Michael Anastassiades ‘Things that Go Together’
In the midst of organising a career retrospective at the Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre in 2019, Cyprus-born designer Michael Anastassiades scrapped all the scenography plans. Instead, he displayed more than 100 objects— lights, tables, collections of stones and tools, models for a drinking fountain—more democratically, in casual groupings on the floor. No plinths. No display cases. No chronological order. Visitors could weave among the constellation as they pleased. There was no set path. The gesture was a fitting one for a show called ‘Things that Go Together’, which reflected on 12 years of the designer’s practice. By dissolving the barriers between human and object; the collectable and the everyday, Anastassiades created a fluid space—not unlike his London studio—where everything could talk to each other. With the show as a jumping off point, art critic and curator Alessandro Rabottini spoke to Anastassiades about respecting objects, letting go a little (particularly when it comes to stubborn house plants), and why ‘It is OK for all things to exist together’.
Photography by OSMA HARVILAHTI Interview by ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: When I finally visited your exhibition in Cyprus, the title that you chose, Things that Go Together, made immediate sense to me: pieces of furniture, objects, and nonfunctional creations were literally sitting next to each other, and the whole experience was very immersive. This is something that we take for granted when it comes to art exhibitions, but much less so when we look at how design is displayed: starting from the early 1960s, in fact, and especially with minimalism, artists took their sculptures off the plinth and put them directly on the floor, creating a very physical relationship between the viewer and the space. It is a paradox that in design exhibitions it’s actually the other way around: you take an object that you would usually use every day and put it on a plinth, framing it and distancing it from its existence in the world.
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: That is exactly the reason why I took away the plinths, because for me these are products, everyday objects to be used. It is about being able to come close to the objects and accessing them for what they really are, rather than elevating them to become something that they shouldn’t really be. I wanted to remove the added value that is implicit in the pedestal and let the viewer interact with the objects in different ways, standing above them, looking at them all around, in different settings and from different heights, rather than having a very controlled view, because that’s how you experience real products in real life.
IC Lights Floor
"I wanted to remove the added value that is implicit in the pedestal and let the viewer interact with the objects in different ways, standing above them, looking at them all around, in different settings and from different heights, rather than having a very controlled view, because that’s how you experience real products in real life. " -
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: You also installed the pieces in relation to each other, by creating a micro-constellation of objects within a larger orchestration of things, so that we can navigate the exhibition not only through the sequence of rooms but also through conceptual and formal clusters. There is no distinction or hierarchy between functional objects and purely conceptual experimentations, between product design and artistic output.
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: Although every object in the show is carefully positioned where it needs to be, I also wanted to allow the perception of things happening accidentally. We all experience products every day through different lenses and in different contexts, and one can be surprised when unexpected associations between things happen. When you position an object next to another, you let that object get away from its perceived function and you let it perform a different life.
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: Like telling a story, in a way.
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: I have always been very inter- ested in building a relationship with an object that goes beyond its function, a more psychological relationship, a level of discovery that almost deepens a form of de- pendency with that object. And this is something that I have explored not only and more evidently with the initial ‘conceptual’ works that I did in the mid-1990s but also with the more ‘functional’ products that came after, trying to expand the way we define an object and its obvious performance. If you take, for example, the Anti-Social Light (2001), it responds to the envi- ronment in a very specific way: it operates as a normal light with the difference that it only glows when there’s absolute silence, so it does not allow you to talk around it. At the time, that was a way for me to highlight the relationship that we can develop with products beyond their perceived function, and later on I started asking myself how, as a product designer, I could explore and respect the behaviour of an object.
"I see it as a psychological interdependence that we have with objects that goes beyond a functional dependence." - Anastassiades
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: This makes me think of Andrea Branzi’s theoretical approach to design and the way he has been advocating for an anthropological understanding of our relationship with objects for decades now. Through his extensive production of essays, he has been tracing a history of objects that is above all a history of the relationship that we, as human beings, establish with objects. This relationship goes way beyond what you define as ‘perceived function’ and views objects more as vehicles for a deeper understanding of our existence in the world, objects that don’t exist as mere ‘tools’ but that are charged with imagination and affection.
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: I see it as a psychological interdependence that we have with objects that goes beyond a functional dependence. Traditionally, designers are supposed to respond through their products to a specific need and purpose, but I think that it is interesting to look at a lateral side of things and to bring these suggestions into the product, whether they are consciously being incorporated in the process or not. There is a complexity that exists in the world around the product which is fascinating and that can infiltrate its function and enrich it.
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: During your formative years, this concern for the psychological value of objects of daily use led to radical experimentations. How did this translate into your practice when you started working as a product designer?
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: When I design, I try to conceive products with as many layers as possible, with the hope that also just one of those layers will speak to someone—and it will of course speak very differently to you and to somebody else because, as humans, we are all different. Through the years, I have worked very consciously with this idea of adding layers of complexity, making people think that an object can function beyond its expected behaviour, and now this process happens to me almost spontaneously. When in 1994 I did Message Cup, the idea was to twist its expected performance into another dimension, by turning a cup into a communication tool. But at the same time speech comes from the mouth, and you drink with it; words come from a place where we take in food. All these initial metaphors and associations became part of my working process, and now they are an almost subconscious part of it, in the way they get externalised even when I design ‘normal’ products.
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: And would you say that your initial experience in limited edition design—with the establishment of your own company in 1994—helped you to nurture this creative and experimental complex- ity and bring it into the field of product design?
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: There is an element of truth in what you say, but I believe the ultimate challenge is to conceive industrial products that retain the same sense of excitement and surprise that you would find in an experimental project. At the beginning of my career, limited edition design was purely a matter of economics: I wanted to express my language in a certain way, despite the fact that I was not an established designer. Some projects remained as unique pieces, while in some cases they were slightly more successful and I would produce a handful of them. But in general the way of producing those objects ended up being quite expensive, so the audience that could actually purchase them was limited. So my experience with limited edition design is purely based on economics, even if at times it still enables me to realise certain ideas with a degree of freedom. But, to be honest, I am not a believer in limited edition pieces per se.
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: I think you made this point very clear in the show by eliminating any distinction whatsoever between limited edition and industrial design, but also between functional and nonfunctional creations. But if you had to think of one product that marked the moment when you were able to take the conceptual investigation of your formative years and carry it into industrial design, which would it be?
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: That moment came when I had the opportunity to produce something on an industrial scale for the first time, so that would be my first collaboration with Flos, with String Lights in 2013, which conceptually marked a new way of looking at lighting.
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: When I first saw String Lights I still didn’t know you personally and I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is bringing site-specificity into industrially produced lighting!’ Because, of course, coming from an art background myself, that lighting system immediately made me think of Fred Sandback’s minimalist installations of elastic cords that he started making towards the end of the 1960s, which was a way to create space almost out of nothing. In a text that he wrote in 1986 about his initial output 20 years before he said, ‘The first sculpture I made with a piece of string and a little wire, was the outline of a rectangular solid—a 2x4 inch—lying on the floor. It was a casual act, but it seemed to open up a lot of possibilities for me. I could assert a certain place or volume in its full materiality without occupying and obscuring it’.1
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: Precisely, defining space in the most invisible way. Even though, I must say, Sand- back’s work hasn’t been a direct reference for me; I was more interested in light as a form of definition of space.
ALESSANDRO RABOTTINI: I think that, once again, referring to minimalism as an artistic movement is very pertinent here, if we also consider collections such as One Well-Known Sequence (2015–17), Lit Lines (2011), Tube Wall Light (2006), and Tube Chandelier (2006), together with your most recent presentation with Flos at Euroluce 2019 (Coordinates). And I am not just thinking here of the obvious reference to Dan Flavin’s neon works, but, more deeply, I am thinking of your re-current use of one module as a repeated element within a rhythmical structure, and of the use of bare materials and technologies often exposed in their structural es-sence. Both these formal and conceptual strategies are essential to minimalism and its investigation of space.
MICHAEL ANASTASSIADES: At the beginning of my career as a lighting designer, normal bulbs were still around, so what defined my language was very much what was available at that time. It was fascinating to look at those bulbs—that have been manufactured in the same way for over 50 years—and to understand how to use them in a different way. Since the bulbs came in many sizes, they quickly became for me a unit of measurement, a way to explore the space. I decided to focus on the one-metre linear bulb as a form to interact with space. Art is, of course, a big part of my life and I have always been aware of certain references, but they never became explicit in my work. Consciously or not, you absorb information and filter it through your own personal experience, and when you finally formalise your ideas, those references may have changed inside you. That’s why it was so interesting for me to transi- tion my ideas into String Lights, because it allowed me to extend into industrial production and into architecture what I was already exploring with my own brand. The obsession of interacting with the space and measuring it was there, but now I could insert an element of improvisation via the string, which has always been traditionally used as a tool to measure and draw in three dimensions.