Peter Ghyczy: 50 Years of Functionalism

Port travels to the Netherlands to meet the pioneer of functional design, Peter Ghyczy, to discuss his idiosyncratic style, following trends and sustainability

Built in 1958 for the Brussels World Fair, the Atomium heralded an era of great optimism and faith in scientific progress. An iron crystal magnified 165 billion times to stand 102 metres high, the originally-temporary stainless steel structure has become an iconic feature of the skyline of the Belgian capital, as well as a symbol of the atomic age – an era similarly commemorated in an exhibition of the Hungarian designer Peter Ghyczy held at the Art & Design Atomium Museum, in the shadow of the great structure.

Ghyczy, who moved first to Germany and then to Holland during the second world war, rose to prominence in 1968 with his Egg Chair. As is the case with much of Ghyczy’s work, the Egg Chair was born of an effort to find a technical solution to a problem – namely having to bring garden furniture in out of the rain. Capitalising on the maleable, colourful and easily-formed properties of polyurethane – the Egg Chair was the first chair to be entirely constructed from the material – the design, which can be closed to protect the fabric seat from the elements, would come to represent the prosperity of the 1960s, as well as establish Ghyczy’s unique, innovative design.

Peter Ghyczy in the Egg Chair

“The first step is the detail.”

I’m sat in Ghyczy’s sun-filled living room in Beesel, surrounded by his designs from over the past fifty years, a few kilometres from the German boarder and Swalmen, where he founded his first workshop and where the company currently manufacturers. The house is not, as I expected from the attitude of his design, minimal and mid-century, but a white-washed estate house, dating from 1560, complete with a moat. Being mid-February the water is half-frozen and, as we discuss his working methods, the light plays across the beams of the high ceiling.

“It’s only once I have the detail, the connection of how to join wood with metal or glass,” he continues, gesturing at the examples around the room, “that I think about what I can do with it. It could end up being a bed or a chair or a table.”

The Ghyczy estate in the Netherlands which features many of Ghyczy’s designs from the past fifty years.

Later, Felix, Ghyczy’s son, who joined the company in 2001, shows me his father’s sketches – sheet after sheet of intricately detailed joints and corners and fittings. Focussing on the specific and technical details before considering the design as a whole is a unique process, but one that lends a pleasingly sparse simplicity to his work, as well as introducing a degree of customisation – the seat-back of a sofa which can be slid along rails to become a day bed, for example. 

One of Ghyczy’s very first pieces as a fledgling designer, produced in 1971, the same year that he founded his company, demonstrates this very particular way of working. Having come across an English working tool used to move sheets of glass, Ghyczy noticed that they had potential in a simple, purposeful design. The result, having bought up the last supply of the tools and cleaned and polished them, was the first coffee table to not use a frame – idiosyncratically showing the function, the mechanism by which the table is constructed, rather than hiding it.

Ghyczy’s desk with his intricate, detailed sketches.

It’s a design – based on technical solutions and a purity of materials – that has come to define Ghyczy’s work over the past five decades, but it is also typical – in finding new use for old materials – of his approach to responsibility as a designer. We talk about this and how the oil crisis stopped work on the Egg Chair, forcing Ghyczy to focus on metal and glass and wood. As it is a prominent topic of discussion today, I ask him what he thinks of the current use and misuse of plastic in design.

Some of the details that are at the core of Ghyczy’s designs. Typically these elements are cast by local metalworkers.

“I think we can’t live without plastic,” he tells me, “but we have to take care not to produce superfluous materials. I try to make a table, for example, that will never be thrown away – it can be disassembled and reused, and hopefully the owner gets the idea that, like a quality watch, the table is constructed so well that it can be handed down to your grandchildren. Some products are designed to be disposed of because they follow the trend – which is why I always avoid what’s fashionable.”

Inside the Ghyczy house

True to form, with the exception of there being less plastic, Ghyczy’s designs have remained reassuringly unchanged over the years, consistently articulating the vision – functional, experimental, innovative – of one man. “I don’t get ideas,” he says, smiling. “They are already in me. I only have to put it down on paper. Success is always down to whether the idea fits the vision.”

Peter Ghyczy: 50 Years of Functionalism is the first exhibition to be devoted to Ghyczy’s work and marks a degree of acceptance from the design community that Ghyczy – a designer who defies trends and has rarely worked outside his eponymous company – has previously enjoyed.

“I’ve always been an outsider,” he tells me when I ask what it was like to see his work in the museum. “I left Hungary and settled in Germany, but remained an outsider, and now I live right on the border in Holland. People didn’t know how to understand me or my work. I never wanted to stay in the light but it now seems that something has happened. I’ve finally been accepted.”

Kanaal: Living in Art

Kanaal, the brainchild of Belgian art and interiors behemoth Axel Vervoordt, provides cutting-edge new exhibition and residential spaces at the forefront of design 

Kanaal. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Kanaal complex, originally an old malting distillery and grain storehouse, lies just on the outskirts of Antwerp. It’s here, over the last two decades, that Axel Vervoordt – the interior designer and art collector who designed the Manhattan penthouses of Robert de Niro and Kanye West – has been gradually acquiring land and derelict agricultural buildings. Today, the recently opened, 55,000sq m site offers custom designed and sympathetically restored exhibition space, featuring permanent installations from luminaries including Anish Kapoor and Marina Abramović, as well as rotating showcase exhibitions for emerging artists. 

The complex also includes luxury apartments available for commercial sale, conceived by long-term Vervoordt collaborator, the architect Tatsuro Miki, and with interiors designed by Vervoordt himself. He envisages a close community here, brought together by a love of art and design – the site already hosts award-winning French bakery Poilâne and a restaurant, with daycare facilities in the pipeline. It’s a project that is truly a family affair, with Axel’s two sons, Boris and Dick, taking responsibility for new art acquisitions and real estate, respectively.  

Anish Kapoor’s At the Edge of the World, installed at Kanaal in 2000 and created before the artist achieved global fame, represents the “red beating heart” of the project, as Vervoordt explains to me at the event’s opening. “I wanted the space, which used to be a building where grains were sorted, to be like a Rothko chapel, a room for universal peace and harmony.” Recently, an opera was performed in the space.  

Axel Vervoordt standing underneath Anish Kapoor’s ‘At the Edge of the World’. Photo © Zoemin

Nearby, the Henro gallery houses Axel Vervoordt’s permanent collection, moved from its previous exhibition space in the heart of Antwerp. In Karnak, an ascetic space with the original solid concrete columns intact, works by Gutai artists are installed alongside Japanese sculptures dating from the Endo period. Literally meaning ‘concrete’, Gutai was a radical artistic movement that emerged in postwar Japan, its proponents aspiring to transcend the abstract painting of the time in favour of pure materiality.

The strength and legacy in the room is palpable: the columns once supported 60 litre silos. “When I first saw it, the columns reminded me of an Egyptian temple,” says Vervoordt. “The power is still amazing – almost religious. Industrial architecture is not made to be beautiful, it is made to serve.”

Karnak © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

The room next door is dedicated to three paintings by Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga, who descended from a prominent samurai family. The three ‘warrior’ paintings convey a primal violence reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedy, the scarlet spattered canvases hovering, eerily suspended in the slate-grey gloom. When Vervoordt visited the artist at his home in Kobe in 2003, he witnessed an equally elemental mode of preparation.

“He would contemplate the empty canvas, until he became one with the emptiness. His wife would then pour the paint, and he would create the painting in a few gestures, without hesitation. This for me is the origin of life, that which comes out of emptiness. This is the big bang.”

Suiju, Kazuo Shiraga. Photo © Laziz Hamani courtesy of Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation

“Now we go into the light”, Vervoordt jokes, as we exchange the shadowy gallery for comparatively blinding Flemish daylight. Though lighthearted, this is an apposite remark: at Kanaal, the levels of luminescence in each gallery are carefully weighted for optimum atmosphere.

Installation El Anatsui, ‘Proximately’. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The Patio Gallery, a space for temporary exhibitions, is currently showing Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s ‘Proximately’, and is drenched in natural light. Anatsui’s tactile sculptures, vast quilts of scrap metal that have been washed, hammered flat and sewn together using copper thread, hang on the walls like glittering patchwork quilts. Vervoordt first discovered Anatsui’s work in Toyko, and presented the artist at the Venice Biennale in 2007, draping one of his sculptures over the facade of Palazzo Fortuny like a chainmail tapestry designed with the palette of Gustav Klimt.

Lucia Bru exhibition, Escher Gallery. Photo © Jan Liégeois

The industrial legacy of the Escher Gallery, a former brick warehouse and now another temporary exhibition space, remains clear. Though the machinery and grain silos have been removed, vast cylindrical concavities remain carved in the space. The sculptures of Belgian artist Lucia Bru that inhabit the gallery were not made in accordance with the space, but feel like a part of its industrial heritage. Fragments of crystal and milky porcelain with rounded edges, as though smoothed by waves, lie in glimmering piles. When I note the sculpture’s resemblance to sea glass, Bru emphasises the integrality of water to her work. “The elements of water and earth are part of the same family, they have a relationship, they fight, they reconcile,” she explains. Bru’s larger sculptures, which resemble pale rocky islands, are ceramic, a famously un-pliable, difficult material with which to work. “It has a mind of its own”, she notes. “I don’t like it when I control the material too much. I like it to surprise me.”

Detail of movidas, Lucia Bru. Photo © Jan Liégeois

Not all the structures at Kanaal are original, though it is often difficult to tell what has been newly built. Tatsuro Miki’s design celebrates this assimilation. “It’s important to preserve the existing quality of a place,” Miki says. “The first concept for the additional buildings at Kanaal was to create something as if it was already there. Once things have aged, we want them to be part of the same landscape. We prefer harmony to noise.”

Kanaal represents a continuation of Vervoordt’s design vision that has endured since his earliest restoration projects in the 1960s, to create an environment in which everyday life and art coexist harmoniously: a philosophy of living in art.