Monthly Archives: December 2008

Where is Spanish vintage design?

Lamp by Andre Ricard for Metalarte. Spain, 1973.

Lamp by Andre Ricard for Metalarte. Spain, 1973.

I find browsing through the catalogues of 20th century design auctions pleasantly addictive. I particularly enjoy the idea of many of those objects having the possibility of an extended real life out there in someone’s home, eventually. Of tables supporting piles of half-read magazines and traces of fresh coffee stains, consoles being scratched by bunches of keys every evening, lamps being turned on and chairs creaking as people sit at the dinner table. When I come across a piece of vintage furniture I really like,  a whole room seems to grow around it in my mind. A very expensive room, as many of these objects have been going for pretty steep prices – at least until fairly recently. The 20th Century Design antiques market hasn’t been immune to the global economic meltdown, although it has held up surprisingly well, especially at the higher end of the market.

The vintage design scene is dominated by five main players, in terms of where the pieces come from and the most valued historical periods. Germany (Bauhaus designers), Italy (pretty much everything), France (Prouve of course, Royère, Mategot), Scandinavia (Aalto, Jacobsen, Panton) and US Mid-Century Modern (Eames, Nelson, Nakashima). Just to name a few. Then there’s everybody else, from the Czech Republic to Brazil. And, on rare occasions, Spain.

Fase 520c lamp in TV series House M.D., episode 4x11, "Frozen".

Fase 520c lamp in TV series House M.D., episode 4x11, "Frozen".

Late 1960s lamp by Fase, Madrid.

Late 1960s lamp by Fase, Madrid.

Until very recently, Spain was as entirely absent from the vintage design scene as the vintage design scene was absent in Spain. Now both are starting to rear their heads. So far, the occasional Spanish mid-century presence in the auction catalogues is limited to a couple of recurring typologies, but they are slowly becoming established. One of them is  – to the horror of Spaniards who see nothing in them but the reminder of Francoist officialdom – the pieces by lighting company FASE, manufacturer during the 1960s and 1970s of wonderfully solid and excitingly modern-looking lamps for the desks of Spanish civil servants. Ironically, designer-anonymous Fase lamps are probably the best-known items of Spanish design in the vintage world. Not surprisingly, as some of them are truly gorgeous. They have recently found their way into the latest Indiana Jones film (on Indy’s desk, no less!) and an episode of the TV series House M.D. – Hollywood production designers know a good thing when they see it.

Sunburst gilt ceiling fixture. Spain, late 1950s.

Sunburst gilt ceiling fixture. Spain, late 1950s.

Spain, 1950s gilt sunburst mirror with scrollwork frame

Spain, 1950s gilt sunburst mirror with scrollwork frame

Another category of Spanish mid-century design that has become extremely successful abroad is the sunburst, both as mirror and as lamp. Again, to the dismay of modernity-seeking Spaniards who see them as the epitome of kitsch and the bane of dreary middle-class late 1950s entry halls. And again, I think they’re gorgeous.

But what about ‘real’ Spanish design, designer design, the kind of stuff that was getting ADI-FAD Delta prizes in the 1960s and 1970s? The stuff by Miguel Mila and Andre Ricard and Barba Corsini? Or even earlier 1930s stuff by the GATCPAC crew? There seems to be precious little of it out there.

The Butterfly chair (known as BKF in Spain) by Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, is virtually the only well-known piece by a Spanish designer that has a solid, enduring presence in the vintage design auction world. And that is probably because it was designed in Argentina in 1938 (Bonet, a Catalan architect, had fled Spain during the Civil War and founded the Austral group with Kurchan and Ferrari) and later manufactured by Knoll in the US, becoming an iconic piece of mid-century modern furniture design.

Another Spanish piece that has appeared recently in auction catalogues is a splendid reading lamp by Andre Ricard, one of Barcelona’s best known designers and part of the generation that helped establish the profession in the 1960s. The lamp was commissioned for the library of the Philosophy Faculty of Barcelona University in the early 1970s. The Faculty relocated to new premises a couple of years ago and the Library is no more, so I’m glad this lamp made it into the auctions circuit, because it certainly didn’t make it into the local design museum collections. It’a a beautiful, elegant piece, which combines a 70s sensibility with a certain Art Deco flair (see picture at top of post). It was manufactured by Metalarte, and I have found another version of it in their historical catalogue, which was probably the inspiration for the site-specific Library lamp.

ar73-low-version

Low table lamp by Andre Ricard for Metalarte, 1973.

So – where is Spanish vintage design? A lot of it probably ended up in the rubbish bin a long time ago. The preservation of mid-century everyday objects in Spain has been hindered by the fact that they represented a material culture of dictatorship, national isolation and anonymous design, and by an institutional infrastructure (read Museums) that lacked the means and the will to look after the design heritage efficiently. But there are some truly great pieces out there, both anonymous and signed, and I’m sure we will be seeing more of them as the interest in 20th century vintage takes root in Spain. And that will be a good thing, because we can’t always rely on museum collections to take care of the past.

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Back to the joys of a packed sandwich

I’m heading back to London town later today, for a few welcome weeks of intensive Anglo culture top-up and a good healthy dose of miserable British winter weather. I’ve missed watching multi-tasking Londonerettes gracefully catching a bus on their stilleto heels while drinking a cappuccino, listening to their iPod, chatting on the mobile, paying the bus fare and wiggling their family-size handbags through the packed doors. I’ve missed marvelling at the Northern fortitude of young London men walking down the street in near-sub-zero temperatures in a t-shirt and saggy jeans. And I’ve missed packed sandwiches. Seriously. There’s nothing much to miss generally in British non-ethnic food, but as far as packed sandwiches go, the Brits are way ahead of the game.

So I’m excitedly looking forward to hitting the nearest ASDA shop and getting hold of the above gorgeous boxes, designed by Emma Smart. I can’t work out if they’re on the shelves already or only at the development stage – but I’m up for a bit of fieldwork.

Much more than a book for Christmas

To celebrate both its 25th anniversary and the festive season, 4th estate publishers (a division of HarperCollins) has commisioned a short stop-motion animation film produced by Apt, a London-based design and marketing consultancy.

This Is Where We Live, is the wonderful combination of a love for books, a love for urban life, and the work of  ‘an insane bunch of animators’ – their words, not mine. Created entirely with actual, physical books published by 4thEstate, the film projects a charming, somewhat romantic vision of the city, and a great sense of humour in its linking of the titles, and sometimes the narratives, to London. The Greenwich Observatory, for instance, is made out of Dava Sobel’s Longitude, while the West End Cinema is made of books that have been turned into films.

This Is Where We Live from 4th Estate on Vimeo.

Barcelona’s new Design History platform


The Design History Foundation is a private institution that was established last year in Barcelona. It seeks to promote, support and disseminate the work of design historians in Spain and Latin America. Its aim is to help in the establishment and development of the History of Design through  research, postgraduate and training workshops, conferences and symposia, exhibitions and publications. One of the key aims of the Foundation is to enhance the visibility of the History of Design as an area of historical studies.

The DHF has worked closely with the recently launched Barcelona Disseny Hub, curating the poster exhibition Col.lecció del Gabinet de les Arts Gràfiques, and putting together a new study collection of over 1000 Spanish posters.

I believe Barcelona’s DHF will be a great platform to promote a better understanding of design and to showcase what design historical approaches can contribute to thinking through visual and material culture. Through the Board of Trustees, we’re establishing a range of institutional links with national museums, and the Graphic Arts exhibition currently on show at the Palau del Marquès de Llió (Montcada 12, Barcelona) is its first major public outcome.

The Designer’s Review of Books

Launched just under two weeks ago, the Designer’s Review of Books promises to be a nice place to hang around and browse the online shelves. The DRB was founded, is edited and written (mostly) by Andy Polaine, an interaction designer, journalist and lecturer, but it features guest reviewers as well for more specialist pieces. Here’s what Andy says about his project:

Although there are several good design websites that occasionally have book reviews, there didn’t seem to be a single place online where you could get constant updates and reviews of new (and sometimes old) design books.

The reviews are grouped under 2D, 3D, Interactive and Motion, and so far the 3D aspect is under-represented, although that will probably be addressed as more articles are posted.

There are still only a handful of reviews on the site, but they are for the most part quite detailed, giving a good overview of the books’ contents and with some welcome pics of interior spreads. While more descriptive than critical in tone, they provide a helpful indication of what the books are about and of their approach. So it’s not quite yet the design equivalent of the LRB, but a great initiative nonetheless. Keep reading.

Let there be stuff! The magic of rapid prototyping

FRONTdesign Sketch Furniture chair

FRONTdesign Sketch Furniture chair

Artists and designers are being drawn to the still evolving technologies of 3D printing and rapid prototyping like moths to the light. The potential seems enormous, the possibilities expand daily, the capabilities of these state-of-the-art technologies appear magical enough that they might allow us to solve our ecological meltdown, our lust for endless novelty, our post-modern desire for individuality and our creative yearnings, all in one mind-boggling go.

FRONTdesign has been experimenting with laser sintering 3D printing, developing a method to materialise freehand sketches drawn directly in the air. They showed the process of making Sketch Furniture and the final pieces of furniture at Tokyo Wonder Site last November – here’s the video: