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When Architects Turn to Design

Ben van Berkel of UNStudio is the man of the moment with his Museum of Middle Eastern Modern Art in Dubai and Star Palace in Taiwan. Here he discusses his MYChair, why Mies van der Rohe is overrated and the difference between architecture and design.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 22-01-2009

Midtown Amsterdam: Behind a plain door with a tiny, lopsided door sign sit 90 architects headed by Ben van Berkel. It’s a modest and non-descript entrance into the offices of UNStudio, the architectural office behind some of this century’s most celebrated buildings. But rather than the grandiose towers and mega projects, Van Berkel wants to talk about the MYchair, his studio’s latest industrial project and first real chair.

A modernist piece with an intriguing silhouette, MYchair’s elegance comes from its fusion of simplicity and complexity. The legs are made from a single bent chrome bar that hold up a thick wide seat and a tapered back. “It really seems to be something that people want to own themselves,” Van Berkel says. “When we showed the first prototypes it is what everyone said, which is why we called it MYchair … a chair that is mine.”

The structural and metaphorical theme holding MYchair together is reflection. “We wanted to design something that you can spend a moment being introspective in, and which itself is constructed around reflection,” says Van Berkel.

Basic architectural principles are upheld to ensure a coherence in the chair's geometry. “It’s both symmetrical and asymmetrical,” explains Van Berkel, “with a clear separation between the lower and the upper halves, but which both somehow come back together in the end.”

When the conversation moves to the difference between architecture and industrial design, Van Berkel is precise. “There is the obvious difference of scale,” he says, “but it really just comes down to the fact that architects think more in terms of situations and space. They see an event as a building.”

And architects take that same mind-set with them when designing industrial objects. For the MYchair, the event is an escape into a holiday world of relaxation and comfort. The concept then, is to reintroduce that holiday mode back into the frenetic reality of everyday life, and the struggle is to realize that concept within a more limited set of opportunities. A chair is not a skyscraper, meaning there are fewer variables available to create an effect.

“For a chair it is all about the details,” Van Berkel says. “When done right, the stitching, the silhouette, the materials, and the colour can all combine to communicate just like a full-scale building can.”

For MYchair three colours and their corresponding shadows in two different fabrics play on this theme of line and reflection. “At first we used both felt and leather on each part of the chair,” Van Berkel says, “but we decided that the back really needed a bit of shine, so in the final version the felt is only used on the seat rim.”

Regarding the more formal aspects of design, Van Berkel sees little difference in the dynamics behind a chair and a building. “The same issues of materialization, economics, form and function are at play,” he says. “And just as a building is about movement, for an architect so is a chair.”

A chair doesn’t even take less time. “Not at all,” says Van Berkel. “This took us almost two years to complete because subtle detailing is very difficult and requires real precision. It takes hours and hours to painstakingly experiment with all the angles and to make sure that every decision is the right one. On larger projects there is a whole team, but on this we had just the four of us, which is of course also lovely because there are more opportunities to really talk.”

Van Berkel designs like an artist, and is vehemently against labels. He has no particular style and fears that even the word can stymie creativity. Instead, he refers to his work in terms of phases: “I call the early 90s my blue period,” he says, “but adopting any one style is really very dangerous, especially if you want to invent like I do.”

As well as invent, Van Berkel describes his process as one that liberates a situation. By that he means utilizing the dynamic and transformative effects of design. He loves movement, makes constant reference to “active architecture” and called his first and second books “Mobile Forces” and “Move”.

“I think if you take a box and you want to merge it with something that is more blob-like, then you have to transform the whole and bring them together – its like blob to box and back again,” he says. “It can’t be defined.”

Being ranked amongst the gurus of modernism has never been Van Berkel's desire. A true gentleman but extremely sharp, he is not shy to buck prevailing trends. “I think Mies van der Rohe is overrated,” he says. “At least in terms of innovation . Compared to Le Corbusier, Mies just isn't the sort of artist architect that really fascinates me. What he did was to develop 6 principles of design and then repeat them over and over in large and small scale. Le Corbusier was the true innovator. He used totally new principles of spatial innovation and always thought about society.”

That emphasis on society recurs throughout our conversation. Van Berkel is passionate about the way design can communicate, can forge relationships with people, and alter their minds. As both designer and architect, he is first and foremost a humanist. “MYchair is really about people,” he says. “It connects to me and communicates to others.”

Which is the substance of a classic, a suggestion Van Berkel shies away from. “Definitely not,” he says with characteristic modesty. “That sort of thing takes time to cook. For MYchair to become a phenomenon, so much that I can’t control must first take place. It's not something you can predict. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the Erasmus Bridge would become such an important symbol of Rotterdam.”

MYchair was designed for Walter Knoll by UNStudio - Ben van Berkel with Martijn Prins and Christian Bergmann, Arne Nielsen
Location: Herrenberg Germany
Size: height 800mm, depth 755mm, width 865 mm
Materials: Chromed steel bar frame. Foam seat upholstered with Trevira and Kvadrat fabrics or Walter Knoll leather

Dutch sales agent
WALTER KNOLL verkoopkantoor Nederland
V. v. Goghlaan 38, 5143 JP Waalwijk, tel. 0416 377234

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