May 1, 2008
Process Makes Perfect
Konstantin Grcic’s newest project uses a durable state-of-the-art material and nanotechnology to create a twenty-first-century take on that modern classic: the cantilever chair.
Konstantin Grcic’s latest product, a plastic cantilever chair called Myto, got its name from a motorcycle: Cagiva’s Mito, a sporty Italian bike released in 1989. The comparison is apt. Where early cantilever chairs by Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohe are icons of studied elegance, and Verner Panton’s curvaceous 1968 version is an enduring symbol of that decade’s fluid futurism, Myto is rougher and more explicitly industrial. Its perforated seat is reminiscent of a car grille or the metal mesh at the end of an electric razor. In the chair’s low crouch, there is a faint whiff of aggression. You could be forgiven for half-expecting Myto to rev its engine at you.
But to concentrate on how Grcic’s new chair looks is to miss the point. Since founding his studio in 1991, the 43-year-old German has focused relentlessly on process before aesthetics. For Grcic, the key is finding a form that suits the particular design problem at hand: the material, the production method, the product’s eventual setting and user. It’s all about approach, not style. But even by his standards, the Myto project was exceptionally intensive. “We got a lot closer this time to every aspect of what it means to bring a chair from idea to result,” Grcic says. “In my office, we are kind of obsessed by the making—the technology, the materials—and by understanding why things are the way they are. In any project we try to do that. But I must say we’ve never been as involved in any project as this.”
Myto started as a marketing ploy by BASF, the world’s largest chemical company. In 2006 its engineering-plastics division had developed a new high-tech plastic called Ultradur High Speed. BASF’s plastics are typically buried in engines and circuit boards. For the new Ultradur, which contains nanoparticles to make it exceptionally fast-flowing, the company was looking to show off a little. It wanted a product that consumers could easily understand and interact with, something sexier than oil pans and air-intake manifolds. So in late summer 2006, BASF invited several European designers to a workshop at its headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany—the largest chemical site in the world, with more than 200 production plants and about 37,000 employees.
Grcic, who employs five assistants in his Munich studio, was one of the designers in attendance, and he was impressed by both the new material and BASF’s collaborative spirit. The next week he called the company with a question about a project he was working on. That fizzled, but the lines of communication remained open. Soon Thomas Fritzsche, who oversaw business development of Ultradur, came back with a proposal: he wanted Grcic to create a new product entirely from Ultradur High Speed. Grcic was intrigued. The material possessed excellent properties for furniture design: high strength, superior moldability, good UV resistance, the ability to keep precise dimensions. “I think within an hour of that meeting we decided, Okay, the product we have to do is a chair,” Grcic says.
By October 2006, there was a business agreement in place between BASF, Grcic’s office, and Plank, an Italian manufacturer. There was also a deadline. BASF would be featuring the new Ultradur at the K fair, a plastics-and-rubber trade show that takes place every three years in Düsseldorf. The next one was exactly one year away, imposing an extraordinarily short time frame for a chair to go from initial concept to final product. “None of us really understood what this was going to be; there was no design, it was only an idea,” Grcic says. “But it just felt like, Okay, this is an opportunity to do something great. I think that was always in the air.”
Sitting around a table in Grcic’s studio on a rainy day in March, 36 hours before Myto was slated to begin final production, the team seemed confident that it had indeed done something great. Fritzsche, tall and animated, frequently jumped up to point out design details on a nearby prototype. Notice, he said, how there is a difference of millimeters in the spacing of the holes on the seat—invisible to the user but essential to the structure. Michael Plank was armed with numbers: the factory could produce 15 chairs an hour, he said, and it would have about 100 chairs ready for Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile in April—with more shipping soon for Myto’s North American debut at this month’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair, in New York.
Sporting a new beard that complicates and darkens his Teutonic good looks, Grcic remained seated and chose his words carefully as he told the story of how the collaboration was born and how his studio developed the form that had been painstakingly tweaked into its current incarnation. Despite his polite reserve, he seemed genuinely excited about Myto; he is even involved in the marketing of the chair, a process he normally merely tolerates. Grcic showed me a draft of a 70-page publication about the project designed by Mike Meiré, the Berlin-based art director of 032c magazine, with moody photos by the Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen. And for the Milan Triennale, a series of curated exhibitions that accompanies the city’s massive furniture fair, he designed a bizarre exhibition space for Myto: a caged-in factory setting that will be something like stepping onto the production floor at BASF’s Ludwigshafen headquarters.
The only person missing at Grcic’s studio was Michael’s father, Martin Plank, the elder statesman of the project. I met him the next morning at Plank’s headquarters in Ora, Italy—a sleepy town of about 3,000 nestled in the Alps, in a corner of the country that until 1919 belonged to Austria. Speaking in German through an interpreter, Plank told me that his company embodied an ideal balance between the German love of detail and engineering and the Italian craftsmanship and appreciation for beauty. Grcic brought Plank to the project at the outset because he was already familiar with its perfectionism; in 2005 Plank manufactured his last seat, Miura, a barstool in polypropylene, which went through multiple design iterations before it could be produced. On the Myto project, Martin Plank ensured that, in the give-and-take between Fritzsche’s experimental material and Grcic’s daring form, there would be an actual chair that could be manufactured and mass-produced.
In Ora I finally got my first chance to see the chair up close and to sit in it. I was relieved to find that Myto is comfortable: there is just enough flexibility to allow you to settle back into the seat, yet it feels remarkably sturdy for a lightweight plastic chair (about 12 pounds). It’s also friendlier than I expected. While Myto looks sleek and somewhat forbidding in photographs, it is more versatile in person. In black or white, the chair looks formal enough to fit in an office or in the boardroom. But in one of its six bold colors, Myto would be great in more casual settings, including at home. It seemed like the kind of chair you could happily knock around for years, dragging it from the living room to the backyard to the garage.
In this it may be something of a return to form for Grcic. In his early work, he built his reputation on making minimalist yet playful, eminently functional housewares in plastic for companies like Authentics and Flos. Around the millennium his aesthetic changed radically. Grcic has said he grew tired of making “nice products for nice companies.” In 2000 he created Chaos, an upholstered chair at a strange kinked angle. The deliberately narrow seat makes it impossible to slump; instead of sinking back into the upholstery, you perch forward. It looks uncomfortable but is in fact ideal for what you might call active sitting—leaning forward for conversation or leaning back and remaining engaged. With the chair, Grcic seemed to be pushing against the furniture industry—and against his reputation as the wunderkind of friendly minimalism.
His next chair was even more angular and, you might say, confrontational. An outdoor or occasional chair in die-cast aluminum, Chair One was meant to stand out in Magis’s roster of colorful plastics. It certainly did that: a collection of triangular metal braces perched on stilts or a concrete block, it looks like the denuded skeleton of a chair. And although it attracted an enormous amount of press during its 2003 debut, many found Chair One ugly and uncomfortable. Even if you appreciate the beauty of its austere geometry, it seems like an extreme statement: a pure distillation of the chair, yet one that leaves little room for the user.
In Myto, Grcic seems to have found a comfortable middle ground between the formal complexity of Chaos and Chair One and the playful simplicity of his earlier work. But for him it is just another interpretation of a chair. “I think in the act of the approach this chair and Chair One are not so different,” he says. “Both are pure in their understanding of structure, material, production technology, and in turning that into an aesthetic of a chair. I think that is quite the same in both chairs—but result is totally different.”
Nevertheless, the form posed a unique challenge. “The cantilever chair is the iconic typology of the Modern chair,” Grcic says. “And over the years and decades nobody dares touch the thing because you can’t improve it.” Historically, it has been tied to material innovation. Its invention in 1926 by Mart Stam brought industrial steel tubing into furniture design. (The designer’s first prototype was welded from gas pipes and elbow joints.) Within a few years Breuer and Mies had created elegant variations of Stam’s concept, and Mies later used visually lighter flat steel supports. The next icon did not emerge until Panton took advantage of the improved properties of plastics in the 1960s to create his curvaceous Panton Chair. Since then there have been plenty of new cantilever chairs, but no real breakthroughs—nothing whose bold form depends on the particular advantages of a new material.
Ultradur High Speed provided this opportunity. Nanoparticles make the material extremely fast-flowing, so that even a complicated form can be created rapidly in a single mold with a single injection point—without sacrificing the extreme precision necessary to realize a complex design like Myto. Grcic thought his studio had the opportunity to be next in the line that stretches from Stam and Breuer to Panton. “And once we had found this idea of saying, Okay, what we do is a cantilever chair, then somehow the project became quite clear,” Grcic says. “Then we were on a track. We had a focus. I think that’s always a beautiful moment in designing.”
The basic form quickly came together in a series of cardboard-and-foam models constructed in a few weeks around Christmas 2006. Grcic and his assistant on the project, Alexander Löhr, envisioned a chair whose structure is entirely in its outline—a frame into which a thin mesh net would be slung. In a common plastic, it would be nearly impossible to create the variation in the thickness necessary for such a design, but with Ultradur High Speed it seemed possible. In February, Grcic presented the models and some computer simulations to BASF, Plank, and—in an unusual move—the toolmakers who would have to create the machine mold for the chair. “Usually when you start talking to the mold-maker, they will have so much to say that you have to make quite a few changes in the design,” Löhr says. “In this case, we were fairly lucky that they found a position to realize it with a very simple tool.”
The essential shape of Grcic’s original design changed very little over the subsequent months. “You can see that the structure of the frame was only improved,” Fritzsche says, “not changed.” Indeed, what makes Myto unique is that the material was actually tailored to the needs of the chair. BASF offers several different grades of Ultradur with slightly different levels of rigidity and toughness. Fritzsche repeatedly tinkered with the Ultradur formulation to find the perfect grade for Myto. When asked how many adjustments were required, he laughs. “Actually, I shouldn’t tell you because my boss would kill me,” he says. “I think we did at least twenty different material developments.” He lists off the properties that everyone wants in a plastic: strength, elasticity, the ability to handle high stress. “But it’s not possible,” he says. “It’s always a compromise.” Ultimately, the Ultradur formulation used in the chair contained 25 percent fiberglass to give it the necessary stability without sacrificing the give in the plastic that is essential to making a comfortable seat.
Throughout this development period, there was a constant back-and-forth between the three parties. “Sometimes we’d phone five times a day,” Grcic says. One of the earliest prototypes achieved the right stability, but at 26 pounds it was far too heavy. The chairs produced for the K fair last November were closer to an acceptable weight, but they turned out to be disastrously wobbly—more material developments had to be done to prevent side-to-side sway while still maintaining that essential give in the seat back. Even as the project began to get international publicity, the chair was still being tweaked.
Grcic clearly thrives on creating a certain amount of tension in the design process, because it means that the details have to be exactly right. For the chair to end up visually and physically light, there could be no extra material anywhere. “Wherever there was extra material, we cut it off,” Fritzsche says. “So we have no material that is not under stress.” This is just as Grcic likes it: “If we say, ‘The Eiffel Tower is beautiful’—well, it is just engineering, structure. But great structure is always beautiful. I strongly believe in that.” To him Myto holds a similar appeal. Everything is where it should be; nothing is superfluous. “It’s quite essential,” he says. “It’s down to being exactly what it has to be and no more. But what it has to be is a lot.”