Chris Martin is the rather quirky designer-in-chief at Stockholm-based Massproductions (and not, as he points out, ‘that guy from [British group] Coldplay’ lest there be any confusion). Growing up in Hertfordshire in south-east England, Martin knew he wanted to be a designer when he was around fifteen years old. As a student at London’s prestigious Royal College of Art, his degree show project—The CM01 Chair—caught the eye of British designer Jasper Morrison. Martin was already a fan of Morrison (the family cat was called ‘Jasper’), and subsequently became his assistant for almost one year. Later, Martin moved to Stockholm, where he worked with architect and designer Thomas Sandell. At that time, he was given a lot of responsibility to create designs for IKEA. His first project was the Björkö Tray Table—designed in 1999, it proved popular with the Swedish behemoth’s customers. Martin refers to that period as the start of his ‘IKEA years’. He shared an office with Magnus Elebäck (Massproductions’ co-founder), and the pair worked together as designers with IKEA for around ten years.
It was the design of the Tio Chair that signaled a turning point for Chris Martin and Magnus Elebäck. The chair was the first product to be offered by the newly formed Massproductions: Martin and Elebäck launched both Massproductions and the Tio Chair at Stockholm Furniture Fair in 2009. A great success and widely acclaimed, today the steel wire Tio is regarded as a contemporary design classic. Since its inception, Massproductions has gone from strength to strength. Martin and Elebäck shared a ‘neo-modernist vision of functional, elegant design’ from the outset. They cleverly eschewed PR-driven strategies, and pursued the goal of controlling the entirety of the production chain. As a consequence, Massproductions is a company whose values are driven by clarity and purpose. Of particular note, the company makes ‘real products for the real world’: working at its own pace, Massproductions is not influenced by consumer culture and fashion. By contrast, it takes sustainability seriously, building furniture that will last, with minimal waste.
If this all sounds a bit serious: it is. At Massproductions, the furniture is smart and usable, sans any degree of flamboyance. It is also truly aesthetic, in the sense that ‘only well-executed objects can be beautiful’, as expounded by celebrated German designer Dieter Rams. That said, while Chris Martin is serious about his craft, it is safe to say that he labors with a twinkle in his eye.
Gessato was delighted to have an opportunity to talk with Chris Martin about Massproductions, Enzo Mari, IKEA, and more.
Who is Chris Martin?
I grew up in Hertfordshire, England, and moved to Sweden in 1995. I studied furniture design at the Royal College of Art, worked for Jasper Morrison for a year, designed furniture for IKEA, and have been building or designing furniture since the age of fifteen. So, I think Chris Martin is a Furniture Designer. Unless you mean that guy from Coldplay.
Could you elaborate on what you mean by ‘obvious design’.
Obvious design fulfils the purpose of the object in question. It’s not elaborate, and doesn’t tell a story or a provoke a reaction. It is just good, basic, understandable design, doing its job with less emphasis on its creator—and hopefully not boring.
Describe your working relationship with Magnus Elebäck.
I’d say that above all we are good friends. I met Magnus in my first weeks after moving to Stockholm and we have been socializing or working together ever since. I throw out a lot of ideas, both good and bad, and Magnus is a great filter to run them through. Magnus is a very good furniture designer himself, but we both agree that I am slightly better, so I generate the designs that we then go on to produce. I’m very focused on the design, whereas Magnus is much more multi-talented—I think that’s why we work well together.
At Massproductions, you ‘make real products for the real world’. Please say more.
Our products have to stand up to real-world use. They need to function well, have durability, and justify themselves in real-world situations. On top of that, at Massproductions we aim to make a contribution to the history of furniture design. It’s quite a lot to take on, but we wanted to give ourselves a good challenge.
‘4PM Self-Build’ is an homage to the late Enzo Mari. How did Mari influence the way in which you approach design?
Yes as an homage to Enzo Mari and also to my Father, who is still with us. They both share a very pragmatic approach to material construction, although my Dad is limited to what he can do in the garden shed. Mari’s industrial design is top-notch: his products are clever on so many levels, from choice of materials and production, to the experience of the end consumer. On one occasion, I had the pleasure of meeting him briefly in Milan. There was a language barrier between us, but he did take our catalogue after I introduced him to my Tio Chair. I took that to be a sign of approval.
What do you like most about Massproductions’ new graphic identity?
It just seems to fit our ideals so well. It’s clean and dynamic, and lifts our messaging wherever it’s applied.
IKEA is synonymous with mass production and consumerism. In many ways, you cut your teeth as a designer working with the company. How did that experience shape your thinking on design?
I spent around ten years as an external designer to IKEA. It was a fantastic place to learn and make products on a truly mass-produced scale. It made me realise that the actual design is just one small—but important—part of what a product is. There are so many other things you have to get right, including quality, certification, finances, and packaging. Designing for IKEA was a great background to have, and gave Magnus and I the confidence to go ahead and start our own furniture company.
You are described as a ‘radical pragmatist’, but are there certain design ideals that you subscribe to?
I think that’s quite a good description. For me a good design has to be functional and run through production smoothly. But if you simply tick the boxes, you are in danger of making an underwhelming piece. It’s the struggle between being pragmatic and trying to do something special, that inspires me.
What are you most proud of?
Massproductions as a company. It’s nothing I ever dreamed would be possible, but this wonderful experiment with Magnus Elebäck and our employees seems to go from strength to strength.
What makes a design classic?
I would say it’s if a design still seems relevant and desirable years, or decades, after its release. If you look at the accepted classics today, many of them are still the best option in their respective typologies. Even if they are seen everywhere, they still cannot be knocked off their top spot by new competition.
Now, more than ever, we are focused on improving our quality of life, while trying to reconcile with the world around us (and alleviate the harm that we are causing). What is Massproductions’ view on this?
We work hard on certification, which sets high industry demands on our products for environmental, qualitative, and social responsibilities. We have initiated a transparency program, where we are open about our production. It allows customers to know exactly what they are buying and how it’s made.
Is there any one design that is the definitive Chris Martin design?
As far as design goes, I would probably say the Tio Chair. It was a great product to start our company with and it opened up so many opportunities for us. Although I have just designed a really nice door wedge that we’ll release later this year. Let’s see how that turns out.