The Trajectory of a Young Designer

Globe-trotting Garth Roberts talks about commissioned projects and the importance of materials and place.

If the blips and blogs of the Internet age have you thinking that a designer or an object’s fame happens overnight, consider Garth Roberts’s Raw table. Raw was shown as a prototype at ICFF in 2001—two years after he moved from his native Toronto to New York —manufactured by Zanotta in 2005, and named the best furniture piece of 2006 by Elle Decoration France. Despite its years in utero, the table’s deceptiveness is still fresh. Not only do its muscular planks shift into different configurations, but they do so while seemingly invisibly bound to delicate steel bands.

Like Raw’s development, Roberts’s path to design fulfillment has not been streamlined. The industrial designer was doing well in New York, developing and producing concept-driven goods like an Astroturf area rug, when he tossed aisde his own nascent enterprise. After winning the Monaco Luxe Pack Design Award—a competition for luxury-goods packaging—he moved to Milan in 2004 and was a designer in Patricia Urquiola’s office through September 2005, when he decided to work on his own again. Now the prolific designer collaborates with companies like Fasem, B&B Italia, and of course, Zanotta and still finds time to get his hands dirty with his own projects.


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As you approach your fourth anniversary as a Europe-based designer, how would you say your experiences compare to your five years in New York?
In America it’s different because design doesn’t have the cachet it has here in Europe. To be a designer here is to cater to a more affluent level of society with a taste level a bit more refined than the mainstream. It’s likened to being an artisan for the royal court. In America it’s a little more utilitarian and the difference in style shows.

A few years ago, you expressed some frustration about the design scene in America—that an independent designer had to play the role of a manufacturer, too.
When I came to New York storytelling design was just beginning and a few people were experimenting with a more concept-based design philosophy. At the time I felt that there was a lot of opportunity to design things, so I started moving toward the conceptual side because it was something I wanted to explore. But you get to a certain point and make a decision: Do you want to make pieces for yourself, or do you want to mix it up again? I thought doing the conceptual design work was okay, but for me it was still not refined enough. In this regard I felt that I couldn’t get to where I wanted to be in New York. I could become a self-produced designer, but this was more like trying to start an industry. I really wanted to be a designer, not a company owner who designs one or two things a year. That encouraged me to say, “Okay, let’s go to Europe and see what happens.” In the end I haven’t gotten to the final stage. But it’s a good step.

Describe your employment with Patricia Urquiola. Did that help you transition from an American to a more European frame of mind?
I think that I was fortunate to have a more European mindset while I was in New York. When I ended up meeting and eventually working for Patricia there was a connection about design that went a bit beyond being stylistically European. It seemed that we had ideas we both could easily understand and yet were quite different from the mainstream of design. The experience with her helped me develop as a designer and gave me confidence in my personal design philosophies as well.

Have awards and other honors equated more jobs?
It means that when I make a phone call, people agree to see me without persuasion. It’s quite a big thing to get exposure from a project (Raw) that I didn’t think was going to go so far. It was the only table Zanotta did in 2005; they did one table, one chair, one of every typology, so that was quite an attention-getting thing. This might have been because it was a bit out of more recent product character for Zanotta. It wasn’t an Italian-style, slick sofa. They went back to their roots of doing products that were very unique. It seemed like a good time for it because the flavor is more emotional.

Is “emotional” a good one-word encapsulation of your work?
There’s something more about the raw, pure materials that speak louder than the form. There’s also the simplicity of the table. It’s not complicated, it’s not very high-tech. And it’s not about tricks, it’s about trying to make something a little timeless.

This seems like an apt description for Aura, the candleholder you designed for B&B Italia last year. Could you describe the inspiration for that piece?
The commission was quite an honor. The accessories line for B&B is quite new, so I thought of it as a nice introduction to working with the brand. The Halo and Aura candle holders were meant to provide a very simplified design solution with a slight twist: a candelabra made up of three concentric rings, each in a different material, that can be reconfigured or used independently. The flexibility—use it as three objects or one—is the slight twist that adds something interesting to the quite minimal object. The use of metal, marble, and wood are my odes to the three traditional materials that in my mind typify modern Italian design.

Considering your interest in materiality, you were probably excited to be invited to the European Ceramic Work Centre’s artist-in-residence program.
Holland was a blast this past summer. It was a self-imposed three months in a ceramic sweatshop and it was probably a greater challenge than for some others because I had never worked in the ceramic medium prior to this occasion, so I really started from zero. In some ways this worked out for the best, because my naiveté allowed me to stretch some boundaries that prior experience with the material might have caused me to stay well within.

In my explorations at the EKWC I tried to work with the inherent qualities of the ceramic materials by not treating them as a canvas for image, color, or texture. The textures, colors, and physical characteristics themselves became the focal point of the piece rather than the shape or decoratively printed pattern. At the end of the residence I had a varied collection of pieces that illustrated different ways to handle the diverse aspects of the materials. For example, caliber, a series of tubular vases, focused on utilizing color in the material as opposed to making it a surface treatment. I created these as large-scale planters, with a smaller version intended for tabletop. The incorporation of color was done by the use of colorants and by changing the processing method of the clay. The idea of the design was to make a composite vase that relied on its multiple pieces being bound together in order to remain vertically stable. However, in my mind this aspect takes a back seat to the idea of color.

Let’s play a game. Would you list out some materials and their corresponding emotions?
Everyone has their own impressions. But for me some materials have an intrinsic emotional content based on their origin. Leather, being derived from another mammal, gives it a morbid kind of luxury, but also this sense of connection with another entity. The leather couch is a piece of furniture that embodies this example. It’s as if it was an animal and had a physical presence. When you sink into that couch, I think you feel a sort of interaction on this level and from a comfort standpoint.

Wood really evokes a sense of place, of nature, and of your place in the world. Seeing something made of wood, I feel in touch with the system of life. You can feel where it’s from. Even a material like felt can give you feelings of emotional content. Canvas also connects you to where it’s from, in this case a pure, simple, and less contrived environment, one that epitomizes utility.

When you combine these characteristics with a design sensibility, you can go really far. Let’s use leather because leather is expensive? No. When you sit on this couch I want you to feel a distinct way and be part of a certain experience. A leather pouf and a wooden stool do the same thing but they put you in a totally different place emotionally.

What would you say to a fellow designer about emerging into the spotlight: Do you think having the very clear point of view is a prerequisite for success?
I think “success” is relative and as they say in Italy, ‘Everyone has a path on which to travel’. I do, however, think that it is important to understand what makes you different from the rest and to develop these ideas in your work. In the end only you can really judge yourself on how successful you have been, relative to how true you have been to your ideas and ideals of design.

In a way, you continue to avoid a predominant mindset by shuttling between Milan, Berlin, and New York. How does that work?
As of late I find myself more in Europe and have bases in both Milan and Berlin. I am also trying to find the right balance of what I need from a work location in terms of inspiration and practicality of maintaining a commercially strong design network.

It’s partially why I initiated my Adhoc pop-up office project. The project started last spring in Milan as a collaboration with the Politecnico of Milano. The intention was not to focus on the output of the pop-up office but to examine the work process, and to take a close look at how the factors of location, culture, and regional industry affect the creative process.

I was able to take an abandoned space, and with the aid of 10 students from various creative disciplines, turn it into to a functional design office. The project had a three-month duration—a sort of planned lifecycle. This time element created a pace and energy for the studio that was positive, fast and furious. During Adhoc Milano’s duration we were able to work on various projects in graphic, product, and interior design. The aid of sponsors like Corian, Sony, and Moleskine facilitated the work on projects and research for various brands. Currently the project is being finalized for its next edition, Adhoc Berlin, this spring. Though initially this project was intended for Milan, Berlin, and New York, the concept’s merit has gained some interest and now I am exploring offers for collaborations in cities as such as Vancouver and Hong Kong. It will be nice to work in Asia.

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