Earlier this year the well-known German designer, Konstantin Grcic, designer of such iconic pieces as the Chair One for Magis and the Mayday light for Flos, released a new chair for Italian timber furniture manufacturer Mattiazzi. Not such earth shattering news as Grcic designs for numerous companies including Plank, Established & Sons, ClassiCon, Vitra and Moroso, but while many other companies release new chairs at the drop of a hat, Mattiazzi have the unusual policy of only releasing one new chair design per year (in 2012 they modified this by releasing one armchair and one dining chair). This self consciously measured approach bucks the current trend for multiple releases. The young German designer Nitzan Cohen was trusted with the task of initiating the move from Mattiazzi the makers of other companies designs, to brand Mattiazzi after the success of his He Said/She Said chair in 2009. Since then a small handpicked selection of designers have brought their chair ideas to life – Sam Hecht/Industrial Facility produced the Branca chair in 2010 and Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec the Osso chair in 2011.
New technologies, old materials
Based in Udine in North Eastern Italy near the borders with Slovenia and Austria, Mattiazzi started out as a family owned manufacturer of wooden furniture in 1978 with a reputation for producing difficult prototypes for other companies. With the workshops of Mattiazzi full of highly skilled craftsmen, it was decided that to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace the company would have to modernise and combine the hand made bespoke abilities of it’s workers with cutting edge technology. The company installed the latest state of the art eight-axis CNC milling machines which enable the manufacture of wooden items in ways previously impossible. The equipment means that many joints are eliminated all together and timber dimensions can be reduced to the bare minimum, allowing shapes to flow in much the same way as is normally associated with moulded plastic furniture. This big picture thinking ultimately led to an environmental reappraisal and in March 2011 the company installed solar panels and insulation all over their workshop roofs and converted their winter heating to use scrap wood from their furniture manufacture. Since March 2011, the company has produced about 574,000 kwh of power and avoided around 287,000 Kg of CO2 emissions.
Grcic for 2012
In 2012 the design baton fell to Konstantin Grcic and it was at the launch of his Medici armchair, at Salone del Mobile in April, that I was able to talk to him about the process of designing a chair where the stakes were so high. With only one chair per year going into production didn’t this apply quite a bit of pressure? According to Grcic the only pressure was a self-imposed desire to do something completely different to the Bouroullec Brothers Osso chair of the year before. Osso had shown the abilities of Mattiazzi’s craftsmen beyond question with innovative knuckle-like joints and minimal material wastage enabling the chair to be incredibly organic, as if carved by hand, yet still able to be sold at a reasonable price.
Grcic on the process
Working directly with a specialist, highly skilled manufacturer like Mattiazzi was quite a different method to many of Grcic’s earlier projects where brands collaborated on the concept but outsourced the manufacture. I asked Grcic how the process worked with Mattiazzi.
“When the Bouroullec’s launched the Osso in April 2011 it was already clear that we would do the next round. We started actively working on the project just before the summer (of 2011). My perception of the project is that it went quite fast but this is partly because Mattiazzi are the brand and the manufacturer, so we can deal with them direct. They can work very fast – in fact we can get the prototype back within days – normally things would have taken much longer. So it was intense – just how I like a project to be – with very direct dialogue and straight into making stuff. That made all the difference. Mattiazzi are producers – not editors who sub contract out the stuff. We would have meetings inside the factory, I could see the machinery, talk to the people who were making it and we could discuss detailing very directly. It was very enjoyable and also very efficient”.
I wondered if his older method of prototyping in cardboard had reasserted itself for this project after years of intense reliance on computer design.
“Recently I haven’t done much prototyping in cardboard but for this project I thought that cardboard was the obvious way to do it. We mocked things up in cardboard so I could get a firm idea of how to progress the design. Cardboard is fantastic – very fast and cheap and an easy way to build up something physical. You can then cut into it with scissors and change the shape so immediately. I could never have done this chair with computers or on a piece of paper with a pencil. It needed the physical process and for this design cardboard was the perfect prototyping tool. Often designers get very detached from the process. When designing for production in plastic for example, it’s not a machine that cuts a piece of wood – we model something on the computer and the data is sent to somebody who will mill a tool and by then everything is decided and there’s not much leverage to change things. Making things in wood is a process which is hands on and very direct – I enjoy it much more”.
A cabinet maker at heart
Grcic was trained as a cabinet maker before training as a designer but while many of his early designs were in wood like the Tam Tam tables for SCP and the Hut Ab for Nils Holger Moormann, his more recent work has largely revolved around more hi-tech materials. Was there a yearning to go back to simpler times?
“Those early projects for SCP and Moormann were very simple designs with part of the concept to make the product easy and cheap to manufacture. Mattiazzi are incredibly skilled and their production is totally sophisticated and yet I chose to do something quite simple and straightforward. If you compare my Medici chair with the Bouroullec’s Osso chair for example, mine is like a chair made of planks. I think if it wasn’t for the Osso chair I wouldn’t have designed my chair the way I did. I just thought that the Bouroullec’s had brought out the sophistication of Mattiazzi’s abilities to such an extent that I felt encouraged to actually do something very basic. For me it was nice to see the project as planks of wood cut up and not so much about shaping. It was interesting to discipline myself not to overwork the chair – despite having access to the most high tech machinery imaginable”.
With such a wide ranging style of work in his portfolio, from the rigidity of folded steel designs for ClassiCon to recent soft upholstery items for Established & Sons,
I asked Grcic how the design developed once he settled on ‘basic’ as his project theme.
“It is like a domino. I came after the Bouroullec’s and of course I reacted subconsciously to that – I know their chair and how it was made and of course all of that forms part of my process in making my chair. My decision to make a bigger, lower chair was one of the ideas that was present right from the beginning. I also looked at the Mattiazzi collection to date and I decided they already had plenty of pretty special dining chairs. It was nice to add a different typology to all of these and create something that stood out. Also, I don’t want to be too clever about the commercial aspect of the product but in the end it is the labour that costs, not so much the material, so making something big – the price of this chair is extremely good, I think around 800 euro – ends up about the same cost as little chairs like Osso. It was something that I wanted to show Mattiazzi because they struggle a little bit with their price point in the market place. It’s always the same problem, when you make something so well, with so much care, it turns out that the price is invariably fairly high. It’s kind of frustrating that we can’t achieve a 300 euro chair but just changing the format can make a big difference to it’s perceived value. It’s a bit of a trick but it’s valid”.
I confess to Grcic that his new chair doesn’t look that comfortable on first viewing but that it is surprisingly comfortable once you actually sit on it.
“It was important for me that it had a certain comfort. There are many different ideas of what comfort is – my Model One chair for Magis isn’t the last word in comfort after all – but they don’t all have to be soft and smooth. There are chairs historically that are like this one of mine – the American Adirondack chair for example – they are so primitive, so simple, just made of planks and yet they are very comfortable because the inclination of the planks is just right. Wood is the perfect material for making furniture and it is so appropriate because you can make something simply and still make it to perfection”.
I quiz Grcic on why the chair is offered in Douglas Fir (or Oregon as we call it in Australia) along side the more established furniture timbers like birch, ash, oak and walnut.
“I had wanted to do the chair in a basic material to go with it’s design. I had wanted to do it in pine but perhaps I wasn’t courageous enough to do that, so I settled on Douglas Fir – a high end type of pine that is very beautiful and is straight grained. The other interesting timber we are offering is thermo oak. I have had samples of this in my studio for a long time and we have tried to use it in the past. The idea that it can be used outside is great but this material has disadvantages – it is so dry it becomes quite weak or brittle in thin sections – particularly around joints. You couldn’t make the Osso chair out of it but the Medici chair has a construction method that lends it self to using it and the design of the chair is logical for use outdoors”.
In terms of distribution in Australia, Mattiazzi has done the rounds – first with Corporate Culture, then Dedece but more recently Herman Miller have obtained the license for world distribution and the range is now available through Living Edge. While Mattiazzi’s limited output may have led to it’s releases being somewhat lost in the hoopla of constant multiple releases from bigger companies in the past, the distribution by Herman Miller will hopefully address this. What Mattiazzi produces is quite extraordinary and the way their products are made should be a lesson to other manufacturers world wide.