Interview with Martín Azúa, a designer with a honest philosophy of design

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Martín Azúa is a basque designer living in Barcelona. He combines his work as a designer with teaching at the Elisava School in Barcelona. With a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Barcelona, he specialized in design and got a master’s degree in architecture and design of ephemeral set-ups and in social communication. His highlights include the medals of the swimming World Championship 2003 in Barcelona, the design of the SED Exhibition for the Expo 2008 in Zaragoza and his project “Especies en Evolución” (“Evolving Species”) for Roca, which received the FAD Prize for Ephemeral Architecture in 2008, as well as some of his projects which can be found at the collections of MoMA in New York, Vitra Design in Weil am Rhein or the Museum of Decorative Arts of Barcelona. Martín works for different companies but he still finds the time to work on personal projects, which gives him the chance to research and try new things.
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‘The most interesting expression of creative intelligence is intuition’

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Martín’s ideology as a designer is clear; as a professor, his viewpoint on philosophy of design is honest and interesting. Both sides allow us to get a better glimpse of him, personally and professionaly. This interview reveals his experience and his natural view of things.

How and when did you start working as a designer?

This is my vocation, ever since I was a kid I have loved drawing, I was the artist in the family, but with time I have come to understand that this creative drive comes from my mother. Her talent, as was the case for many other women of her generation, focused on taking care of the family, she was a designer of the quotidian.

How do you find inspiration for your designs?

I have several interests. I like travelling, foreign cultures provide with other viewpoints about identical problems. Lately I have been paying special attention to the rituals of the quotidian.
Also nature; despite living in Barcelona, I was born and bred in the Basque Country, where the influence of landscape is very strong. I go to Okina, a beech forest, whenever I have the chance. Walking through that forest is a unique experience that I can find nowhere else.

You say you combine your professional work with a more ‘speculative’ one, what do you mean by that?

I mean that apart from working for companies and clients I always find some time for my personal projects. I think that we designers can also spend some of our time researching, I am not the only one who thinks like this. The most interesting and innovative projects are not those in the market. A designer can conceptualize an idea that can later become a product or serve as an influence for other designers.

Dish Cup Ring – Rings made of walnut wood

What is your work methodology when working on a project?

Observation, speculation, precision. I like to think that I don’t have a method, that every project is a unique experience. With time I have come to develop certain creative strategies but I try not to apply them as a method. The most interesting expression of creative intelligence is intuition. I don’t want to elaborate because I would need to self-analyze and I wouldn’t like that.

Why do you consider experimental methods so important in the designing process?

Experimentation is necessary if you want to innovate in any discipline, also in design. Many projects avoid this stage, but then they don’t show an authentic creative contribution.

According to your own words, you like to incorporate natural processes in everyday life. What do you mean by ‘natural processes’ and how do you incorporate them into the everyday? Do you do that through your work or your lifestyle?

Nothing is fickle in nature, everything responds to a logic of economy of means in order to reach a goal. There is nothing superfluous, there is no waste. I feel that the further we get from nature, the further we get from this principle. We are not aware of how little practical we are and how much we waste.
The project called ‘Manantial‘ (‘Well’) explored the possibility of domestic filtering and purification of water with the use of plants, stones and earth, which is the way nature does it. I proposed a porous clay container which the user would fill in with natural elements; this is not an easy or obvious task. You become aware of a natural process and the limits we have to establish when it comes to our ability to contaminate.

Manantial – Designed by Martín Azúa and made with Marc Vidal

So, could we say that there is a philosophy behind your work, or is every project different?

Every project is different, but in the end you understand there is a special interest in some aspects: the evolution of a certain narrative, the use of almost unprocessed materials, local technologies and handmade resources…

Could you tell us of a project you feel specially identified with or in which you left your personal trace, a piece of you?

There is a piece of me in every project, but I would maybe mention the project ‘Mancha natural’ (‘Natural finish’) which I made in 1999. I left porous clay vases in the river so that they would get a natural stain. It was interesting to see the ability nature has to colonize the artificial, and the way the stain would start to die once I took the vases out of the river. Everything is local in nature.

Mancha Natural – developed in a workshop given by Martín Azúa in École de Beaux-Arts de Saint Étienne

Why do you think handmade resources help us to protect cultural and technological diversity?

We live in a globalized world where technology is losing its cultural character. It is as if humans were losing diversity, we use the same technical resources and materials but in a global level. In nature, diversity refers to the ability to react to local problems. I don’t see any advantage in rejecting technological diversity, it is not about reclaiming craftsmanship but about understanding technology as a cultural feature related to a way of living in a particular environment.

We have read that you dislike the idea of a uniformed world where products have no clear origin and are made of materials we don’t really know. What is most important to you when deciding on a particular material?

I don’t think we should do without a material culture that is rich and varied, our surroundings are more rewarding when we feel temperature, texture, colour and smell, where we recognize symbolic aspects that take us back to the place some materials came from. This is also very closely linked to the richness of cultural construction throughout history.

Many of your designs include parts made by artisans. How is it to work with them? How do you see this conjunction of traditional and modern working methodologies?

Most importantly, when collaborating with an artisan, both parts have to commit to the project and the projects needs to be something shared. It is not fair from designers to see artisans merely as somebody who makes. The kind of artisans I am interested in are willing to take the challenge and at the same time question the designer’s proposal. A project can be redefined from the technical part and the designer must be willing to accept that. I love working with artisans because I always learn som much from every project.

franja‘I believe we need to stop and think,
a very strong inertia is making us go
in the wrong direction’franja

Why did you decide to work as a professor and for how long have you been teaching? What is it you like the most about it?

Right after finishing my fine art studies I became a professor. I have always been interested in the thinking procedures that come with teaching in the academic world. In a university context we can suggest questions and scenarios that help conceptualize without the commercial pressure you get in a professional career. And I like seeing the innocence of my students, how they understand projects from a critical perspective.

When training future designers, how much responsibility bears university education?

To me, there are several professional profiles, and the designer who keeps thinking conceptually is the one I am most interested in. I think there is a need of an education that focuses more on the importance of the roles that design can play in the future. Design is usually thought of as a discipline that combines science and humanities. I would highlight the importance of humanities and have technique at its service. Schools need more of a critical spirit.

Magma – Esparto rug 100% natural and handmade.

You give a lot of importance to the emotional bond with objects. Would you say that the excessive dynamics of consumerism could be different if designers helped improve the importance that people give to the way they relate to objects around them?

Objects per se do not give us anything on an emotional level, but they serve as a vehicle to express values and emotions. Objects are crucial in our lives because they are charged with meaning.
Currently they are charged with meaning and brand equity, but they are speechless when it comes to their history and origins, and this lack of information is in a way responsible for our detachment. Objects have to show their attributes in a clear and honest way so that they can create emotional bonds with the user. Symbolic and narrative aspects of the brand have to move towards a history that objects so that we perceive them as something complete and reliable.

Which one of your projects are you most proud of? Why?

At this very moment I am specially enjoying collaborative projects with artisans. For example, the ‘Magma‘ carpets I made with woman artisans in the Murcia region. I think I have managed to create a contemporary language for esparto by respecting tradition and their working method.

What does it mean to Martín Azúa that one of his better known projects la ‘Casa Básica’ (‘Basic House’) is part of the permanent collection of the MOMA in New York?

Of all my projects, this is the most naïve. I believe that one of the roles of design is about making people dream of more simple ways of living. Our surroundings are far too complex and we no longer have control over it. The fact that this project is part of the MoMA collection is an honor.

Casa Básica (Experimental prototype made from metalized polyester) – MOMA collection New York

What do you think about team work in creative projects?Design makes many agents interact. Many times the designer gets an excessive importance and all other agents get no recognition for their efforts. If you are referring to working with other designers, it is not an easy thing, there has to be a good deal of understanding and trust. It is very beautiful when it turns out well but very frustrating when egos collide.

Tell us more about working for companies, do you really have the freedom to work under your own philosophy and criteria?

I enjoy working for companies and this is how I make a living. I try to be realistic and honest. If I see that their proposal doesn’t fit with my possibilities, I say ‘no’ from the start. But usually companies already know my profile and my abilities. Working for a company always is a shared challenge and the goal is to make a product that gets to people and which at the same time the company, the designers and the users can ‘benefit’ from.

Numbered Bag – A backpack bag which transforms from 2D into 3D

Do you have new projects or plans for the future?

I have a few, the most important one being building a house with a studio on an island, I want to have time to think.

Which books or authors should be in our personal library?

One of the books I have liked the most lately has been “A Buddhist Monk’s Guide to Housecleaning” by Keisuke Matsumoto.

Which documentary film is not to be missed?

This film: “Corn Island” by George Ovashvili.

Food Line – A shared gastronomic experience

In your opinion, where are the latest trends in design to be found?

Probably in some cities in China. Unlike we might think, China has an energy that contrasts European exhaustion. The most influential designers in the next decades will come from China and they will probably solve problems generated in the West.

Where would you like to propose a project? Why?

In the town exhibition room in Madalena, capital city of Pico Island, in the Azores. Because that would mean that I am living there, and so I could show a piece made in the island and which would only make sense when exhibited there.franja

‘Between more and less
there is ‘necessary’. No more, no less.
And finding this balance is hard’

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How do you see today design? What should be different and how?

In general I believe we need to stop and think, a very strong inertia is making us go in the wrong direction. I feel that almost everything that is presented as new actually isn’t. We should be more demanding, honest and humble.

What does More with Less mean to you? Is it somehow reflected in what you do?

Between ‘more’ and ‘less’ there is this other concept: ‘necessary’. No more, no less. And finding this balance is hard.

Well, now the final question, what are objects for?

They should make us better.

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 Interview: Diana Hurtado & Angela Montagud

Translation: Laïa Argüelles

 

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