Nacho Carbonell & Maartje Korstanje
Groninger Museum, The Netherlands
22 November 2014 – 22 March 2015
by NICOLA HOMER
Nacho Carbonell, who was born in Valencia, Spain, in 1980, now lives and works in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. He is internationally renowned for creating design-art pieces with organic materials and animated forms. He studied at Cardenal Herrera University in Spain and the Design Academy Eindhoven, from which he graduated in 2007. It was there that he came up with his first design, Pump It Up, an interactive chair that adapts to the shape of the user’s body at the same time as their weight inflates a group of animals around it. The designer blurs reality and fiction with his fairytale pieces, which question conventional ideas of product design. Currently, he is participating in a show at Groninger Museum. The exhibition was the starting point for the interview, in which he reflects on his design practice, the environment and the knowledge society of today.
Nicola Homer: Could you tell me a bit about your design practice? Why do you work in the way that you do?
Nacho Carbonell: I have no idea. That is why I keep working. When I started in design, it was hard for me to find my place in society. After travelling in the US when I was 18, I wanted to do something with my hands. So I studied for an industrial design degree at Cardenal Herrera University. We learned how to design practical things, such as furniture, coffee machines and juice extractors. The work of the Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari was the bible of what design should be. I loved my time there and developed my skills. I then studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven, where I needed to adapt from being a programme designer to taking an introspective, personal approach to design. It was a very interesting exercise. By the end of my time there, I had achieved my first design, Pump It Up, where you sit down and the chair adapts to the shape of your body, and at the same time some animals start to inflate. That is what marks my narrative and my approach, where I look at this idea of linking the object with a user, and how the user desires the object. This plays with the idea of how an object can adapt to us and how we can adapt to the object. That is the sparkle of my career. I made Pump It Up when I was 27 years old. I was eager to create something unique from my point of view. Now I believe that this object, which brings into being little animals, is also a catalyst for my own career. The metaphor, the parallel between reality and fiction, goes hand in hand. I like to refer back to that piece, and to reflect on the story that I was telling with it.
NH: Why is this piece so important as a touchstone for your career?
NC: Pump It Up was my first design. When we as designers create a chair, at a certain point, we don’t design a chair because of the need for it, but because of the desire for it. I found the idea of desiring objects was interesting. I wanted to understand the consumerist aspect of design and what happens when objects need something from us as humans. I reflected on how I wanted to express that idea by creating an action, where the object was almost saying: “Listen, I’m a beautiful design, and you want to collect this. You need to tell me to bloom.” At the end of the day, the history that we have with objects is what they become. I was also concerned that we live in a society where most of our objects lose their value in the long-term. We might use an object, and the next year, we might throw it away and then use a new one, perhaps because it looks better or cleaner. I was trying to get away from trends, and to create an object that was about having a deeper conversation with our basic needs. The object is talking about the idea of lifecycles: how everything goes up and down, life and death, solitude and company. I think we all have this kind of duality. It was a long and introspective trip for me to create this object. This object is intimate in a way.
NH: The self-expression that you speak of resonates with the idea of fine art, where the art object is a vehicle for self-expression. I wonder how you navigate the bridge between the fields of art and design in your practice?
NC: I think both things come from a similar part of the brain. There is not much difference between art and design sometimes. There are some elements that may lead you to label a work in one way or the other. But we must forget about this idea of labelling. It is a creative process. It doesn’t matter if it is a piece of art, furniture or a movie; it is dependent on the result. What I have been trying to do is to communicate to many people through objects. As I was saying, this idea of the desire for objects comes from a background of design. Why do we decide on a particular chair? I’m trying to explore this question and to present it to the general public, this need that we have today, so that people can draw their own conclusions.
NH: That’s a great idea. I have read that your work has fairytale-like qualities. Could you tell me a bit more about the idea of fiction in your work?
NC: I think it’s an idea of fiction, but it’s also rooted in reality. I like to present my work in a fictional way, as in the story of this Tree Chair (2008). This chair has her own thoughts. I have personified the chair because in Spanish a chair is feminine. I ask people to imagine what a chair would think about: “What am I doing here? What is my purpose in life?” We all ask ourselves such questions. I find I need to explain why I bring something into the universe. What is this chair going to communicate? This particular chair is talking about this need to look at materials as an important aspect, and to realise that, on the one hand, industry is creating waste, whereas on the other hand, nature is creating waste. What can we do with this waste? How do we process that waste to create something new? How do we cover new forms of behaviour? A chair evolves into being something else. It is not only about the pure function of the chair; it is a chair with the possibility of becoming a shelter. The tree is also a tree, but it has more than one function. The tree gives oxygen to us, but also gives shelter to insects and is central to birds. So the multi-functionality of the object is important. I think that 20 years ago was not the time for this Tree Chair to exist. But now, because of the conditions that we have been creating, it was a logical thing for me to create.
NH: This Tree Chair is one of the objects that you are exhibiting in your show at the Groninger Museum. Could you tell me about the other objects that you are exhibiting?
NC: We are enlarging the family of this Tree Chair by experimenting with other materials to give a different kind of result, for example a bed that has the look of cotton in a plant. Cotton Bed (2014) resembles nature rather than something artificial. It says that materials come from somewhere. This idea of the history of products may be seen in food today. Now, there is a lot of interest from people in terms of understanding not only where objects come from, but also where food comes from. In the educational sphere, we might take it for granted that we know where cotton comes from, but the younger generation might not know where the material is sourced.
NH: In one of the rooms at the Groninger Museum, you are presenting a composition of chairs composed of a fine mesh. Could you tell me about these?
NC: They are based in one room and pretend that this room is a centre for discussion or a library space. The composition plays on the idea that we all have our own skills and our own knowledge. There are two chairs back to back, one is bigger and one is smaller. On top of this is a metaphorical library, which is a collection of ideas and experiences, which are shared across the generations. That facilitates how we communicate and share information. I like to play with a naive, almost child-like approach to the object. But when you start reading through the layers, you can have a deeper conversation. We wanted to have a very colourful feel, so we selected four different colours, blue, green, yellow and red, to create this exhibition. Later in the exhibition, you have the Archival Table (2014) with a “cloud” on top of it, which aims to create a face-to-face conversation. And then you have a bigger installation with nine chairs, The Hive (2014), which conjures up the idea of a communal consciousness. I like to play with the concept of society, and how individuals create this society. I like to ask: What is a knowledge society? I find the idea of sitting down and having a conversation with many people interesting. I am also interested by the idea of working with open structures. Sometimes our knowledge is transparent and blends with that of others. Now with all the media and the technology, our communication moves so fast. We can create something big in almost no time, but it can feel as if it’s missing a part of our identity. Of course, it’s important to have this global communication, but at the same time, the personal reflection always needs to be there.
NH: That’s interesting to consider, this idea of global communication. We live in such a global design culture today, don’t we?
NC: Yes. It’s unbelievable now that there is the smartphone and the internet. It is very handy. But at what point is it handy and at what point is it bothering you? It has this black-and-white side to it. I sometimes analyse if it is good or bad. Probably it is neither, but it is about how to deal with all these things. How do we deal with this mutating generation, this mutating era that we are living in today?
NH: Yes, that is a good point. There is this axis of global communications and more local forms of communication too. I wonder how you navigate that axis?
NC: You can communicate on a global level, but you also need to act in a local way. Whatever is around you will affect you. It’s important to be in touch with your environment somehow, what you see, how you sense the things that are around you, to find something that might inspire you. You don’t need to go very far. It might be just outside your front door – a stone’s throw away. You just need to have an analytical mind to find these aspects in your close environment.
NH: When visitors come to the Groninger Museum, what do you hope they will take away with them when they see the exhibition?
NC: I hope that they will think about the questions that we have been talking about: Why do objects exist? What do they transmit? In the museum, you cannot sit on the chairs, but you can think about what would happen if you sat on one of the chairs, and if you talked to the friend who came with you to see the show. How would you interact? There is this idea of desire that is intrinsic to your reflection on the objects. I hope that this exhibition will not only encourage people to think about the materiality of the objects. I hope that it will spark their imagination.
NH: I wonder what is next for you. Do you have any dreams for the future?
NC: My dream has always been to have a healthy studio, to create a great platform with my team of designers, where we can explore many more objects in this wonderful place. I would like to tell many more stories.