Talking to Michael Anastassiades is rare pleasure. First of all because it is interesting to get into the mind of someone who is able to create timelessly beautiful objects such as the light collections he designs for Flos. And, secondly, because of the food for thought that he is always able to inject into any conversation (like here).
Our chat, for instance, starts with a comment on the difficult situation that the pandemic has created. «It’s been a challenging, difficult time for the studio and for my family», he says. But what’s nice about this strange present is that we don’t know what we have to do: we take one tentative step at the time and try to learn if it works. It’s undeniably very interesting and very much in line with a designer’s approach to life».
Fragility is the word that springs to mind when discussing topics like the pandemic. What does it have to do with design?
«Fragility is vulnerability. And, as such, a state of exposure and openness. In this sense, it prepares people to accept new ideas and explore ingenious paths. It’s similar to what happens when you practice backbends in yoga (Anastassiades is a yoga teacher as well as a designer). The postures are physically challenging and emotionally overpowering and when you try to get to do them you feel vulnerable. Then, through breathing and correct guidance, your body opens up and you can do anything because you are ready to receive from the outside. The physical becomes metaphysical through experiencing vulnerability and going beyond it».
Is this similar to the concept of antifragility that economist and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in his book as “being beyond resilience or robustness”. Because “the resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”?
«In a way, yes. But I prefer to talk about vulnerability rather than fragility. This “going beyond” through openness becomes a way of living. Both yoga and design are ways of living. Of course it is not necessarily through yoga that one arrives to the vulnerability that opens us up to the world: meditation can occur through many practices that brings us to connect thoughts and ideas and draw parallels. Whatever one does, being open to receive ideas is the most important quality that is needed in order to design. If you are closed to the world what you design becomes very selfish. I believe designers exist to create relationships and interactions with objects, constructive dialogues between people, provide a physical manifestation of the time in which we live it. If they don’t do all this, they are decorators».
What sort of designs come to you thanks to vulnerability?
«When I was young and started designing, I used to draw relationship diagrams, also called bubble diagrams. I would set out what occurs between people and objects, objects and objects, in time and space. I didn’t know what I would come up with but this practice would help me to suddenly see a lot of space for new relationships. For instance, I created a recording message cup in the pre-smart phone era: you could put it upside down on the table in your shared house and people knew it contained a message. I also created an anti-social light that glowed only in complete silence and would dim progressively as voices grew louder. Both are objects that stemmed from the desire to create different relationships rather than from repeating an existing pattern of production».
Is there space for this in industrial production? Or it is all the realm of concept design?
«There is space for this in industrial production. It depends on the willingness of company to dive into this. I like to think that the thinking I have described to you is alive in all I do and it’s natural because being vulnerable and open to what’s out there has become second nature for me. The lighting collections I designed for Flos originate from this thinking. From the String Lights down to the latest, Coordinates (read here the Interni Design Journal article on the collection), these are objects that celebrate the passing of creativity from the designer to the user. They are like a blank sheet of paper and a pen. The freedom they give can be scary and uncomfortable for those who are not used to opening up. Coordinates, for instance, explored the idea of crosshatch and by providing horizontal and vertical lines it makes the user design images that are suspended in space. It’s all about the relationship between people, objects and space, through time…»
You said the freedom that such designs could create “discomfort”. Hardly what industrial production normally goes for. Yet your products are also commercial successes. How come?
«The truth is that a lot of people want to get out of their comfort zone, they feel uneasy when they are stuck into it for too long. And it is therefore good to allow people to be uncomfortable, to help them challenge what there. I also don’t believe that commercial results are a good measure for design success but, rather, its ability to challenge its audience».
Not many companies would go for such an approach…
«Indeed not. A shared vision is needed which is what happened with Flos. Industrial design is a team effort and all parties need to be synchronized in order to achieve specific results. This doesn’t mean no challenges, quite the opposite. It’s excellent when people question what the others do as long as this doesn’t stem from a negative, destructive approach».
And what is this shared vision you refer to?
«It’s related to the integrity of my approach to design. I am convinced that nothing really new is ever created but also of the moral duty of the designer to strive to offer something different. Which means to connect something that surely already exists in some form with today’s time, hence making it relevant».
Nothing new is ever made today. A bit of a strong statement…
«But it’s true. What matters today the most is not so much what you do but above all how you do it. If you are aware of taking something from somewhere else and willing to make it somehow relevant to today or if you are totally oblivious to this and just perpetrate the copy and paste approach. As a designer I feel it’s my duty to remain true to my values and maintain focus, no matter what the external challenges. Shocks or moments of crisis – like this pandemic – are great to remind us of what our focus needs to be. But we don’t have to wait for tragedies to come, we should have an integrity of our own. The world would benefit from this approach, and so would design as a profession. Designers should not react to what happens. Good design doesn’t stem from reaction but from an action that is fueled by a sturdy vision and the flexibility that welcoming vulnerability provides».