Unveiled at Cersaie, the Numi collection marks Konstantin Grcic's first collaboration with Italian brand Mutina as well as the ancient material of ceramic. The German designer expounds upon the process to realize this seemingly simple series of square tiles:
How do you approach the first project with a new client?
KONSTANTIN GRCIC: Our approach was to be extremely open. I think this is the only advantage you have when working with a new client. Experience always helps, but not knowing anything means you can be free to explore new possibilities. This is what we tried to do. We learned everything we could about every aspect of the work that was involved, from the business and history of the tile industry, to the tradition and techniques involved in producing them.
In my experience, working with a new client can go either way. It can be extremely difficult to do the first project with a new client because you simply don’t know each other. There is a lot of interpretation involved. You have to interpret what is right for the client and the situation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’re extremely lucky and you hit the nail on its head.
What was the starting point and concept for Numi?
Numi came out of one of our first proposals. We started the project by putting a lot of ideas on the table. We wanted to open a discussion with Mutina and see how they would react to our ideas. I think it was the right strategy because it led to a short list of five to six projects. Mutina then took those projects and came to us with their own thoughts about what each one meant to them in terms of material potential, technology, technique, application and so forth.
And so, why Numi?
Mutina had an interest in this particular one because they wanted to work with glazing, which is a very old technique. This surprised me at first. People have been glazing for a long time. Mutina was very excited about it though, they saw it as an opportunity to try something new with glaze. They wanted to find a new angle.
What was your process?
From that moment on, the process became clearer because we started talking about real things, not just concepts. It all became more pragmatic; we went to the manufacturer and learned about glaze and saw how they do it. From there we made trial samples. The process took about four months in total. It was a very simple and yet also a very complex project. The simplicity was the object itself, the tile. As I soon discovered, coming up with this kind of tile can be very complicated, in terms of production and industrialization.
What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
The part of firing the ceramic and the glaze in one go. Normally you'd fire the clay and then have a second firing for the glaze. Mutina wanted to come up with a way of doing one firing, therefore doing both at once. This would make the production much more economical. It was a complicated process, but in the end we achieved it. The other challenge was size. At one point we wanted to try a 120cm x 120cm format. We'd even made some samples but the quality and consistency weren't possible. Even coming up with the smaller format, 60cm x 60cm, was a challenge but we managed to make that work too.
How would you describe the series?
It's a decoration; a very geometric and graphic decoration. Each individual tile has a strip of glazing which becomes part of the larger pattern; the tile, which is square, allows you to make different compositions. It might all sound very banal, but it was actually very difficult to keep things this simple. It's a typical design problem; it's easy to get carried away and go in too many directions when designing. Flexibility is always attractive, but the temptation to create more from one thing does not necessarily lead to something good. In the end it's better to stick to one version, to be decisive and clear about what it is you are trying to do.
As you mention, Numi allows the user to create different compositions and aesthetics. How did you strike a balance between creating a series that is both customizable yet controlled?
We had to find something in the middle. We had to give it an image and be strict without being limiting. It was a strange experience for us in the studio because we were making important decisions based on seemingly small gestures such as whether to rotate the square 90 degrees, 180 degrees and so on. It was an extremely effective processing and the result is what you see. I think we kept things quite rigid, which I like. The digital tools we have today allow us to create endless possibilities of randomness. Computer generated algorithms make the process very easy. Today, the more difficult decisions are those where you force yourself to reduce the options, be very selective, even decisive, and decide 'this is what it is'. It's a process that the client might never know about, but for us it was a very powerful experience.
What came first when approaching your design for Numi, materiality or aesthetics?
In a way both, even though it's true that the material was a given. Ceramic is not something I'm used to working with much, but I am fascinated by it and the process. It has an amazing quality; you can create a superb thing with it, a piece of stone. This concept was very interesting to me. I'd say that the glazing is a kind of subtle aesthetic intervention. It was an aesthetic choice to use glaze and not colour for example. It's a simple gesture; the glaze completely changes the look and feel without the addition of extra graphic elements or pigment.
Can you elaborate on the glazed finish?
The glaze was the real achievement of the project. So it's not just a film; it has thickness and depth. In a way it even becomes structural. The real challenge and revelation for me was understanding how this simple object, once multiplied and applied, becomes something larger and architectural, such as a floor or a wall. I'm an industrial designer and so I rarely do interior design projects. I don't work on that scale. We typically work with an existing space, so it's already there to begin with. By designing a tile, you're also creating a space, not by decorating it with things or adding things, but through a material. The material – in this case ceramic – creates a surface. With Numi, the reflective and non-reflective surfaces create patterns and rhythm. This was a surprising and interesting discovery for us.
What does Numi mean?
There's always this difficult moment when you finish a project of having to decide upon a name. Sometimes you give it a name during the process of making it, just to give it a life. We didn't have a name at all. When it comes to furniture, a chair for example, you can use the shape or structure to come up with a name. A chair has a character, almost like an animal. I was looking for a name that was more abstract. Numi is not a name that has any specific significance. ‘Numen’ means a god-like or divine creature; it's maybe a bit pretentious for a name, but part of naming things is finding a word that sounds good and writes well. I think it works but I don't want to stress the significance of the word too much.