Why commissions are important for a designer who does not see himself as a boundary crosser but who operates beyond both product and industrial design all the same.
Konstantin Grcic doesn’t like to cross boundaries. Nor did he ever want to. When he talks about his career, it sounds as though he always wanted to be a product designer. “As a child, I loved taking things apart and putting them back together,” he says. “That’s essentially what I still do today—try to understand how things are made, how they work, and how they might be improved.”
© Photographed by Noshe
Grcic is a modest man who speaks slowly and softly. He prefers to stay silent rather than say something wrong. Self-promotion and big words aren’t his thing. Nor does he like grand gestures in design; his pieces are mostly pragmatic, straightforward solutions to everyday problems. It’s easy to imagine Grcic working on a piece of furniture, brooding and scrutinizing for days in his workshop, and finally making a final small adjustment. He became known primarily for his chairs, to which he kept returning over the course of his career. “They’re my passion,” he says—one of which he never grew bored. Why would he, he asks back. It’s been a different chair every time. “I begin with fundamental questions. Who is this chair for? Where and for what will it be used? For how long? And so on.” Grcic tinkers slowly; he’s essentially an inventor who feels compelled to physically work on his designs and doesn’t trust computer images. “On the computer, you’re working in an emptied, abstract space. Besides, the perspective is different. That’s exactly how mistakes are made—we’ve made them in our designs, and paid our dues for them.” After saying this, he pauses, thinks, then worries he might sound old-fashioned. The studio uses computers too, of course, but only for certain production steps, as one tool among many. He also needs a workshop where material samples and models can be adapted on a one-to-one scale. “For me, it’s about consciously slowing down the process and a precise examination of the piece in space.”
© Photographed by Noshe
This way of working may result from the fact that Grcic was initially trained as a furniture maker. Only later did he study design at the Royal College of Art in London. After that, he worked with minimalist designer Jasper Morrison, who always directs the eye to everyday things and always considers where something could be improved. Morrison’s influence is clear in Grcic’s work. “That’s what fascinates me about design—questioning things that already exist. Afterward, there are two possibilities: either you invent something new, or you try to improve what’s already there. It’s a continuous development of the world, a slow, evolutionary optimization of things.” Grcic indeed works quite slowly. He tries to fully penetrate subjects and usually spends a great deal of time on research. What solutions were already conceived for this problem? Who worked on what and when? What became of those ideas? Can the product be improved with new materials or technologies?
© Photographed by Noshe
This type of questioning has produced some of his best known designs: the polypropylene MAYDAY lamp, for example—today part of the design collection at the Museum of Modern Art—and the MYTO Chair, for whose particularly fine structure a new injection molding process was developed. Or his classic Chair_ONE, whose body is made of die-cast aluminum, a process normally only used for frames that must be sturdy but not beautiful. Grcic made the entire chair using this technique so that it would be robust and low-maintenance; perfect for outdoor use. The result is a simple piece of furniture that doesn’t quickly get dirty because it has so little surface area for rainwater to collect upon and whose material gets neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter. The simplest solutions, however, often take the most time. They must, after all, be painstakingly thought through.
Research is also what led Grcic to curate entire design exhibitions. For him, it seems like a logical byproduct of his daily work—he does the research anyway. But he sees himself as neither curator nor artist. “I never just work for myself,” he explains. “I need an assignment first, someone who comes to me with a problem to which I can then devote myself.” So that’s the trick—if Grcic crosses the boundaries of his occupation, then only by invitation. That’s how he came to work as a curator and, on several occasions, as an artist, even if he doesn’t see it that way. In Cologne in 2001, he filled an extremely narrow interior with a balloon that installation visitors had to squeeze past. At the 2006 Industrial Design Parade in Rotterdam, he fitted a runway with everyday objects. And in 2013 in Berlin, he invoked the architecture of Chinese imperial palaces using common safety barriers similar to those used at airports. He arranged them in a structural model that visitors navigated almost reflexively; movement through these everyday barriers was that familiar to them. Researching, curating, building thoughtful installations in museums, designing chairs, bottle openers, and bins—for Grcic, it’s all part of a product designer’s job. As long as someone invites him to do it.