Interview Exhibitions Fairs Switzerland

Serious concepts, playful designs

Humour, technological innovation and an exploration of public and private space all feature in Konstantin Grcic’s biggest show to date

Something old, something new: the Vitra show includes objects Grcic found alongside those he has designed. Photo: © KGID

The growing use of social media to share information about ourselves inevitably results in the erosion of our concept of privacy. Do we now expect all information to be in the public domain? Or are some aspects of our lives meant to remain unmonitored, unshared, private? Last month’s ruling by the European Union’s Court of Justice to allow internet users to erase information about themselves from search engines, such as Google, may signal the beginnings of a backlash, but doesn’t this case further complicate the blurring of the boundaries between private and public space? This is one of the key concepts in “Panorama”, the largest exhibition to date of the work of the industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein.

Grcic is perhaps best known for domestic-scale creations that combine the functional with the experimental, the serious with the quirky. Technology plays a vital part in the process and the outcome. His most acclaimed pieces include the geometric “Chair One”, 2004, which is made by the furniture company Magis and combines strength with super-lightweight materials, and the versatile “Mayday” lamp, 1999, made by Flos, with its integral suspension hook and cable-wind. He has also created objects for Authentics, Krups, Muji and Vitra. In his current show, Grcic tackles much bigger concepts, illustrated by large-scale installations that present his vision of future environments and their relationship with design.

“‘Vision’ is a big word,” Grcic says, “and I have difficulty with the word. My idea for the exhibition is more about asking questions and making people aware of preconceived ideas about life and about the future.” He hopes that the show is open-ended, encouraging interpretation and provoking discussion. “I am creating images in the exhibition: these are not solutions to be copied, they are statements that I make to trigger debate. I want people to reflect on certain ideas or concepts,” he says.

The exploration of what constitutes private and public space is best encapsulated in the juxtaposition of two kinds of environments: installations representing the home and the work studio, and a third that illustrates a fictional urban landscape.

“Is private space my home? Is it where I sleep, cook or watch television? I want people to understand that private space can be free of those preconceptions,” Grcic says. In contrast, the urban environment, the 30m-long “panorama” of the show’s title, questions our definition of public space.

“I wanted to create a sensation of being in another space, another world, of not being enclosed, but on a viewing platform, looking out onto a landscape,” the designer says. “The idea is that a public space is not a space that is controlled by anyone. It is not created by an architect or an urban planner; we can contribute to that space. It it is made for the public, whatever their needs or desires.”

The fourth installation is a long vitrine containing a sequence of objects—some found, some he has designed, some that have influenced the designer—all selected by Grcic. “One object leads to the next and creates a storyline. I am using this to talk about certain projects and things I like that are meaningful to my work. It’s not chronological. We can take the same objects and put them in a different order and create a different narrative,” he says.

Among the items are prototypes that demonstrate Grcic’s working practices. “For example, there’s a very rough wooden mock-up we made for a product that later came on the market. It’s the ‘360 Stool’ [2009], made by Magis, and the mock-up is the key. We knocked it up using rough planks, nails and screws, and when you see it next to the stool, there is very little connection. It shows the journey between the idea and the finished item. It carries the spirit and the essence of the original, although the final product is a very refined, mass-produced product.”

Grcic’s designs have always incorporated new technologies; another key theme of the show is an analysis of current technological shifts and how these contribute to innovation in contemporary design. “Digital technology changes the tools that we have for creating and producing work. It changes from the empirical process, which involves personal choice, to a digital one involving algorithms. It questions even the authorship of the creative process… authorship could be replaced by an algorithm. The origin of production is questioned by new forms of producing: you download a file and you go to the copy shop and get it printed.”

Technological change is led by new processes or new materials, and in his latest project, Grcic combines the two. “We are currently working on using a combination of a hi-tech composite material—carbon fibre—and the most traditional material for furniture, wood,” he says. “We are trying to combine the two technologies, making it into one technology. But you are not always looking for the most innovative. Sometimes you go back to a classic material. It is what is most appropriate or valid or sustainable. We don’t use technology for technology’s sake. It has to be relevant.”

If this all sounds very serious, it is, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude an injection of playfulness. Grcic’s designs have tended to include a sly element of humour. How does this play with the manufacturers?

“I think they are relieved that it’s not just another piece of serious design. I am serious about the work I do and the companies I work with, but at the same time, I am enjoying the projects and want to express that. My clients have no problem with that: it’s part of a shared passion for the work. We make things that are not just functional and rational, but add joy and beauty.”

Certainly there are many objects that make serious design look like fun. And that is perhaps Grcic’s greatest talent: to take the everyday and make it extraordinary. “Everyday life and the ordinary are what we work with. My mission is to reinterpret the ordinary,” he says.

The everyday objects he has transformed into objects of beauty include the “2 Hands” laundry basket, 1996, designed for Authentics, the “Miura” bar stool, 2005, for Plank, the “Karbon” chaise longue, 2008, for Galerie Kreo, the “Pipe” desk, 2009, for Muji-Thonet, and the “Blow” side table, 2010, for Established & Sons.

Of all his designs, which one does Grcic believe states his mission best? “The items I am most proud of are the ones that don’t need the exhibition because they’re out there in the market—they have their own life.”

“Panorama”, Vitra Design Museum, until 14 September. For more details, visit

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