Allstar is a task chair that has a five-star swivel base, an upholstered seat cushion and a large loop armrest made from polyamide, to which an upholstered backrest is attached. While the base and seat are black, the armrest and backrest come in contrasting colours, giving the chair a playfulness that masks its serious purpose.
"It's a friendly chair," says Grcic, who also admits that other, more challenging, chairs in his repertoire may be harder to like. In the interview that follows he speaks frankly about the creation of Allstar, what it's like to work with Vitra, and the complications of naming a product in an age ruled by Google searches.
The first time that I saw Allstar it was a component in your exhibition Panorama, which opened at the Vitra Design Museum in March this year. There you showed the development and prototypes of the chair's armrest. When did you start working on Allstar and what was the brief?
I think we started working on an office chair four years ago. This was Vitra asking us to start thinking about an office chair. They showed us a mechanism they had developed as a prototype and we based our initial concepts on that mechanism.
Can you explain what that mechanism was?
It's what they called a synchronised movement between the seat and the backrest. As you lean backwards the backrest kind of pivots backwards and in another movement the seat also tilts backwards. If we only had the backrest moving as you move back, it would pull the shirt out of your trousers. The synchronised movement is something quite complex but it's nothing unusual. All proper office chairs have synchronised movements. This component was the start of the project but it was dismissed at some point. It was simply not feasible from an engineering point of view. It didn’t have anything to do with our design. At one point, probably a year later, the mechanism changed anyway. But the whole concept of the chair changed, not just once but a few times. That is part of the process and especially with Vitra. It's not a company that gives a designer a precise briefing describing the kind of office chair it wants.
So without a proper brief, how do you work?
We start off in one direction, produce a proposal and then that gets discussed. We move along like that and that includes complete shifts from one direction to the next. At the very beginning the idea was an office chair for a student at university, a very low-cost campus chair. But Allstar is a different chair from that. Four years is a long time to produce a chair and the more you work on a project the more you understand, which means that you dismiss certain directions that you took at the beginning.
So when do you know it is the right time to say “this is the product”? Presumably you could continue developing the chair ad infinitum?
Well that crystallises somehow. In this case it wasn’t one particular day or a drawing where it was all there. It is very difficult to say now but I think there was a growing agreement between us that we were moving towards a chair like what Allstar represents – a true office chair. It performs all the functions of an office chair, but it has a different grammar, one that I would say is less office stereotype and more a chair that maybe we know from other environments.
I almost don’t want to say it, but it is kind of looking at how office chairs used to be, old office chairs. For me it is very tricky because I don’t want this chair to be perceived as retro. Of course it has elements of old office chairs, it revisits some of the qualities of old office chairs, before they were turned into machines. They didn’t all use to have big backrests. They were speaking a different language and that is what we were looking at.
In terms of language, is it possible to read your original idea of the campus chair in Allstar? Even if the end product isn’t that chair, it still has a sort of youth to it. It doesn’t have a powerful office executive feeling about it.
Yes it is more playful, it doesn’t have to be representative of corporate ideas. It has a certain form of simplicity to it and its simplicity comes in the form of certain solutions – mechanical and structural. But it is also easy on the eye. Because it looks familiar, it makes it very simple. It is a chair that you can read immediately, you know what it is. Actually, having said that, it was interesting that at Orgatec people saw the chair and presumed it was a studio chair. A studio chair is a certain sort of category that Vitra do – an office chair that has a swivel base and an up and down movement, but which doesn’t have many functions. Many people mistake the Allstar chair for a chair that is lacking certain functions; they presume it’s not a proper task and desk chair, but it actually is. The only function that it does not perform is the height adjustment of the armrest, but it still makes it a pretty good office chair.
So this armrest, as I said before, I saw for the first time in your exhibition, which gave it prominence and importance. It signalled that it’s special in some way. It is a very interesting take on a desk chair, the fact that you don’t have a stem at the back of it. It looks like the backrest is hovering. It must have been quite complicated in terms of the engineering to still make it a fully-functioning task chair.
It took a long time before the backrest became this small backrest that is hovering in the air. There was always a backrest connecting to the seat directly. That meant the structural challenge of the whole armrest piece was less challenging. Structurally it was easier. Working on that piece we understood that we could make this armrest a very interesting structural component, one that had strength but also nice flexibility, which would add to the mechanical component. I felt that we could risk separating the backrest from the seat. This is where the chair started to look a bit retro. I was really fighting with this, but in the end I think we gained so much from it.
What do you think you've gained?
We gained a backrest that was height adjustable, which wasn’t possible before. Also, now being a separate piece, we can make it from a completely different material. Otherwise it would have to have a much more structural part being connected to the seat, it is more difficult. So I should relax about the retro feel of it and now when I see it I actually like it. I have designed so many chairs that are difficult chairs to like, difficult chairs to get easy with. I am glad that with this chair, a task chair, an office chair, we succeeded in designing a chair that is welcoming. It's a friendly chair. The naivety of its language, even the colours, add to that. It was exactly what we were looking for, creating a chair for an office environment that is changing from the corporate nine to five routine. It's an environment that includes other pieces of furniture and equipment so that it becomes a little more open and more domesticated.
What about the name Allstar. Isn’t that a problem for Converse?
Vitra has gone through so many names and the legal department keep coming back with everything and saying "that is not possible", but Allstar was not a problem. Converse All Star is the famous application of the word, but actually there is the All Star basketball team and the All Star reunion. It is a recurring thing. We used to call it Five Star. Five Star is the five star base, but for me it was also a five star hotel and the five star in terms of comfort and luxury. I liked it, but Five Star was not possible. We couldn’t register that.
I’m happy about that.
There was another interesting problem with Five Star. A five star office chair is such a generic term for anything that has five stars that the legal department and marketing department at Vitra said, “When we create new names there are criteria for how you Google it. When you Google “five star chair” hundreds of five star base chairs come up." So that was a problem, the name has to be more exclusive so you have a chance to Google it and it comes up immediately. It is becoming such a thing nowadays.