Like all the people we speak with on Design in Mind, Konstantin Grcic is one of the very best designers making work today. Having grown up in a seemingly industrial town that he loved and felt inspired by, Konstantin moved to the South of England with the hopes of learning how to build boats. What he discovered is his love for furniture and this launched a career that includes lighting, furniture, objects, tiles, public art installations, gallery shows and, yes, a boat. He’s extraordinarily prolific, and he revels in the process, from idea, inspiration, to what he ends up creating. Konstantin studied at the Royal College with Jasper Morrison whom he later worked with before designing work for SCP, one of London’s largest design stores and later starting his own studio. He has won a multitude of design awards, he’s had solo shows around the world, has curated shows in the most well respected artistic institutions and all this with a studio of himself and two other designers.
I wanted to become a boat builder, I wanted to build boats but I didn’t live anywhere near water or boat builders and it was impossible for me at the time to find a workshop or a company that would take me on as an apprentice.
I was ready to travel for that and in that way, ended up in England not building boats but going to the John Makepeace school. I think at the time, it was just an instinct that made me go there. The instinct of work would be fulfilling and certainly it’s a place and that kind of apprenticeship is something that would teach me a lot of things and not in school or university, but teaching very elementary things.
I think this is really what it became. As much as it was a school for fine cabinet making and cutting beautifully precise joints, it was a school for life, for really understanding something about life and life in relation to work which I always felt from childhood, it’s something that I wanted to kind of find a way of leading a life that includes work in a nice way, not in the way that work was the kind of bad part of it.
But, work is part of life in the most positive sense, that you do something that you really enjoy. I found it there even though I did this apprenticeship there and I left there knowing that this is not what I then wanted to be, a craftsman with my own workshop and just making furniture.
It was through this apprenticeship that I discovered design. I think that’s true to say that I had some ideas of design before going there, but really developed a strong interest in design while I was there in the countryside making wooden furniture.
This kind of experience or discovery of design was through a small library we had there and some books about people like Marcel Breuer and Reitfeld that were very kind of informative for me then. A book that my sister gave me while I was there about Achille Castiglioni.
But also the other side of my design experience there was just design which is just a form of planning your work. As a craftsman, I think every craftsman makes design decisions because of the material you choose to make something out of, the economy of how much of the material and how much you cut in terms of woodwork, how you cut your components out of a tree and what tools you use.
Something about the efficiency, the logic, structural considerations, they all form part of … And of course, aesthetic considerations but I felt it was kind of very a real, a very strong design education without even … I’m not even sure we called it design or that I was calling it design or understood that was actually a design education.
But now in retrospect, I can say that it was really probably a very strong and fundamental design education through the making or that experience of being a maker and making all these very practical considerations. I think it still informs my design thinking that these kind of essential questions of how could you make something, out of what, and how and so on, including that whole process of how something is being manufactured.
Interesting, when sometimes you can hear Jonathan Ives speak about his newest product for Apple and he doesn’t talk about design, he talks about how these things are made. I find that quite strong and really kind of inspiring and very special. I think that’s what makes their products still quite outstanding or different to others.
They come from another kind of, it’s a different perspective on why they are the way they are.
Yeah, absolutely and the thinking of materials and being aware of that and understanding that when you’re creating something. You said that it taught you about life. What did it teach you about life?
I think when I look back at old work and how I do things today, I still see myself always in the early moments of every project.
What I mean is I think it made me grow up. It made me be who I am or I was to be, but I think school didn’t do that for me. I was still a kid there and not … You do things you feel you have to do or you’re told to do. All these kind of things.
In those years, I really became a citizen, someone taking responsibilities and becoming a much more conscious person about so many things. I think it’s that the apprenticeship becoming a maker, for me, I think it included so many aspects of life, of making decisions, taking responsibilities, making decisions, becoming aware of so many things. That was kind of this school for life.
I think about, I went to a … The college I went to was very … I studied poetry and it wasn’t like you’re gonna come out necessarily have some great skill but it really, it set the groundwork for everything that I’m interested in now, everything that I … The way I see the world, the way I discuss things. It kind of became the framework for that.
I still, even though now I’m a journalist and a parent and all of these other things, I think about those years and how it really shaped who I am. I do, I understand exactly what you’re saying.
I was thinking about the Castiglioni moment. You mentioned several people that you discovered but I loved that story of your sister sending you this catalog and you seeing Castiglioni’s work and suddenly thinking, oh my gosh, this is … I think this is it. I think this is what I wanna be doing.
Is that right? Was it sort of this aha moment with him specifically?
Yes, and I think in comparison to the Breuer and Reitfeld that I also mentioned, Castiglioni in that particular book about him was different. First of all, Castiglioni was still alive. He was not the larger than life heroes, people that are dead and we worship or admire kind of historically.
But it was a man, he was not young anymore but he was still alive and still practicing while I discovered him. That, for me, changed the meaning of it because it became so much more somehow tangible or I felt he’s doing this. Not to say that I was thinking I can do the same, it’s not true, but I think I’d never thought about design as a profession.
I always thought about kind of these people, Breuer, Reitfeld, and their work as something really outstanding, real masterpieces, but they were larger than life whereas Castiglioni’s work somehow was more real and then that particular book had lots of images of Castiglioni at work and so on.
In a way, I think what made Castiglioni the kind of stronger role model for me was the fact that his work happened at the time when I was discovered it but also I could see that man as someone, while he could be my father but that made it so much more real and I could see that he had obviously achieved what I was looking for, combining life and work.
I was mentioning that before. How can you live a life that is where work is part of your life and keeps on stimulating you, inspiring you, makes you happy, makes you learn everyday and discover things?
In those photographs, I felt you could see that. This old man was still … In a way, he was still young, it felt like because of the work he did. I don’t know. I don’t want to sound like this is really what made me become a designer.
It was many more factors of course but anyway, it was one little kind of … It was something that definitely had its role in my becoming a designer and being convinced that this is something I should do or try anyways.
Discovering that someone can create a really rich life for themselves and do something that’s very joyful to them, I think is very inspiring and I interviewed Gaetano Pesce recently, who’s in his 80s and he still has this real joy to what he’s doing and I think that it’s infectious. It’s definitely infectious.
The other thing is that when I spoke with, it sounds like I’m name dropping but I’m not, they’re just people that are part of this series but one thing that Matteo Thun said that I really loved was that he said he didn’t feel like he had done …
Not that he hadn’t done anything interesting yet but he felt like his most interesting work was still yet to come and that all these great designers did their best work in their 70s and their 80s. There was something very liberating about that and very powerful about saying that.
Because especially here, to come back to Silicon Valley where everyone’s so young and the goal is to retire young and to do your best work young so you can be rich and live your life. That this is just to build to that moment and just get it all done now. It’s a very different way of thinking.
Yeah, and it’s interesting you bring that up because like I said, Castiglioni, this man that kind of impersonated the idea of a designer for me when I was young, he was an old man. It is an aspect that I thought was really important, finding work that you can do throughout your life and even at an older age and even in a way that you are becoming better and better rather than …
It’s not rock’n’roll where the best songs you write when you’re young and then from there on, it’s kind of hanging in there. But, not quite. It’s quite true this idea of … I think as a designer and that’s true I guess for many other professions and disciplines.
You say you’re a writer and I think for sure, writers are like that. You do get better with the more experience. I still strongly believe in that as well.
You were talking about this, I mean for lack of a better term, this life work balance and it’s not about really life work balance. It’s more about how-
That terminology didn’t exist when it was important for me to think that way.
Yeah. When we say that, it means work doesn’t take over your life but I think what you’re saying is a little bit different, that work is part of your life in a beautiful way. It’s not a thing that you kind of do so you can do your life.
No, exactly. Yeah.
I think one of the challenges for … Well, there’s this line that you said that I thought was really great and I’ll say it back to you that good ideas come from a mix, from research, experimentation, and reflection. But then there also needs to be that moment of brilliance.
I was speaking with an architect friend this weekend. Actually, my husband was and he said, “In 2019, what do you hope to incorporate more into your life?” My architect friend said, because as being an architect you get caught up in the bureaucracy of getting permits and all these other structures that make something happen, he was hoping that he would have more time where he could just have creative output, where he could allow for these moments of brilliance to really come and be released.
I was wondering for you, you say there also needs that moment of brilliance. How do you allow for those? Do they just come or what do you incorporate into your life to make sure that there’s room for them? Is it even that sort of logical? Or yeah, does it just … You have to be open to it?
Yeah, I think you have to be extremely open to it and that’s the tricky thing. How do you anticipate these moments or how do you make those moments of brilliance happen? I think there is no recipe for it or a formula because then I could just trigger that moment but you can’t trigger it.
You can only … I mean, you can’t force it or program it. You have to somehow stay very kind of open, sensitive, and alert for this. I think for me, it’s a lot about knowing yourself and how, speaking in my own terms, how …
I need to know how I function, what are the signals that I need to respond to. I think it’s kind of, for me, it really is a balance of real concentration and hardworking and even working under pressure and another element which is being quite light or relaxed and easy about things.
Those two things are contradiction in themselves and that’s what makes it quite difficult but I think this process of work that we talked about before is exactly kind of that, of steering those moments of being extremely focused and concentrated, not letting go and at the same time, letting go and allowing for chance or even really not thinking about something which then probably opens that window for actually thinking about it.
It’s kind of … I can’t really explain it very well but I think it’s something that was like with perfection we talked about before. I don’t want to understand that process perfectly because I think if I would, I’d destroy it, so it’s part of my continued development and my own making progress and rethinking and my own …
Everything that I feel I’m so sure of, I need to kind of question at the same time and confronting myself with situations that I don’t know how they are going to go, what they mean, what I can draw from them, where they will lead to and so on.
I think that it’s really that kind of journey. It’s not the journey from A to B and one that I plan, but it’s a trip that yes, I do plan and I am an experienced traveler but I’m going out to discover things and then I’m happy to take a side, a detour, and also be distracted by things that’s happened along my way and were not part of my original destination or goal but I think all of that is important.
Yeah, it’s really actually really beautifully described I think. It is very hard to describe something like that and it reminds me of a couple of things. I know that you didn’t get into, not that I know anything about sailing, I don’t know how to sail and I don’t think you got into boat building out of an interest of sailing, it was more out of the craft.
But it does remind me a little bit about sailing, about how holding on tight but letting go and how the wind takes you and moves you and allowing for those changes, it just, for some reason, that’s what came to mind.
Do you know about this project that I did for a boat kind of a few years ago? Finally, I was involved in the development of a boat, a sailboat, a 60 foot monohull sailboat that was built to race around the world single handed.
Apart from that kind of experience and fulfillment of finally working on a boat, I met this sailor, Alex Thompson, a British sailor, professional sailor, off shore extreme sailor who was going to sail that boat in the race around the world.
Just because you were talking making it analogy of the sailor letting go or … It was an incredible experience talking to him about his work, what it is that he’s doing, and it was really … I could see so many … There were similarities apart from the fact he puts himself into kind of extreme situations and even risking his life out there in the sea which I don’t.
But his approach to what he is doing on a boat, sailing his boat was incredibly … I thought it was really inspiring. Maybe it’s wrong to make those kind of comparisons to my own work but I thought it was definitely so inspiring and nice hearing a sailor talk about what it is all about, what he’s doing and how he sees his work. Anyway, sorry that was a bit of a side track.
No, not at all. That’s perfect. In fact, it was perfect because I wanted to ask about the breadth of your work and I really enjoyed going through your website. I think you must have done all the writing. It’s very conversational.
It’s very personal. It has character, it’s not like this piece was done … It gives a feeling about the piece, what the piece is. It really spans your whole career and Jasper Morrison had said in 2006, he had said, it was some time ago, that you hadn’t changed at all since your days with him at the RCA, that you were still the same person just firing on all cylinders, I think is the exact quote.
I thought about that. How much do we change? How much do we not change? You look at the range of your work and there is such a range of permanent installations, this boat, I love that table, that folding table, I love that table.
The concrete top, it is, yeah. So many different things and I thought to myself, what is the throughline when you look at the work from ’96 to now? What do you think are the parallels?
I think that the parallels or the kind of what connects all of them, I think is that it’s more about an approach to a project than about the kind of solution or the preconception of anything. It’s really, I think, even with growing experience and having done certain things times over, I still, with every new project, I still more or less try to start with an open mind.
You don’t start from scratch because of course, I have experience and making use of that experience is part of the process now. But, experience is also teaching me that there’s no routine or something that I feel I’ve done before. May not necessarily mean it’s the right way of doing things this time around.
I think when I look back at old work and how I do things today, I still see myself always in the early moments of every project. They are the crucial ones and I think even in those early stages of a project, even the tools haven’t changed because the tool is your head, your thinking, your brain, knowledge, experience, intuition, and not the computer, not the kind of the technical skills of anything.
I think that’s what’s connecting all of these things and the scope of different work throughout my career is something that I definitely want to see also for the next decades of my career. I guess there are two types of projects I love and one is the kind of the revisiting …
The example of a chair. I’ve done so many chairs in my career and I think I will not get tired of doing chairs. It’s revisiting that thing and I think that allows for going deeper and deeper and deeper and it’s not the boring next chair but it’s the exciting next concept of a chair and looking at a chair.
Then the other type of project is all those things that you do for the first time, you never even thought about them and you approach these projects with a really fresh mind just because you don’t have any knowledge and then you build up that knowledge throughout.
In those first phases of that project, try to learn and catch up with all that you haven’t known before. Those are exciting also. It’s not that … I wouldn’t say my thinking hasn’t changed through all these years. Of course it does change but somehow the source is still the same.
In fact, I’m not someone who uses famous quotes at all but there is one lovely quote that I like a lot and it fits this exactly because it says and it’s from an artist, Francis Picabia who says, “Our head is round so that we can change our way of thinking.”
I think it’s lovely because it’s about the anatomy or the physical, the round head means we can actually … Our thinking can change and it’s not a bad thing because very often, we think we have to stay true to our principles. Yes, we do and I do have certain principles but I think especially in today’s society which is so fast changing and confronting us with things that we could have never imagined.
Something that yesterday would have been definitely wrong or something I wouldn’t subscribe to, today I think, maybe interesting, why not? I think it is very important to think that way and stay open to changing. It doesn’t mean selling yourself or losing your principles because I’m still making these changing opinion and thinking is …
I think it’s part of the process that keeps us all alive, that process of confrontation and rethinking, evaluating, questioning things. Really, as a designer, what it’s really all about is asking questions, asking the right questions and it’s not about finding the solutions to or the answers to all these questions but I think the questions are … They are already part of the solution.
They are the essential part of that whole process, the thinking process.
That was exactly what I was gonna come back to, what you said early at the very beginning, that process of asking the right questions. I’m sure with every project, those questions change.
Yes, yes, absolutely.
Well, thank you so much.
Thank you. It was a very nice conversation and one that I enjoyed the fact that yes, we were talking about design, discussing design but not on that kind of a level that was just going through some, I don’t know, project or work. I think it had a nice flow, this conversation and I enjoyed it. Thanks.