Juli Capella, architect, design critic, exhibition curator, founder in 1984 of De Diseño, the first Spanish specialist design magazine, Editor of Ardi (1988 - 1994), design editor for Domus (1995 - 2000), curator of the famed Primavera del Desseny fair (1992), is the author of a book on designer Rafael Moneo published in 2005 by ESTAB (Escola Tecnica Superior d’Arquitectura de Barcelona) with the support of Santa&Cole (1*). For Capella, it was an opportunity to reflect on how design and architecture relate, the benefits of an inter-disciplinary approach compared to work in parallel, the different creative processes, and the basic prerequisites of design.
Although Rafael Moneo calls himself an amateur designer, he has many works to his name. He started while still a student in 1959, entering a competition with a deliberately period-style set of cutlery. And he continues designing today. Not because design has anything to do with architecture - they are two very different trades, he says - nor because he is sought out to create designer pieces, but because furnishings are an integral part of any interior, in no way secondary to good architecture. “My design”, Moneo continues, “provides the setting that explains the intentions of my architectures. I designed the handrails of the Atocha station (Madrid 1984) down to the last detail, not because I think industrial production is not good but because none fitted that particular architecture”. For handrails give an immediate perception of a place, and so cannot be estranged from the rest of the architectural concept. Moneo’s wooden handrail in the San Sebastian Kursaal (1990-1999) is a case in point. With a cross-section showing the natural wood grain, it reveals much about the “intentions” of that superb architecture, highlighting the atmosphere reminiscent of Alvar Aalto, one of the masters to whom Moneo feels greatly indebted.
At the book presentation in Santa&Cole’s Milan showroom, Moneo declared that design is “a subsidiary of architecture”, especially in public buildings. “A home, on the other hand, is an autobiography, day after day accumulating the lives of those who live there. So the home has no need for special furniture. With time, things sediment and become part of everyday domesticity. Hospitals, on the other hand, are anonymous places, devoid of atmosphere. Designed furniture can make rooms feel like individual, private places, giving a sense of ownership.” Moneo confirmed he was sceptical of design as a means of changing our perception of things. “Saying that design should speak to the senses rather than be a visual thing shows a lack of culture”, he said. “I prefer a visual, cultured world. We have a face that needs representing. The world expresses itself through form. I don’t think we can do away with the plastic element of things”.
Moneo openly admits an affinity with the thirties, on account of the very plastic quality of the art produced during that period, a feature that in his opinion the fifties and sixties lacked. Even his simplest design items are clearly inspired by Wright and Aalto, but also Hoffmann, the initial Bauhaus and Breuer. His maternity seats and Madrid’s Gregorio Maranon paediatric hospital are unashamedly inspired by Eileen Grey.
For Moneo, furniture design can be the source of more immediate gratification and provocation than architecture. Design can serve to skill the architect, the study of proportions on a micro-scale honing precision for the subsequent macro-scale. He admits to a predilection for designing chairs. Perhaps because they allow people to rest, chat, eat, draw etc., but especially because designing a chair involves structure and construction. Chairs are architecture, as Andrea Branzi said at the beginning of the seventies in his Radical Notes in Casabella. For Branzi, the vast repertoire of modern chairs represents one of the most complete histories of contemporary architecture. Moneo’s personal repertoire contains several elaborate, almost period pieces. Like the chaise longue created in 1987 for Artespaña, its sinuous curves deliberately recalling the chair on which Canova’s Paolina Bonaparte reclines. A few handmade copies are still being produced today. Then there are the extremely simple, geometric designs like the modular wooden seating for Stockholm’s Modern Art Museum (1991-97). Conceived to “declare the architectural intentions of the place”, its very neutrality made it a standard production item. Manufactured by Casas until 2000, it was again used by Moneo for the Barcelona Auditorium and the San Sebastian Kursaal.
Even the traditional-looking Panticosa chair, designed for the bookstore of the Leuven Catholic University (2000) was industrially produced by the Valencia company Punt Mobles until 2002. But although some of his creations did become industrial series for a short period, no manufacturer has ever approached Moneo to design another project. Not even those that usually invite architects to reproduce their architecture on a smaller scale. However, although declaring himself a designer only to attain greater precision and illustrate his architectural intentions, Moneo is paradoxically an important promoter of design. In 1997, he co-founded BD Ediciones of Madrid, which over some 25 years has organised numerous exhibitions, published catalogues, and was the first in Spain to present key designers like Marco Zanuso, Carlo Scarpa and Jasper Morrison. Moneo has never succumbed to the temptation to design for BD Ediciones, however, convinced that others are better able to delivery good results for the brand. A confirmation this of his view that the two disciplines require different skills and have different objectives. Which doesn’t mean that the two cannot sit side by side, or that design is not the object of great fascination. Architects and designers spring from the same creative culture, even if they pursue different end points. The book concludes with a pointed quote in which Moneo sums up the importance of the inter-disciplinary approach, not so much as a means of self-enrichment but as an unconscious substrate from which the architect can draw. But there is no revolving door linking the two. Each discipline has its own specific competence requirements. Architects may benefit from a knowledge of what is going on in other fields, but their work is essentially and inevitably to create architecture.
Further comment would be superfluous!
(1*) Juli Capella, Rafael Moneo. Diseñador. Santa&Cole, 2003