An interview with one of our favorite designers, Nacho Carbonell

Nacho! Nacho! Nacho!

By Anna Carnick

Nacho Carbonell sees his objects as potential living organisms – creatures that may, at any moment, come to life and surprise us. The Spanish-born, Eindhoven-based designer draws observers in through character- and story-driven work that straddles the natural and imaginary, providing opportunities for interaction and reflection. Carbonell describes his design ethos, saying “I want to create objects with a fictional or fantasy element, that allow you to escape everyday life.”

Carbonell first turned heads with his 2007 graduate project for the Design Academy Eindhoven, Pump It Up, an air- and foam-filled chair that assumes the shape of its user’s body at the same time that one’s weight “pumps up” a connected flock of inflatable creatures.

Six years later, the highly animated designer continues to explore the ideas of connectivity and interdependence through pieces that blend craft, design, and art, including: Evolution, a series of public-space furniture that both contemplates our ability to live together and offers refuge from today’s “excess of information”; Tree Chair, a chair that desperately aspires to be a tree; and Luciferase, a series of primitive “light-producing creatures” inspired by a photon-producing enzyme present in the luminous organs of certain flora and fauna.

Carbonell sat down to discuss his path to becoming a designer, his process, and how he sees the designer’s role in the world today.

Anna Carnick: When did you first realize you wanted to be a designer?

Nacho Carbonell: It’s something that just happened, really. All my life, I’d been a pretty bad student. So when I finished high school, I didn’t know what my next step should be. Luckily, my family had hosted an exchange student from the U.S. the year before, and he invited me to move to Goshen, Indiana – a very small town.

We live in a world that is rapidly changing, thanks to technology, and the role of the designer is to help people understand these changes and to feel comfortable with them. AC: Was that your first time in the U.S.?

NC: Yes. I was eighteen, and since I had already graduated, I spent six months over there taking classes at the local high school, which I actually enjoyed – ceramics, photography, and woodworking – and I was really inspired. They all involved handwork, which I think was an important aspect of my interest.

When I came back to Spain, I had no idea what design was. But, thanks to my mom, I went to check out the local design school [Cardenal Herrera University], and once I saw that they had a ceramics room, a photography room, and a woodworking space, I knew I was in my environment. I felt motivated by school for the first time in my life, and I dove in. By the end of the first year, it was very clear to me that this was my field.

AC: After undergrad, you went on to attend Design Academy Eindhoven. After school, you had the opportunity to intern with some pretty accomplished designers also. What did you learn from working with Vincent de Rijk and Joris Laarman?

NC: With Vincent, I really learned how to work with my hands, and about how valuable time is, and how hard you need to work to truly make things happen.

And when I started with Joris, he was also a very recent graduate. He was a young guy who started very strong, and I really wanted to learn from and absorb his amazing energy. I helped him develop a few projects, and it was very inspiring to see such a young person handle this level of work. It’s turned out to be a great reference, so I could say to myself, ‘I also can do that!’

AC: How long has your own studio been open?

NC: I graduated in February of 2007, and basically the day after I finished, I began developing my studio. I’ve been working 24/7 ever since.

AC: How would you describe your studio space and culture?

NC: We moved about a year and a half ago into a new location. The space made it very easy to organize ourselves into many different departments. My studio is basically a research center where we develop materials and pieces. There’s a metalwork area, a woodworking area, a chemical working area, and a wet room – where we work with plasters, concrete, and things like that – and then there’s another corner that we use more and more to work with textiles. We also have a central area, where I like to see how the experiments from all those different departments can come together to create the final objects.

Concerning my team, I see them as part of my own family.  We spend the whole day together, starting at 9 o’clock with breakfast. It’s an easy way to start the day - and it helps make sure everyone’s on time! I give my brief for the day, talking about the goals we need to achieve. Food is always important – I feel like this comes from the Spanish culture. We gather again for lunch, and one person cooks every day for the whole team. We normally have around 10 people, so for some this is kind of challenging but we all get used to it and it’s a good way to get to know each other better. And since we feel comfortable, we can survive all the extra work hours together. [laughs]

AC: That’s great. How do you think your work has evolved in the past six years?

NC: I’ve always tried to find my limits. When I graduated, I felt like I’d achieved my limits with my Pump It Up project. And after six years, I feel like that first piece could still be my masterpiece. So I’m always eager to see if I can do something better. It keeps me busy and active, as in: How can we beat our own record?

AC: How do you see the role of the designer in the world today?

NC: For me, a designer must be a very analytical person – always aware of what’s happening, examining social behaviors, and finding new ways to adapt to our environments. I think we live in a world that is rapidly changing, thanks to technology, and that the role of the designer is to help people understand these changes and to feel comfortable with them.

AC: What makes you happiest as a designer?

NC: To create things. And the idea that, at the end of the day, you can look at an object that you’ve created with your team – one that came from an idea in your head that’s been able to grow and mature. I feel that’s the biggest satisfaction a creative person can have.

AC: And how do you balance your work and life schedule? Or does it all kind of merge into one?

NC: Unfortunately – or fortunately – yes. It’s so difficult to make a division between your private life and your work. If I’m developing a new piece, I can’t just go home and quit until the next day; your mind is always working. And when you have a deadline, it’s not only your mind, but also your body that needs to be working. So, because you want to see this thing created, and created in a good way and on time, you cannot compromise – at least I cannot. I can’t say, ‘Okay, I’ll close down, and just finish tomorrow.’

AC: Let’s talk about some of the themes in your work. Can you elaborate on the importance of interaction and connectivity – how we relate to one another, and to objects, and our environments?

NC: I feel like we are all linked together. Somehow, we are linked with nature and we are linked with art.

Sometimes, we become obsessed with our possessions. I like to analyze this obsession – which occurs not with one another, but with the objects we are surrounded by. I like to ask, ‘Why is this happening?’. That goes back, I believe, to my Pump It Up project and this idea that we are all dominated by our desire for objects, but objects themselves never really desire us. I mean, an object doesn’t need us to exist, but it seems that we need some objects – say, a walking stick to be able to walk better, or a phone to communicate. In this case, I wanted to make the object desire or need us somehow in order to show its beauty and function. And I wanted to create a real symbiosis between user and object, so that both benefit.

This idea of linking has stayed with me, and I try to use it as a thread or spine to connect all my work.

AC: Much of your work also seems to provide opportunities for refuge from the world around us, either physically or intellectually – through playful, story-driven pieces. Can you talk about the role that escapism or the concept of a refuge plays in your work?

Nacho Carbonell at work Image © Studio Nacho Carbonell
I would not call it escaping, really; for me, it’s more about the idea of self-reflection or an opportunity to get to know yourself much better. Once you really know yourself, you’re better able to communicate with the rest of the world.

I feel like this comes from my personal experience. For example, moving from Spain to Holland – from a place where I had an established network to a place where I can sometimes feel quite alone, because I see things in a very different context – was a very important and introspective change for me. It helped me to know myself better, and to come out of my cocoon as a stronger character.

Maybe my first major introspective trip was the six months I spent in Goshen, Indiana. Over there I felt very lonely as well. Or perhaps I don’t wish to say lonely, but it was a time for me to develop myself as a person, away from any influence of the familiar – my family, friends, and community that normally surround me. Because in the end, I feel like if you don’t explore things for yourself, then you’re always just going to be pushed and shaped by the things that surround you. So my pieces are trying to talk about this idea, and to say: ‘Okay, who are you really? Be with yourself for some time, and don’t be afraid to discover who you really are,’ you know?

AC: Absolutely. Just out of curiosity, when you came to the U.S. for the first time, did you speak English very well at that point?

NC: No, I spoke even worse than now. [laughs]

AC: You speak great now!

NC: My level of English was really low, but I managed to communicate with people.

AC: That’s interesting, too. I imagine that the language barrier added another element of separation or independence to your experience there.

I think I’m kind of like a marine biologist who strayed somehow. NC: Exactly. It gives you even more the perspective of being in your own bubble. Imagine, I’ve been living in Holland for about eight years, and I don’t speak the language. Some people are really shocked and surprised by that – and, sometimes when I think about it, even I am. But my studio is completely international, I came to an international school, and my wife and I came together. I’ve tried to learn the language a couple times and couldn’t. It was too hard for me. So right now I live in a kind of parallel reality from normal life or society in Holland. You go to the supermarket and you don’t know if they are talking to you or not, so you have all the time for yourself, for your brain, with no interruptions.

When I go to Spain, I feel like I almost have a bit of a superpower, you know, because I get into conversations with the people surrounding me. Right now, for example, the mood in Spain is very low, depressed; people are unhappy that they don’t have jobs, they don’t have this or that. So all these things affect you. Here, I don’t know what people are talking about next to me. Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to this.

AC: Nature, biology, and narrative often overlap in your work, resulting in characters like Tree Chair or Bush of Iron. Some are otherworldly, and others are almost primitive creatures. How do you see the role of nature or biology in your work?

NC: I think I’m kind of like a marine biologist who strayed somehow. That’s the only thing I could imagine becoming when I was in the high school, because I love the sea and I could imagine myself swimming with dolphins somehow. [laughs] But, to become a biologist one must study a lot, and I was not into so many books at that time. So, I think this passion for nature just comes through my hands when I create these objects that have both fantasy and natural aspects. I see some of the objects almost as a character or a personality – we can see them as our pets, even. So, consciously or unconsciously, the objects are full of a sense of life that comes close to nature.

AC: Do you see yourself as a storyteller?

NC: A storyteller? Yes, because I feel like I need to justify and understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. I tell the story to myself, and if it’s worth it to tell it to the rest of the world, that’s when the object is born.

Tree Chair, for example, is this nice fairytale that explains how I conceived the idea of a chair that wants to be something else. The chair relates to us and it relates to another object. To me, the Tree Chair story is about a chair that asks itself, ‘Where do I come from? Where do I want to be?’, and one day, looking through a window, it discovers that a tree outside is made of wood, and then the chair realizes that she is also made of that same material. Something clicks in her brain, and she thinks, ‘Okay, I want to be like my parent, the tree,’ so she pushes herself very, very high to copy that tree. She realizes, too, that the tree gives shelter to insects, animals and birds, and so she makes a cocoon for herself as well. But a chair cannot be a tree completely, of course, so this is our interpretation of a chair wishing to be like a tree.

For me, this story justifies adding another chair into the world. I don’t think there’s a need for another normal chair; we already have so many beautiful chairs designed over and over again.

AC: You seem to get a lot of joy from material experimentation as well. What drives you in terms of materials selection and development?

NC: Well, you need to find the right material to tell your story. Tree Chair would not be Tree Chair without loose sawdust and leaves. In this case, the justification of the material is completely valid because it blends together nature and industry – the leaves from nature, the sawdust as a kind of industrial waste – to tell the story. These two universes come together to create the story.

It’s the same, for example, with the Evolution pieces. Paper is a medium from which we get our news, so we wanted to use it to create something that talks about our actions within our society. We created a shelter out of paper to incorporate this idea of being able to reflect on what we are reading.

AC: Sometimes, it’s unclear to audiences whether they’re looking at a piece of furniture, or a sculpture, or a creature, or a unique combination of all the above. Is that playful ambiguity important to you, or is it just a by-product of the process?

NC: Sometimes, I’ve got to say, we don’t know what we are doing exactly. [laughs] I don’t believe in labels, and so it’s also kind of a game I’m playing with the public, to make them wonder, ‘What is it?’. I’m not going to give the answer, but the piece is there and I think it has a reason to exist.

It doesn’t matter if it’s called ‘contemporary art’ or ‘design’. I feel like the labels are marketing tools somehow: If you call it contemporary art and you place it in a specific context, you establish a certain value. If you place it somewhere else, it has a completely different value, no? Say a chair: If it’s functional, then that means it’s not art, and then it needs to have a certain value. But if it’s just a block of rubbish it can be called art, because whoever says ‘This is art’ is there, and then it has different value. So, I’m playing also with these kinds of questions – the value of objects, the value of the label, and of handcraft – all my pieces have a tremendous amount of hand labor behind them as well. So what do you call a piece that is functional but also has an amazing amount of hand craftsmanship behind it? What is it? I don’t know. It becomes an object, a creation, and maybe other people can break their brains over it and name it or label it, but I don’t want to.

AC:That seems fair. Are there any dream projects out in the world for you right now?

NC: My dream project is always the next one, but I would also say, as a more personal project, it would be to create a studio with basically no limits, a place where my team and I can explore and find constantly new ways of doing things – a studio where we can really explore our limits. That would be my dream.

AC: It sounds like you’re on your way there.

NC: Well, we’re trying. And we are definitely working hard for it! [laughs]


*This interview has been condensed and edited.

  • Interview by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.

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