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Studio Michael Anastassiades

London: Once you start to think about it, you realise that lighting design is absolutely central to the way we experience the world. An ill-positioned street lamp creates a pocket of darkness to shroud illicit activity. A cosy corner is neither cosy nor, visibly, a corner, until a little lamp illuminates it. Which had gone more or less completely over my head until I buried myself in Michael Anastassiades’s body of work. Now, everything looks quite different.

Born in Cyprus and based for a long time now in London, Michael’s work is by no means limited to lighting design, though those graphic, characterful compositions play a large role in what he does. Working at the intersection of design and art, he creates product, furniture, and environmental design, making pieces which are rigorous, playful, pure, abstract, nuanced, and evocative, and often all at once.

Michael studied civil engineering at Imperial College, followed by industrial design at the Royal College of Art, and founded his eponymous studio in 1994. Some of his early pieces toyed joyfully with ideas about interactivity: the Anti-Social Light, created in 2001, works only in complete silence, for example, while the Social Light, made that same year, switches on when people around it are speaking. As his practice has evolved, so too have these layers of meaning. Newer works demand interaction in quieter ways: String Lights, a minimal pendant suspended from a long, fine cable, created for Flos in 2013, permits or even demands that its owner create their own minimalist composition, using its length to divide up space in endless formations. There’s an interaction which anthropomorphises his works, inserting unexpected new emotional reactions into what might otherwise be just a very nice object. They are held, unsurprisingly, in museums around the world.

Michael and his team have been based in their bright north London studio (no shadows here) for a few years. Sitting in the centre of it, we talked about nature, reflecting, exhibiting, prototyping, and his ever-growing collection of stones, among other things.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades

Michael, you are fresh out of a ‘year of review’—first with your exhibition, ‘Things that Go Together’, at NiMac in Cyprus, and then through the accompanying book. How do you feel now, emerging from that into 2020?

It was an important moment. I think it’s important to stop and look back at your work. Because when you’re creating, you’re always looking ahead to the next thing. You always think the next piece you’re going to make, or the next creative thing you’re going to do, is going to be better than the one before. We never stop and look back on what we’ve createdor at least, we don’t do it often. Looking back at a chunk of work made over a ten-year span is quite unusual. When you get that opportunity, it’s a scary moment. You suddenly feel that you’re going to be assessed by somebody, you know. I think at the end of the day we’re scared of our own criticism.

And in an exhibition format, you don’t know who’s going to come and pass judgement.

It’s not so much that. I think you always have that fear that the evolution is going to be so obviousthe difference between old work and new work. You worry it’s just not going to fit together. That’s actually the scariest bit, the biggest fear I had. How do you actually put it all together in one space? The safest option is to look at your work chronologically, because you’ve grown, and it’s easy to show that growing process. In an exhibition, that seemed like an obvious thing to do. You guide the audience through the work.

And did you present the works chronologically?

No, I didn’t. First I was trying to create one specific route through the exhibition; I wanted to have full control over the viewer. Then I realised it felt too forced, somehow, so I tried to create a subtler differentiation, by introducing a layer of plinths. By this time, we had exhausted all the different possibilities of establishing a hierarchy between the objects. My work is so diverse, across all sorts of different levels, from production, to limited edition, to one-off pieces. That felt complicated!

The biggest revelation was when I said, ‘You know what? Everything on the floor. Let’s remove all the plinths. I don’t want any of that stuff’. It was as if you had unpacked the crates and the objects had landed where they were positioned. I felt free, all of a sudden. That level of freedom was the biggest satisfaction. But I had to go through this whole process.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades

Do you approach your exhibitions in the same way that you approach your projects in the studio?

You have to, because it’s the way you view things. But the problem is, there’s too much of it, and it’s work you’re very familiar with.

It seems to me that one of the greatest challenges a designer faces is in trying to keep their eyes fresh, trying to maintain that objectivity. You have a wealth of knowledge that you’ve built over the years, and yet you need enough perspective to see all the possibilities. How do you do that?

You just need to create distance. That’s always the trick. Rushing into something is the biggest mistake you can make, because then there’s the biggest danger that the project is not going to work.

And that distance comes in the form of time?

Yes, space and time. You need to physically step back, leave it, and then look at it again and again. You need to insert those intervals. The problem is that you’re always working on a deadline, and sometimes it’s not possible to do that. In the case of the exhibition, it was absolutely not possible to do that. You are so familiar with the work that you can’t actually create distance from it. You’ve done it, it’s finished. Also, you can’t change it anymore.

You can’t do a Jeff Koons and pop in with your paintbrush, touching up the pieces as they hang on the walls?

It’s very tricky.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades

How has this time of reflection recontextualised your work, for you?

It was a discovery that this idea I’d had, about how everything new is going to be better, or different—it’s not true. There was no difference in the language of the old and the new work. Not that there is no evolution, because I believe as creatives we do evolve. But it wasn’t about being harmonious. I hate that word, ‘harmony’.

Why?

The idea of harmony, I don’t see that as a positive in creativity. You need to surprise people. If things sit comfortably, that’s the wrong achievement.

What’s the right achievement?

Whenever you look back at your work, it needs to give you something; you need to feel something. You can achieve that through layering. I’m not talking about visual complexity, I’m talking conceptual layering, into the object. Every time you see the object, you discover something. Suddenly, when you see it all together after all these years, it surprises you. Even if you’ve seen it hundreds of times, it still needs to give you something. That’s really important, I think, in my design process. I want to have that—and for people who experience these objects to have that, too. And to have their own interpretation, and things I haven’t thought of.

Does it give you pleasure to see the way people receive your work?

From the moment you release a product, you are open to criticism.

And product design is such a democratic medium to choose, because you’re creating objects which will exist in other people’s lives.

And hopefully for a long period of time.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.

There’s a theme which emerges in the book, and in your practice more broadly, of the ways that objects have human qualities.

That was the beginning, really, of my research into design: what I wanted from design, how I saw design, what I wanted design to be at that time. It was really important to add that layer of complexity in the way you relate psychologically to an object—beyond, say, its physical attributes, or how you want it to function. Adding this layer, sort of an emotional functionality, is essential. In some cases it was involving electronics. Suddenly, there is an unexpected quality to an object, which gives it almost a behavioural function.

There’s the Message Cup, which I designed, and the Anti-Social Light, and the Alarm Clock Table. Suddenly you need to respect that peculiarity about the object, to get it to work with you. It exists, already, in our everyday lives. I made it obvious by highlighting that complexity, but it does exist. Sometimes things don’t work the way you expect them to, and you find ways to trick them. You come up with all these tricks for your washing machine, for example, if it’s suddenly not behaving the way it was before: say, you’ve discovered that if I do this, I’ll trick it, and then I can get it to work. That’s a very blunt way of looking at it, but that psychology exists. You trick a person, you trick a pet, but usually you don’t trick objects.

It’s like applying those interpersonal relationships to your inanimate world.

It’s interesting when you add that layer of complexity to a relationship you have with your products.

That’s fun! Do you find yourself looking for these experiences in your own everyday life, with things you use?

Absolutely.

What kinds of things?

Well, everything. You know that idea of animating an object, giving it a character. Even if you give it a name, suddenly you see it in a different way. It’s kind of a fiction—you imagine things to be different to what they normally are.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades

Tell me more about your process.

It’s different for every product. It’s very difficult to describe. It’s almost instinctive. There is a moment when you see the object differently, and then it clicks. You say, ‘That’s what it needs to do’. You realise it couldn’t have been anything else.

That process of elimination again?

Yes, it’s partly that. It’s tricky, and it’s instinctive. Early on in my career I used to draw bubble diagrams to explore relationships and try to link them up. If this was like this, and this was related to that, then what would happen? Through this imaginary process, which was almost mathematical, I was arriving at a lot of surprising relationships and results and complexities. Now it comes more instinctively. I don’t draw bubble diagrams anymore. I just feel that, yes, this makes sense. I see it happening, and when you look at my work now, which for a lot of people might seem different to the interactive work that I was describing before, it’s much more challenging to see that layering, that psychological complexity. Because it’s not so obvious, you know? In that early work you’re adding a layer of interactivity, you’re asking your cup to speak, you’re asking your light to interact with sound. It’s very obvious, it’s there, it’s very easy to discover it. Yes, it’s poetic, it’s beautiful. In other things, these layers are much subtler.

They’re almost deeper, it seems. Like layers of rock forming over time. They’ve become compacted.

Yes. I see them as embedded in the language of the product. They’re there, and some people might discover them, and some people might not.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades

You work a lot with prototypes and models.

Yes. I sketch a lot, so I have all these sketchbooks, and they’re easy. It’s just a practical thing, I can carry it everywhere, I can sketch in the places where I find myself, on a plane or in an airport lounge. I wish I could actually make things while I travel, but it’s almost impossible to do.

Where did this urge to make things come from?

I remember as a child growing up, I always liked to pick things up and make them into something—from a chocolate wrapper, or a root from the beach, to dried grass, or whatever. It’s interesting, that need to make something. That physicality, for me, was the key. Suddenly, drawing had to replace that activity—which is fine, because it’s also a skill that you need to cultivate, and it works. What I try to do is eliminate the steps between the sketch and the final product. That’s why I like to make a lot—rather than drawing first, then putting it in 3D, and rotating, spinning it. That is the part which is the most dangerous.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Early sketches of One Well Known Sequence floor lamps, 2015. Developed into limited edition collection One Well Known Sequence, produced for Nilufar Gallery, Milan.
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Sketch of Mobile Chandelier 14, 2017. Product part of Michael Anastassiades Unlimited Collection. Released at Salone del Mobile in 2019.

In what respect?

In the sense of not really getting it right. The spontaneity that exists in making something—the rest is just too calculated for me. You eliminate all the spontaneous moments. I’m not saying that you cannot have spontaneity in 3D, because you can have accidents there, too, and they’re interesting. The problem is that it’s less likely for accidents to happen in that way. Three-dimensionality adds more opportunity for accidents.

Do you keep all of your prototypes?

We try. Sometimes there’s a space problem.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades

Tell me about your collection of stones.

It started from a childhood obsession with picking things up, everywhere I went. It seemed that they were the easiest things to steal, from nature. It’s right there! And I was also fascinated with the role of nature as a designer.

What do you mean?

The fact that it’s an object, and nature made it that way. I was fascinated with that idea. There you are, picking something up that was not made by a machine, that was not designed by a person. It’s finished, it’s ready, you can use it. If you look back, the earliest pieces of design are probably those Neolithic tools that people used—that’s how old design is.

Your collection of stones has continued to influence the way that you work.

Yes. Although they look similar, they’re not; there are so many subtle things that you can discover through them. Not only the shape of it, the layering of it, the formation of it, the lines that exist because of the layering, the hardness, the softness. Look at this stone—it looks like it’s diseased, almost.

Where do you keep your collection?

Well, unfortunately I can’t live with all of it, because I don’t have that much space. So a lot of it is stored in crates. A lot of these objects were in my house. Some of them were in my studio. It just depends. The exhibition was a good moment to actually document it, and now I know exactly how many I have! I thought it was an impossible task, but everything is documented, everything is archived. It’s interesting because suddenly all these stones acquire value or status, somehow.

Yours is a curator’s role, building these collections.

What was beautiful about the exhibition was that room and that space, displaying a mixture of things, and my collections, things that feel accidental, that you picked up. From a leaf that fell from this tree and dried, to something that I made, to something that I found, to some of these objects that I’ve collected over the years.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Exhibition Things that Go Together held at NiMAC, from March 7 to July 20, 2019, in Nicosia, Cyprus.

What’s this one?

This is a plaster head by Eduardo Paolozzi. He gave it to me while I was studying at the Royal College. He was doing a residency there, in the ceramics department, and I was working in the ceramics department. He was a very grumpy man, he never even used to say ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’ to me. Often it was just me and him, in the same room, and one day he came in with a tray full of these heads, and said, ‘Would you like one? Just pick one up!’

I wonder if he came to a conclusion about you, based on your choice.

Well, they all looked pretty much the same, but somehow it felt right. When he died a few years ago, people went into his studio and found all of these plaster-cast models. I started buying them. A lot of them. So it was quite interesting to add to that collection.

Laid flat they look like a utopian city.

It’s interesting when you see these things that look kind of like geological ruins, but then you see them in the context of other things. It’s all about collecting, and what you find interesting at that particular moment. Even models that you make, or tools that you find.

Where do you find them?

I buy stones on eBay.

Really! I’d love to know what your Google alerts are.

Round stones, maybe? It’s amazing! If you say, ‘I bought this from eBay,’ people will say, ‘Are you mad?’ I like that idea, that suddenly you’re adding value to something. Even if I bought it for a pound, or 50p, and the postage costs more—the idea that somebody is selling that stone, that there is even a market for it. You’re bidding, even! Against somebody else!

Do you listen to music while working?

Not really, no, because then I focus on the music and I can’t actually work.

What kind of environment do you need to do the work that you do?

It doesn’t matter anymore. I daydream, and I can do that anywhere. Whether I’m with people or by myself. It’s a state, a frame of mind. If they locked me up in a room, I’d still do the same.

Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
Apartamento Magazine - Studio Michael Anastassiades
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