Salone del Mobile 2017
No one can expect me to design right angles
Cecilie Manz is widely considered one of the most successful designers in Denmark. Her “Caravaggio” luminaire for Lightyears seems to be an archetype of ceiling-mounted lighting, and it was she who designed the Bluetooth loudspeakers for Bang & Olufsen that produce a sound as persuasive as their look. For British outdoor specialists Gloster she has now created her first collection of outdoor furniture – called “Atmosphere”. The seating and tables are made of teak and aluminum, exuding both Scandinavian simplicity and homeliness. Uta Abendroth and Cecilie Manz tried them out in Milan.
Cecilie Manz: No, not consciously. For me, everyday life is the key to a product. Gloster approached me and asked me to design furniture based on teak, the main material they use. I find teak a bit heavy-going and therefore wondered how to infuse the wood with a touch of lightness. Without falsifying the beautiful texture and natural material.
And what was your solution?
Cecilie Manz: I divided the table top in two. The gap in the middle means water can run off and the entire top seems less massive as a whole. The same applies to the benches and side-tables. The aluminum frame, available with two different color finishes, likewise has a very pared down feel to it. With the chairs and loungers the split is in the middle of the seat and the curved backrest. That, again, brings a sense of lightness into things.
Did Gloster give you free rein for the design?
Cecilie Manz: Yes they did. And it was clear from the outset that I was allowed to work with textiles and different colors. I liked that because in Denmark outdoor furniture is always black, white or grey. I liked the idea of being able to work with more colors. And my focus was not on being “colorful”, but on a subtle use of color. Green, I thought, fitted the bill, as a natural and calm color. And blue for those who wanted something a little darker. There were also various options for how the wood can be treated. I personally like it most if teak becomes rough and grey over time, if sun and rain leave their mark on their material. I also considered this effect when choosing the colors for the covers and frames.
The furniture items are lower than is customary today.
Cecilie Manz: That’s true. But then I’ve noticed that no one actually likes to sit at a high table, that’s always so formal. If you think of the furniture that Poul Kjaerholm did back in the 1950s and 1960s, all those things were low and looked great in a room simply because they did not take up so much space. Naturally, people are growing ever larger, but things should remain comfy. Which is why the “Atmosphere” table is only 68 centimeters high.
But the furniture is surely not destined for indoor use …
Cecilie Manz: No, but it works both inside and outside the house. I don’t really like the term ‘multifunctional’, either an object is this or it is that. But as long as it makes sense, as is the case with these items of furniture, then I think it is OK for the dividing lines to get blurred a bit.
To what extent are you involved in the technical side to developing the design?
Cecilie Manz: From the very beginning. I’d be pretty stupid not to address this aspect, too. Really, this is crucial for me. It does not suffice to simply hand in a drawing. During the development process there are so many changes, so I have to make sure I’m in the midst of things and know the facts. After all, a project evolves gradually.
With many of the products you design I find myself wondering how you always manage to know all the ins and outs of the materials and technical refinements.
Cecilie Manz: Yes, it’s difficult. But for each project I am able to rely on something I already know. And then there’s something new, too, and I learn more. I’m very open-minded and always ask a lot of questions at the beginning of cooperation on a project. I can’t be a specialist in everything, not that anyone expects me to be one. Sometimes, a material is already fixed in advance, such as teak in the Gloster case. And sometimes I have an idea and then I have to find the right material for it. Thanks to the collaboration with Bang & Olufsen I now know an awful lot about aluminum, for example. I know what is possible and what is not and how I can push the limits further, for example.
Is there a material that you like working with most?
Cecilie Manz: In my opinion it is key to use the right material in the right place. I wouldn’t design a loudspeaker using teak just as I wouldn’t opt for an aluminum table-top. In the final analysis what counts is where and how you use something and what relationship it has to our bodies: What do I touch? What am I sitting on?
Cecilie Manz: The “Caravaggio” has a bit of a bizarre history. We started out with the most extraordinary version, the black luminaire with the red cable. And then we wondered whether there should not be a more toned-down version in white with a white or grey cable. The “more normal” version thus came on the market after the more striking one. And then we found it seemed obvious to add a model with a glass shade. The luminaire thus suddenly looked utterly different, and even the light it exudes is completely different.
The above-mentioned loudspeakers you made for B&O Play are just as extraordinary. You seem to have had your finger on the pulse there!
Cecilie Manz: First up, I was very proud when Bang & Olufsen contacted me. It’s a really big thing in Denmark to be approached by them. Not that I didn’t have the one concern or other. Which is why I said they would have to grant me some liberties if they wanted me to work with them. Perhaps even to go in a direction they would not normally head in. After all, right angles or black loudspeakers are something no one can expect me to do. In fact, I was the very first woman they asked to design something for them. And I was convinced that the brand needed a breath of fresh air. The B&O Play label was then developed around the first Bluetooth speaker, which I had designed. It was a great experience for me, as the company had thus invested in the future. The emphasis is on beautiful and affordable design, a change as regards the visuals and taste. Objects such as loudspeakers are getting ever smaller, and the sound ever better. Interestingly enough, such a small loudspeaker is no longer a general object, but something personal, a kind of accessory like a hat.
How do you test your products?
Cecilie Manz: I try out everything I design myself at home. If I myself do not like an object or it does not prove its worth in my home, then it certainly should not go to market. A few years back that happened to me, although I of course can’t say what the object was; the development lead time was simply far too short and it didn’t work. In the Gloster case I asked whether I could borrow a teak chair to test the material and try it out in my own environment. Good quality is really important to me, and I was able to see how the wood behaved. That really helped me in my work. And at the end of the day I need to be satisfied with a product as it will after all forever be associated with my name.
Do your free designs get to market more than those you are commissioned to make?
Cecilie Manz: My attempts to float my own designs have always failed, not once in my career has that succeeded. Often what happens is I design things I find beautiful and lots of people like them, but still no one wants to make them. The issue of collaboration is, above all, a matter of timing and balance. And both sides need to want it as much. Perhaps my ideas are simply too complete by the time I take them to a potential producer, and then you are not starting out together from the beginning. Maybe that’s a reason why my first product that ever went into production is one I really love. Nils Holger Moormann rang me up after an exhibition and asked whether he could produce a leaning ladder I had designed. I first thought it was someone making a joke phone-call. Not until I had the airplane ticket he sent me in my hand did I really believe the collaboration was going to happen. I love the whole story surrounding “HochAcht”, because at all stages it was all about passion. Manufacturers need courage and an entrepreneurial approach even if an object perhaps does not emerge a bestseller. Sadly, things like that no longer happen. Companies worry more about each and every cent and are less prepared to take a risk. I think we need to rescue passion, however.
For designers, what is the greatest challenge today?
Cecilie Manz: Perhaps we are ourselves the greatest challenge? No, I believe so many things happen at once and that is what is difficult. To this extent, the crisis a few years ago purged things somewhat. Before it came, too many things glittered with gold, but that’s over now. Everyone felt that in some way, and designers are now a bit clearer about the fact that what we do is important. It is not as if every day I think about how to save the world. I think design can’t possibly do that. But what we designers can do to help it to create things that last for a long time. Starting with the materials. A loudspeaker, for example, is made up of so many different components. If I can separate them later down the line all the better. If I design a table that lasts for 30 years because it is made of good wood, then that is also sustainable. It is a slow process as neither manufacturers, nor designers, nor consumers can achieve this on their own. It’ll only work if we all pull together. That is in itself a kind of revolution and we are part of it. We all depend on one another.
That sounds so serious and yet everything in Denmark seems so light and tasteful. Many of us look a bit jealously at all your great things …
Cecilie Manz: My take on that is that Denmark is simply very small and we have cultivated everything, even our coasts. Street signs, every object in the public space, someone has thought it through and designed it. That’s been the case for years now. In Denmark simply nothing may go undesigned. Meaning that other than in the homes of a few especially creative minds things always look the same, which in its own way is a bit boring. What really does play an important role in Denmark is the floor, as it is the floor that defines the entire atmosphere of a room.