Spanish-born Tomás Alonso designs a range of furniture and objects, deftly straddling the line between art and design. The cosmopolitan craft designer’s studio in London has collaborated with companies as large as IKEA, while continuing to produce smaller scale work for galleries. Alonso’s designs are elegant, functional and above all, innovative.
What do you consider your primary design practice?
I’ve been running the studio for nearly 10 years now, and one of the things I’ve been chasing over that time is a diversity of projects—tackling a range of scales and contexts. For example, working with huge companies like IKEA while still allowing for smaller projects and playing around in the workshop. This has been the guiding ethos for the work I’ve been doing over the last 10 years.
How do you strike that balance between collaborating with large companies and doing your own work?
I’m still learning. I think with this job, and with life in general, it’s a constant learning curve and you grow a little every time you’re exposed to a new context. I enjoy exploring the different scales, and working with many kinds of people.
I think that the smaller scale projects that I’m involved in, like the work I do with Victor Hunt Gallery, allow me to explore certain things that wouldn’t be possible on a larger scale since big companies have to work with budget and various manufacturing constraints. Different projects give you opportunities to work in certain ways and explore other things, and I think that’s why it’s so enriching to work in a variety of areas.
You’ve said that “the boundary between art and design is never hazy.” What do you mean by that?
I think art and design come very close at many points, sometimes in a blurry way. Artists and designers have different approaches for arriving at similar results. As designers, we are trying to answer questions and resolve problems, sometimes in a very vague way whereas an artist is more concerned with posing questions. We approach the work from opposite angles.
Designers rarely work in a bubble by themselves, isolated from everything else: There is always an interaction between the designer and the manufacturer, which may at times be the person creating the design, but also with the person whom the product is for. You’re never alone as a designer.
You often use materials in unexpected ways. What are you trying to achieve by doing that?
Every object we use is the way it is because it has been made in its desired form. The designer’s job is to shape things and give them a certain look, a look that is a direct consequence of the input that we implement, but also the material which the object is made from, as well as the manufacturing. I think all those things are inextricable from one another. As a designer, I am interested in understanding those processes and materials and in trying to push the boundaries.
Designers—we’re not craftsmen. Sometimes we’re pushing back against what craftsmen do, and sometimes we’re learning from what they do, and I think that’s all part of the game. At times when you’re designing something, you initially have to go through the process of how the object has been made previously but you also have to approach it with an inquisitive mind and try and say, “Well, that’s all good, but what if we used this other technique or this other material?”
What compels you to keep making things?
I think what makes our profession an interesting one is that you’re exposed to all these different worlds. It’s a big challenge to design something that’s already working because it’s almost like you’re trying to challenge pre-existing objects. That’s what keeps it engaging but also what makes it difficult, because you can’t just challenge everything constantly.
Trying to produce a comfy chair while also bringing something new to it is even more difficult. I think that way of working—being involved in so many different kinds of projects—always keeps you on edge, and it makes me want to go back to discover the next new thing.