stackable, compact and comes in a coolly angular shape that is made from a single piece of plastic using (eco-responsibly of course) the minimum material possible. In short, it’s just about everything a new chair should be.’ Such praise will no doubt be echoed when the chair gets its first UK airing at design furniture store, SCP in London this September.
SCP’s founder Sheridan Coakley describes Myto as ‘a fantastic design exercise’, which can be applied to Grcic’s oeuvre at large. The chair exploits the strength and liquidity of BASF’s Ultradur High Speed plastic, that is normally used in the automotive industry. The mono material object could be seen as a Grcic trademark – aluminium in the case of Chair One, for example; wood in the Missing Object – and he declares himself to be positively inspired by the restraints any given material imposes. He said recently in a conversation with Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic that ‘Authorship is part of good design,’ and this intense use of material is definitely very much part of his authorial language.
Grcic didn’t set out to be the sleek industrial designer that he has become. From school in Wuppertal, Germany, he went into antique restoration. ‘And that made me want to learn making,’ he says. So he went to Parnham College, Dorset, the epicentre of good old-fashioned craft skills, which he took with him to the Royal College of Art. ‘I went into industrial design in a very organic way. Through making I discovered the stage before, planning, and that that’s what I really enjoyed.’
Grcic has worked in Munich since 1992 – although the return to his native Germany from Britain was not part of a greater design. He was sharing a seedy workshop on the first floor of a St Pancras railway arch with Adam Brinkworth, who studied alongside him at the RCA (both graduated in 1991), when he flew to Germany at Christmas to visit his mother. On his return to London, he was turned away as a non-EU citizen – his father is Serbian – and put on the next plane to Munich. By the time he had sorted out his papers – three years later – he was too well established in Germany to move back. It has served him well. ‘There aren’t many international designers in Germany,’ says Coakley, ‘he’s out front over there.’
Coakley – who was led to Grcic by Jasper Morrison, who taught him at the RCA – commissioned his first production pieces. There were the Tom Tom and Tam Tam side tables – cute exercises in volume building in beech and mdf, and the Bishop and Knight tables, with wooden bases and laminated or glass tops. The Prado desk, designed in 1996, a defiantly modern take on a very traditional piece, is something that Coakley is currently considering producing again. With its open sides, it’s perfectly suited to the computer age. Grcic still has one in his Munich studio. ‘Back then, his stuff was apparently too simple for us to make at a price that consumers would understand,’ says Coakley. ‘Now the consumer is better educated and we can produce bigger numbers.’ If you happen to be in possession of an original Tom Tom, then, congratulations. (I’d keep a look out, too, for the Satellite table – an RCA graduation piece produced briefly by Cappellini in which Grcic aimed to unite fine cabinet making with anonymous industrial design.)
Konstantin Grcic is, I think, the only designer I’ve met who only works to commission. Indeed, he is almost fetishistic about constraint. ‘I envy designers with sketchbooks full of work, but it’s not me,’ he says, as we sit on the back terrace of his Munich studio; it’s here that his five designers and one personal assistant have a group tea break at eleven every morning, a habit that their boss picked up in England. ‘My thinking is precise.
If a client asks for a chair, I’ll propose one, not three. Simplicity and pragmatic thinking, it’s what I do,’ he says, though he also does poetry and lightness pretty well too. He called his company Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design. As soon as he hung a sign over the door, though, he was batch-producing pieces like a craftsman. The act of naming expresses his humour as much as his magical thinking. In his studio, pieces are still worked up as paper, wooden or wire models. Grcic’s hand has touched every piece that finally emerges.
At a time when fellow designers seemed to be majoring in a sort of bulimia, biting off a lot more than they needed to chew, and filling the furniture stores with ever more product, Grcic is famous for turning things down. ‘I think he’s declined more stuff than most people have been offered,’ says Coakley. In spite of which, there are still regrets. A fairly lengthy period with the German electrical company Krups has now ended, though pieces are still in production. ‘It was a new terrain,’ says Grcic now of his time with the company, ‘and I probably set myself too many rules. I trapped myself. If you learn to play the piano, you learn to play by the rules, and it takes a long time to play with feeling. At Krups I never got to the signature that says it’s mine.’ Before he had reached that point, Grcic had fallen out of love with the industry altogether. ‘Its motivation is not good. It throws products at the market. It’s not about creating any lasting value. By the time I could have delivered that value, I was disgusted by how little they care.’
As a designer, Grcic seems to combine craft, technology and politics with ease. If the word Gesamtdesignwerk existed, you might apply it to his work. Few designers are quite so articulate about their metier. His father was a lawyer and, Grcic tells me, 19 years older than his mother. He died while Grcic was a child, but not before he’d passed on his knowledge of his collection of 18th century drawings. These painting studies were an early exposure to process and planning for the young Grcic. The house was filled with antiques, but his mother, who runs a contemporary art gallery, provided 1960s Italian plastic pieces too. ‘A whole generation in Germany wanted nothing to do with the past. It helped the country to rebuild itself, but [that attitude] destroyed a whole lot of culture. At home that wasn’t the case. I want to be contemporary. I want to work with technology, but I’m interested in the history of things,’ says Grcic.
Last year, he curated an exhibition for the Musee des Arts Décoratifs in Paris called Small Talk. Given the run of the museum’s entire archive, he juxtaposed his own work with historic pieces. ‘There was a conversation going on between my plastic bin and an 18th century carved table. Missing Object [a beautifully enigmatic piece formed from one solid piece of oak], which I designed for Galerie Kreo in 2004, was next to a small 18th century desk. Both had very clearly expressed volumes, except one had drawers and veneers and the other was brutalist.’
This year, Grcic is working on a collection of outdoor furniture for Vitra, luxuriating in the complexity that the company can cope with. He is developing a series of furniture textiles for Maharam, non-woven, and very new tech. ‘We don’t know where it will take us,’ says Grcic. And then there’s a new work stool for Magis, loosely based on one that Goethe designed for his own use. Don’t be distracted by the grandiose name of his latest project, Grcic learns his lessons from history rather than myth.
Originally published in Blueprint, October 2008