Calculate the experiment. Nikodem Szpunar x Studio Szpunar
On combining industrial production with creative experimentation. On why the sofa is more about fashion than furniture. And about dreams of a fountain Nikodem Szpunar in an interview with Piotr Jędrzejowski.
You once compared designing to making music: you mix old patents with new ideas to achieve a recognisable and yet surprising whole. What exactly does design mean to you? Is it Art? A workshop craft? Business?
It’s changing… At university it was pure excitement, an exploration of possibilities. Looking for new materials, new options. And then I collided with a wall in the form of the client (laughs). And then it began to change. Suddenly your visions, often – let’s say – extreme, are brought down to earth by the manufacturer who says: “no no, this will cost a fortune; besides, this has to be sold in larger quantities, we have to duplicate it”. For a while, I had exactly this attitude: everything has to be calculated, counted out. However, at some point I reverted to the approach of my student days – I decided that I had to be able to go overboard, to bend the rules. Because otherwise new and better things will not be created. It will all come down to a calculation of how to fit within the table. Only, in this case, will you still need a „creative process” person?
Why the creative turn? To strengthen your own position in the market? The crisis?
No. It stemmed more from the reflection that I got myself trapped in an exclusively business-corner. I have to make a living, so I have to earn this much or that much. In order to keep everything together, I need this much for a year. I have to meet the client’s expectations… Anyway, this theme also came up in conversation with clients. They noted that the projects are very dry, calculated, too safe. There lack emotion, the delight component. It forced me to self-reflect. I came to the conclusion, that I had to put calculations aside and give more of myself. Maybe I should just go back to the days of student experimentation, even if it gives me the ‘gut feeling’ that it might be hardcore (laughs). Anyway, I’ve currently been busy with this one project for a year and a half, because I went into an ‘over-drive’. I approached it with optimism, like: „let’s go and do an awesome project!”, and I got a bit carried away (laughs). But maybe that’s why we’re continuing with this project at all – because the client believed in it, liked it enough, that they’re now unwilling to let it go (laughs).
And to what extent does this ‘human factor’ get in the way of ideas? How do you find the balance between economic calculation and creative experimentation?
It all depends. There are some companies that have to seriouslycalculate, because they operate on quantities, and quantities have to be universal. They have to keep the prices down, because if we go for quantity, the price cannot be high. There are also companies that focus on the emotional side and the ‘customer delight’ factor. Creating – although this may sound a bit pretentious – of an object of desire. It’s a bit like that anyway: we buy something that appeals to us emotionally. What we would like to interact with. Keep it for longer. I choose things this way myself. Before I buy anything, I spend three months thinking about which product to choose, whether it’s really the one, and if I need it. The choice is huge and the decision becomes increasingly difficult. With the more expensive items, the key factor is the good ‘gut-feeling’ they produce.
So it depends on the scale of the project? On the one hand you design for mass industrial production, on the other you make short series for specific orders…
There have been fewer short series recently. It’s a bit of a pity. Probably the coolest project of this type were the lamps for Kawiarnia Fabryczna. That was all handmade. We did it all by ourselves, glueing together natural wood veneers. It was all very fragile, it was falling apart all the time and had to be re-done. But it involved a great deal of uniqueness, craftsmanship, handiwork and emotion. In the end, it blended in perfectly with the cafe’s interior. The lightseemsvery warm, almost like honey, because of this veneer. You can certainly let your fantasy run wilder when you work on such short series. Of course, they have their limitations, if only in the technological sense. You have to deal with them yourself or with a subcontractor. However, the result are unique items, not found in serial productions. And that is the huge difference. There you can allow yourself a little more freedom; it costs a little more, it isn’t always profitable, but you can let your imagination run wild and do something you’ve always wanted to do. In the actual process of manufacturing, this calculation is present all the time If the project exceeds the cost of production, the price is high. If the price is high, sales go down because these are not top-end luxury goods. So the limitations are greater. However, even within these constraints there is much to be found. It’s a bit like games: you figure out how to solve a puzzle based on some set of pre-existing parametres. You have a lot of data to reconcile. And you challenge yourself to go beyond your own limits. To do better than before. This is usually the main motivation for designers. Very few get motivated by the desire to get rich. It’s about wanting to prove yourself, taking on challenges, trying to grasp a complex subject.
You talk about short series with a lot of nostalgia. And what is the reason for a lack of short series? Lack of time due to larger productions? Fewer orders due to the pandemics?
I started to accept them at a time when not many people were investing in them. Cafés, the catering sector or public utility spaces in general were mainly based on Ikea. It is better now, but there were no new investments in 2020. Everything has come to a standstill, no new venues have opened up. I was discouraged too, because you’re doing something for which you will get very little money and the work input is huge. Satisfaction is great, but again there comes the calculation involving the ZUS payments (Social Security)… (laughs). And so we end up back in Excel. It’s a constant juggling act. Now I want to go back to that. Maybe not so much to things created for a specific space, but to once-offs, handmade items, projects for specific clients. I want to focus on private, individual investments. It’s still not huge money, but the desire to return to what is local and to craftsmanship is strong. Especially now, when many deliveries from different corners of the world have been delayed, and the world started locking-down. I miss the fun of building. I make prototypes all the time, but this is a different kind of fun: you build in order to test certain things, and not to construct something from start to finish.
I guess this materiality is a key factor for you? In the studio you surround yourself with models. You post images on Instagram that are workshop exercises in how paint sets on materials, what tools to use to spread it…
Working with my hands is of fundamental importance for me. As a youngster I used to break everything. Whatever I got my hands on, I had to take apart. Mostly break, because it couldn’t be put back together again. I was interested in what something was made of, how it was built, what was inside… This has always been in me and remains to this day. It’s hard to get rid of. Sitting in front of a computer for a long time wears me out. I have to work with the material because I get restless otherwise. Transferring this to the digital world, on the other hand, is like entering the world of computer games. I have also spent a lot of time on the latter, by the way, because I am part of the generation where this subject has become firmly embedded in the consciousness. The virtual world of design is quite similar, you play with three-dimensional space, you stick these puzzles together. So ultimately these two worlds – of the workshop and the virtual – complement each other. Although I definitely prefer to spend more time in real life. If only to avoid burning your eyes out on the monitor.
What projects have taken you out of your comfort zone the most?
For me it has always been a challenge to design a sofa. A seemingly ordinary seat, but it is designed very differently when you think about it in terms of the fabric. Something that is entirely sewn. Which is why it is closer to fashion or clothing, than to a structure such as a chair. When I start thinking about sofas, my coils start to burn (laughs) but that’s what turns me on. And seemingly a seat… If everything works out this year, I will have a project – for now I can’t reveal for whom – that will involve children. It is a challenge for me because I am not able to test the given solution myself. I have to entrust this to a child. This has a breakneck aspect to it. I participated in this project: „Museum to go” for the National Museum in Warsaw, a project related to games for children, but these were multi-person, team projects, so they required yet another approach. Designing for children is, after all, not just a matter of scale change, but also a fundamental shift in thinking about the use of a building. And how do you get feedback from a child? Preferably still constructive and professional (laughs). I don’t have children myself, so communicating with them will also be a challenge for me. It will require cooperation with parents and so on.
And are there any challenges that you’d like to face, or a dream perhaps?
Yes! This has been following me for years. I would like to design a fountain! Located in a public space, accessible to all. One that will have some life in it. Not a static sculpture, but something that will be full of movement, something interactive. Water is such a great medium – alive and dynamic. In Rzeszow, which is my hometown there is a space,which was once vibrant and which now has been dead for years, and which is ideal for revitalising with such an installation, but it all got stuck on discussions with the city authorities. Maybe one day this project will be implemented, but for now it is my dream. A thought that may never materialise, but that gives birth to new ideas and concepts.