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Interview with designer Konstantin Grcic: “I love to hear someone cutting cardboard”

For Design Miami’s Designer of the Year, the hands-on approach is still vital to his work

Munich-based German designer Konstantin Grcic sits securely within a history of product designers that includes such luminaries as Marcel Breuer, Dieter Rams, Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison. Since founding Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design (KGID) in 1991, Grcic’s products have been acclaimed for the innovative way they redefine the relationship between form, structure and function. One of his first designs to go into production was the Tom Tom table for SCP in 1991. This was followed by the Cramer chair for Montina in 1995. In 1999 Grcic designed MAYDAY, a now iconic portable lamp for Flos, and in 2004 Chair_One for Magis. Constructed from a series of interlocking die-cast aluminium planes, Chair_One has come to be seen as one of Grcic’s most enduring designs. In 2009 “Decisive Design”, the first comprehensive showcase of Grcic’s work in a US museum, took place at the Art Institute of Chicago. In the same year, Grcic was invited to curate the Serpentine Gallery’s first design-related exhibition, “Design Real”. He was chosen as Design Miami’s 2010 Designer of the Year in September.

The Art Newspaper: “Design Real”, the exhibition you curated for the Serpentine Gallery in 2009, read like a timely rebuttal to the design art phenomenon [a revival of decorative design] that has assumed so much importance over the past few years. Was that your intention?

Konstantin Grcic: Yes, to a certain degree. But it wasn’t about saying there is something wrong with it. Instead, I wanted the exhibition to serve as a reminder that design can also be something else: mass-produced objects that are used every day. So much of the discussion about design art is about how beautiful it is. But industrial products can be beautiful too. When recontextualised in a gallery, the large black storage container “Design Real” opened with is an amazing piece of sculpture. But when we see them in use at airports we seldom give them a second glance. This is what I wanted to achieve: to show how amazing normal things are by placing them in an entirely different context.

TAN: How did it feel to curate an exhibition in an art gallery?

KG: I had to ask myself what I wanted to say—not only about product design, but about product design at the Serpentine Gallery. Some of the objects I selected were intended to be familiar—such as a chair, which is something everyone has. Other objects were intended to be less so: who has ever stood in front of a robot and looked carefully at it? By placing objects in front of the viewer in this blunt way artists can make us confront things we would never normally experience. There is something powerful in this approach. Too often in museums, design is presented in a more didactic, educational way through the use of explanatory texts. The Serpentine allowed me to show things without the need to justify why. To exhibit objects in a very immediate way, and to not be obliged to tell people both what they are looking at and how they should look at it, gave me immense freedom. An artist is seldom asked a question like “Why is your sculpture so large and orange?” So why should a designer? In “Design Real” the robot was my big orange sculpture! [laughs]

TAN: But the exhibition was also more complicated. A database took centre stage in the Serpentine’s rotunda gallery and acted as a central information resource, allowing visitors to investigate the origins and applications of the objects on view. The database was like the brain of the exhibition, feeding into the products on display in the other galleries…

KG: I felt it would have been too superficial to just present these objects as aesthetic things. My personal fascination with them goes far beyond that. The database introduced a crucial second layer into the structure of the exhibition. Providing access to it through the exhibition’s website and the Kindle available in the central gallery meant that the exhibition could also have an interactive dimension without being either didactic or proscriptive in any way.

TAN: In light of your commitment to industrial design, were you surprised to be chosen as Design Miami’s Designer of the Year? Previously the prize has almost exclusively been awarded to designers and architects associated with the design art trend, such as Marc Newson, Zaha Hadid and the Campana Brothers.

KG: I really had to think hard about how I wanted to present myself in the context of Design Miami [which takes place 1-5 December]. Like the designers previously presented with the award, I was invited to do two things: produce a site-specific installation and present an exhibition of my own designs. It is vital that my installation, Netscape, which consists of 24 seats and a web of netting that both links them together and attaches them to the ceiling, resists being something that would attract someone to say “Can I buy this?” I wanted to do something that was so unwieldy and strange that no one would want it in their home or collection [laughs]. One other condition for this project—and as a designer I think constraints are crucial—was time. We only found out about the award in September and I knew that my schedule would only allow for a very specific kind of contribution. Another condition was the limited budget. One thing I really like is that even though Netscape is so large it was sent to Miami in a small box.

TAN: Can you tell me something about the exhibition of your own designs that you are also organising for Design Miami?

KG: I wanted to display my work in a way it hadn’t been previously. Last year I designed an exhibition of my work at the Art Institute of Chicago and I didn’t want to just repeat that. Also, since the production process—design, prototyping and fabrication—is so slow, I don’t have many new things to show. A different approach to displaying what we already had was crucial.

TAN: Can you say more about this?

KG: The question of how you display design is one I have always been interested in. Over the years, I’ve experimented with a number of different approaches. One thing I’ve always tried to avoid is the most obvious one: of putting my designs on a plinth. I’ve done this only once in the past—for the exhibition [“Small Talk: Konstantin Grcic in Dialogue with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs”] in Paris in 2007. That was an interesting show because I used a series of white museum plinths, mixing my work with things from the museum’s collection. From this experience, it became clear to me how effective this could be. Initially in Miami I hesitated before using the plinth idea again. But because of the constraints, the plinth presented itself as the only viable solution I was happy with. We managed to find a manufacturer in America that could provide readymade plinths. What I particularly like about them is that they are modelling plinths rather than display plinths. They suggest something that is still in the process of being worked on. Creating a backdrop to the plinths is a large photograph of our office in Munich. It shows the place where all of the objects have been designed. I’ve always loved those photographs of Brancusi’s studio where he is using the plinths…

TAN: The working process is very important in arriving at your final designs. Can you say something about this?

KG: As a kid, I always enjoyed making things. That’s where it all started. At college, and at the beginning of my career when I was working for other companies, I was often the one who fabricated the models. When I started out on my own this enjoyment of working with materials informed why I made models and prototypes out of cardboard by hand. This still continues today.

TAN: How exactly does the design process work?

KG: At the beginning, I have only a vague idea of where I want to get to but often a precise idea about the technology I want to use. Usually the choice of this technology has been decided through dialogue with the company I’m collaborating with. Things only become clearer about the nature of the design once we start working on the cardboard models and trying them out. The process is elaborate and sometimes we get lost. This can detract from things [laughs]…but at the same time it’s a process that I enjoy—and that’s important. Now, my assistants make these models, but it still gives me great pleasure to hear someone cutting cardboard and constructing something—to know that the tactility of process is always near at hand. n