Making Magis

About three years ago Eugenio Perazza, the intense and animated founder of the Italian furniture manufacturer Magis, convinced Konstantin Grcic to begin working on a coordinated group of chairs and tables for the company. The arrangement was a long time in coming: Perazza had been bugging the Munich-based designer for a few years to agree to a collaboration.

“Magis is a pull for many designers doing so many different things,” Grcic says. “I wasn’t sure that I would be able to create a niche for myself within the company.” He was also reluctant because he was growing tired of designing products in plastic, the material that Magis has long been known for.

But Perazza “kept ringing me, saying, ‘When can we work together? When can we work together?’” Grcic recalls. When Perazza mentioned his desire to try some furniture made of aluminum, the designer was intrigued: breaking away from plastic might offer a direct way for him to stand out in the Magis stable—and to turn a corner in his own work. In a phone call in August of 2000 Perazza, sensing that Grcic was softening, pounced. “He asked if I would be in my studio the next day. When I said yes, he said, ‘Great. I’ll be there tomorrow.’”

The first product of their collaboration is called Chair One. When it was shown at last spring’s Salone del Mobile, the giant annual furniture fair in Milan, the chair was among the most polarizing items there. Although it earned some instant fans, Grcic recalls, “A lot of people hated it too. They said it was ugly, that it was uncomfortable, even that it was aggressive.”

There’s no denying that Chair One, which will be made commercially available later this year and will probably retail in the United States for about $200, moves directly against the grain of most high-end contemporary design. For the last several years many of the best-known designers in the world, including Grcic, have been producing furniture and other products that are minimalist and optimistic, with liquid curves in bright colors.

Grcic’s aluminum chair for Magis would seem immediately out of place in a living room full of those smooth designs. It has an angular, skeletal look, as if its flesh has been torn away; Perazza describes it as “the bones” of a chair. It balances on four straight legs, though it can also be ordered with a concrete base. The chair looks like a spiderweb with hard, geometric lines—as imagined by Buckminster Fuller and then produced in a factory.

The charged reaction to Chair One in Milan pleased Grcic because he wanted the design to help mark a shift in his career. He admits that he had grown frustrated with consumer-friendly minimalism, and perhaps even more of his own reputation as a purveyor of that style. “I decided that, in a way, I had to be more extreme for a while, that I couldn’t go on being pleasing to everybody,” Grcic says.

One nonaesthetic reason that Chair One looks less than plush is that it’s designed for public seating—outdoors in public squares; inside in cafés, museums, and other settings. “It’s not an office chair or a dining chair that you’ll sit in for hours,” Grcic says. “It’s designed to be used in a waiting situation—for five, ten, twenty minutes at a time.”

At the same time Chair One’s severe look reveals a lot about the company that produced it. Magis is known for its perfectionism—for going through as many versions of a piece of furniture as an obsessive writer goes through drafts. It is also known for producing furniture in much greater quantities, and at a generally lower retail cost, than some of its boutique competitors. But to pay the same kind of obsessive attention to Chair One—a piece of furniture whose mass appeal is far from immediately apparent—is a different story altogether.

Magis occupies a low-slung concrete building in Motta di Livenza, a small town reached by driving about 30 miles northeast from Venice, passing through cornfields and vineyards along the way. There is a showroom and a workshop on the ground floor, divided neatly by a stair leading to an upper floor of bright offices filled with chairs by Jasper Morrison and other Magis regulars. The building is smaller than you might guess because though Magis is well known in the design world as a manufacturer, it actually operates as a middleman, working with designers on one hand and suppliers and factories on the other. Many of those factories are either in Motta di Livenza or close by: the town is at the center of a tiny design node that produces some of the most influential furniture in the world. The company that fabricates Chair One, Zin—located about an hour from Magis headquarters in Grisignano del Zocco—makes aluminum engine blocks for automobiles and aluminum chair parts for Vitra.

Since its founding in 1976 Magis has been run by Perazza, a driven but friendly man of 62 who wears glasses with blue plastic frames that are often pushed up onto his forehead, and who over the years has gathered an almost encyclopedic knowledge of furniture-design history. He tells an amusing story about why he decided to leave his job at a big furniture maker to start Magis. One day, Perazza explains, he walked by a bookshop that had a book in its window whose cover showed an image of Harry Bertoia’s famous wire chair. Intrigued, Perazza later bought one of the chairs for about $250, delivered it to his company’s head of manufacturing, and asked him how much a chair like it would cost to produce. The answer was $5.

“This is a big difference, no?” Perazza deadpans in solid but heavily accented English. He tried to interest his boss in commissioning a series of products from the English designer Richard Sapper (who has in the years since become a Magis stalwart). But his boss didn’t go for the plan for two reasons, according to Perazza: he was uneasy about working with a foreign designer he didn’t know personally, and he was convinced that commissioning work would be more costly than copying designs and marketing them more successfully than the original companies. Perazza calls this second attitude the “Me Too” approach to furniture design: whatever you can do, I can do more cheaply.

In a way, the boss’s two concerns were one and the same, reflecting a reluctance to trust the power of design itself. They suggest that the best designers are too costly to work with, and that consumers can’t tell—or don’t care about—the difference between the work of a very good designer and a pretty good plagiarist.

“For a long time,” Perazza says, “the success of companies was thought to be in the hands of the finance people, then the marketing people. But now people are realizing that for a company like ours it is in the hands of the designers—and that will be the case in the future too.”

Yet it would be inaccurate to say that Perazza is a fan of name-brand design per se. “One of my favorite shopping experiences is to go to some inexpensive low-level shop and find something that’s really well designed and really pleasing to the eye,” he says. “If you pick it out yourself, without some salesman or the price tag telling you it’s good—this is a very great satisfaction. And this is how we want Magis to be: we want people to buy the product because it’s good, not just because it’s Magis.”

At the end of the 1990s Magis found itself in a bit of quandary: the high-design plastic products it had helped popularize were suddenly all over the place. The “Me Too” crowd had begun producing copies of designs by Magis and other companies. “The public began to have a bad idea about plastic designs because all of a sudden there were too many of them on the market,” Perazza says. “The problem is not with plastic itself, but that other companies were using plastic in a bad way. They think plastic will give energy to their products all by itself.” Magis began soliciting designs in other materials and even went as far as declaring “the end of the plastic dictatorship” in its 2002 press releases.

Five years ago, as part of the new strategy, Magis approached two well-known designers to create new products from aluminum: Grcic and the New York-based Karim Rashid. The products the two designers came up with could not have been more different from one another. “I am a fan of Karim’s work,” Perazza says, “but he is a designer who designs a little too much, in my opinion”—in other words, he sometimes overdoes it. Perazza pushed for something more subtle than his typical irrepressible output, and Rashid responded with an elegant family of chairs called Alo, which are made of thin sheets of aluminum backed by polypropylene. They would fit right into that living room we described earlier—especially the Low Chair, which is unassuming enough to be barely recognizable as Rashid’s work.

Not surprisingly Grcic found Perazza to be a strong-willed and persistent partner. “He has a lot of passion but absolutely no patience,” Grcic says. “Sometimes he’d just ring me out of the blue and ask, ‘Are you working on the chair?’” He usually was. Grcic, who employs only a few assistants, has about eight or ten projects going at any one time. But he found Chair One unusually engaging and complex. From early 2001 through the summer of 2002 it captured his attention. It helped that Perazza was pushing him to have a prototype ready for the Milan furniture fair last April.

In fact the pace was so hurried that the first time Grcic ever sat in the initial aluminum prototype of Chair One was in Milan. When he tried it he discovered, to his horror, that the geometry was all wrong, and that its sharp edges cut into the backs of his legs. Earlier prototypes had been made from flexible sheet metal, which had hidden some design flaws. Essentially, according to Benoit Steenackers, who works in Magis’s design department, the angle between the seat and the back wasn’t wide enough. “The chair was everything but comfortable,” Steenackers remembers.

It was a setback, to be sure. But nobody else at the fair cared to the degree the Magis crew did about the details of the seat’s geometry. They were too busy arguing about whether or not it was ugly. In that sense the chair had done just what Perazza and Grcic hoped it would—it made a splash.

Luckily for Grcic, Magis was willing to move through further prototypes instead of pushing Chair One to market. In fact it took another full year—until this year’s furniture fair in Milan—for the company to finish the chair. Magis’s products can sometimes take as long as three or even four years to move from conception to release to the public, which is agonizingly slow compared to American timetables. In that sense, Magis may be as close to a design laboratory as exists on the manufacturing side of the furniture business. “Each time I’ve visited Magis’s studio there’s been a room full of products, prototypes, ideas, and almost as many designers working on various projects,” says Rob Forbes, founder of the contemporary furniture retailer Design Within Reach. “There are Italians, Brits, Germans—some young guy you don’t know, or some Richard Sapper you do know.” He calls Perazza a “magnet for the wittier edge of the design community.” “He is not a design stylist or a design fashion person. He may in fact be the opposite of that species. I think designers feel that he is on their side above all.”

For Magis the design process, no matter what its details, always has the same goal: to take the sometimes fanciful works of high-end designers and get them ready for mass production. In the case of Chair One, Magis and Grcic took the unusual step of making their first chair together essentially an experimental product.

Magis had never before made an injection-molded aluminum product; according to the company, Chair One will be the only such chair on the market. (The process involves injecting molten-hot aluminum into a mold of the chair’s seat and back.) Though the company has long used this process to fabricate plastic products, to do so in aluminum raises fresh concerns. First, aluminum is about four times more expensive than plastic as a raw material. And it has to be sanded, polished, and varnished once it comes out of the mold, which isn’t true for plastic. On top of that, aluminum cools quickly, which means that it’s hard to fill a large mold, like the one for Grcic’s chair.

There’s also a catch-22 when it comes to custom-made molds. They are almost ridiculously expensive, which means that it’s important to perfect the details of an injection-molded piece of furniture early in the design process so the mold won’t have to be built more than once. But—as Grcic discovered—it’s difficult to iron out design defects if you’re working with a prototype version of the chair that isn’t made with the mold.

Chair One went through more than a dozen premold versions, moving from cardboard to sheet metal to an aluminum version made from a sand-cast mold, which is basically a cheaper, less exact version of the final mold. There were early problems not just with the angle of the seat and back but with lots of other tiny details. The area of the chair where the seat connects to the rear legs entailed five different versions, after which Perazza still wasn’t content. “I was desperate,” Steenackers says, “but we finally did it one more time, and everybody is happy with it.”

“If the project is not ready, we keep working till the meat is done,” Steenackers says, sounding more like a barbecuer than a furniture designer. “Sometimes it looks like a never-ending story. Some designers give up and leave us to this perfectionist odyssey.”

But Grcic loved the company’s attention to detail. “Some companies,” he says, “really want to work with you, but then say, ‘Do whatever you want.’” He found Perazza “very sharp and precise about what he wants to do.” As the project developed Grcic understood that his chair was not exactly going to be cheap to produce or easy on the eyes. But Perazza “never worried that the chair would be too expensive or would look too strong.”

This is the crux of what makes Magis unusual: it wants to make its furniture available and affordable to a wide public but is also willing to expend resources perfecting an idiosyncratic product by a demanding designer. So the company has found a way to split the difference between populism and attention to detail.

In the coming year or two it will be interesting to follow the public reaction to Chair One. Institutional clients probably will surface for it; Grcic hopes the chair will wind up in the courtyard of an avant-garde new museum project. He mentions Herzog and de Meuron’s new De Young Museum, in San Francisco, as an ideal setting.

Still it’s not the sort of chair a dental office or posh restaurant is likely to buy. And individual consumers may not be ready for the kind of aesthetic shift the chair represents, particularly in a domestic setting. However, Grcic has a fondness for the chair that he admits he doesn’t have for all of his designs—a fondness that borders, ironically enough, on the warm and fuzzy. It stems mostly from the symbolic role it has assumed in the development of his career, as well as the degree to which he enjoyed the intensity of his work with Magis in getting it to market. Grcic is going to put one of the chairs in his kitchen or his studio, or both. “I want to be able to see it every day,” he says.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Design

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