Design After Franco

Delayed by decades of civil war and dictatorship, contemporary Spanish design is now a force to be reckoned with in the international furniture-and-lighting scene.

Germany has an extensive industrial capacity and a gift for advanced technology, Italy has huge manufacturers with a long tradition of supporting innovative design, and Scandinavia has mastered a minimalist style ideally suited to mass production in a global marketplace. Having spent the better part of the 20th century either at war or under right-wing dictatorships, Spain came very late to the game of product, industrial, and furniture design. Until the 1960s it was largely closed off to international trade, and its major industries remained state owned long after that. But, since the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, what Spanish design has lacked in technology and industrial capacity it has made up for in spirit. An abundance of quirky, playful, and defiantly individualistic designers has emerged in the post-Franco era, reveling in the freedom of living in one of the most progressive countries in western Europe. And what Spain lacks in size and market share it makes up for in its large assortment of small-to-medium-size companies eager to get a piece of up-and-coming designers before they are snapped up by international competition. It’s good to be a young designer in Spain.

Or from Spain, for that matter. The hottest Spanish designers today are Patricia Urquiola and Jaime Hayón, but for more than 20 years Urquiola’s home has been in Italy; and Hayón has lived outside the country for almost a decade, at first in Treviso, Italy, where in 1998, at the age of 24, he rose to the position of design director at Fabrica before being reclaimed by Barcelona and spit into the sky like a supernova. He now lives in London, where he nonetheless remains loyal—by exclusive contract—to a handful of Spanish companies that greedily covet his new lighting, furniture, and outdoor collections each year. But both Hayón and Urquiola benefited from the emergence of a vibrant culture of contemporary design in Spain, drawing on its two main traditions—extravagance and minimalism—and merging them in a fluid style that speaks a global language with a distinct local accent.

Much of the imaginative infrastructure fortheir success was set up in the frenetic years between Franco’s death and the entry of Spain into the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1986, when an eclectic group of countercultural artists and designers known as La Movida (most famous among them was the flamboyant director Pedro Almódovar) was busy compensating for missing out on the social movements of the 1960s with a redoubling of its creative output, sexual experimentation, and drug use.

“After the dictatorship, many people started to do magazines, design, shop, and contact people, going outside of Spain,” says Juli Capella, an architect who has been the period’s main curator, critic, collector, and disseminator of information about Spanish design. “Many people from Italy, France, and England came to Barcelona. It was very, very exciting. There was total freedom in the street for parties. People could smoke and drink, do drugs. There was political freedom, and there was an explosion of joking with a lot of things.”

That first generation of post-Franco designers sketched out two directions that continue to flourish in Spain. The first, characterized by the baroque exuberance of La Movida, is typified by the work of Javier Mariscal, a graphic designer who began making furniture in 1980 for a bar in Valencia, produced by the then fledgling company BD Ediciones. Formed in 1972 by a group of architects who were dissatisfied with the products available on the Spanish market, BD perfectly timed its entry into the furniture business to capture the impetuous energy of the era.

“In 1973 no one understood design,” says Cristian Cirici, one of the cofounders of BD, in its showroom, which is a few blocks from both Gaudí’s Casa Mila and Vinçon, a design department store on the Passeig de Gràcia that’s like Target, Design Within Reach, and Moss rolled into one. “We were all architects and interior designers, and you couldn’t find furniture for interiors, so we did our own. And if you did one, then you could do another. From the beginning, we liked to produce our own products and also the work of historical designers, so we started to invite designers. Mariscal came to us and said he would like to design furniture, and we said, ‘Yes, if you design it, we will produce it.’”

The other tendency was a Spanish take on the minimalist style characterized by the work of Jorge Pensi, Pete Sans, and the architect and painter Oscar Tusquets, who was also a cofounder of BD. Infusing the pared-down aesthetic and industrial materials of Modern design with bold colors and patterns, they drew on an ineffably Spanish line—the influence of 17th-century churches and Gaudí’s curved forms is almost inevitable in Spain—but translated for contemporary technologies. It was essentially the Bauhaus forestalled by 60 years of cultural, political, and economic isolation.

Meanwhile, with the opening of international trade, older companies that were still functioning in a craftlike mode were just beginning to grasp the importance of design. They had to hold off aggressive competition from Italy, France, and West Germany in the domestic market, but they also recognized the opportunity of exporting to new markets where the appreciation for contemporary design was better developed. “For the first time, in the eighties, companies asked some designers to do furniture,” Capella says. “This was a very special moment. Never before did Spanish companies ask designers for design. They copied products without the need for designers. So they began to make deals and sign contracts for design and royalties.”

The lighting manufacturer Metalarte, the first Spanish company to discover Hayón, in 2004, was founded in a family metal shop in Barcelona in 1932, but by the late 1960s it had built a factory in the neighboring town of Sant Joan Despí and begun to produce work by prominent designers, introducing George Hansen’s Swing-Arm lamp—still one of its most popular products—to Spain in 1968. “After the sixties, Spain starts to really enter Europe, and the concept of design starts a little bit,” says Román Riera, the third-generation director of Metalarte, which is now part of a larger conglomerate. “But the real modern Spain started in the early eighties. That’s the first boom of Spanish design. The main problem is the companies are very small compared to Italian or German firms, and most Spanish companies have to go outside to find a market. If you take out Madrid and Barcelona, the country is still very classical, so we have to find new markets abroad.”

Since then, Metalarte has been a consistent developer of work by well-known and emerging Spanish designers—the famous midcentury industrial designer André Ricard; the elegant post-Franco team of Lievore Altherr Molina; younger names like Ana Mir and Emili Padrós, of Emiliana Design; and Héctor Serrano, who scored a minor hit in 2003 with his floating Waterproof lamp. (Like many small-to-medium-size Spanish companies, Metalarte no longer manufactures most of its products; instead, its main role is as “publisher” or “editor,” commissioning designs and then subcontracting the pieces to various workshops and suppliers—including firms in China—and then assembling the parts and shipping the finished products from its factory.) But by far the biggest success of the new generation has been Hayón’s Josephine light, a beguiling minimalist-baroque mash-up that makes the conflicting traditions work together in one object. “The good brands have all the better designers,” Riera says. “But those people are already taken by the big firms, so when we found Hayón we made an exclusive agreement with him because, if not, we knew he’d be taken by somebody else.”

The Josephine is a highly prized piece for Riera—it’s being followed up this year by Hayón’s Bastone, Las Santas, and América lamps; the last two have a base and stem that flow together in one continuous glossy form—and a bit of a relief from the heavily ironic and highly conceptual work of the new generation. “If you think about most of the young Spanish designers, I’m not very happy with them,” Riera says. “They’re good designers, but they’re very conceptual. It’s a big joke all the time. It’s good for press, but if you go to the market and try to sell them, it’s not so good.”

That impulse toward irony and personal expression is one of the hallmarks of the almost post-political ethos of the last 30 years. Spanish designers have a resolutely independent streak that refuses to hitch onto any reigning style, form, or ideology—and equally resists the dominant language of consumerism. “Spanish design is about sympathy with the product and the user, not the ‘consumer,’” Capella says over a long lunch at the Moo Restaurant in his Hotel Omm, a five-star hotel from 2003, around the corner from the Passeig de Gràcia. “The new generation is not interested in selling products; they’re interested in interacting with the user. The new concept is not, ‘I’m a designer, and I must do the best design to sell alot.’ No, it’s different. They want to sell, but they also want to make something useful.”

But even the more playful designers, such as Mir and Padrós, need to strike a certain balance with the market. Educated in London at the Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design, they returned in 1996 to Barcelona, where they have followed in the footsteps of Capella as producers-curators of the new Spanish design. Over the years, they have created original concepts for companies like Dune, Metalarte, and Nanimarquina, such as the Collector, a clear glass lamp that can be placed over objects for display, or the Flying Carpet, which comes with foam pads to turn areas of the rug into surfaces for lounging. Neither was probably destined for large sales, however. For the past three years, they have also been curating and designing exhibitions, along with Mai Felipe, for the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade—Spain Again, Spain Color, Spain Playtime—that track thematic trends in the country’s lighting and furniture.

“We of course need to survive,” Padrós says. “We have to make something that can be produced and sold. We are doing products, and we are also doing exhibition design, which is something more reliable because you know that there’s an opening date. But we also are very interested in working on projects that will never be reproduced. Sometimes it’s like a self-commission, so we put together a little exhibition and show it. Sometimes museums or institutions ask us to propose something for a show. Maybe it’s more experimental, but it’s something our generation is working on.”

Three years ago, one of the edgier companies in Spain, ABR, was taken over by Marc Hernández and Toni Pallejà (both 29 years old), and they have been attempting to revive the brand. The novelty of the products they have introduced—such as the Maria USB drive, by Luís Eslava, a memory disk in the form of the Virgin Mary that lights up when you plug it into a computer, or Cul is Cool, by Ramón Ubeda and Otto Canalda, an ass-shaped stool modeled after Michelangelo’s David and advertised with mild S-and-M imagery—has made them instant classics. But even ABR has had to pull back and revise its catalogue, picking a few classically minimalist pieces from the company’s portfolio that could work well in the international marketplace, and introducing new furniture that is Modernist but with a uniquely Spanish flair for color, pattern, and line.

In Spain, probably the most promising form that the impulse toward personal expression has taken is the tendency of architects to produce all the furniture for their projects—a Modernist tradition that has somewhat fallen into disuse. The 39-year-old ultraminimalist interior designer Francesc Rifé continues the practice in his restaurants, offices, showrooms, and residences. Many of his pieces, which reduce the distinctive Spanish line to its barest silhouette, are put into production by companies like Joquer, Gandia Blasco, and Concepta Barcelona that are making inroads into the U.S. market, appearing each year in increasing numbers at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, in New York.

“They come to us and ask us to design products, but we don’t design only one product,” says Sònia Pellicer, a 28-year-old project architect at Rifé Design. “We always design a collection of different pieces. But, because we have designed objects specifically for our projects, when we work with a new company or a company that we usually work with, we tell them, ‘We also have this product—if you want to produce it, it’s yours.’”

Rifé’s stripped-down Iz collection for Samoa, winner of the Editors Award for best outdoor furniture at this year’s ICFF, was an exception, though, done expressly for the young company, which has already followed it up with a new outdoor collection by the stalwart studio of Lievore Altherr Molina. If there’s one corner of the market where Spain can stake a dominant claim, it’s the outdoor category, with companies like Gandia Blasco, Kettal, and Samoa producing innovative collections by top designers every season. In fact, Kettal managed to score an exclusive deal with Urquiola for outdoor furniture; her lighting, indoor furniture, and textile energies were all claimed long ago by the big Italian firms, but her diamond-patterned Maia collection—inspired by childhood summers in Ibiza, where she still vacations—perhaps could only have come from Spain.

“In Spain we have a long tradition in outdoor furniture,” says Antonio Navarro Campos, the design-and-development manager for Kettal, which also produces collections through its collaborative in-house studio. “Mediterranean culture lives outside the house. The weather is always hot, and the atmosphere is very social. I remember, when I was a child, my grandfather always lived outside his house and would sit talking with the neighbors, and I remember always sitting in outdoor furniture.”

Kettal’s new Manhattan collection, with its plush sofa cushions and springy synthetic bases, is engineered to make outdoor furniture look and feel like its modern indoor counterparts, except with more fresh air, sunlight, and the sound of waves crashing on the beach. Its name could be seen as a slap in the face to New York City, though, particularly at the end of a season when all of Spain heads to the seashore for an entire month while the Manhattan office worker—free concerts in the parks and public pools aside—is stuck eating hot dogs from carts and peering at miles of waterfront from hard wooden benches. “The idea was to change people’s minds, to say you can be outside with the same standard of living as inside,” says Alexis Gouilly, Kettal’s marketing manager. “It’s not a folding plastic chair for outside.”

The Barcelona waterfront has taken on an over-the-top quality that leads some locals to compare it unfavorably to Miami Beach: after the United States, Spain has the second biggest tourist economy in the world, and the Ramblas feels at times like a vast cobblestone bordello. But, even among the narrow alleyways of Barcelona, everywhere the roads widen into plazas and the streets are filled with outdoor seating for cafés and restaurants. A mountain range that extends alongside the coast has historically isolated the city, but the same global forces that have integrally connected Spain to Europe, the United States, and China are allowing other Spanish cities to challenge Barcelona’s unrivaled status as design capital. Contemporary design has already come in a big way to Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela, where Peter Eisenman’s epic City of Culture of Galicia is taking shape on a hill overlooking the medieval town. With its recent construction boom and heavy dependence on imported fuel, Spain has been strongly affected by the global financial crisis and skyrocketing gas prices, but design remains a bright spot in a period of instability. “Design is needed to survive,” Capella says. “Without good design, no company can go high. Barcelona is the capital of design in Spain from a long time ago. But Madrid improved. Now there is a design school in Valencia. The other cities are going up. That’s the truth. And I am happy.”

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