A UFO for a Martian
UFO dla Marsjanina

Kuba Szczęsny talks with Ula Siemion about his experiments with concrete cloth

At the beginning of your work for Rooted Design your staring point was an idea for a piece of furniture in which you can hide, which is partly a hiding place. How did you come up with an idea for a furniture like that for a residency?

The idea of a place where you can hide has been on my mind for a few years. It is related to the way one functions in places with a lot of people where one finds oneself from time to time and from which one would like to get away. Sometimes you wish to half-hide, which means to participate in a bigger space with people and at the same time to have a small place to hide for a while. It’s like being in a bigger space, a studio where there are several people. This is why I’ve always liked furniture designed by Eero Aarnio, especially Bell Chair and Egg Chair which is exactly such a place to hide. It is a warm semicircular space.

photo: Tomasz Budzyń
All right, but tell me where the idea for the structure on which you worked from the very beginning came from?
It sprang from my interest in the structural possibilities of materials which are not considered structurally valuable by architects. These are usually textiles, the qualities of which, such as softness, response to pressure, changes of temperature or wind, produce very interesting aesthetic effects. On the other hand, to make this type of material at least partly self-carrying, somehow against gravity, is a great challenge. I began with traditional techniques of producing three-dimensional objects from light materials, like paper, to the latest textile composites. First, we have very interesting traditions such as different types of 16th century ruffs, Dutch or Elizabethan, anyway ruffs were used for quite a long time. Besides, searching further, I thought for a long time what kind of material could have qualities that would enable it to carry itself as well as a human being. The seat is meant to carry at least 100 kilograms. And hence my long experiments with different ways of shaping leather, carpets and pvc which I like a lot. But none of them proved stiff enough to withstand different shapes. And there’s another important thing for me here, namely the material after being shaped is supposed to carry a human being. It has to be stiff and it cannot be supported by any additional structure.

photo: Kjetil Kausland

And why not?
Because I’m interested in this kind of organic pureness of things. Combined structures function in nature. These are different kinds of symbiotic patterns, sometimes parasitic, but I’m more interested - which is perhaps a modernist burden – in the truth of the material, in the purest expression of its possibilities, which is not supported by anything, there are no lies and no assistance. The fact I managed to find concrete cloth by chance happened in a completely wonderful way.

photo: Jasmina Bosnjak

During your work you departed form the idea of making a hideaway and what you produced has already completely different functions, more pro-social than anti-social. What made you change the project?
Firstly, it happened under the influence of a presentation for artists which took place at an early stage of work. There were two Scandinavian artists who said that this need is not very important from the point of view of artistic practice. Secondly, what struck me and what became important to me was the fact that it was difficult to work outside with the use of classic methods. Because in case of the place where we worked the most important thing was the great landscape. It had an immense influence on people. Now when I live in Schloss Solitude I don’t have such landscapes to look at. Such great dramatic perspectives. It was very suggestive, the situation was very rare, so the question arose – how to take the work outside and become a part of this landscape. The idea was not to make a negation, a tourist chair, or something alien. Concrete cloth offers such a possibility; it is a kind of pseudo-natural material which when shaped looks like an elephant skin, and which reminds one of stone because it is covered with concrete powder… it was perfect. The more so that we had been surrounded by such an environment, especially granite colossuses.

Photo: Nicolas Grospierre

Your projects realized with Centrala are often rebellious, provocative. Was the element of provocation also present in your work for Rooted Design?
No, it was rather to be a big experiment. The fact that I took part in Rooted Design was a form of experiment. I’m not a designer. I wanted to try to satisfy somebody’s needs in a completely abstract environment, in this case the needs of artists working on residencies who at that time – now I am at a residency myself – were like Martians to me. So, in short, I was to design a UFO for a Martian. I have seen a UFO on illustrations so I know more or less what a UFO is, but in this case I worked with living Martians who had three fingers and who said: I must push these fingers in an interface. And at the same time I had to be myself. So it was an interesting experiment because it let me try to fight some of my convictions, my needs – such as a need for space, and a need to work with a paratextile material – and at the same time to answer the specified needs of a person whom I don’t see everyday, whose life style I don’t know. This is why Rooted was most of all a great experiment. The most luxurious possibility to experiment you can have because I met with no opposition. In most cases experiments entail a possibility or a risk of a disappointment, because simply things can go wrong. The very nature of the experiment makes it possible that there is a group of people who inhibit the experiment even before it is initiated. There was no opposition here. The people we worked with us had a lot of good will and they all wanted to experiment.

At the moment you’re staying at a residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude near Stuttgart. How big is your studio at Schloss?

I suspect it’s about 32 square meters.

Is it a place where you feel well?

So the fact that with a group of architects you make pavilions of concrete cloth is not related to the fact that you need additional space outside to enlarge your small living space?
No, these pavilions are related to Autumn, too. Now it’s this stressful season when a man wants to go outside, eat a lot of vitamins, to see how colours bloom. What’s more, here, at the top of a hill among the woods, we are surrounded with fog. Very often, not only in the morning, but also during the day, the fog is so dense that when you open the window and put your hand outside, you feel it the way you would feel candy floss, which does not encourage you to go outside. And you would feel like.

View of the module of a part of the pavilion wall: construction rules of cutting and folding the concrete cloth surfaces

Can you tell me something more about this pavilion. What function will it have?
It is a kind of game in which architects, mathematicians and geometricians engaged since ages, namely the relation between the surface and density. The point is to create the maximum of density with the minimum of the surface. In this case it’s a textile which we can shape almost freely. We can form it into something which has the shape of a closed space, openwork by necessity. This material is completely unknown. It’s not wood, stone, ferroconcrete, or steel that are related to a particular usage and of which we know what can be made of them. In this case, we don’t know what we can do with this material. So the production of furniture for Rooted was the first time I’ve actually seen this material, which is without specific character, which is changeable, gradual, what’s more, it works according to rules that you discover only when you’re already working with it. What interests us the most at the moment it’s its construction possibilities. To what extent can we play with its strength in relation to its softness when we shape maximal distance from one support and the next. This is why this pavilion is a way to check how this unknown material will work. How much load it can take. So, it’s a real experiment in a place which is made for it, and this experiment began thanks to the task of designing furniture for artist during Rooted Design project.

Sketch: the rules of the process of constructing the installation

Will this pavilion serve anything, or will it become just a structure standing in the open air without any practical function?
There is a function, strictly a pretext, for it is a form of research. And the pretext is that every weekend around the Schloss there is a feast of commercial photographers who take pictures of happy representatives of the middle class, namely the newlyweds. Young couples pose in front of the palace, alternatively by the old oaks that surround it. It is a sort of a Way of the Cross that they go through with the photographers, so we thought that we could add another element to this way, one which would be strange and different from others, and to see how they would react to it. Would they go inside or be photographed in front of this strange pergola. It will be an openwork pavilion. In the sunshine it will look like a pergola or something that gives a fanciful shade. But in fact it’s great to make your own house on a tree, something where you can go, hide, play. There are a lot of children here so for sure it will be used straight away.

View of the installation on the courtyard of Schloss Solitude

photo: from archive of Kuba Szczęsny

Translation: Karolina Kolenda