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September 1, 2011

Konstantin Grcic: industrial icon

The industrial designer Konstantin Grcic has been one of the biggest names on the scene for the past 20 years. With a huge range of products and installations under his belt, he was recently named 'Designer of the Year' at the trade fair Design Miami/. Here, he talks simplicity, swings and scale with Abi Millar.

By Gemma Carroll

‘Iconic’ is an overused word in design. So prevalent as to have blurred into meaninglessness, it has been subject to a kind of semantic grade inflation; doled out to innumerable creations that are far from the top of their class.

Icon status seems, in fact, to be becoming the prerogative of all. Footballers, cartoon characters, fast food chains and supermarket produce can be iconic. Products are heralded as iconic even before their launch dates. The word gets thrown about in client briefings. It has degenerated into little more than a marketing cliché.

If this is good news for the latest spate of icon-ites, it is bad news for those worthy of the term. One example is the industrial designer Konstantin Grcic. Far removed from the fad-a-minute world of PR hype, his designs might tentatively be called modern classics. They have certainly been seen as such by others, with several selected for permanent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Casting an eye backwards over his 20-year career, Grcic is loath to choose a favourite creation. "I don’t have children," he remarks, "but I guess if you have more than one, you’d love them all for different reasons."

When pushed, he cites the laundry basket 2-HANDS ("the first product I designed in plastic, and one that was commercially successful"), Chair_ONE ("a kind of basket-shaped seashell with four legs"), and, of course, the seminal MAYDAY lamp, which has long had residence at MoMA.

"Many Grcic designs are considered modern classics, with several selected for permanent display at MoMA."

MAYDAY (1999) is the product which perhaps best encapsulates Konstantin Grcic. Made by the Italian company Flos, this portable lamp lit the way for a new direction in lighting design. Created to be a tool, its no-frills aesthetic (hooked handle, long cable, white funnel) owes as much to fire extinguishers or loudhailers as lamps.

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"It was a very personal brief," says Grcic. "It was a lamp that I designed almost for myself. But it became something that many other people find useful."

His website, in fact, features a list of the lamp’s myriad uses. MAYDAY can be taken to the garage for work under the car. You can use it in the garden; on top of a ladder; while ‘lying on the floor trying to get the cat from behind the cupboard’. Give it to the kids, suggests Grcic, ‘for their self-made cardboard house’.

This feat of functionality is Grcic to a T. His products are known for their utility; problem-solving ingenuity in deceptively simple guises. "As a designer," he says, "we want to make things simple in the sense of becoming comfortable. People should feel easy about the things they’re using, and this is what simplicity means. Simplicity is not a style. It is part of the aim of a process."

Specs appeal

Grcic is speaking to me from his studio in Munich, which has been his base since 1991. Every inch the icon himself, his personal style is in keeping with his renowned design aesthetic – sharp and crisply minimalistic, with the most urbane pair of signature specs ever to be welded to a face.

Trained in England, he returned to his native Germany to set up his own practice, Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design (KGID). In the intervening decades, his career has gone stellar, encompassing furniture and product design, installations, exhibition curation and a plethora of international awards.

Softly spoken and thoughtful, he talks in measured tones – not one to wax bombastic about his achievements. On the subject of his most recent accolade, ‘Designer of the Year’ at the trade fair Design Miami/, he is positively uneasy: "I really don’t know what to say. Of course I’m happy to receive that kind of award. I know that it’s the choice of a jury – people that I know and respect – and they chose me to be the Designer of the Year. Whatever that means."

The award was nonetheless timely, with 2010 being characteristically chock-full of triumphs. In the January he was voted ‘Furniture Designer of the Year’ by Wallpaper* magazine. The following month, two additional creations were selected for MOMA. Mid year, he received a scholarship from the German Academy in Rome. By the time of Design Miami/ in December, the year had been a truly representative cross-section of his career.

Back of the net

If averse to self-congratulation, Grcic shifts gear when discussing the commission he received with the award. On this theme, he is rhapsodic. The project, NETSCAPE, was an installation comprising 24 swing seats. These were made from nylon netting and fibreglass, and hung from a freestanding steel structure. Distinctively Grcic in its ingenuity, the installation was designed as a catalyst for social interaction. It looks rather like a collection of hammocks suspended from a climbing frame, with all the related evocations of rest, leisure and play.

"I thought it would be nice," he explains, "to make this kind of gesture towards the event. People just jumped into these swings and used them exactly how we wanted them to be used. You could sit there and talk to your friends. Or you could make phone calls or send text messages. People slept in these things. They had fun, and it was a great success, because it was really public. I very much like that aspect of design."

The public nature of what he does is a note that sounds forcibly throughout his output. Adamant that his work is not ‘art’ (he is not one for theoretical pontificating) Grcic abandoned his fledgling career as a cabinet maker to pursue the calling of industry. When I started out," he says, "I realised I couldn’t see my future standing in a workshop making one-off pieces. I began to be interested in batch production – in the multiplication of things."

"Grcic’s products are known for their utility; problem-solving ingenuity in deceptively simple guises."

He subsequently studied design at the Royal College of Art, following this up with a brief spell as an apprentice to Jasper Morrison. Since then, his career has included many instances both of batch production and one-off commissions like NETSCAPE.

"The difference is really the scale of things," says Grcic. "Working for industry, there’s a very specific process. It has a certain length, and it involves some prescribed steps. The process for making one-off installations and so on is different because usually the time frame is much tighter. You know you’re producing a prototype, which is the real thing, so there isn’t much room for failure. I’m finding the industrial process much more comfortable in a way."

Grcic’s work is not commissioned in the sense of being handed a brief. Projects, he says, emerge from a conversation with his clients: "My privilege normally is that I work with clients with whom I have a very close relationship, a very personal relationship. The next project comes out of a dialogue we share and a mutual interest in certain things." Some of his clients, such as Magis, Planck and Authentics, have used his services for years: "My ideal client is someone I see myself working with for a long time."

New challenges

The next client he is hoping to add to this list is VitrA, the early interactions with which he describes as ‘very nice and promising’. The present is always the most interesting time for him. He is a process-oriented designer; one so immersed in the joy of his craft as to leave little room for dwelling on projects past.

As to the future, Grcic is circumspect. "I can’t just decide the next thing I’m going to do," he says. "There are many other people involved and it comes through a project more than my own decision. So I don’t ever have anything in the pipeline – every project starts from scratch."

Are there any areas into which he would, hypothetically, still like to branch? Transportation is one, he tells me, and another, intriguingly, is buildings: "I would see it as a great challenge, a project of a different kind of scale. It’s a project certainly outside of my current activity and knowledge, but still very much linked to it."

In his eyes, the line between design and architecture is both clearcut and surmountable. "I’d still be a designer designing a building," he explains, "more than an architect designing a building. So I would probably see it much more as a product.

"And buildings can be products – prefabricated buildings are closer to being industrial products than buildings made from bricks. The building would have to be of a certain kind of size in order for me to manage it, but I think it could be something beautiful."

Beauty in utility, complexity in simplicity – the balancing of such factors is what has made Konstantin Grcic such a success. If you want to call his work iconic, this is one of the rare occasions in which semantic purists may let the term pass.

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