UNEXPECTED BEHAVIOURS: A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES
Alessandro Rabottini: When I finally visited your exhibition in Cyprus, the title that you chose, Things that Go Together, made immediate sense to me: pieces of furniture, objects, and non-functional creations were literally sitting next to each other, and the whole experience was very immersive. This is something that we take for granted when it comes to art exhibitions, but much less so when we look at how design is displayed: starting from the early 1960s, in fact, and especially with minimalism, artists took their sculptures off the plinth and put them directly on the floor, creating a very physical relationship between the viewer and the space. It is a paradox that in design exhibitions is actually the other way around: you take an object that you would usually use every day and put it on a plinth, framing it and distancing it from its existence in the world.
Michael Anastassiades: That is exactly the reason why I took away the plinths, because for me these are products, everyday objects to be used. It is about being able to come close to the objects and accessing them for what they really are, rather than elevating them to become something that they shouldn’t really be. I wanted to remove the added value that is implicit in the pedestal and let the viewer interact with the objects in different ways, standing above them, looking at them all around, in different settings and from different heights, rather than having a very controlled view, because that’s how you experience real products in real life.
AR: You also installed the pieces in relation to each other, by creating a micro-constellation of objects within a larger orchestration of things, so that we can navigate the exhibition not only through the sequence of rooms but also through conceptual and formal clusters. There is no distinction or hierarchy between functional objects and purely conceptual experimentations, between product design and artistic output.
MA: Although every object in the show is carefully positioned where it needs to be, I also wanted to allow the perception of things happening accidentally. We all experience products every day through different lenses and in different contexts, and one can be surprised when unexpected associations between things happen. When you position an object next to another, you let that object get away from its perceived function and you let it perform a different life.
AR: Like telling a story, in a way.
MA: I have always been very interested in building a relationship with an object that goes beyond its function, a more psychological relationship, a level of discovery that almost deepens a form of dependency with that object. And this is something that I have explored not only and more evidently with the initial ‘conceptual’ works that I did in the mid-1990s but also with the more ‘functional’ products that came after, trying to expand the way we define an object and its obvious performance. If you take, for example, the Anti-Social Light (2001), it responds to the environment in a very specific way: it operates as a normal light with the difference that it only glows when there’s absolute silence, so it does not allow you to talk around it. At the time, that was a way for me to highlight the relationship that we can develop with products beyond their perceived function, and later on I started asking myself how, as a product designer, I could explore and respect the behaviour of an object.
AR: This makes me think of Andrea Branzi’s theoretical approach to design and the way he has been advocating for an anthropological understanding of our relationship with objects for decades now. Through his extensive production of essays, he has been tracing a history of objects that is above all a history of the relationship that we, as human beings, establish with objects. This relationship goes way beyond what you define as ‘perceived function’ and views objects more as vehicles for a deeper understanding of our existence in the world, objects that don’t exist as mere ‘tools’ but that are charged with imagination and affection.
MA: I see it as a psychological interdependence that we have with objects that goes beyond a functional dependence. Traditionally, designers are supposed to respond through their products to a specific need and purpose, but I think that it is interesting to look at a lateral side of things and to bring these suggestions into the product, whether they are consciously being incorporated in the process or not. There is a complexity that exists in the world around the product which is fascinating and that can infiltrate its function and enrich it.
AR: During your formative years, this concern for the psychological value of objects of daily use led to radical experimentations. How did this translate into your practice when you started working as a product designer?
MA: When I design, I try to conceive products with as many layers as possible, with the hope that also just one of those layers will speak to someone and it will of course speak very differently to you and to somebody else because, as humans, we are all different. Through the years, I have worked very consciously with this idea of adding layers of complexity, making people think that an object can function beyond its expected behaviour, and now this process happens to me almost spontaneously. When in 1994 I did Message Cup, the idea was to twist its expected performance into another dimension, by turning a cup into a communication tool. But at the same time speech comes from the mouth, and you drink with it; words come from a place where we take in food. All these initial metaphors and associations became part of my work- ing process, and now they are an almost subconscious part of it, in the way they get externalised even when I design ‘normal’ products.
AR: And would you say that your initial experience in limited edition design with the establishment of your own company in 1994 helped you to nurture this creative and experimental complexity and bring it into the field of product design?
MA: There is an element of truth in what you say, but I believe the ultimate challenge is to conceive industrial products that retain the same sense of excitement and surprise that you would find in an experimental project. At the beginning of my career, limited edition design was purely a matter of economics: I wanted to express my language in a certain way, despite the fact that I was not an established designer. Some projects remained as unique pieces, while in some cases they were slightly more successful and I would produce a handful of them. But in general the way of producing those objects ended up being quite expensive, so the audience that could actually purchase them was limited. So my experience with limited edition design is purely based on economics, even if at times it still enables me to realise certain ideas with a degree of freedom. But, to be honest, I am not a believer in limited edition pieces per se.
AR: I think you made this point very clear in the show by eliminating any distinction whatsoever between limited edition and industrial design, but also between functional and non-functional creations. But if you had to think of one product that marked the moment when you were able to take the conceptual investigation of your formative years and carry it into industrial design, which would it be?
MA: That moment came when I had the opportunity to produce something on an industrial scale for the first time, so that would be my first collaboration with Flos, with String Lights in 2013, which conceptually marked a new way of looking at lighting.
AR: When I first saw String Lights I still didn’t know you personally and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is bringing site-specificity into industrially produced lighting!’ Because, of course, coming from an art background myself, that lighting system immediately made me think of Fred Sandback’s minimalist installations of elastic cords that he started making towards the end of the 1960s, which was a way to create space almost out of nothing. In a text that he wrote in 1986 about his initial output 20 years before he said, ‘The first sculpture I made with a piece of string and a little wire, was the outline of a rectangular solid a 2x4 inch-lying on the floor. It was a casual act, but it seemed to open up a lot of possibilities for me. I could assert a certain place or volume in its full materiality without occupying and obscuring it’.1
MA: Precisely, defining space in the most invisible way. Even though, I must say, Sandback’s work hasn’t been a direct reference for me; I was more interested in light as a form of definition of space.
AR: I think that, once again, referring to minimalism as an artistic movement is very pertinent here, if we also consider collections such as One Well-Known Sequence (2015–17), Lit Lines (2011), Tube Wall Light (2006), and Tube Chandelier (2006), together with your most recent presentation with Flos at Euroluce 2019. And I am not just thinking here of the obvious reference to Dan Flavin’s neon works, but, more deeply, I am thinking of your recurrent use of one module as a repeated element within a rhythmical structure, and of the use of bare materials and technologies often exposed in their structural essence. Both these formal and conceptual strategies are essential to minimalism and its investigation of space.
MA: At the beginning of my career as a lighting designer, normal bulbs were still around, so what defined my language was very much what was available at that time. It was fascinating to look at those bulbs that have been manufactured in the same way for over 50 years and to understand how to use them in a different way. Since the bulbs came in many sizes, they quickly became for me a unit of measurement, a way to explore the space. I decided to focus on the one-metre linear bulb as a form to interact with space.
Art is, of course, a big part of my life and I have always been aware of certain references, but they never became explicit in my work. Consciously or not, you absorb information and filter it through your own personal experience, and when you finally formalise your ideas, those references may have changed inside you. That’s why it was so interesting for me to transition my ideas into String Lights, because it allowed me to extend into industrial production and into architecture what I was already exploring with my own brand. The obsession of interacting with the space and measuring it was there, but now I could insert an element of improvisation via the string, which has always been traditionally used as a tool to measure and draw in three dimensions.
AR: With this idea in mind of designing lights in order to create a space, do you see architecture as a possible expansion of your work in the future?
MA: Not directly, and I have no immediate desire to move into that. I like references to architecture coming indirectly through the objects that I design. I very much believe that light defines space way beyond functionality and decoration. If you look at Southern cultures more so than Northern cultures, you see the extent to which lives are starkly defined by light. Light has more to do with architecture than its actual definition explains.
AR: In a certain way, many furniture pieces that you have designed also tend to define a space. The bookcase system Jack that you designed for B&B Italia in 2018 belongs to the tradition of shelving systems that can also become partition walls, and the Rochester sofa that you conceived for SCP in 2015 is an enclosed unit that isolates people from their surroundings. For Dansk Møbelkunst, you recently created a group of furniture that includes a dividing screen. I understand what you mean when you say that you don’t feel the need to create physical walls; it seems that you have a softer approach to the definition of space, as if you want to create spaces that can be literally switched on and off.
MA: I prefer suggesting a space rather than actually designing it as such. Furniture and lighting and even objects allow for many possibilities and scenarios to co-exist, whereas architecture tends to be more defining.
AR: What you are saying brings me back to what you were mentioning before about your desire to ‘respect the behaviour of an object’, and ‘respect’ is a word that recurs more than once in a text you wrote about the impact that the Cypriot architect Neoptolemos Michaelides had on your youth: respect for the environment when it comes to building a house, respect for a natural or archaeological finding when it is repositioned from its original context to a different one, and even respect for daylight and darkness ‘There is a reason why there’s the night and there’s the day, and we should not try to turn one into the other’ a distinction that you say may be the reason you became a designer of lights. It seems that this concept of respect is central to your practice, together with the idea of creating a space that is adaptable.
MA: Or ephemeral. As designers or architects, we have the tendency to be very controlling and to over-define the way we want people to see things and objects. But if you bring that element of respect into your work then you allow a space of acceptance to exist a more fluid space in which more than just one interpretation is possible. I believe that the moment you accept things for what they are, you start capturing the way that relationships occur between beings and how you can’t control them. Neoptolemos never pruned a single tree because for him that was a metaphor for amputation, and I remember years ago I wanted a plant to go in a certain direction as it climbed up the wall in my house in Waterloo, and the only thing it wanted to do was to go exactly in the opposite direction. I was getting so frustrated. I was frustrated because I was not following the force, the movement, and I learned that it is exactly this: it is how you work around it, how you embrace that resistance and the unpredictability that you cannot control. And one should allow that level of improvisation, even when you create industrial products. As designers, but also as people, we can only bring suggestions and engage in that way with our audience. But any attempt to tame the complexity of the world is just impossible.
AR: How did you get to that space of acceptance as a designer?
MA: I started to figure out what design meant for me when I decided to run away from my engineering training; I wanted to do something creative. But then my years at the Royal College in London from 1991 to 1993 taught me again what I didn’t like about design. I then tried to work out by myself a subject that I had no knowledge of or no experience with, trying to define things as I went along through improvisation, intuition, and the process of elimination. Those psychologically charged objects that dominated the first part of my career, like Design for Fragile Personalities in Anxious Times (2004–05), were the manifestation of the fact that I didn’t want to stay in the middle; I ran away from engineering and I went to the opposite side of the spectrum.
AR: Speaking of improvisation, intuition, control, and structure, a lot of your collections exist, if not in a series format, then in what we could define as the exhaustion of all the possibilities inherent in one intuition. You often seem to proceed by expanding and stretching one shape or proportion into a rhythmic series of controlled variations, as if you wanted to see how far you can go with that very same form once it has been interpreted and positioned in all possible ways.
MA: I think it is really about understanding and exhausting all the scenarios that are out there. It is interesting that you mention this obsessive aspect of my work in relation to what I said before about having to figure out what I wanted to do as a de- signer through a process of eliminating all the things I didn’t like about design. Ultimately, that process enabled me to become more accepting and realise that it is actually OK for all things to exist together. I wanted to experiment with the behaviours of objects only to find a way of bringing that level of excitement into industrial products.
AR: I think that this is what, in a way, defines Arrangements (2018), where the methodology that we have seen based on the repetition of one module reaches unexpected conclusions. When you see all the configurations of Arrangements installed together, they look like the notes in a musical score; they possess that formal quality of a musical movement. But you can do all sorts of things with them. It’s a project that you can narrow or expand, that can remain very simple or become expansive: you can keep one individual, minimalistic shape, make a luminous rhythmic wall with a number of them, or go almost baroque and do an exuberant cascade of lights. Arrangements seems to be the formal manifestation of your desire to exhaust all the available possibilities of one shape in order to understand that there is always more.
MA: Normally designers are there to define things and the way objects should appear, while in the case of Arrangements I wanted to shift the focus and offer creativity to the user. I wanted to design an object that can be open to the interpretation of a third party, an object that can absorb a certain level of unpredictability by means of a democratic gesture. Starting from a given set of instructions, you can then explore a space in-between and deviate from the original design.
AR: In a way we are going back to your initial interest in radical design from the late 1960s, and what it generated in terms of a visionary approach to freedom if you also think of Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione? from 1974, with that idea of establishing a module and then giving the user the responsibility to deliver the final product.
MA: What is a plan? A plan is a set of rules that you have to follow, and it may seem that there is nothing more defining than a plan, but in the process of sticking to it you also suddenly realise that a number of other possibilities exist beyond it. With Arrangements, people can practise a form of freedom without that freedom becoming an overwhelming experience. It is interesting to notice how String Lights is commercially less successful than Arrangements, most probably because of the radical freedom that it demands and that can end up being almost intimidating. You open the box and you get this endless piece of string, which you have to draw with. It is like giving you a blank page and saying, ‘This is it, this is the pencil, so now draw’.
AR: Everything seems to be about the user experience at the moment, but there is a difference between being able to customise a pair of sneakers and being in a position to conceive and execute a space through light, as happens with String Lights.
MA: It will define you the same way that your handwriting defines you. It will reflect you, and we are normally scared of sharing too much of ourselves with the outside. Buying design can often be about choosing the right objects and ticking the right boxes of the ‘encyclopaedia of interiors’, while String Lights captures the imagination of the person and, paradoxically, it can also work negatively.