Konstantin Grcic talks about how his early encounters with the old made him look towards the future, what he thinks about being called the ‘chair man’, and why predicting the post-COVID landscape is a form of design process.

KONSTANTIN GRCIC: I was raised in Wuppertal, a German city shaped by its textile industry. My father was an immigrant from former Yugoslavia and my mother, German. She was much younger than he was, so in a way they represented two different generations. It was special, these completely different lives coming together. My father’s passion was collecting 18th-century drawings, while my mother was a contemporary art dealer. Antique furniture from my father’s side lived next to 1970s plastic Italian furniture. Being exposed to a continuous juxtaposition of old and new heavily influenced my understanding of design. I see myself as a designer of today, looking towards the future, but I always draw on my profound experience of seeing old and new live perfectly alongside each other.

My sister and I had a happy childhood with lots of freedom to play outside and build things. I enjoyed making things and quickly realized that I was good at it. My mother worked with contemporary artists and would often take us with her on studio visits. That was how, at the age of 12, I found a role model in work and life being one, even though I was yet to understand its implications.

After spending over a decade commuting between Munich and Berlin, Grcic moved his studio to Berlin in 2018. Photo: Robert Rieger

After high school I didn’t want to go to university. I wanted to keep making things, to do work that was practical. And I was seeking the life of those artists I’d visited, with no separation between life and work. Building boats was my dream, an idea that stemmed from childhood play. The problem was that, at the time, it was impossible for me to find an apprenticeship with a boat builder in Germany. I ended up working for an antique furniture restorer, which wasn’t at all what I wanted to do. But as fate would have it, it was there that I discovered my passion for furniture. Working with antiques gave me a deep understanding of construction and taught me the ability to judge quality. Not all antique furniture was good, but the pieces that were really stood out.

One year later, I moved to the southwest of England to start an apprenticeship at the John Makepeace School for Craftsmen in Wood. John Makepeace followed the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement, which considered craftsmen to be creators – or as we called it, ‘designer makers’. Learning how to make things was fundamental to my understanding of design, and this attitude still informs a lot of the work I do today. The school had a small library where I found two design books, one on Marcel Breuer and the other on Gerrit Rietveld. These two books became my supplementary teachers. A third was an exhibition catalogue about Achille Castiglioni that my sister sent me for my 21st birthday.

I’ve always had good instincts about my own pace of development and my capacity for what I can – and cannot – do. After finishing my apprenticeship in 1987, I took a year off and headed for Spain. Having just emerged from Franco’s regime, the country had recently been awarded the 1992 Olympic Games and World Expo, which created a huge economic and creative boost. I arrived in Madrid with a small suitcase, knowing nobody. I learned Spanish, read Hemingway and followed bullfighting. And I travelled. When you’re young in a foreign country, your senses are open to absorb everything. It was an amazing time – free and light-hearted in an inspiring environment. And it was the perfect mental preparation before moving to London to study design at the Royal College of Art (1988-1990).

If you had to tell the history of furniture, you’d tell it through the chair, not the table

There’s a great myth about the RCA: some consider it the Holy Grail. When I arrived there, I was quite disillusioned and confused. I came with certain values in place from my training as a craftsman. Being thrown into a melting pot of interesting and talented creatives from different disciplines brought my self-confidence crashing down like a house of cards. My years there weren’t very productive; I was trying to find balance amid all the input. Jasper Morrison and Vico Magistretti were both visiting professors in those years, and they helped me reinstate a form of belief in my own way of doing things.

Just before graduating from the RCA, Jasper Morrison introduced me to Sheridan Coakley, the founder of a small furniture manufacturer called SCP Ltd. SCP produced Jasper’s early works and presented them at the Milan furniture fair. Memphis had passed its peak and people were looking for the next big thing. Jasper became one of the great protagonists of what followed: a return to industry and simplicity through production-oriented work. SCP launched my first two products in Milan in 1991.

That year I moved from London to Munich. I probably should’ve gone to Berlin: they were the wild years, just after the wall had come down, but I wasn’t looking for that kind of life. I wanted to work. Setting up in Munich was simple – the city was so much smaller than London and I could live on a very low budget. From the day I opened my first office, I called myself an industrial designer. That’s what I wanted to communicate to the outside world. I wanted to design for industry rather than for private commissions, even though I had no idea how to find producers that would put their trust in me. But I took it one step at a time and one thing led to another. Through SCP I met Cappellini and through them, Driade. The art director of the German company ClassiCon coincidentally lived around the corner from my home in Munich. He recognized me in a local grocery store and invited me for an interview. From there we established a beautiful collaboration that boosted my first ten to twelve years of practice and led to such designs as the Chaos chair, and the Diana and Palace tables.

Authentics, another German company, really changed how I was perceived as a designer. The company was in the business of household products, not furniture, made from plastic injection moulding. The owner, Hansjerg Maier-Aichen, and I struck up an immediate friendship – in this small industry, a lot of client relationships are friendships. Until then I’d always worked in small-scale manufacture, but Authentics was a gateway into another world, one that relies on a company’s significant investment in a mould that can spit out products within seconds. I’d been part of that generation of 20-somethings that crops up every year doing small-scale projects. But here I was designing plastic household items you could buy for 20 Deutschmark, the equivalent of around 10 euros. Authentics made me become the industrial designer I’d always aspired to be.

Grcic calls the chair ‘one of furniture’s most complicated, challenging and interesting typologies’. His stackable seat-cum-table Stool-Tool for Vitra (left) and 360° Stool for Magis are pictured. Photo: Robert Rieger

People from the industrial end of the furniture industry then began to take notice of my work and approached me. Flos, for one, and Magis, which I still work with. Muji, too. All of this happened quite quickly – and naturally – during the first five years of my practice. The struggle began once there were more projects and I had to expand my one-man operation. My smart, efficient little setup got complicated. Costs increased. It was a turning point – something that seems to reoccur every seven or so years. I’m not a strategic person but I have an instinct about how I operate best. I had to recollect my coordinates. I started to employ a few people and became more selective about assignments. I’d dabbled in different fields by this stage – furniture, products, household appliances and so on. But I realized my true passion is furniture. I can’t explain why, other than that’s where my heart is – still to this day. Even though my office is working in many other fields, I will always make furniture.

How do I feel about being called the ‘chair man’? I don’t agree with it, but I know where it comes from. I guess I have quite a number of chair projects under my belt. The chair is one of furniture’s most complicated, challenging and interesting typologies. It’s a mirror for social and cultural changes. If you had to tell the history of furniture, you’d tell it through the chair, not the table. And I guess the same is true about my own work. The chairs I’ve designed probably say a lot about me – more so than my other objects. I think I will always keep on designing them.

There’s no white whale of the chair world for me. My design process starts with collecting information and asking questions. I never have a clear idea of the outcome. I restrain myself from excessive sketching in the early phase of a project, otherwise I’d be drawing a picture of the whale that I don’t want to see. I don’t want to get trapped with a preconceived image of something that doesn’t yet exist.

If the size of my workforce means we have to take on fewer projects, then that’s the trade-off

I moved the office to Berlin a few years ago after spending over a decade commuting between Munich and Berlin, where I live with my wife and two children. There are just five of us in the office, a small team that enables me to be 100 per cent involved in every project. I became a designer because I want to design projects, not run a business. If the size of my workforce means we have to take on fewer projects, then that’s the trade-off.

It’s hard to say this without sounding like a grandfather, but things really have changed since I was a young designer. When I started my own career in the early 1990s, I didn’t have a business plan; I just followed my instincts and passion. The world is much more complicated now for anyone wanting to set up a studio. Those who do should know it’s going to be hard work and demand full commitment. Stick to what you want to do, what you can do and what you’re good at – all while expanding your experience and knowledge. There are so many people out there working in design that if you want to make it on your own, authenticity is a key asset. That said, I don’t think that setting up a studio should be the goal anymore. Nowadays designers can get work in many other ways. For example, you can have a career trajectory working in open networks and wearing two or three hats.

Even though his studio’s work covers exhibition design and architectural collaborations, Grcic says that he ‘will always make furniture’. Photo: Robert Rieger

What would I be doing right now if COVID-19 hadn’t taken hold? I’d have just returned from Milan, where I’ve been every year since my days at the RCA. Most of my products are released during the Salone. It’s tragic that it couldn’t happen this year, but I’m not sentimental about it. It was absolutely necessary to cancel the fair this year and maybe a break is good. I’m curious to see what comes out next year, since there was extra time in a way.

The crisis has affected all of my clients, many of which are based in northern Italy. Right now they are in reactive mode, keeping their businesses running rather than thinking about future projects. In life before the pandemic, we would have relished any time off to do things we can never seem to fit in. Now the standstill is enforced on us. Yes, there’s an opportunity here, but it also feels uneasy and eerie. This is our current reality, though, and designers are always dealing with reality. Predicting the coming months and years is a form of design process, collecting as much information as possible and playing through various scenarios. At this point nobody really knows what is going to happen and what types of products the market will need. We are about to enter a longer phase of prototyping, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. What resources will be available? How will this situation change the landscape and what will simply continue functioning? Even though the world will still be a global economy after the pandemic, now, more than ever, we need to rethink the supply chain.

konstantin-grcic.com

This interview is from our print issue Frame 135. Get your copy here.