The Donkey in the System

von Thomas Wagner

Apr 20, 2016
Its legs firmly on the ground, single-minded and strong: In the shape of “Ettore” Konstantin Grcic has created a new cast-iron emblem not just for Magis, but for all designers and trade-fair visitors. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Salone 1: In Mailand ist Wohlfühlen angesagt – Ettore trägt geduldig Lasten, es gibt Bänke, kleine Tische und große Sofas.

One /// The patient emblematic animal

At present, hardly anything attracts as many hits in the Net as do cat videos. So high time to let another animal have a go. And the mule or ass seems predestined for the part, especially as it has long since at home in the furniture industry, where it has for some time been the emblem of Magis. Why a mule? Because, or so we can read at the Magis trade-fair booth at least, “it’s humble, it’s not conceited, it doesn’t show off, because it’s a tireless worker, because it never gives up, when it falls it picks itself up, because it doesn’t look for the easy way out, because it loves challenge, because it’s innately, intensely curious and therefore continuously explores new paths.”

And because the guys and gals at Magis know how important all these properties are for designers, the small mascot is now available in a cast-iron version called “Ettore” created by no less a talent than Konstantin Grcic. Ettore is a real heavy-lifter of an ass, claims Grcic, “with its legs firmly on the ground, focused and strong. But he’s also beautiful, lovable and happy. Just like Magis.”

It seems doubtful whether one should follow the company’s suit and accept that the mule’s name derives solely from Ettore (Hector), like the Homeric hero, the invincible warrior who only a demigod was able to defeat outside the walls of Troy. After all, here we’re in the world of furniture design, and here the name Ettore immediately brings to mind the greater Ettore Sottsass. Hidden homage to him? Perhaps.

Be that as it may, the mule or the new donkey as nurtured by the founder of Magis, Eugenio Perazza, and captured by Konstantin Grcic, thick-skinned, a little coarse, very stable, immensely tenacious given its weight, and with a broad saddle for heavy loads, is indeed a great emblem of all designers. Which is why we have chosen the mule as our faithful companion for our wanders round Milan. After all, there’s always any amount of donkey business going on here.

At any rate, Grcic’s patient mule is not simply a member of the species of “equus asinus asinus”, just as, to continue with the metaphor, its brother in spirit, the designer is not just a reliable, confident beast of burden. (Anyone thinking of the one or other cliché about donkeys and asses – it’s your own fault, not mine.) And anyone not willing to abandon all taxonomic systems when viewing Grcic’s version should perhaps classify Ettore as an “equus asinus constantinus”.

Generally speaking, the mule as a species is renowned not only as a modest, strong and enduring worker, but also as a recalcitrant laggard not willing to make a decision. Which is why, while wandering about all the trade-fair halls and showrooms, you might be reminded of Buridan’s ass or indeed now and again feel like you are a relative of it. This is because faced by all the ostensible or actual novelties, the vast array of chairs, tables, sofas and armchairs for indoors and (a trend of recent years) for outdoors, too, we simply don’t really know how and above all why we should choose the one item over the other, or vice versa. The philosopher’s ass, as I’m sure you remember, died of starvation when faced by two piles of hay, each of the same size and each the same distance away – because he simply couldn’t decide which to go for.

The idea here: to ponder a happy ending for the future. Jerszy Seymour’s “Bureau for the Study of Vivid Blue Every-Colour Inhabitations of the Planet, the Transformation of Reality, and a Multitude of Happy Endings” at the Magis booth. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Two /// Concept art or heavy industry

And while we’re on the subject of Magis: On such a festive occasion there are of course not just the well-known products on display here, but some novelties have been unveiled, too. For example, Jerszy Seymour has come up with a series of light high tables and stools, with seats that dynamically stand out from the base frames. The series, all black with sprinkles of white, answers to the programmatic and equally confusing name “Bureau for the Study of Vivid Blue Every-Colour Inhabitations of the Planet, the Transformation of Reality, and a Multitude of Happy Endings”. The individual parts can be combined in many ways and are intended for all sorts of working spaces and common rooms – be it in the office or at home, in a warehouse or under a tree in the garden. They all consist of fully recyclable, welded aluminum profiles, and because they have been manually spray-painted, they’re meant to have the feel of a “future of infinite possibilities”. In other words, Seymour’s “Bureau”, to quote from the press release again, wants to be no less than a “place where we rethink and discuss our future, or make decisions, or simply twiddle our thumbs, or quickly jot something down and relax.” Well, that’s certainly worth a try, even if the “happy endings” can be achieved without any sprinkled aluminum – and the ensemble somewhat overly optimistically tries to buddy with Concept Art, itself a bit worse the wear for its age. Seymour’s “New Dirty Enterprises” are actually more a matter of “New Chic Enterprises”. C’est la vie.

A bit of heavy industry is a must: “Brut” by Konstantin Grcic includes tables, benches and table trestles – all made of cast iron. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Well met in the early morning of the very first day of the fair: Konstantin Grcic in front of his cast-iron collection “Brut” at the Magis stand. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

While Seymour seeks to influence reality, Konstantin Grcic creates realities and in the form of “Brut” presents a collection made of nothing less than cast iron. His detractors tagged the table and bench (there are also height-adjustable trestles, and round bistro and dining tables) an elitist version of a beer-garden trestle table and bench. What they carefully overlook is that the industrial aesthetic has from the outset been just as much part and parcel of Grcic’s work as has been the manifest solidity and physical durability of his designs. By skillfully combining the physical presence of cast iron with historical reminiscences, translating the oomph of products rolled out by a heavy industry that is fast disappearing into a small format, citing 19th-century ironworks with a smile, and also playfully transforming decors from Victorian garden furniture into the details of the names, manufacturer and origin, Grcic manages to retrieve what was ostensibly obsolete in the digital age and provocatively place it in the midst of the contemporary lightweights. Added to which, and this tends to be the case with Grcic, the details are truly ingenious. Who knows, perhaps “Brut” not only rightly stands for a heavy uncompromising piece of iron but also in exemplary fashion for a confident shape given to physical reality this side of all virtual and increasingly immaterial worlds.

There were jubilees being celebrated whichever way you looked: At Walter Knoll numerous models from the company’s history were spotlighted. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

Three /// Jubilees, series, systems

Considered as a whole, the huge Milanese feel-good party unraveled this year untouched by all things political and basically everyone celebrated one thing, themselves. During the day droves of designers, journalists, manufacturers, dealers and fans from all over the world as usual simply flowed out across the over-filled trade-fair halls in Rho, and in the evening, energized by the spring weather, everyone was wandering joyfully around downtown, forever on the lookout for the ultimate sensation, for debate, Prosecco, cocktails and finger food. Although this time round, surprisingly many of those to be encountered at the Salone and the Fuorisalone were to be heard asking, not fearfully but with a slight irritation, where or whether something new was to be found that went beyond the customary and all the usual variants on it. It seems unlikely that it was simply the huge number of jubilees (Magis turned 40, B&B Italia 50, Walter Knoll and many others likewise had cause to celebrate) which persuaded many to glance backwards rather than look forwards seems pretty improbable.

One product gives birth to an entire system of different variations: Flötotto’s “Pro” shows how to do this. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark

Just how busily the industry is working to consolidate what it has achieved can be gauged, among others, from the fact that today one design often forms the basis for an entire collection, in fact almost an entire system – a single idea thus invariably gets played through as a chair, armchair, table, bar stool and standing table. Economically this would evidently seem to be as necessary as it is profitable. For all the competition and diversity, logically this culminates in homogenization and this is not just for the good. At the moment, thanks to economics the game-plan would apparently not include trying out something really daring, something radically different, a singular design item.

Stay calm, don’t be hectic: Even for “Ettore” the design mule it’s sometimes an advantage simply to stand still. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

This brings to mind another property of the design-mule: Where danger lurks he likes to simply stand still, immobile. Biologically this often gets attributed to the fact that the one or other predator that has it in asses can, owing to the anatomical particularities of their sensory organs, only perceive moving targets as prey. In the eyes of the incorrigible Modernists and action-obsessed contemporaries the mule often gets castigated for having lagged behind. But one could also construe its unmoving perseverance as showing that it does not simply bolt willy-nilly in the one or other direction, but stops, checks things out, and gets eyes on what is happening around it.

A closer look at things shows that at the moment many have adopted this method. In the furniture industry, bolting is not an option, even if the one or other might seem to be bolting forwards rather than backwards. The mule standing still can also remind us that it is time to rethink that fundamental maxim, that belief practiced for so many centuries, namely that salvation is offered by the “non plus ultra”, by the onwards and upwards, by action – and that the new is always better and not just unlike the tried-and-true that already exists. Consolidation is one thing, but taking things further another. Raymond Loewy’s advice that a smart designer has the instinct where to draw the line in a particular case, where a design is most advanced and yet still acceptable to clients seems to still be the utmost order of the day. At any rate, rarely does anyone exceed his MAYA threshold (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable).

Evidently sofas have to constantly grow bigger, and Patricia Urquiola has designed a lot of the mega-ones, including “Belt” for Moroso. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

Four /// Large sofas, long benches

Especially among the high-end Italian manufacturers with their exquisite and high-grade collections, sofas and sofa ensembles are growing larger and larger. If there are not enough seats for a party, then you simply hunker down to the (upholstered) table. On the one hand, these archipelagoes for huge living rooms are almost always cubist or slightly rounded; on the other, there is a truly immense number of newly presented settee models. Tastefully elegant is the adage in this world of Neo-Biedermeier. The designs and prototypes of a Patricia Urquiola for example (from “Lowland” to “Massas” and “Volant”, or new or “reloaded”) are legion, not only at Moroso, where “Belt” with leather straps pulled through the upholstery sets a striking note. Anyone wanting something more youthful should try Diesel’s “Gimme more Denim”.

First he dreamed of a large, comfy sofa, and then he thought “Wow”: Which is why that’s also the name of Philippe Starck’s sofa for Driade. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

Driade presents a luxurious and massive but nevertheless catching modular sofa by Philippe Starck. It goes by the name of “Wow”, programmatic for Starck, as “one night I had a dream or, rather, a memory surfaced in my mind. I recall the delightful times when sofas were comfortable, and we shouted ‘wow,’ while leaping on them.” “Wow” also sees Starck revisiting the sofa he created back in 1988 for the Hotel Royalton in new York.

In the world of sofas, modularization is doubtlessly one of the new buzzwords – or re-borrowed from the 1960s and 1970s. Customizing and systematization interlock here, such as is attested to by e15’s “Kerman” by Philipp Mainzer and Farah Ebrahimi or Jasper Morrison’s “Soft Modular Sofa” for Vitra. Here again we see how intensely at the moment certain typologies (in this case that of a low-slung, decidedly horizontal, modular settee) have been re-examined and new interpretations of them then found. There are two ways of reading this: Either it is a matter of greater precision and of optimization to reflect changed visual and living habits – or it’s all to do with a lack of ideas. We are definitely not living at the moment in an age of extravagant standalones.

Benches are suitable for all manner of occasions: With Konstantin Grcic’s “Brut” you quickly see that it’s the details that count. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
In the living room, the lounge or the lobby: long sofa-benches are all the rage: “Social” by Pedrali is highly versatile. Photo © Robert Volhard, Stylepark
Cool seating with tables in front and in-between: LaPalma also has a variable upholstered bench to offer. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

Just about wherever you look in Milan you see that benches are in. Either the aesthetic of the beer trestle has now won the day or everyone is busy exercising their back muscles while eating. And it could also be that the time spent dining in more or less style is generally less than it was. An outstanding example: the above-mentioned set from Konstantin Grcic’s “Brut” collection. Another item winning out across the broad: a mixture of long, upholstered bench and sofa, likewise modular in thrust. Here, Arper set the tone back in 2014, above all for the contract world – with “Zinta” by Lievore Altherr Molina, followed since by others, such as Pedrali with “Social”.

Small tables for many occasions are to be found almost everywhere: Vitra, for example, has dug up a coffee table by Charles and Ray Eames dating from 1949. Next to it stands Jasper Morrison’s new polygonal “Occasional Lounge Chair”. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

Five /// Small tables and infants

Which brings us to the small ones, the small tables and the kids. Side tables are at present all the rage, be they round, cornered or oval, made of wood, or plastic or metal, with or without a marble top. There seems to be an immense need to put down glasses, plates or Smartphones. Vitra has dug up a coffee table by Charles and Ray Eames designed in 1949 as a one-off for their famed Eames House in Pacific Palisades and is now bringing out a re-edition of the table, which consists of a dowel-leg base and a marble top (the original top was gold-plated!). Vitra also has on offer “Side Tables” by the Bouroullecs in a wooden version (which somehow does not sit happily with the tables’ character) as well as new, sweetly-proportioned “Occasional Low Tables” by Jasper Morrison. Thonet’s “1025” by James van Vossel is likewise to be included in this category, as is Naoto Fukasawa’s “Ci” (Japanese for Earth), which forms such a pretty pair with the comfortable small armchair “Ten” (Japanese for Heaven).

A swing by Starck, a rocking horse by Nendo: Kartell presents a special collection for kids. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

As regards the emerging design aficionados, Kartell has now also launched a collection of its own for kids, so that the pushcar or rocking horse made of transparent plastic bear witness to good taste. Nendo, Ferruccio Laviani, Piero Lissoni and Philippe Starck were along for the ride, contributing designs. Magis, where furniture and toys for kids have long since been a tradition, has come up with “Little BIG” a children’s chair that boasts a wooden base frame and a plastic seat and can be set at three different heights. When it comes to toys, Floris Hovers has provided tactile “CARtools” with 3D light cones, and Eero Aarnio a “Happy Bird”.

Hair and tortoise: Hadrly had we moved on to Plank’s booth than Konstantin Grcic joined us and explained why “Remo” is now also available in plastic and in many different colors. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

Whether it’s the result more of the low price of oil or of the wish to rekindle the 1960s and 1970s with their sense that we lived at the beginning of a better future (with the Moon shot and astronautics), but the trend to use more color has led to the return of plastic (not that it had ever really disappeared). Two examples: Konstantin Grcic’s “Remo” for Plank is now also available in plastic and in 12 colors; and Jasper Morrison has created a loyal and light companion for any day of the week in the form of the “All Plastic Chair” (or “APC” for short) for Vitra.

A light and loyal companion: Jasper Morrison’s “All Plastic Chair” for Vitra draws on different plastics and smart details. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark

The APC is somewhat reminiscent of a plain, classical wooden chair such as have long existed in Germany, but with a special twist to it: the thin seat has an organic shape to it and the backrest is more refined than was the case with its wooden ancestors. Moreover, while the frame is made of high-strength polypropylene, the seat and backrest gradually give and thus adapt to the body. Since the backrest is connected to the frame using rubber mounts, it softly emulates the user’s movements. And in terms of color the frame is always a few tones darker than the seat and backrest. Plain but ingenious – typically Jasper Morrison.

Eeyore cries the ass, stops, and takes a welcome break. To continue in Part 2.

Be it a mule or an ass, burdens have to be borne. Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark