Tools against the uncertainty

Our author Thomas Edelmann recently met Konstantin Grcic in Milan on the way to his exhibition "Ceci n'est pas un mur". A conversation about experiments and current question marks in design.

In view of the many fashionable, eclectic products and presentations in the Milan exhibition halls and at the Fuori, the "Bench" by Konstantin Grcic for Plank seemed refreshingly simple: Bench and table with uniform top and sides made of five-centimetre-thick South Tyrolean spruce with a sophisticated as well as simple quick-assembly system. At the same time, "Bench" celebrates the return to life and offers a meeting place for this. It is a piece of furniture that reflects the recent past and gives room to optimism. That's all it needs. Rather by chance, our author Thomas Edelmann met the designer on the way to his exhibition, which lasted a few days, in an old industrial building in south-eastern Milan. He wanted to say goodbye to the pieces in the edition, Grcic said. Who knows if and when he will see them again. Both talked about new projects, but also about the stagnation and despondency in the furniture year 2022 and the attempts to find changed perspectives through gallery projects.

Thomas Edelmann: One of the objects, called "Daybed", seems like a retreat. It is at the same time a house, a bed, a view, a table - a place for living in a confined space.

Konstantin Grcic: "Daybed" and "Wall" are architectural motifs, i.e. not very large pieces of furniture, but objects based on concepts of architecture. "Daybed" is a spatial miniature based on simple tricks: The room is created by its own floor and the two walls. The window is a reference, makes the entire thing a house within a house. You don't just sit on it, you move in a space, and you lie in this box. A few projects I realised in the past led me there.

But the box is open at the same time, almost a stage, isn't it?

Konstantin Grcic: If you walk around this stage, all you need is a chair, then you have a workplace. Although the structure is closed in itself, it offers openings, establishes relationships. That is also because it is not particularly high. You can withdraw into it. In this very large exhibition space, you don't feel the proportions so clearly. Because compared to some current sofas, "Daybed" is not really big. And yet it is something quite different when you think of the sensation of moving around in a room within a room.

You can only construct something like that out of board material, not solid wood. Nevertheless, "Daybed" appears to be an object made of wood. We could have painted it or varnished it, but we wanted to make the wood visible with a four-millimetre-thick sawn veneer, whose structure can also be seen on the edges. This gives it a solid expression. This is real wood, not just a paper-thin sticker. We played with the veneer pattern. This gives the impression of beams in various places. You can see it as decoration. In fact, it is a purely aesthetic decision.

So it's all about the careful selection of surfaces?

Konstantin Grcic: This creates a reading that I like: it is not the panels, i.e. the surfaces that stand out, but a three-dimensional character. The visual beams that run through reinforce the reference to the building, to the construction.

What is it about the other object?

Konstantin Grcic: That led us to the title of the exhibition: "Ceci n'est pas un mur" ("This is not a wall").

So there is a reference to René Magritte and surrealism?

Konstantin Grcic: That too. "Wall" is as big and deep as a wall, looks like the raw core of a building. But it is a large, open, changeable structure. You can recognise levels, a staircase, perhaps the underground car park with supports at the bottom. There are utility shafts running through it. But even if I describe it like that now: That was not the leitmotif in the design process. Nevertheless, it looks like a scale model of a rather large building. And yet it is a piece of furniture...

...which at the same time is reminiscent of early modernism. It shows a structure that underlies the New Building.

Konstantin Grcic: Exactly, there is the design of a standard skeleton building "Dom-ino" by Le Corbusier from 1914. For me, that was always an important point of reference. Then Rem Koolhaas showed it at the Architecture Biennale in Venice as a replica made of wood. That would actually be the clearest quotation, the closest point of reference that I use here. At the same time, you can also see it as a shelf or as a display. Or as an architectural element in a room, a separation. Accordingly, "Wall" also has two different sides. And that explains the drawing: there are three elements, A, B and C, one, two and three metres wide. The front and back sides also differ spatially. On the computer we went through all the possibilities of putting the three elements together with their two sides. The drawings illustrate this. In the exhibition, we don't start rearranging the elements. And yet there is a lot of play possible. Who is it for and what is it? I can't tell you!

What is your motivation for such projects?

Konstantin Grcic: For me, it is a luxury to be able to try out and build something like this, here with the help of a young carpenter from Brindisi in Apulia. He has realised quite a few things for Umberto Riva. He is very good at his craft. And he is someone who simply wants to do something different. Everything is made of wood, with very different volumes. We just built it that way. Then it was filled over and painted by hand. Because I wanted you to be able to see the brushstroke.

In addition to industrial design, your work often includes projects for galleries, such as Kreo in Paris. You have also worked with the gallery of Roberto Giustini and Stefano Stagetti in Rome. What is the attraction of such projects?

Konstantin Grcic: There is a free space that I use to try out certain ideas. I don't want to do too many similar things. My world is a different one. But the industry is very conditioned. There are always the same thresholds that you can't seem to cross. Sometimes I use my creative space to do it anyway. And sometimes an interesting feedback loop emerges. You realise that we have now built this impossible thing and suddenly it is no longer so impossible. And then something could actually happen, which in turn radiates back to the industry. I'm not the only one who sees it that way; the Bouroullecs, for example, practise it. For me it is a very valuable addition. It's a path that always becomes important. At the same time, you quickly get into a strange bubble.

So not too many free projects?

Konstantin Grcic: Some work exclusively in such a world. Others do too much in this direction from my point of view. My approach is not that. For me, it results in being able to do projects differently and better for the industry and thus bring something back.

Do you have an explanation for why the development in design is so stagnant? I've been coming to Milan for decades and maybe I'm too old. You've seen a lot of things and idealise the past. Nevertheless, despite all the effort that has been put into Milan in 2022, there is a clear stagnation. Younger people also have this perception. What is your explanation?

Konstantin Grcic: I have been frustrated for a long time. This furniture fair is the first after two years of pandemic. Topics like climate change have been on the agenda for a long time and now the war is added to it, with consequences that now actually force us to think and do many things differently. As clear as that is, the industry is slowly coming to terms with it. I know the industry too well. I know that this tanker is moving very slowly.

Apparently, old objectives and methods still work too well for the pressure to change to be felt?

Konstantin Grcic: That is the closest approach I would take. But I notice a total insecurity. It is urgently necessary to find tools to free oneself from this insecurity. There is a sense of total lethargy and complete lack of plan, almost laziness. I don't have much good to say. I thought you could at least see a few companies moving at the fair. But I wasn't looking so much for the products. I'm interested in how the companies present themselves. It starts with the stand. Goes on with the selection they show there. Is there any statement they make? And I found that very disappointing. Who showed, said or even hinted at anything relevant? At least something that would have convinced you so then. I thought that was bad. I'm in the middle of it too.

But that is not your perception alone?

Konstantin Grcic: All designers have this discussion with manufacturers. We try to push it and a lot of things don't get there, get stuck. Yes, there is the pandemic, supply chains that don't work and other problems and total uncertainty. Pandemic and now the war. That is all true. But this "business as usual" cannot be the answer. I find it extremely unpleasant.

What could be an answer? How do you get out of it?

Konstantin Grcic: There is another generation that has nothing to do with the industry anyway and doesn't want to.

Does this new generation know the possibilities of cooperation with the industry?

Konstantin Grcic: Rather not. I don't find any approaches or answers there either. Perhaps from the point of view of this young generation, the rejection is understandable. At the moment, however, I don't see anything being articulated and coming out. Nothing grows out of the rejection. There are no relevant proposals of their own. It is as clear as daylight: simply staying in one's own kitchen to cook up new material will not work.

Do such questions also play a role in your teaching at the HfbK in Hamburg?

Konstantin Grcic: These are topics that I discuss with the students in Hamburg. They don't know anything about the industry yet either. I don't want to missionise them at all, but at least I try to get them to know something about what the industry can basically do and what it could actually stand for. It could be a vehicle that we need to change things. Did you meet Hamburg students in Milan?

I didn't notice them.

Konstantin Grcic: They were on the road with purple waistcoats. They wanted to be present in Milan. But it's difficult to exhibit here if you're not ECAL. And what should you show as a university? And so we turned it around and said: go to Milan and collect as much as you can. Gather experiences, but also information. Talk to people, exchange ideas, get to know people. And now they have swarmed out in their purple waistcoats and are doing interviews. And I am very curious to see what they bring back.