In Peter Ghyczy: The Evolutioner, the book accompanying Ghyczy’s new exhibition at Brussels’ Design Museum ADAM, the designer writes: “My work takes its orientation from its purpose […] Nonetheless, design can be a spiritual passion. The designer is close to the divine, practicing a profession that affords them the chance to further evolution […] As in natural evolution, not every new species represents a desirable step forward with a promising future. The phenomenon has borne strange fruit, especially since design took up with art.”
The exhibition commemorates 50 years since Ghyczy designed his famed Garden Egg chair, an early experiment in a then new material, polyurethane, for the manufacturer Reuter. The form was inspired by that of a suitcase, and the intention was to design a chair that was light and easy to transport, comfortable and water-resistant. The curved form, manufactured in a range of iconic Pop colours, became a key piece for the atomic age and, paradoxically, East German culture. When Gottfried Reuter – “a capitalist with Marxist leanings”, as the book describes him – sold his company to BASF Group in 1972, he also sold his knowledge of plastics and the rights to the Garden Egg chair to the German Democratic Republic. The Garden Egg chair remained in production through the Cold War, and while plastic furniture became less economically viable elsewhere due to the oil crisis, it remained popular behind the Iron Curtain because of a quirk in Cold War regulations. The chair forms the centrepiece of Peter Ghyczy: 50 Years of Functionalism, which traces Ghyczy’s design practice from his early works to the material experiments that still occupy him today.
Curated by independent design curator Kunty Moureau, the exhibition features some of Ghyczy’s most famous pieces – the Garden Egg chair, Spring chair and T24 table – alongside drawings and limited edition works including a neon tree lamp and brass dumbbells. Current projects such as the new Safari chair, an extendable sofa and brass-fronted cabinet are also included. The walls are lined with quotes from Ghyxzy, reflecting on his practice – both past and present – and the legacy he’d like to leave behind: “Timeless, functional design that leaves minimal waste and respects nature,” reads one. There is a mock-studio space, its desk stacked with sketches and tests for structures, forms and joins.
As we sit down for an interview at Ghyczy’s family home in Bessel, in the southeastern Netherlands, Ghyczy describes how he thinks of his practice: “It’s difficult to explain something that comes so naturally. Ideas surface in my mind – like a composer hears a melody, I imagine a design.”
Ghyczy’s process is a balance of science and intuition, and although he is known for artistry and invention, he considers himself primarily a craftsman: “I’m a joiner first – I’m interested in finding the most simple and effective solutions. ‘How does it function? How does it fit together?’ I always start with the clamp, and without a product in mind, I test how it can be loosened and tightened, how it can move and adapt. I’m interested in invisible connections, or frames that fix with a single screw. They’re primarily functional, but something of the result is decorative and beautiful. A good solution is always beautiful.”
The principles of adapting and connecting, and employing problem-solving as the root for form and function, may be a practice that stems from Ghyczy’s personal history. Migration plays a significant role in the history of 20th-century design, and specifically in regards to Modernism – from the Bauhaus, and particularly Marcel Breuer’s move from his native Hungary to Germany in the 1920s, to the collective shift of mid-century Modernists from Europe to the US during the Second World War in the 1940s. In Peter Ghyczy: The Evolutioner, writer Bernd Polster suggests: “The emigrant’s simultaneous experience of gain and loss and his position between two different worlds can evidently provide extremely fertile ground in creative personalities.”
Ghyczy was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940 to an aristocratic family, and his father was killed during the Red Army invasion in 1944. He was moved first to the Hungarian countryside, then to Belgium as part of a Red Cross aid programme, before returning to Hungary to attend a Benedictine boarding school. In 1956, Ghyczy fled Hungary for Bonn, via Vienna, where he joined his family. His mother had exchanged a portion of her family’s jewellery for a smuggler to lead Ghyczy on a three-day trek across the Hungarian border and into Austria. Once settled in Bonn, and on completing school, Ghyczy attended the Polytechnic University Aachen, where he studied architecture. On graduating in 1967, he took up the position of head of design at Reuter, a chemical and product design company helmed by German chemist Gottfried Reuter. Here, Ghyczy specialised in experiments with polyurethane, components and design systems. It is also where he designed the Garden Egg chair in 1968. By 1972, however, Reuter had been sold to its main competitor, and their design research output had been defunded.
Having gone freelance, Ghyczy subsequently started testing the idea of a frame-less glass shelf, which would be wall-mounted by a clamping bracket. “What is key is an understanding of the flow of weight,” he says, holding a hardbound book between his thumb and index finger to mimic the bracket. “I made the glass wall shelf and tried to sell it to a few companies, but they said it was too simple. It fit well with the aesthetic of the period, but they couldn't see it; it was too new. I decided I’d have to produce it myself, so it was then that I founded my company.” The oil crisis and subsequent economic crisis was at its peak, but by 1975, Ghyczy’s furniture company was off the ground. His frame-less glass shelf became a commercial success, revered and imitated by his peers, and he’d moved with his wife and children to Beesel, a small town on the Netherlands’ river Maas. “I was young,” he says. “I didn’t know how difficult it was to run a business. And I’m very happy that I didn't know, otherwise I wouldn't have done it.”
“To be a designer is not easy,” Ghyczy continues. “You have to be strong and able to defend your work. Either your ideas are too ‘known’ or too ‘unknown’. That’s why I’ve been happy to be on my own, I haven't had to defend every new idea. It’s turned out to be a blessing. Now, I can look back with satisfaction. I’ve had success thanks to my own work.”
Although born to an affluent family, Ghyzcy’s life as a near-constant émigré – with, as he attests, “no mother tongue” – has afforded him a sense of openness and independence in terms of thinking and practice which can often be impossible for those solidly rooted in a particular culture. He designs with a consistent focus on innovation and timelessness (in his frames, joints and applications of material), human comfort (in his padded, flexible furniture), and environmental impact (in making his furniture to order, with low impact materials). While his practice centres around functionality, there is a clear thread of Art Deco that does not only run through its details and forms, but also its ethos of social and technological progress, glamour and exuberance.
Ghyczy’s arguments for aesthetic charm sit firmly outside of cold perfectionism. “I have a theory on this”, he says. “If people are ‘high gloss’, or behaving ‘high gloss’, they get damaged. Hollywood beauties, they have to repaint everything, every morning, because no fault, no scratch is allowed. Every day they go to the hairdresser and do their make up and everything, this is not the solution. I like it much more when people are natural, they have flaws, lines, scratches. We are ageing, and I like furniture to age too. To have a patina conveys a life.”