The Good, the Bad, and the Not So Ugly

Recently there’s been a resurgence of designers who go out of their way to celebrate the “found” object. Is this all becoming an exercise, or is there any meaning behind the Barbwire wheelchair you introduced at last year’s Biennale?
Grole: We grew up in Luchtbal, an industrial suburb of Antwerp—open landfills, burning tires, boarded-up crack houses—these were our playgrounds. Whenever a train from the affluent countryside sped through our neighborhood, my brother and I would run to the tracks and wave at the people, but they were too busy to notice.
Gerald: Then one day a train broke down right behind our yard. I got so excited that
I climbed up the back wall, and just as I was about to jump down, my sweater got caught on some barbwire and I dangled in midair as the people from the train watched in horror.
Grole: What they couldn’t see: the ten-meter drop below. If my brother hadn’t been snagged, he would’ve broken his neck and never walked again.
Gerald: So you see in this case the object “found” us.

A lot has been written about the unorthodox methods you employ during the design process. Can you give us an example of how this plays out? Grole: Last year a wealthy Filipino industrialist approached us to design the interior of his new penthouse on Fifth Avenue. The man was self-made and took pleasure in his comforts, but on another level he seemed sad, almost as if he yearned for a connection with the streets of Manila, where he grew up.
Gerald: We decided to move in with him, and aside from basic food and water—which we ordered in—every new object introduced into the operating theater had to grow out of real need and be improvised, using objects collected along odd-numbered streets that didn’t contain the number six.
Grole: After several weeks of eating off the floor with our hands, we began to crave a more tactile experience and went rummaging through the garbage outside a McDonald’s, where we found several used plastic utensils and a retractable TV antenna that made for a wonderful pair of chopsticks.
Gerald: But as time went on we were no longer satisfied with mere functionality. In a transcendent moment that still gives me the chills, we found some silver foil from an old pack of cigarettes and spontaneously started to wrap the cutlery in a celebratory frenzy.
Grole: The result: an unconscious blending of Gothic kitsch and pagan minimalism.
Gerald: More important, every time he sits down to eat on his leather-­upholstered toilet-bowl chair or looks at his reflection in the shattered, bloody gold-framed windshield mirror, he will have a deep appreciation of where he came from.
Grole: As well as what he’s become.

Do you ever think your need to celebrate the imperfect or the street—
a spiked piece of rusty metal, for example—comes at the expense of basic human comfort?

Grole: If we’re talking about comfort as it relates to Joe Blow, lying back in his La-Z-Boy chair, zoning out in front of the TV while he’s waiting to die, then, yes, we’re guilty of making people uncomfortable.
Gerald: But with our “Staircase with a Missing Step” or “Bathtub with Protruding Live Wires,” or “Bed of a Hundred-Million Staples,” we take a less cynical approach to life and trust that what people really want is to be stimulated—to venture outside their humdrum “comfort zone,” which inevitably will make them feel as if there’s meaning to their lives.

What do you like to do after you’ve finished a job and just want to relax? Gerald: We check into the Four Seasons and gorge ourselves on shrimp cocktail and white asparagus…
Grole: … just to see how the other people live. °

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