Konstantin Grcic: Decisive Design currently on view in The Art Institute of Chicago’s new Modern wing marks the first stateside showcase of the Munich-born, London-trained designer. Curated by Zoe Ryan, the exhibition is the fifth installment of the museum’s A+D Series that previously featured Chicago architect Douglas Garofalo and graphic design firm Graphic Thought Facility.
It’s also the first show with a subtitle. Although delightfully alliterative, “Decisive Design” is a misnomer. It sets up Grcic, a craftsman who studied at the Royal College of Art and came of age under the sly wit of designers Jasper Morrison and Ettore Sottsass, as an exacting decider. Sure, the 100 plus objects in the gallery reveal that Grcic is always searching logical production methods and that he takes an honest approach to materials, but the products themselves tell stories richer than pure functionalism.
Take, for example, the Wanda dish drainer from 1997, which greets visitors near the gallery entrance. Circular and double stacked, Grcic’s wire rack is functional with a Dada riff. Ryan’s walltext and accompanying images compare the work to Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack from 1914, a classic readymade intended to question the nature of art and the nature of the gallery. Here, placed in a design exhibition, the references are circular: everyday product to readymade, readymade to everyday product.
That this deliberate feedback loop seems closer to Grcic’s vision than any functionalist credo is seen in the overall exhibition design. Products line the perimeter of the rectangular gallery, but for the most part they don’t hang on its very white walls. Instead, the bulk of Grcic’s output—process models, chairs, wastepaper baskets, cups and saucers, sketch reproductions, light fixtures, and inspirational photographs—sit humbly in a narrow trough or lean gently against the wall. The gallery’s center is features an oval inexplicably composed of stacked tires. (The press release credits the design to Grcic’s love of Formula 1 racing.) Inside the track-like ring, visitors can test drive Grcic chairs and benches.
But the walls are reserved for larger than life photographs of Grcic’s office, Konstantin Grcic Industrial Design, founded in 1991. His workspace is emptied of employees, as if everyone simultaneously left for lunch. As windows into the designer’s process these images are compelling, but enigmatic. Are they meant to celebrate the kind of creative tableaux made famous by the Eameses or bond Grcic’s quotidian mess with the viewer’s daily life? Ryan and Grcic, who designed the exhibition, leave the questions open ended, preferring, it seems, to let the accumulation of products and images speak for themselves.
One oversized photograph features the jumble of Grcic’s library, shelves overstuffed with titles and hung with poster from a 2002 Ed Rucha exhibition. “The Future is Stupid,” it reads, an ironic touch from a designer on the cutting edge of fabrication technologies. In fact, the iconic Chair ONE foregrounds the image. With its crystalline shape and die-cast aluminum construction, the chair represents Grcic’s ongoing experiments with digital modeling and testing.
Just a few yards away, the tuffet-like Osorom bench is on display. Like Chair ONE, the 2002 bench was developed digital techniques. Moroso called on Grcic to create a design that could be fabricated at 1:5 scale using rapid-prototyping. Taken with his model, the company decided to fabricate the piece, ultimately fabricating it out of molded fiberglass.
And again, the featured product is called into conversation with the photograph behind. A white version of the filigreed bench is tilted up against an image of a woman staring out from behind a black burka. The formal match between the eye openings in her garment and the solid-void perforations of Osorom is uncanny, but as with other behind-the-scenes moments in the show, the meaning is unclear. The clarity of Grcic’s singular vision is cluttered. Is it chance juxtaposition or decisive design?
Konstantin Grcic: Decisive Design is on view in The Art Institute of Chicago through January 24, 2010.