Miguel Milá and André Ricard: Being a designer is a way of life
Milá and Ricard, from Barcelona, belong to a generation of explorers of uncharted territories when design was a word without meaning and the creative process was something to be described. Without any doubt, Miguel Milá (1929) and André Ricard (1931) are also behind raising awareness of design as a production strategy in Spain. As masters of industrial design, in 1987 both were awarded the inaugural National Design Prize.
An indefatigable intellectual, designer, professor, writer and president of the NGO Design for the World, in his prolific career André Ricard stands out for the design of the Barcelona Olympic torch of 1992, a date which also changed his birth city forever. The practice of Ricard has pursued the functional improvement of everyday objects where their ethics prevail along with the opportunity to interact with life through them.
An industrial and interior designer, inventor and bricoleur, some of the furniture and lamps of Miguel Milá have transcended the circumstances of their production era and retain their validity today, transformed into authentic, timeless classics. His specialisation in the creative process is to refresh tradition to improve life, day after day, through the comfort brought to us by our surrounding objects. Milá has been awarded the Compasso d’Oro and the Gold Medal for Merit in the Fine Arts, amongst others.
We met them at the headquarters of Santa & Cole on the occasion of the re-edition of the “radiant” (both due to its appearance as its use) Tatu lamp by Ricard, a 1970s pop icon. Wise, affable and approachable as they are, we talked at length about the relationship between form and function, utility and beauty, and culture and society; items that are inextricably linked to the activity of every designer.
To begin, I would like to approach the idea that you both have of design: when there is a problem or necessity, design comes into play “manufacturing” the solution. Is that what you both think?
André Ricard (AR): It is clear that there must be an initial problem in order to find a solution that solves it. Design is that search. Then, the way it is solved depends on how each one of us conceives design. Miguel Milá (MM): In my case, the approach is personal and begins from within. Normally, I am not commissioned to design anything, so I design of my own volition. I have educated myself in interior design, working in interiors. I tend to solve the problems that I encounter to take care of comfort, an aesthetic satisfaction. When something excites me aesthetically, it already has my stamp of approval. AR: As Miguel said, identifying a problem is not so easy. People become accustomed to living with “problems”. What a creative person must specifically do is anticipate, which is what Miguel does when he makes his decisions.
"Useful is beautiful"
The designs by Milá, particularly the Cesta lamp and all of its versions, are a clear example of form and function in perfect symbiosis: a portable lamp, like the old lanterns and their bearers, night watchmen. Miguel, which came first: the chicken or the egg? Does utility come from beauty, or does beauty come from utility?
MM: I maintain that it is unimportant, because if it is not useful then it is not beautiful. It certainly must be useful, and if it turns out to be highly useful then it turns out to be very beautiful. AR: Allow me to add, elaborating on what Miguel has said, that utility is the objective; beauty is a consequence of having achieved utility. MM: That’s the same thing, but put very well... (laughter).
So, André, let us think about Santa & Cole’s re-edition of the Tatu lamp—or armadillo—, a lamp with endless uses. For yourself, and linking to your previous answer, more important than the function is the behaviour of the individual around the objects: the uses. I think that it is a magnificent concept. Can you elaborate on that idea of usability for this specific case?
AR: The idea for the Tatu lamp arose—going back to the problem—because I like to read in bed at night and this was an obstacle, because my wife does not. There was a problem to solve. Seeing how I could read on aeroplanes at night thanks to a spotlight that only illuminated my book, whilst the rest remained in semi-darkness, I said to myself: “Why can the same solution not be adopted at home?” It was not a case of affixing a spotlight to the ceiling. I looked for a free-standing system that would allow a beam of light to be directed. This was the starting point for the Tatulamp.
AR: : I do not usually have contact with the user, but I do have family and friends who have had the Tatu. For example, a numismatics enthusiast told me that it was perfect for examining stamps in his collection to see whether they had defects as it was such a strong and concentrated light. Tatu provides a different type of light with new uses.
And you, Miguel, what do you think of the relationship between the user and the object?
MM: The use of the object by the user is essential. If I did not contemplate this, I would not even think about design. I see the problems consumers have and what I try to do is solve them in a friendly, kind way, because objects are not always in use. A lamp, for instance, spends more time switched off than switched on; therefore, its presence is important. It has to accompany, it has to be comfortable to look at, it should not be bothersome; on the contrary, it should be pleasant. Comfort is of great concern to me. AR: It is essential. With lamps, any of them, the aesthetical satisfaction they offer is a consequence of the excellent service they give us. When an object provides a good service you view it affectionately and this affection also forms part of the pleasure of using it.
Without a doubt, we all feel attached to certain objects, especially if they work well for us. We even recommend them.
AR: We all have our favourites without realising it. Indeed, if we want to cut something, there is a knife in our collection which we prefer to the rest and if we look for it, it is because it is the one that best serves its purpose. MM: Well, relatively speaking it is another matter, it also forms part of the complete picture. I do not know why aesthetics deviates from the issue; I would argue that it is linked to the use.
Besides, it is very subjective... Continuing with the sensitive, personal experience as was the case with André, the aeroplane and the Tatu, Miguel, are you also governed by the same system, first observe and then solve?
MM: Absolutely, always and constantly. When I am asked when I design, my reply is constantly. I wander along the street solving tiny problems that do not actually arise, although I solve them in my head. AR: To be a designer is a way of being, you cannot disconnect, you live it 24 hours a day. MM: And they also say to me “You still work at 87? To which I reply: Of course! Every day (laughter). AR: I consider that one of the qualities a designer must have is the ability to play a “movie” in his mind about how what he is designing will work in practice. In other words, imagining himself in the place of the user and seeing everything that would happen, positive and negative, when using it. This ability to put together this “movie” in his mind, seeing what the use will become of what is being created, is fundamental in order to rule out errors and move forward in the right direction.
Changing the subject slightly, when do you consider that a design becomes a classic, when does it endure for years as is the case with TMC, TMM and M64 and Tatu?
MM: To answer this I will refer to something a bullfighter named “El Gallo” said when one of his team asked him: “Maestro, what is a classic?”—we had always understood classic to mean from the past—, to which he replied: “Something which cannot be improved on”. I liked this phrase very much. I thought that perfection had to be sought. AR: I believe that the continuance of an object on the market is due precisely to the quality of its design. There may be companies that withdraw valid products for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their design, but what prevails and endures is what the public has supported, endorsed by its functional excellence. There is a “cultural selection” in the same way that there is a “natural selection”. What does not work is cast aside, what is not liked is removed and what remains is that which serves its purpose effectively.
Continuing with the subject of form, does the best design contain the minimum elements, as Van der Rohe said: “Less is more”?
AR: There are those who say: “Less is a bore”. The basis of the principle that Bauhaus imposed was that with minimal forms better results could be achieved, both functional and aesthetic. It continues to be valid; things do not need to be complicated. Why make it complicated when it could be done simply? MM: When things get complicated it is because the solution is not clear. AR: Exactly, dappling is a way of hiding defects. The purity of a solution is, generally, a sign of good creative quality.
The philosophy of beauty: subtle utility
With regard to the function of a device—a designed object—and the role that aesthetics plays, you both affirm that functionality is in itself an aesthetic value. In addition, there is the symbolic usefulness of the piece, the subtlety, and the fact that the pleasure an object produces, for example, when looking at it—to mention one of the senses—is also a utility. Could you elaborate a little more on this concept?
AR: When it reaches its functional perfection a product is also beautiful. There are examples in other areas that link efficiency with beauty. For instance, even without an understanding of golf or tennis, when watching various players it is possible to see who the better player is just by watching their movements. The cleanliness of a swing, the harmony of a volley, etc., are directly linked to the perfection and efficiency of the stroke.
And regarding subtle utility?
AR: The pleasure that a device provides is largely due to it functioning well. If upon entering a room there is a TMM lamp in a corner, you remember how well it lights up the space and this makes you view it with pleasure. There is this highly intimate relationship between the satisfaction an object provides thanks to its functionality and the pleasure of looking at it. MM: All the designers I know, myself included, are collectors of objects that have caught our attention. The case of Castiglioni is one of the most memorable. He had an immense collection. I remember on one occasion when we were with him, he gave us a cup made from two sheets of steel. When pressed on the sides, these sheets made the gesture we make with our hands to drink water from a fountain. It moved me, not aesthetically, but rather due to the ingenuity and simplicity of the execution. I also realised that it was beautiful; it was like a type of cone. It turned out that it was a campaign cup from the United States Army. Exciting! I still have it at home. AR: Miguel had a large collection of rural objects. Objects that country folk created for their daily needs are generally outstanding examples of design because they have undergone a process of trial and error until reaching the form which perfectly fulfils their function. Analysing these examples creates sensations such as those described by Miguel.
The famous criticism of the modernist movement is lack of spirituality and excessive homogenisation. Following the modernist movement in architecture, the deconstructivism of Wolf Prix or Frank Gehry and later the parametricism of Zaha Hadid have been consolidated, championing curves and organic forms that exist in nature. What do you think of these styles?
AR: The modernist movement was very radical, with the application of pure forms and straight lines. Although it was a little aggressive, it meant an abandonment of the frivolity that existed until that point, of the Art Nouveau, and its useless complexity in everyday objects. One had to rationalise forms so they would function better and stop embellishing them for decorative purposes. The criticism makes sense, but I think that the guidelines set by Bauhaus and other movements of the time have been crucial for creativity in all of its facets. Indeed, the headquarters of Santa & Cole, where we are talking today, is a wonderful example of this. Regarding what is called postmodern architecture, aesthetically it can be seen as beautiful, consisting of building-sculptures. The Guggenheim in Bilbao is a magnificent sculpture, as is the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, both by Gehry. Then, when you visit the Guggenheim in Bilbao, you see that all of this sparkling building is simply the entrance hall of the museum. The exhibition rooms are rectangular and are situated to the right and left. It is a sculpture that has been a dream for the city, because it has opened Bilbao up to the world of art. The fact is that the museum is located in a very favourable spot, in such a way that from the streets that lead towards it, it is seen in the background like a sparkling jewel; whereas, from a functional point of view, the Guggenheim in New York by Frank Lloyd Wright is an excellent example of how to lay out a museum logically. It starts from above and is traversed in a spiral, in such a way that the entire collection is seen, without any omissions. They are two examples of a museum where one can appreciate what reasoned architecture can do and another where simply sensationalism is sought.
And the buildings by Zaha Hadid?
AR: Everything has to go diagonally, moving towards who knows where, which unnecessarily complicates the construction, making it more expensive, when I think that, if there are the means, they should be used for other things. I cannot see any justification from a functional point of view, it is purely aesthetic. MM: Jean Cocteau said: “Fashion is everything that goes out of fashion”. Gaudí, for example, is a genius I admire, but he is kitsch. However, the architecture and design of Casa Milá (La Pedrera), commissioned by my uncle, is admirable. It is acoustically flawless, it keeps out all of the sound coming from the street due to the curves, ceilings and undulating plaster, which in addition to concealing imperfections are works of art. On the other hand, I admire he who makes useless things, because I am unable to do so. I only make useful things that are as beautiful as possible. I admire the ability to make useless and beautiful things AR: But then that is art. MM: Yes, it is art.
Design is everywhere
Is design now more versatile, more inclusive, more popular if you will, or is it just another facet of material culture, to possess with a desire to accumulate?
AR: I think design has never intended to be elitist. The way in which the term design has been applied for publicity purposes is another matter. Design has to permeate through all of the social fabric and not limit its sale to selective boutiques. It would have to be present in stores like in department stores or similar. Design has to be in all of the products and objects of daily life. When I visit a country that I do not know, I always go to a supermarket to see the design quality of the most basic products: household items, packaging, sugar packets, etc. I note whether the blister packs open easily. There are little details like the fine golden thread in Ricola pills or After Eight mints, which allow them to open perfectly. All of this says a lot about the design level of the country.
Does design have more of a presence now than it did forty years ago?
MM: Yes, I think that Ikea, for all its virtues and faults, has contributed to raising the culture of design throughout society, mainly due to the prices—another matter is to look into how those prices are achieved—. One of the disadvantages of low cost is the short lifespan of products. Be that as it may, Ikea has helped people to understand design and stop so stiltedly buying copies of antique furniture. AR: I have the impression, perhaps I am wrong, that design as conceived by Miguel and I is no longer allowed by companies; they want something more instant. The design of any of our works was not done overnight, it takes months. The director of a large company recently said to me that when a successful product from his sector hits the market, only four months are available (design/production/marketing) if its “slipstream”—the trend that the product has generated—is to be taken advantage of. Four months do not allow any of these things to be done well.
Plagiarism or homage
What effect does the issue of intellectual property have in this contemporary, hyper-connected society with access to an almost infinite volume of information?
MM: In the past, I suffered a lot thinking about this; now I suffer no more. I think that if they copy it, it is because the product is good, it is almost satisfying. AR: Plagiarism is a sign of the highest admiration for something. Only what is admired is plagiarised. It is a way of expressing admiration, albeit poorly, but it is a form of admiration. MM: It is good to stick with what is good. AR: The subject of patents also worried me in the past. When I started, in 1951, I patented my first chair. We produced ten models and that was it. It costs a lot of money to protect a product well; all countries and many other aspects must be covered. The pleasure, the satisfaction, it comes to me from people liking a design of mine and it lasting over time. If it is copied, it is because people liked it. I would go so far as to say it is an accolade to be plagiarised. By the way, there is a very clever way to cover up plagiarism; it involves calling it “a homage to...” (laughter).
So, do you think that appropriation, reinterpretation, incorporation, revision, even the parody of others’ designs, is of use in design? I should clarify that it is a very common practice in contemporary art, a discipline with which design shares so many points of friction.
MM: In essence, we all copy, because we are all learning from each other. AR: I would not use the term copy; the fact is that everything comes from something. The ideas that one produces have to have entered our minds in some way, because it is not possible to come up with something that has not come into our minds before, often subconsciously: a fleeting image, a memory, a system, we all apply existing systems. A complex mechanism or a simple wooden clothes peg suggest things, they inspire. That is not plagiarism, it is taking advantage of the discoveries that mankind has made, applying and adapting them to one’s own designs. Homage is different; for example, an object can be made that has exactly the same form as another: if it is called homage, one is excused.
To conclude, in terms of its social role, is design an epitome of changes in society?
AR: Design is eternal. MM: Design has always existed; therefore, it is absolutely essential in life.