Konstantin Grcic revisits Mayday, an endlessly adaptable lamp, on its 20th anniversary
Product Mayday Anniversary
Designer Konstantin Grcic
Photography Bastian Achard
Interview Hannah Martin
Mayday is the ultimate task lamp. Created by German designer Konstantin Grcic in 1999, the cone-shaped reflector attached to a handle, a hook, and a wind-up cord, can be hung from a bed post, draped above a kitchen table, or used like a flashlight to find something you lost under the couch. At Grcic’s own Berlin studio, you might find the loveabe lamp hooked to a heating pipe, perched on a bookshelf, or illuminating the designer’s desk as he sketches. To mark more than twenty successful years on the market, Flos introduces an anniversary edition of the lamp in sleek, die cast aluminum. As for the icon’s simple, timeless construction? They left everything exactly the same.
Hannah Martin: So tell me the story of Mayday. What inspired this piece?
Konstantin Grcic: Mayday was really a self-initiated brief. It was a lamp I wanted to have for myself—a lamp that I felt should be something like a tool. A tool is an object that fulfills a function—a very concrete function—and normally its form explains the function. That’s what makes a tool so beautiful. You see it and you understand what it is and how to use it. I also wanted a lamp that had no fixed destination. It’s neither a pendant lamp above a table or a bedside lamp or a garage lamp. It’s none of that but all of it at the same time. It’s a very versatile lamp. In the office I have the first mock-up I made at the time. It looks very different from the final lamp, but it still has certain features—the hook, the spikes for winding up a long cable. The long cable was something that was so clear to me. Today you would simply eliminate the cable and have a rechargeable battery but twenty years ago that was unthinkable.
Hannah Martin: How did you imagine it being used?
Konstantin Grcic: There was a drawing I made which shows a floor, two walls, and a ceiling. You can use the lamp in any of these orientations. You can hang it from the ceiling, you can hang it on the wall, you can put it on the floor. And in all of these applications, there is more than one way to use it. By giving the lamp something like a handle, I also saw it like a torch. Even though it was hanging on a cable it was long enough that you could use it that way. Over the years, I would see people using it on social media; I would go into someone’s house and see a Mayday lamp. People would tell me about theirs and what they do with it. Everyone has their own story with it. That’s really the success of it. It’s a lamp that, even though it is quite specific, is more like an offering. It offers possibilities and people use it their own way.
Hannah Martin: On your website there’s a guy using it to fix his car.
Konstantin Grcic: A friend of mine took that picture somewhere in New York. Even though I probably claim that Mayday created its own typology, of course there were some lamps that I was looking at as references—lamps that I liked and that inspired me. Car mechanics prop up the car and they have a lamp with a hook that they attach to the underside of the car. Or people going on expeditions. I was looking at these very specific lamps and I liked their aesthetic or language or expression, being really purpose-built. That also implies they’re a piece of hardware. They’re there to be used. Even if they fall down they don’t break. That’s why we took this picture in the garage.
Hannah Martin: And why did you choose this name—Mayday?
Konstantin Grcic: This was 1999. In Europe we had rave music and there was this famous festival, the Mayday Festival, which was on the first of May. I think I had that in mind. But of course also the emergency call—Mayday! Mayday!—which apparently comes from the French saying ‘help me!’ or ‘m’aider!’. But Mayday, even though it’s an emergency call, it sounds really beautiful as well. It’s a day in May. A sunny day, something very positive and light. It sounded good. Finding names is always so difficult. People very quickly started using the name, which doesn’t always happen.
Mayday was really a self-initiated brief. It was a lamp I wanted to have for myself—a lamp that I felt should be something like a tool. A tool is an object that fulfills a function—a very concrete function—and normally its form explains the function.
Hannah Martin: Let’s travel back to 1999 when you created this design. What was the world like? What questions were you asking and addressing with your work?
Konstantin Grcic: I was 20 years younger than I am now. My life was 20 years younger. Nothing was settled. Life had to be quite simple out of necessity. But that was also nice. It created an independence, a freedom. The lamp, as well as other things I designed at that time, were done in that spirit. Mayday is the most successful one because it’s actually a really affordable product. People see it, they think it’s interesting, they like it, then they look at the price tag and think ‘Oh yeah, I can afford it and this is a fair price’, and that’s actually hard to achieve. We always try to make things affordable but very often the simple things turn out to be quite complicated and not affordable. With Mayday it came out really perfect, the technology that was used, the simplicity which, 20 years ago, was kind of standard. Nowadays you would say it’s quite a primitive lamp. It’s a reflector, a bit of a handle, and a bulb-holder inside with a screw fitting and you screw your lightbulb in. It’s quite low-tech. And that helped make it affordable. I think it’s still part of what makes the lamp interesting today. Today we have LEDs and electronics and even a simple lamp has become so much more sophisticated. But a lamp like Mayday still has its place. You can even fix it if it breaks. The lamp is from an old system, an old world, but it still has a place in today’s world. Its simplicity, its consistency, its transparency—you really understand it.
Hannah Martin: It is what it is.
Konstantin Grcic: There’s something good about it. For 10 years we discussed whether to do an update, fitting it with LED technology and so on. We tried but it was never convincing so we kept it as it is.
Hannah Martin: What are the changes that were made for the anniversary edition?
Konstantin Grcic: We changed the material. The anniversary edition is not a development of the Mayday lamp, it’s just a celebration of the lamp. We dressed it in a slightly more expensive dress. The top part of the lamp is usually made of injection molded plastic and the anniversary edition is made of die cast aluminum. It’s more sturdy, heavier. It fits the original reference of the tool and therefore it’s an interesting variation or edition now but it doesn’t replace the original one.
Hannah Martin: I like this idea of the design object as a tool. And it seems like a lot of your early work took that approach. You were re-imagining these hyper-practical objects—a laundry basket, a dish rack, a bucket—what makes these utilitarian subjects so intriguing?
Konstantin Grcic: Well, to me, they were the design objects I loved. The references of these things are, a lot of the time, anonymous products. Products that were designed by someone but not as a design statement, just to make a good product, to build something carefully with the appropriate material. I felt, at the time very strongly, that the design of the ‘90s was overdone. There was too much. Too much expression. Too much material. There was so much you could pare down. That’s why I was looking at these essential things—everyday life things, practical things. But also, speaking of my own process of designing, the fact that these objects were so utilitarian helped me in the design process. The process became less indulgent and more objective. It helped me to keep a distance from them. Mayday, like I said, was a very personal project. But the reference I was looking at was a very utilitarian lamp.
Hannah Martin: Your work is often described as simple. I think it’s really fitting but I also think it’s interesting how you’re able to make something simple, but in a very unexpected shape. I’m thinking of your Es Shelf—it’s not a straight-lined thing—but it is, in fact, an extremely simple design.
Konstantin Grcic: It’s something I consider a lot. Simplicity is something I strive for while knowing that simplicity is never simple. It’s actually quite complicated. I never liked the formalistic path in simplicity where it’s something simple therefore it has to be all straight lines. I don’t believe that. Coming back to a tool. A tool is perfectly simple but it is quite intriguing in shape and detailing. A simple reference is never something I would copy, without questioning. I would always try to find an even simpler version of simple or to change the idea of simple in the first place. Jasper Morrison, for example—a designer I admire, who has been a great mentor—has a different approach to simplicity. He’d take things that exist and rework them in a very close way. Change them just slightly, giving them his magic touch. I like to turn things upside down and discover that, what we consider simple, can also be done completely differently.
Hannah Martin: Your Miura barstool sort of does that.
Konstantin Grcic: This is a very good example—it’s a perfectly simple stool, now. The process was not at all simple—the way it’s designed, the geometry of it, the way it’s molded. But when you see it, I think it reads as simple. There’s a clear function and reason why it is the way it is.
Hannah Martin: You know where your feet go. You know how to interact with it. But if you told someone to visualise a simple barstool, this is probably not what would come to mind.
Konstantin Grcic: Exactly, it’d be a round seat and three straight legs.
Hannah Martin: I read that you always model everything in paper before you make it. Is that part of how you arrive at these unusual forms?
Konstantin Grcic: It’s not quite true anymore. But there was definitely a period in my career when model making was so important to developing the product. I used paper, scissors, sellotape, a piece of wire—very simple materials. My intention was never that these simple cardboard models would resemble the final product. I just needed these basic models in order to understand the physicality of the object. But then, quite often, I have realised that actually this model—because I had to simplify the geometry; because cardboard or wire can only do certain things—had an aesthetic value. These basic models had a directness; something quite fresh, simple—stretching this word a bit too much now, ha! Over the last decade, software has developed so fast that we are using sophisticated modeling tools on the computer. You can 3d print a model straight from the computer which, 20 years ago, wasn’t possible. My process, and consequently, the results, have changed a bit with the technology. I have no nostalgia about the old process, but I remember how it was and I liked it. It was a conscious decision, in some instances, to go with this aesthetic of a primitive model rather than making it very sophisticated.
Hannah Martin: Tell me about your quarantine. I’m interested in how staying home
—sometimes in a small, fixed space—has affected designers. Did it change your relationship to the objects you live with?
Konstantin Grcic: We were quarantined in Berlin but we were, at all times, able to move, unlike people in other countries who weren’t allowed to leave the house for two or three months. That wasn’t the case here.
Hannah Martin: So perhaps it didn’t have so much of an effect on you?
Konstantin Grcic: Well one effect of this quarantine was that my office was in lockdown and remote mode. My assistants were at home. We couldn’t spend the day together in the office. I really missed that. I’m glad that this phase is over for now and my assistants are back and we’re spending time together working. The design process is very dynamic, it’s very interactive. During the lockdown we’d have Zoom sessions in the morning to discuss what each of the designers should be doing and they’d send me results in the evening but I found that very frustrating. Not because they didn’t do a good job but because I was missing the process. I always felt that, had we had the chance to work on this together, this afternoon, we could have done it differently. I could have intervened more quickly.I don’t find my process lends itself to a remote practice.