Jasper Morrison in Conversation with Konstantin Grcic
Konstantin Grcic: I recall a short text of yours which I must have read around the time we first met in London in the early nineties. In “Why Do We Need New Chairs?” you were reasoning that “it is not the job of the designer to create new for the sake of new.” It wasn’t at all your intention to sound anachronistic, but rather to allude to the enormous beauty and wealth of the things, that already exist around us. Your point was to re-adjust the role of the designer from self-indulgent author to a more humble professional, whose creativity is in finding an adequate measure. Twenty years later you are still the strongest, most reliable protagonist of designing in an obvious, unpretentious, evolutionary way. Time is proving you so right. Now more than ever before do we recognize the necessity to learn from the things which have grown and developed over time. What I would like to discuss with you is exactly this: the appreciation of what there is already. Not in a conservative way, but rather as an opportunity for continuance, which means looking ahead, moving forward. It is a given that eighty percent of the work of architects is dealing with existing structures, and the future will even see a decrease in the need for new buildings. Is the same true in design?
Jasper Morrison: I have always been inspired by encounters with objects, either in design history books or in real life, and sometimes through the re-imagining of a half-seen, out-of-focus glimpse of something in the background of a movie set. I noticed that before it became so important to be the author of your design work, new objects arrived by means of an evolutionary process wherein an archetype developed over the centuries, with modifications that made it a better chair or whatever. Design is about economy, economy of means, economy of material, economy of production process, but, I believe, also economy of the idea, because an idea can be both vital and fatal to the design process. Vital when it’s denied free rein and fatal when it’s let loose. When you mentioned the wealth of things already existing around us, I found it to be an ideal palette of form and type which would take care of the formal side of things while I could put my efforts into reprocessing it in new and hopefully improved ways. It’s an economy of the idea but also, I think, a respect for what’s been done before not to waste all that effort. I admire and no doubt romanticize peasant societies where nothing is wasted and ingenious solutions to everyday problems have been developed and passed down through generations. I visited the National Museum of Ethnology in Lisbon recently, where they keep an incredible collection of those kinds of tools, which frankly put design to shame. There is so much that has already been done that deserves our attention. None of this intends to suggest that this is the way design should be done. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, which mold our way of working and lead to an infinite number of ways in which a project can develop into a valid proposal. Coming to the comparison between architectural renewal and archetypal refreshment, it is probably not so simple. Architecture being mostly unique to its place in the world and design being all about identical numbers of things makes for an uneven playing field when it comes to comparing the two professions. But it’s possible that a younger generation of architects is rejecting the monumental approach of the existing big names. Perhaps there’s a sort of collective exhaustion across the two professions, an over-consumption of creative ego. It probably has something to do with economics too. It would be an odd moment to spend a fortune on a new corporate or state building, and it’s also not a moment for a furniture producer to take big investment risks. The game is more real now than it has been, and showing off is out of fashion! Perhaps the absorption of what is already there into the design vocabulary is both a sign of a healthy inquisitiveness and a recognition of its value. But would you agree that, despite the ridiculously small scale of industry we work with, design has now expanded its vocabulary to include everything that ever existed and everything that can be imagined or brought into being by whatever means?
KG: It is true that “design” has become such a big word. Design seems to be everywhere and in everything. There is, of course, a positive side to it in that it ascribes a general importance or relevance to design, which I think is valid. Design matters and a broader public awareness for design is a positive thing. I am not talking about the industry, which would profit from that, but about the progress it brings to society. That is if design is intelligent and honest and useful and long-lasting. Clearly, the majority of what claims to be design doesn’t adhere to such distinctions, which makes it prone to having an annoyingly negative connotation in the public mind.?Interestingly, though, I am recently experiencing another, almost diametrically opposed preconception about design which I am finding no less disconcerting. What I mean is design at its very best, as savior of the world! As designers we are suddenly made responsible for coming up with solutions to salvage planet earth. I think that design can, in close alliance with politics, industry, and the sciences, help developing strategies to avert, for example, climate change and the exploitation of natural resources. However, it feels totally out of proportion to assume that design alone can come up with the key to all of the world’s severe problems. What makes me feel so uncomfortable is the expectation that design could turn things around with one strike of genius, with one idea, the big coup. In a way this relates to what we were discussing earlier— the monumental approach of the creative-ego system. The designer as superhero.?My own experience of working with industry has taught me a different story. I have learned how painstakingly difficult it is to accomplish anything. Producing even the simplest little thing is still challenging, even today, even with all the technology at hand. Rethinking the same processes over and over, adapting them and making use of them for new, improved applications is much more of a reality than quantum leaps. I am not saying that this is all regressive and frustrating, not at all. In fact, I think there lies a huge creative potential in this: turning constraint into an opportunity.?Coming back to the comparison between architecture and design, I feel that the industrial client is the site-specific element we are dealing with in our work. The company, including its history (long or short), geographic location, the people, skills, machinery, know-how, and so on—all of this forms a set of elements which play an important part in a project. I guess one could call it the inscribed DNA of a project, which once more illustrates an evolutionary aspect of design.
JM: I am inclined to agree that expanding the role of our kind of design into geo-politics is a step too far, but perhaps a specialist design agency could present itself as a consultant to politicians who seem not to have the tools needed to come up with any practical solutions to the world’s troubles. Having said that, I have also noticed a slight backlash against our profession recently, a questioning of why we are not taking on these bigger issues; confining ourselves to the job we signed up for seems to be inadequate these days, as if plumbers should all of a sudden know how to be electricians because electricians have given up their work. That’s not to say that we should ignore the aspects of social responsibility that each project contains. Which reminds me of Max Bill’s Gute Form and Charles Eames’s Good Goods. It isn’t easy to describe what makes a design good in the sense of these terms, and yet we know it when we see it. It seems to be something to do with making a positive contribution to the man-made environment. A contribution which enhances the quality of experience in using or living with things, though I suppose this would pass many people by without their noticing any quality. Nevertheless, it’s clearly something we feel is important or we wouldn’t keep trying to achieve it! It is in some way the drug that keeps us coming back for more. I like your phrase “turning constraint into an opportunity.” I think many good things come from these kinds of constraints and the model of a project being developed under constraints is much closer to the reality of human existence than a project where anything is possible. We shouldn’t forget that there are many architectural masterpieces which have been achieved by ignoring the constraints, like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, though it’s clearly not the most practical space for showing art! So I suppose there are cases for working under constraints and exceptions to be made where appropriate. The problem may be that the majority of projects in both fields seem to think they are the exception!?I’m very interested by your observation that “the industrial client is the site-specific element.” I have never thought of that and yet I certainly react strongly to the identity and spirit of a company when asked to work for them, and that really is the equivalent in our work of an architect reacting to a client’s brief and site!
KG: I would like to come back to something I mentioned at the very beginning of our conversation. A lot of architectural projects are nowadays dealing with existing buildings. Reworking them in order to restructure, reuse, or update available building stock. The scope of interventions can go from very little to core removal, from demounting to newly built extensions. In design, this form of reworking an existing product is not very common, certainly not in a commercial sense. The more common practice of “redesign” stands for a primarily intellectual effort, which reinterprets historic archetypes by means of newer, more advanced production technologies or simply by restyling them in contemporary fashion. In the car industry, the redesigning of models comes in very regular cycles. The automotive jargon calls it “model upgrading” (even though the upgrade usually turns into quite a downgrade). Anyway, the idea of it is very interesting and could surely be applicable to the furniture industry. Have you ever been offered to redesign, I mean “upgrade,” any of your own products? After all, why not? It would be quite feasible and, for certain items, would make a lot of sense. Not because they are bad to begin with, but because it would allow for a natural evolution and improvement. Alterations, whether technical or aesthetic, could be based on first-hand experience of the product in use.
JM: The one piece that I’ve considered upgrading is the Ply Chair, which, until recently, was produced by Vitra. It’s a chair made out of flat plywood sheets and assembled to achieve a rather three-dimensional form with curved back legs and back rest, but everything else rather angular. When Vitra first made it, they put a sticker on the bottom saying it was a work of art, because it would never have passed their usual tests for construction strength. That made me laugh because at the time I made it  in Berlin, I was struggling to design for industrial manufacturing and to escape the world of small series production! Well, it’s been a number of years since I considered how to make the chair more of a product and I still haven’t managed to do it. I think it’s easier to find inspiration in these types of projects by chance visual encounters, seeing an old chair in a café, a junk shop, or a photograph, and making seemingly random associations with other technologies or materials: what if I did the seat and back in injection-molded plastic instead of plywood, etc.? Somehow it seems healthier to recycle outside influence than to revisit old projects, but you’re right, it would be the right way to refine a product’s performance.
KG: Interesting that you mention the importance of “chance visual encounters” as a source of inspiration, and that such references are still to be found in the physical reality of our quotidian life. Observation of the everyday is a form of thinking which is fundamental to our work as designers. However, it is very subjective what we see and what we don’t see. All of this reminds me of your A World Without Words, which you created as a form of lecture without having to say anything. It was conceived of as a performance of two slide carousels showing a compilation of your favorite images (objects, buildings, artwork, people, etc.) all collected from books and other visual sources which were available at the time. Today the Internet is full of those kinds of images, and there are endless blogs which are like your world slide show.?It is fantastic, of course, that we can have access to and share almost everything all the time. However, something precious has been lost since there are no more hidden treasures to hunt for. I think that if one is to give a lecture today, one should actually just speak or, to bring it farther, bring real objects to look at and study like Achille Castiglioni did in his lecture series at the Politecnico di Milano. But we should definitely show no images.
JM: From the point of view of lecturing I think you may be right. In fact, I can’t stand lecturing or being lectured to. I think there are enough opinions out there already and the thing which counts these days is the performance of the end product. Why not stay quiet and let the work do the talking?