Konstantin Grcic at the presentation of his "Chess" collection for Magis.

I’m not ready to retire

In Milan, Konstantin Grcic presented his furniture collection “Chess” with Magis, a sofa with Established & Sons, a chair with Plank, and much more besides. Uta Abendroth spoke to him about inspiration, materials and the relocation of his studio.

Many new products designed by Konstantin Grcic as well as changes relating to his studio were announced at the industry talk in the run up to the Salone. The presentation of the furniture collection “Chess” took place in Brera bright and early on Monday. Following the cast-iron “Brut” collection, Grcic and Magis set out to explore the potential of sheet steel.

Uta Abendroth: “Chess” appears new and familiar at the same time, like a pleasantly laid-back innovation. How did the collection come about?

Konstantin Grcic: Chess” is a project that arose out of a triangular constellation of sorts, namely between Magis, Fami and my studio. The story is really quite typical of Italy: Eugenio Perazza met the head of Fami in a restaurant and they immediately struck up a personal friendship. The geographic proximity of the two companies makes it possible to simply pop by and meet up. This was the point at which we joined and got to know the factory – which was absolutely crucial to the further development. We were there a few times to understand what it was they did: Fami makes metal shelving systems for workshops that are very specialized, ideal furniture for industry.

What happened next?

Konstantin Grcic: The idea for our project was to introduce these shelves and cabinets into a different context, for example the home or office, by making certain interventions. Because Fami’s process is so specialized, which also makes it highly efficient, the possibilities for us to change anything where relatively slight. The big challenge lay in understanding the company’s process really well and then finding a starting point.

"Chess" is the result of a collaboration between Magis and the metal cabinet specialist Fami.

So the dimensions where fixed before you began working?

Konstantin Grcic: Yes, we couldn’t change those. After all, Fami’s cabinets are made from sheet metal; they are bent and folded before being put together like paper boxes and welded together. The welding machines the company uses fill the space – it was impossible to simply reconfigure them because we wanted the cabinet to be ten or even two centimeters wider. So we had to work with the existing formats. However, Fami does produce an incredible range of these cabinets and it was our task to select those formats that would be interesting or relevant to the situation we specifically had in mind. So the questions we had to ask ourselves were along the lines of: How large does a refrigerator need to be? Is a cabinet like that suitable for a bedroom? And if yes, how big would it need to be? We ran through everything very clearly, simulated it in visuals and actual objects. At that point we came up with eight formats to choose from, which could have drawers or sliding doors.

And where did the possibilities for intervention lie?

Konstantin Grcic: Fami’s cabinets are incredibly complex, with perforations and so on. But it was possible to simply leave those details out. The Magis dresser allows you to place simple separators inside it using magnets; it has an entirely different design to the Fami cabinets, which people use to store screws or tools. So we changed things like that. The most immediately obvious detail is the wooden handle that we’ve added. In doing that we brought an entirely different material into play that is very strongly associated with the world of home living and helps to domesticate this project. Wood is a warm material; it is very different in terms of its haptic qualities and forms a contrast to the metal. We also raised the cabinets by giving them simple bases, which is very atypical of their typology. None of the interventions we’ve made are spectacular; they are extremely simple. But they required a great deal of analysis, study, and trial and error. That sounds like rather humdrum work, but it was in fact quite fascinating. Maybe mainly because it is immediately very tangible – we were working with a preexisting material and at the same time intervening in the existing process. It was certainly very helpful that Fami is an Italian firm. In Italy the mentality is very open and all the staff members were very enthusiastic to see what would happen when we laid hands on their product. I worked together the closest with the technicians and I really do feel a sense of pleasure working on a project like this and getting immediate feedback by people involved in the process. We didn’t invent anything new: “Chess” is based on a very simple idea, but the result is a genuinely good product.

The drawers belonging to “Chess” stop at a certain point and don’t close automatically.

Konstantin Grcic: Yes, we talked about the drawers for a long time. After all, self-closing drawers are a standard feature that customers expect nowadays. But in the context in which Fami drawer runners are employed, this added comfort isn’t necessary. The drawers can support a load of 300 kilograms; no other drawer is able to do that. If we had departed from their drawer runners in order to gain additional comfort we would have had to compromise in other ways: in this case, this would have pushed up the costs.

"Chess" is available in eight versions and two colours.

And what about the colors?

Konstantin Grcic: We limited ourselves to two colors to begin with, as things would have become more expensive otherwise, too. Fami is not flexible enough in its production to create bespoke colors, to make one “Chess” cabinet in blue, then one in yellow and then pink, for instance. The interesting challenge for us was to pick two colors from an entire palette.

How did you end up picking white and red?

Konstantin Grcic: One dark, one light, a colorful color, a non-color, a warm color, a cold color... People might be more prone to associate red – and it sounds terribly banal when I say this – with a wood hue, while white might be more linked to the kitchen, bathroom or office. Of course we’re not ruling out other colors in the future...

"Barbican" for Established & Sons is a reminiscence of the architecture of brutalism.

Established & Sons have a new sofa of yours in their range: “Barbican.”

Konstantin Grcic: Yes, even though at first we talked about reworking or enhancing a sofa I made for them in the past. After all, “Cape” with its fabric draped over the structure was rather simple in terms of design. We discussed whether it would be possible to expand on the design of this very linear sofa to create different formations, an L or an island. That’s how we started, but we soon realized that while it would be possible to do all of those things, they would be extremely complicated, time-consuming and expensive. So we simply said “stop” at some point: let’s let “Cape” be “Cape.” Then we began developing a new system based on the approach of creating elements that allow you to build formations. What Established & Sons are showing here are just two of five or six different elements that allow you to build things with them.

How is “Barbican” designed?

Konstantin Grcic: For “Barbican” we began by creating a foundation, a geometry, and then we added the seat cushion in the form of a thin mattress plus the pillow. I’m going to have to abridge somewhat how we arrived at the end result, as the processes are always much more complicated than you’d think and you end up taking many detours in order to get from the initial idea to the final product... But essentially we have the foundation, a standard with a certain fabric, which is always the same and is pulled over the structure much like a sweater. It is the fabric and the colors that lend the piece a playfulness, as do the differing scenarios with upholstered furniture. For the most part the volume is standardized. We used more sophisticated materials for the things you come into direct contact with, meaning the seat cushion and pillow. The pillows are all double sided, so you don’t just get one color and one fabric, but two fabrics and two colors. These elements really do allow you to play around with them. You might be more inclined towards certain colors in the spring or winter, and the sofa allows you to style it in very different ways.

Isn’t that a very marketing-oriented concept?

Konstantin Grcic: That’s making me sit up and take notice... Actually we didn’t think in marketing terms at all. We somehow arrived at this result through the process; it made sense to us and opened the project up. We liked the playfulness inherent in it. I think that’s a great possibility for a sofa, but of course not everyone has the same taste. What is interesting in using a “foundation” plus cushions and pillows is that it enables an entirely different level of comfort. The pillows can be moved around; you can position them wherever might be most comfortable for you. We found this a very good and simple way of making the furniture item modifiable. And then the idea of playing with the fabric on the pillows arose. My original idea was even far wilder, actually. This isn’t something I would normally create. But that’s what’s great about a project like this: you enter a path that takes you out of your familiar territory, where you know your way around and feel safe. It’s great fun, but in the end we simplified it again.

Another Grcic premiere at the Salone del Mobile: the "Cup" chair for Plank.

Your “Cup” chair for Plank is a different object entirely.

Konstantin Grcic: Yes, what came into play there was yet a different material, and also an entirely different technology. The transfer is intriguing: There is this suitcase, a fascinating product. Can what this product accomplishes be transferred to what we need in the realm of furniture? It is made from a very light material that is nevertheless extremely resistant and highly flexible. The “Cup” chair appears technical, but is very comfortable. What fascinates me about the suitcases is that the zipper is sewn directly into the plastic shell, with the sewing machine needle penetrating the plastic. I thought we might be able to sew the padding into the chair in the same way. We eliminated that in the end because it would have been very expensive to do and also wasn’t necessary. Then with the suitcase you also have the wheel element and the handle, all extremely precise. We developed elements that join the seat shell with the metal. I think it’s not often the case that a specific inspiration or reference can be transferred directly to a product like that. But in this instance it worked. The result is a chair that is not only very smart in terms of manufacture, but also comfortable and light.

Let’s talk about your studio. You’re about to make some changes, is that right?

Konstantin Grcic: Yes, the studio is changing. I am closing the studio in Munich, and in the first week of May I’m relocating to Berlin. That’s really going to be a new start. Not in the sense of “starting from scratch,” but I will be starting anew in terms of structure. To begin with there will be just one new coworker – she’s got a management background and we are going to build up the new structure together. At the same time the move is an opportunity for renewal for me. I am not reinventing myself as a designer, but I am asking myself the question of whether I may not be able to work differently in many ways in the future. So far, things have tended to just happen. Now I want to step out of the everyday grind with all these years of experience under my belt and rebuild the studio. That’s certainly going to take some time. But it’s time I have and it will grow: I am not even sure what exact form it will take yet. I love working together with industrial partners, I want to keep that up, but I may want to free up space for other projects, for example exhibition design. I don’t want to define it by bandying about empty phrases: I actually don’t know. But I do want to make one thing clear: I am not going into early retirement or absenting myself. I have a strong desire to keep working and I’m sure the move will provide unique opportunities at this point in my career. The caesura is an opportunity for thinking about things in a new way.