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Konstantin Grcic in Amsterdam

Is an ideal design personal or impersonal?  German designer Konstantin Grcic discussed his views recently in Amsterdam.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 15-07-2011

“As a student my ideal was anonymous design. Such were my heroes,” said German designer Konstantin Grcic last week to a packed audience in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

But over the years his relationship with modernism changed. “Now I realize I'm a better designer when there's something personal in my work,” he said.  “It also seems to appeal to more people when there is something personal in a design, something they can relate to or identify with. Not something impersonal.  [In that way] there's an acceptance that authorship exists.”

The public interview in the Stedelijk, Amsterdam’s museum for modern art, was part of the Pioneers of Industral Culture series arranged by Premsela, the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion, about the challenges designers are facing.

Grcic is one of the most influential designers currently working, said art historian and writer Gert Staal who conducted the interview.

Grcic focussed on craftsmanship when starting his career as a teenager. "I didn't want to go to university,” he said.  “I just wanted to make things like I had as a kid. Going into a craft education instead of heading straight to university was not normal for someone with my background and schooling. The first job I found was working for a furniture restoration company.”

Grcic’s desire to “make” still feeds his approach to design. "In my studio we still make mock-ups out of cardboard and sticky tape. There's a joy in making, in action, in touching, in changing. The mock-ups encourage risk-taking because things can go wrong without losing much. The design process always includes failures. Things need to grow inside of you. Some mistakes need to be made.”

But in the present age of computer-assisted design, some clients are shocked by the sight of simple mock-ups.

“Some clients don’t understand, and sometimes even get really scared,” said Grcic.

Staal confronted Grcic with the late Italian designer Achille Castiglioni’s ubiquitous 1968 Lead Switch.  He was very proud of his design, which everybody knows but which lacks identity.

Grcic’s verdict was ruthless. "Such products are awful and in the end we treat them badly,” he said.  “But doesn’t perfection mean simplicity?” asked Staal. "Yes, but it does not mean minimalistic.”

Grcic has made several designs for the Japanese brand Muji, known for its plain looks. But aren’t these designs all about simplicity?” Staal wanted to know.

"Designing for Muji is not simple at all,” replied Grcic.  “There's never a formula.  If there was, simple would not be intriguing anymore. My intervention, for example, with the Muji umbrella is all about taking away material. All we did was to drill a hole in the end of the handle. Japanese hang things through those holes, like mobile phones. So the hole became very recognizable on the street.”

Later in the interview Grcic added that he’s actually not looking for perfection.  “Perfection kills everything,” he said.  “Dead perfection stops everything. We need dynamics. Evolution means things can always improve.”

Not just in design, Grcic pointed out, but in society too.

For designers, the environment is changing as we speak. "Present day tools give designers power,” Grcic noted.  “They don't need to wait anymore for companies to adopt an idea. It's shaking up things. The next stage is open-source where a community starts sharing ideas and facilities.”

“What will your role be in this?” Staal asked. "I can't define it, but I'm watching things,” replied Grcic.  “Things are not yet very tangible but I feel there is a power there. Industrial culture as we know it was a system where everything was in place. Now things are quite fragile. There are still some good companies, but anything mediocre will not survive.”

The interview can be downloaded as a podcast here.

Images: main top Grcic talking in Amsterdam, small from top Grcic with Wim Crouwel, Grcic's most iconic design - Chair_One, Pipe desk for Muji, umbrellas for Muji, Castiglioni's Lead Switch.

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