Konstantin Grcic originally studied to be a cabinetmaker, but a cabinetmaker rarely gets to revolutionize every single item stored within his cabinets. In his nearly 20-year career, Grcic has designed—or redesigned—an incredible variety of objects. After leaving JasperMorrison’s London studio in 1991, Grcic returned to his native Munich to found his own company on his own terms. He promptly earned attention and plenty of industrial assignments for elegant, deceptively simple designs, including a 2-HANDS laundry basket for the German company Authentics, and the now-iconic portable Mayday lamp for Flos.
In 2007, Grcic’s Chair_ONE for Magis entered the contemporary-design pantheon when it was selected for London’s Design Museum’s “25/25 Celebrating 25 Years of Design” exhibit. The chair is built from flat panes of red aluminum set at angles to each other; the 43-year-old Grcic compares its construction to a soccer ball. Turns out, this wouldn’t be his last engagement with sports equipment.
It’s virtually impossible, though, to define Grcic’s design aesthetic with a single object. He has signature work in the collections of MoMA and the Centre Pompidou, and collaborates with several forward-thinking industrial companies such as Muji, where he has applied his skills to simple objects including umbrellas and pens. For Grcic, design is serious business, but that doesn’t mean he’s above designing a garbage can. In fact, he has a reputation for incorporating discreet humor into his work. Take his brightly colored interlocking plant pots for Teracrea, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Japanese cartoon. Here, by phone from his Munich office, he talks about the beauty of imperfections, the genius in not knowing everything, and why his ultimate dream is to (re)design a bicycle.
DAVID COGGINS: You’re in Munich. Does that mean you’re a fan of the Bayern Munich football team?
KONSTANTIN GRCIC: Absolutely! [laughs]
COGGINS: You did pretty well recently in the Champions League tournament.
GRCIC: Well, that was against weak opponents.
COGGINS: If you play English teams, it’ll get tougher.
GRCIC: Yes, they’re the real McCoy.
COGGINS: I’m looking at this window design you just did for Hermès in Tokyo. Have you ever worked on an actual space before?
GRCIC: Yes, I have done that kind of work before. We never do interior design, but I’m interested in these kinds of ephemeral installations—like exhibitions—and a window display is a form of an exhibition. This is the second window I’ve done for Hermès in Tokyo, and I always enjoy these kinds of projects. They’re small and very playful. And the idea of a very public space, such as a shop window right in the heart of Tokyo, is fantastic. It has a big audience. And it’s a beautiful form of communication, of engagingpeople who walk past, and making them stop and stare. Behind the glass, we have quite a lot of freedom with this particular project. It’s a very open theme to do what we want—especially with the Japanese, who are such good collaborators. They really do everything to ensure that our design, our idea, gets executed in a beautiful way. They have a theme every year. This year it’s called The Beautiful Getaway.
COGGINS: The Beautiful Getaway?
GRCIC: [both laugh] Our window—we did it in January—was the first in a series that will be done under this theme. For this window, you need a strong idea that isn’t complicated, an idea that’s very easy to read, very graphic. With all of our other projects, we always have to take into consideration: How can this be made? We have a budget. We have a timeline. We also have this notion of what’s appropriate. It’s only going to be there for seven weeks. I quite like this condition as a context for work. So limitations or constraints can turn into positives.
COGGINS: Do you like designing for the general public, which is not necessarily a niche design audience? Do you like the chance to reach people who might not go to the Design Museum?
GRCIC: I like to do both. Sometimes it’s the most beautiful experience to reach a public that isn’t educated in design. When they respond to something we’ve designed, it means that we were—or that this product was—able to seduce or convince them. I think it’s very interesting, the relationship between an object and a person. But it’s also relevant and good to speak to a very specific audience, such as a designer designing for designers. I know it sounds terrible, like a really bad cliché and all that’s wrong about design, but actually I think there is a good side to it, because something that is hard to say, something avant-garde and ahead of its time, can only be realized by getting it across to a professional audience, where a designer speaks to a designer who understands the codes. And there’s a real value to it. I think, historically, you can see some of the avant-garde movements in the fine arts, in design—also in film, in photography. In times when there’s a really strong change or when some individual is doing something really extraordinary, it can only reach a very exclusive circle—an inner circle. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. In order to really advance ideas—strong ideas—sometimes it’s okay to design for designers.COGGINS: Take Muji, for example. Here’s a company that’s democratized design, and you’ve worked with them a lot. Can you describe some of your projects with Muji? Do you like your working relationship with them?
GRCIC: I’ve been working with them for about eight years. I have to laugh a little bit, because after eight years, I still find it really challenging. By no means would I claim to fully understand what Muji is. [laughs] Muji’s so special. It’s a beautiful company, considering that it’s been three decades that they’ve been doing what they do, with a philosophy that stands behind the brand—which is no brand. They are difficult to work with because even though from the outside it seems very clear what Muji is, the reality is that there’s no formula. It’s not so simple to ask, “What is Muji and how do we make a product become Muji?” Muji has so many different facets. This idea of paring things down to their most essential components works on a number of levels—it’s definitely an element that exists in Japanese culture, but even Japanese Muji culture could never define fully what Muji is. The interesting challenge for us is designing without designing. It’s really a design project. They work to create products that, in the end, don’t look designed, that look very unobtrusive and natural.
GRCIC: But of course it is so difficult to do that. Every year we do so many projects with them. We have a contract with Muji, which means we constantly work for them, have an exchange of ideas with them, and they use what they want to use. They don’t commission a specific thing. Sometimes we trigger a project with a concept that we make, and they take over. I like that. We stir certain things up, and in the end, they’re so good.
COGGINS: So you like balancing these two types of design: something for Hermès, which very much draws attention to itself and where you really see the designer at work; and then you have projects that you describe as unobtrusive, where you try to make the design invisible. Do you like to balance these two things?
GRCIC: Yes, absolutely. I like the balance—it’s nice that you call it a balance. Sometimes it’s actually . . . [laughs] an imbalance, but even that is nice, because these projects are so different, and they create interesting dynamics. Doing Muji probably feeds into totally different projects. But we also do other designs for big industries.
COGGINS: Like Krups, for instance, where you designed appliances like blenders and coffee makers . . .
GRCIC: Well, I wasn’t going to mention Krups. My example would have been a company like Magis or Plank, where we serve as industrial designers. We design products like chairs for Magis and Plank, but they carry a very strong signature. It’s definitely an industrial product that goes through the whole process of the development. But through all that process it retains its own authorship, its own company stamp, quite strongly, and that’s what the companies want. Specifically, the furniture industry works in a different way. We always know the name of the designer who makes the furniture. When you design for Krups, for example, it remains a more anonymous product.
GRCIC: But the furniture world is at its strongest when the personality of the designer—the signature—is most apparent.
COGGINS: We’re talking in such serious design terms, but your work has a reputation for having a sly humor. Can you talk about the space that humor has in design?
GRCIC: Well . . . [both laugh] I liked the serious nature of the conversation we were just having. I’m grateful for your questions because I think that design is something quite serious. Design is a serious thing—it’s not just fun. It demands concentration, and it’s about responsibility. At the same time, for me, the hard reality is sometimes so comical because it’s about life, isn’t it? Everyday life, and how all of us struggle with life, and in this material world we struggle to come to terms with objects—something we have to sit down on, or open a latch on, or all of these essential kinds of things. I’ve always been fascinated by observing the relationship between human beings and objects. And, really, how do we come to terms with them? How intelligent are we? Is there a category of objects that are helpful and accommodating and accessible? Because there are objects that are totally the opposite and they are here to make you look like a fool, or they make you uncomfortable. I guess there is a certain form of humor in my work. It’s not that I just want to be funny. It’s not something I do deliberately. But when you accept the world with all its perfections and imperfections, and tragic and comic sides, then somehow this humorous aspect is part of it.
COGGINS: So humor comes out in the process. I read that you’ve said you like to incorporate the feeling that you’re not an expert in your work—not in all of your pieces, anyway.
GRCIC: Yes. Like I said, design is something quite serious, therefore I think design should be done by designers, because only designers have certain kinds of skills. Skills, for me, mean a way of thinking, but they also mean very real talents in terms of craftsmanship and experience and so on. So that probably makes us experts, but in the end we should never be experts in an absolute sense. There’s always something we don’t know. This is our advantage working with companies that are experts in their own particular fields. They ask us from the outside to collaborate because they need the input of somebody who has skills and experience but who doesn’t know everything—and that’s exactly where we can think more freely and probably come up with something that’s totally ridiculous. [laughs] But sometimes that’s where the breakthrough lies. The absolute expert knows what works and what doesn’t too well already. So we have to be professionally unprofessional.
GRCIC: We make mistakes, and sometimes we simply don’t know, and we overestimate what we can do, or we underestimate the difficulties. I think something very human happens there. Imagine a world of perfect objects: It would be terrible. We’d be bored, and it would be soulless. But if you think about what certain people collect, the objects that people care for, they’re not necessarily the perfect, or the best functioning objects. Very often they’re old things that are broken or things that matter because something has happened that involves them. You get attached to these kinds of things, you create a bond, as maybe you do with your bicycle or a favorite chair that wobbles.
COGGINS: I wanted to ask you about your career in a large sense. What’s changed since you started working? This could be anything from an increasingly design-savvy public to the increasing use of computers.
GRCIC: Uh . . . [pauses, laughs] I think that . . .
COGGINS: These are serious questions, Konstantin! [both laugh]GRCIC: I think the biggest change is how much broader the spectrum of work I’m doing is than what I originally thought was done by a designer. For me, design was a very clear profession, where, as a designer, you design products. That means you build them, you construct them, you give them form. And that would have been nice. It’s still part of what designers do, and it’s a part that I definitely enjoy, but what designers do today has really become much broader.We are involved in many more aspects andlayers of what it means to actually design a product and bring design ideas into realization. We are confronted with an industrial culture, and with strategies and knowledge about technologies and materials, and even psychology andergonomics and human relationships. It really is so much broader, and I think it should havealways been. That’s the beautiful thing aboutdesign, that it really is not just a skill—it’s anattitude of how you approach things. Even our use of the word design has become so much broader. We talk about design in relation to politics—you know, designing a strategy for getting out of the financial crisis, and so on. I quite like that, actually, because it’s exactly what design is. It’s an intellectual process. It’s very analytical. It has a logic of trying to identify a scenario and then creating a scenario that makes situations better, or simpler.
GRCIC: And, in the end, it’s not so different to design a toothbrush or a timetable for trains.
COGGINS: And what about the increasing reliance on computers?
GRCIC: The computer has totally changed our work, because now we have a tool that enables us to do things that we were not able to do before. And it’s beautiful, because it really is a very skillful tool—a magic tool. For me, the big problem with computers is that we are taking on many more responsibilities. In the old days, there was the designer and the technical office inside a company of engineers. Now, because we have computers that have engineering programs, we’re expected to do the design and the engineering, all at the same time. That’s something I find really dangerous because, in the end, I’m not an engineer, and I much prefer working with an engineer. My work has an interest in engineering—I like understanding materials and how things work—but I’d feel much better collaborating with an engineer, sharing his or her know-how with us.
COGGINS: You’ve designed so many things—sake labels, light switches, chairs, espresso makers. What are you looking forward to doing in the future? Is there anything that you have always wanted to design, like Bayern Munich jerseys, or the interior of a BMW?
GRCIC: [laughs] What I’ve always wanted to do is design a bicycle. For me, it’s a dream project. A bicycle combines beautiful engineering and an idea of design that’s very close to how it’s actually built. It’s a fascinating object. It’s the best form of mobility. It’s an old idea but it is still so modern and appropriate for our life today. That said, if a company came and asked me to design a bicycle, maybe I’d be disappointed because I’ve been dreaming about it for so long. And maybe at the same time, something else comes up that I’ve never thought about. Right now, we just started to work for Adidas . . .
GRCIC: Yes, designing sports shoes, and I’d never thought about that. I’m fascinated by this whole world of sports equipment, and now, here we are. It’s these things that you never think about, and they come up out of the blue, and suddenly they are the real dream projects.
David Coggins is an artist and writer who lives in New York.