Made for Bolon

Body Positive

Milan

16 April 2018

“What we wanted was to evolve a collection from the perspective of the seated person and incorporate an idea of extreme visual comfort,” says the Barcelona-based designer Stephen Burks. “There’s a sense of it overflowing from the frame and pushing beyond its boundaries that makes you think, ‘OK, I’m going to sit on this fat thing and I’m going to feel good.’”

So runs the concept behind Grasso, a collection of seating and accompanying vases which Burks is due to present during next week’s Salone del Mobile in Milan. Developed for BD Barcelona Design, and featuring an experimental textile upholstery developed by the Swedish design brand Bolon, Grasso – which translates as “fat” in Italian – is an unusual proposition: a furniture collection that values slouchiness and visual abundance over the nipped-in precision and tasteful constraint of much contemporary furniture design.

The central piece within the collection is an armchair, whose base structure is supplied by a black, metal pipe frame. From out of this frame, however, emerges a thick cushioned seat, backrest and armrest – spilling out decadently like too much flesh squeezed into a corset. “We have a sausage here in Spain made in Mallorca called sobrassada,” says Jordi Arnau, BD Barcelona’s general manager, “and when you look at that, it is very similar to Grasso. Stephen had the idea of doing a very big piece, which had a feeling that the material is getting out of the structure. When you press the structure it overflows, which is a concept that has almost never been done in the furniture industry.”

Development for Grasso began two years ago, when Arnau approached Burks with a general brief to round out the brand’s seating collection. From this starting point, Burks began to set a direction. “For me, there’s something about BD Barcelona that’s quite beautiful in that its design is very classic and yet experimental at the same time,” he says. “There’s something very gentlemanly about the work – something of the lounge smoking chair; a pipe; gentlemen in the social club; the right kind of cognac – but my work is all about expanding the notion of design as an exclusive world, and inviting other cultures into the authorship of the work. So I’m very comfortable moving beyond, let’s say, modernism and minimalism and into something that’s more supportive of a lifestyle and way of living.”

Grasso, then, is intended as an invitation: a collection that foregoes prim restraint in favour of a form of beckoning visual and tactile saturation. As prototyping of the collection proceeded, however, challenges began to emerge. “It wasn’t so easy to give the impression of the leather overflowing and the effect of a chair that has already been lived in,” says Burks. “You’re trying to make a material perform in a way that it would normally take decades to perform in naturally, like when you see an old Le Corbusier LC2 and it’s just kind of beaten down and weathered with use. That’s beautiful because it feels almost anthropomorphic, which was really the technical challenge: trying to find the correct upholstery techniques and details to express that.”

This emphasis upon upholstery, materials and detailing led to Bolon’s involvement in the project. Bolon and BD Barcelona had collaborated previously in 2017, when BD used a selection of Bolon’s woven vinyl material – typically used as flooring – as upholstery for a series of its designs. “We got so much positive feedback from that project that we went back to BD Barcelona and said we’d like to continue working together,” says Helen Emanuelsson, chief business development officer at Bolon. “BD immediately had a concrete project that they wanted to work with us around and that was the Grasso collection.”

While large sections of the Grasso seats were to be executed in leather, Burks began to collaborate with Bolon to develop a series of wool and vinyl textiles that might be used to upholster other aspects of the collection, creating a melange of different materials and finishes. “Bolon had never been involved in an R&D process for a new piece of furniture, but I had a vision of this anthropomorphic and very voluminous chair, so I also had ideas about the surface,” says Burks. “I had spoken to Jordi about being interested in imperfections in the leather and so if we were going to work in fabric, I wanted to be able to achieve that kind of irregularity in the textile development too.”

Working with Bolon’s in-house development team, Burks designed a series of textiles intended to capture the same kind of comfort and familiarity as worn-in leather. Burks wove his design with natural space-dyed yarns – which feature extended yarn floats that flick up and over the underlying vinyl warp and weft, before being hand-cut to produce dangling fringes – creating shifting sections of colour and materiality. “I’d done some preliminary watercolour-esque sketches which were very fluid and patchy and very colourful and a little bit strange,” says Burks. “Bolon really picked up on that and began looking at ways to create these variations and irregularities with their industrial looms. They’re now working to see whether this could become a contract, commercial collection, but what we have at the moment is couture. It still has a touch of the hand that speaks to its originality and organic feeling. We challenged their R&D team to build that sense or feeling of the hand into the industrial process and when you see the fabric, you do get that sense that there is this little bit of difference.”

Used on the pieces in the Grasso collection, the fabrics rest as panels of mottled colour, with their fringes dangling down in thick beds of hung yarn. “They add a very strong image,” says Arnau. “It looks like freshly cut hair, and opens up many opportunities for the contract market, where architects and designers are looking for iconic pieces that are different to more conventional pieces.” Similarly, the fabrics represent comparatively virgin territory for Bolon, which has begun to open its material up beyond flooring applications to explore uses within furniture and interior design. “During the last few years, we have noticed a growing interest in our materials for other applications than flooring – like upholstery, wall coverings, and things like that,” says Emanuelsson. “What we’re doing now is aiming to develop new business areas for Bolon within wall coverings and furniture upholstery.”

The end result is a furniture collection geared towards a form of invitation – a sense of visual and tactile repose.“I think the definition of luxury is changing in the 21st century,” says Burks. “We as designers are trained to work with the constraints of industry and to be in the service of industry first, but now, there’s a perspective which is more about identity and personality and the individual. With Grasso, we just allowed it to be humorous and we designed it for this built-in slouchiness.”