When my editor tells me I will have 20 minutes for an interview with Konstantin Grcic, I kind of freak out. Only 20 minutes with this super famous designer? That’s not enough. Apparently, I learn, I’m lucky. He hardly ever agrees to interviews and when he does, you need to strictly adhere to the little time given, precisely announced prior to your meeting. And 20 minutes, by his standards – I’m told – is a lot. So, when I finally meet Grcic during the London Design Biennale in September, I already feel under pressure, given the time constraints. And I soon learn he’s not after the small talk – he gets straight to the point and rushes me into the questions I prepared. During our conversation, I am super aware of the timing, and keep looking at the minutes ticking away on my iPhone Voice Memos app but as we carry on, Grcic gets more and more relaxed and switches over to a rather talkative mode. To the point of me getting slightly wary of the time already passed and warning him that I’d only have one last question to ask. At which point his PR lady gives me a very clear sign I am running out of time. – That’s OK – says Konstantin – we are wrapping up. And we are. I check my recording – we spoke for exactly 29 minutes and 51 seconds. Mr Grcic gifted me with 9 minutes and 51 seconds extra time. Not bad, given his German tendency for precision and exactness. Not at all bad.
Excerpts from the interview for the English readers below. Polish readers please refer to the hard copy of the Monitor Magazine no. 17/18 (currently on sale).
London is where it all started for you. How does it feel to be back?
It all started for me in England, then London played a role in it. I was a student at the Royal College of Art, many years ago, like a quarter of century ago. I have very strong, very vivid memories of it. It was a great time of my life and London was where I wanted to be then. I left for different reasons and it’s this thing that always gets through my mind: what would I be, where would I be now, had I stayed in London 25 years ago. But I don’t know and it’s boring trying to answer that now but it is definitely kind of sentimental me coming back here. I love it and I hate it. When you live here, you get used to this crazy city but if you’re coming from the outside, from a city which is a little fraction of London [Grcic lives in Berlin] then you really have to be conditioned to live here. London is loud and sweaty. London is intense. (…)
What has changed since the time you founded your own studio?
I think over the years my practice has changed in size, in equipment, in clients that we have. My team has changed – it is now six people, 25 years ago I was alone. But I think it’s not completely different to what I started with. I think in some way I find it almost frustrating to think that it’s not that different to what I wanted to do originally. But at the same time I could also say it’s quite reassuring and it’s beautiful, it’s seems like I did find something in my life, something I really want to do, something that makes me happy, that makes sense of my life. And I feel that way, we’re doing things today that I couldn’t have thought about 25 years ago. The problem was really to decide on where I wanted to stand on design. Is it a promise of always the new, the next project, a bigger project, a faster project, a more crazy project, a more utopian project? Or, is there something in the quality of design, which in the end is so simple, so beautiful, so effective, so economical. I think that my installation here, at the Biennale, tries to speak about that. Utopia is what happens in your head. We’ve created something, which of course has a technological aspect to it but it is also very real and has the sound of crackling fire.
I sat in that room, closed my eyes and felt like I was sitting by the fire. Only last week I went to the countryside and sat by a real fire, watching the stars.
And that’s what it is about, still today, in this world. With all the technologies we have, the simplest little things and moments are the most powerful, and so strong. And it’s beautiful that it still works for us. We’re used to the most incredible stuff, but sitting by a real fire is unbeatable. And then the real fire is free to anyone, to people from all cultures around the planet and that’s where I think you have the utopia. Isn’t that nice that utopia is not that incredible future being manmade? We can all be part of our own mental utopia just through this simple thing that comes for free. People, in the most primitive cultures, as well as the most sophisticated cultures, they all go back to the fire. And that was our way out of this. Of course, we’ve designed the space, but in a way I would have even preferred we hadn’t designed anything and tried to just create the atmosphere. Surely, it’s not true for every visitor but if we get 10 out of a 100 to sit down and do what you did, close your eyes and relax, it’s fine. It is one installation out of forty, people will come here with their heads already crammed with other things they’ve seen at the Biennale, so it’s difficult to get their attention. But I think that difficulty is always part of our work. Every project is a challenge. That’s why I’m passionate about my work and I want to face the difficulty that comes with it. (…)
There was a time when you suffered from the major success of Chair One. You yourself said that it took a while for people to grasp Chair One and understand what it was about. Do you have the patience to wait for people to understand your designs?
I wish the things I design were understood or liked more immediately, but it’s not something that I do intentionally. I don’t make things difficult. It’s just something I’m not able to change. I do the things I strongly believe in. We worked on Chair One for four years, so I had four years to get used to it. How could it be that someone who sees it for the first time gets it immediately? It took myself four years. It’s like that with a lot of things. Do I have the patience? I haven’t even thought about it in that way, to be honest. That’s the way it goes, I can’t change it. But I’m not doing it on purpose. When we design things, we do the best we can at that particular moment, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. The failures and the problems form part of the solution that we find in the next project somehow. But there is one thing I started to accept, which is different to when I was young and at the beginning of my designing career. At at that time my generation wanted to be successful designers, not successful in stardom, even money, but successful in designing popular products. Working for Ikea – we thought that was great. The generation before us thought it was horrible. Now I have to accept that in the end, I’m not an Ikea designer…
But you work for MUJI. Although it has a slightly different philosophy.
You’re right, probably MUJI makes an exception. I think that maybe I’m the designer who is better at designing Chair One, rather than designing a chair that sells and works for everyone. If I’m the designer of Chair One, anyway, I’m happy with that. There used to be this idea of avant-garde, and it was always something that is exclusive, and understood by a very few people. But generations later, years later it changes – Bauhaus was avant-garde, now it’s a common reference to a lot of what we do. Certain things that were so exclusive, but powerful, have that power to trickle into much broader consciousness, and in the end something that is exclusive turns into, not a mass product, but a mass reference. Think of Memphis design, it was so powerful it changed everything we thought about design, but not because Memphis products were all over the place. They were produced in prototypes, but the imagery, and the reference, the knowledge, the learning from it has influenced everyone. I think that’s also something that I find a valuable contribution to make. As a designer you have a voice to say something, say something strong, something that polarizes people or even offends them. And I still believe it is necessary to do that. I believe it would be horrible if design became the one thing for everyone, made everyone happy.
Last question – have you designed a bicycle yet?
[Grcic laughs]. No.
So you dream hasn’t come true.
No. It’s still in the pipe line, which means in my head.
Photo credits: Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design. Photo of Konstantin Grcic on the cover: Markus Jans.