Interview with Lars Lerup

The architect Lars Lerup with his Lineatura BM 2 notebook

For Lars Lerup, when a chair is a chair (is a chair is a chair), the game is over. But the renowned architectural thinker and designer likes to play. That’s what led him to the idea of strange objects. The things we create have potential to be much more than their names suggest. Just imagine what all could be a chair! In fact, we tame objects by giving them names. In order to break this scheme, Lars Lerup started to design real objects. Using simple, familiar forms but putting them together in surprisingly new, ironic or strange ways. They are “serious” in the sense that they are properly built and ready to use – mainly as furniture  – but they don’t have names, and, just by looking at them, they reveal a multitude of possible uses. A creative furniture-of-thought designed to fill rooms with life. Strange objects are the most elegant affront against mid-century furniture tedium. I met Lars Lerup on his trip to Berlin to talk about his personal take on the design of strangeness.

Peter Koval: You said we tame objects by giving them names. It sounds like a little death.

Lars Lerup: Yes. When you sit on a chair, it dies. It becomes what its name denotes and you are just following the implied instructions: “sit on me.” In fact, the chair is behind you and you cannot see it. But when you step away and look at it, the object comes alive again. If you look beyond its name, you can suddenly see new potentials. Discoveries that rely heavily on formal mimetics. I call these “strange familiarities” – look-alikes. In turn, suggesting hidden links between forms, their connotations, and uses. The title of my future book that seems never to be completed is “The life and death of objects”.

PK: But it’s also a question of designing things, not only looking at them. You can create a tamed chair, but you can also design a chair with a crazy hijack inscribed into it.

LL: We should be willing to let objects take us away. However, design is the next step – then you actually animate the objects by some “artificial” mean. Obviously, if you can make use of at least some of its hidden dimensions and express them in a material way, you enter a very fertile territory for exploration. It belongs, of course, to the domain of designing but also the domain of using the objects. We are quite strictly programmed in our errands. Sometimes it is necessary to release ourselves from the demands of the world. This idea touches on developing a new respect for objects; speak to them. We have worked so long on liberating the individual. We now need to go further, following the forward-thinker Bruno Latour’s appeal to the liberation of nature, and scientists to be its spokespeople. In turn, the designer becomes a spokesperson for the hidden capabilities of objects and, of course, of form itself.

PK: I’m wondering about the possibility of “untaming” the objects. It seems to be connected with a specific kind of reflexivity. The chair isn’t looking at itself…

LL: (Laughs) Since I’m not particularly superstitious, you’re probably right! Of course. What happens when I suddenly see a ladder in an object that is not intended to be (used as) a ladder? If I already have had some experiences with ladders, they take me on a trip, a narrative journey. Remembering myself climbing up the ladder to pick olives from a tree in a small village near Rome. Things like that. But if you hadn’t any experience with a ladder before and you discover that you can walk up that object – as my son did when he played with it – then it’s a discovery. You discover something that literally extends you. Design is not just a “will to an object” but a discovery in form. With a bookcase that is also ladder, you can reach the books at the top that you thought were inaccessible before. In other words, the reflexivity points forward and backward.

PK: How do you discover, invent or design the strange objects?

LL: Well, what I’m going to say is only partially true. The built-in linearity of language is both fortunate and unfortunate: It works well for some purposes, but it just doesn’t represent the way the designer-mind works.

Let’s say I decide that I’m going to design a table. I immediately begin exploring “tableness”: What is a table? What is tableness? This can be used as a table, (editor’s note: Lars points to a soft sofa he is sitting on.) however, not as a very good table – it’s a little bit wobbly… But if you lay down to eat and drink like the Romans, skateboards are also tables! I guess that’s how it starts. Or maybe that’s just my post-rationalization of the creative process. Maybe it doesn’t start like that at all and I just sit there to let form take me away. Obviously there are certain forms that I might like more than others. By seeing my son’s skateboard, by observing all the toys the kids play with – the transformers! – suddenly there is a drawing and I’m discovering the surfboard in the drawing.

You know, back in the days when I was teaching at Berkeley, I studied design methodologies together with people like West Churchman and Horst Rittel. As a trained engineer – I really admire the engineering way of thinking even if I can’t call it mine – I discovered that all the methodologists were basically bent up people that wanted to be enslaved by the methods. While I really like the liberty of drawing itself – in practice rather than theory. So I’m nervous about suggesting that there is a methodology. (Unless you count Salvador Dali’s Paranoid-Critical Method, then I have one.) I would say there is one long tradition of working as a designer – and that’s sketching. Isn’t it peculiar that we are only now starting to be able to sketch on computers? Because engineers wrote the program! In the old days, you would draw, draw, and draw on a transparent paper and draw over and over again. But I also know that I draw in my mind. Actually, I do a lot of drawing in my mind. It feels so real. It’s like I have a drawing board in front of my eyes and I’m drawing lines. And I’m quite surprised about the outcome of the objects that I’ve drawn in my mind, they are very precise…

For me a drawing is very liberating. I guess because it points back to me. I am distributed in the objects that I have made. My brain is in my hand. I understand myself as a designer who leaves traces of my thoughts out in the world. If people were interested in finding out, they would have trouble reconstructing my path, but they might discover the potential hiding in its form. But there’s no such message, not really. It’s not the intention. There is a material presence that occupies space. I literally put wheels on the object so that it can be moved – everything must move – life is always in motion and, therefore, so is discovery.

Yet, I like to find complexity in simple things. I’m not really interested in making overly complex forms but rather to find complexity in the assemblage itself. It’s nice to use simple forms – almost dumb – to hide complex content. The simplicity may slow us down and give us time to think. After all, designed objects are built thought.

PK: Your objects are very poetic, not only because of their seemingly simple formal language. There is a rupture in each of them.

LL: Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer said: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Which is a beautiful proposition. You have to let the light get in and that’s why you cannot make closed objects. It goes back to the work by Umberto Eco, who I knew from the times I was involved with semiotics. Every time I met him, in Vienna, Rome, Florence and other places, he was always greeting me with: “Hey! How is architecture?” Anyhow, he wrote a book called “The open work” which has been very important for me. It says, when we build something we always have to leave the door half open. In form, openness is a built-in multi-variance – a generosity. Yet, form is by its very ambiguous nature always open, that is why it’s always kept in “the prison house of language.”

PK: Is there a line we should rather not follow?

LL: People who are rational or precise – like I think I am – we often tend to imprison ourselves. I always have to remind myself that I have to step out of the prison – the prison house of language (naming), of customs (this is how it’s used), or of history (this is how we have always done it)…

PK: What do we know about the things we don’t know?

LL: (Laughs) That’s a tough question! While I was serving in the Swedish navy, we had to dive in very dirty, polluted water in the Baltic. It felt like being almost blind down there. I developed severe claustrophobia at that time which is a very mysterious anxiety disorder. When it hits you, you know that it’s there, you know that you are incredibly scared, but you have no idea where it comes from. We tend to think that claustrophobia has to do with the closeness of the spaces around us, but even among psychologists a consensus doesn’t exist – some people think it’s probably something different, it may be a hidden trauma that is triggered… I’ve written a chapter in a new book (the Continuous City, 2017) about Pantheon in Rome which is, if you will, a story about phobia – agoraphobia, vertigoclaustrophobia, all embedded in the architecture. Through the strange muteness form it is the perfect locus of the unknown.  

We all live in a topology. When we are born, we enter a topology that we are first not aware of. And we are living in that topology our whole lives. We cannot escape it. Now let’s go back to Bachelard. He says that we always can only see that part of the topology that we bring with us, that we know. We don’t see the unknown. But we know that it’s there. So what can we do about that? Well, we learn how to live with the fact that the topology is never going to be fully explored. Wherever we push on it, it’s going to move away. In other words, when we try to find its horizon, it will just always leave us with a distance.

PK: Do you have plans for the future?

LL: I’ve just finished a book project on the continuous city. “Life and death of objects” lingers. Fragments will probably appear in a catalogue for a future exhibit in Madrid. Recently I had a show of my drawings in London. I think I’m about to slow down with my writing while focusing more on drawing and painting. It would be really cool to see some of my “strange objects” being produced and used as furniture-of-thought!

Credits

Interview and photo: Peter Koval
Photographs of strange objects: © Frank White (http://www.fswphotography.com)
English editor: Julie Anne Miranda Brobeck
Strange objects: © Lars Lerup

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