SBHD: If you’re a member of the café set, you’ll need no introduction to Jorge Pensi’s work. But there’s far more to the man than the Toledo chair, says Lynda Relph-Knight
ONE thing Jorge Pensi doesn’t want to do is design another chair. He has said it before, but the commissions keep coming in. And you can understand why when the aluminium Toledo restaurant chair he created for Amat in 1987 has become a design icon across Europe. So much so that no self-respecting pavement café this side of Moscow can afford to be without a set.
Pensi has come to represent Spanish design without being Spanish. This quiet, gentle man is, in fact, Argentinian, born in Buenos Aires in 1946 and trained there as an architect. Originally, he hoped to design buildings, he confides, but soon after graduating came the chance to design and make furniture, and so his career began. That was in 1975, when he decided “to make furniture without a client” and opened up a shop.
Now he makes a large amount of furniture for clients. Chairs, storage, lighting – but rarely sofas. “Sofas and I are not friends,” he says. “They’re soft and lose their line quickly.”
The process with clients started when he designed a modular shelving system and approached a manufacturer. Thus his links with Spain began and shortly afterwards he decided to move there. “I had a friend who lived in Spain – maybe it was the language. It’s not a thing I really considered. I just went,” he admits.
Pensi moved to Alicante for a couple of years. Then came Barcelona, where he now lives and works in the Gothic Quarter with his wife – a graphic designer – and young family.
At the time of the shift to Spain, Pensi was working with fellow Argentinian Alberto Lievore. The partnership lasted until 1984, resulting in a host of shared bylines to grace the stands of many a Continental furniture fair.
Pensi and Lievore no longer collaborate, but the split was amicable and their studios are just one floor apart.
Now Pensi employs a couple of other people, “working with developing the process”, he insists, “not in the search of the idea”. That initial spark is down to him alone, he maintains, born “when I am alone with my pencil”.
That pencil is author of distinctive, clean-cut, functional work. Simplicity is a bit of a trademark, but there is no single house style. According to design philosopher Nelly Schnaith, Pensi allows himself complete freedom in creating form “without this fluency ever interfering with the essential demands posed by the final user or users of his designs”. This she sees as one of Pensi’s greatest strengths, in true Modernist tradition, but his work transcends pure functionalism and the sheer elegance of the end products cannot be denied.
The book of the man, which he handed me with modest pride at the end of our chat, conveys a couple of thoughts. First, it reveals a human being, a warm personality who juxtaposes a collage of intimate family snapshots alongside the more studied, exquisitely lit product photography. Second, you see the work of a prolific designer, capable of filling page after page with stunning objects, largely furniture or home and office accessories. This is a man of no mean talent.
How come he is so prolific? “It’s just a question of working,” he says. “I go to work every day. Maybe I’m fast, but I invest more time in design now than before.” One factor could be that “Spanish producers are good for me”, he maintains, mentioning Amat, Akaba, Perobell and lighting firm B-Lux. They, like the Italians, are fast, he says.
However, his work isn’t all in Spain. He has projects in development for firms in Germany – where he teaches at the Stuttgart Academy – Singapore, Italy and the US, where he was popularised through an unfinished project with Knoll. In addition, he confesses, there are chairs among those commissions, for Italian firm Driade, for an unnamed German company and for Amat.
As well as teaching in Stuttgart, Pensi also works in Barcelona, Singapore and Argentina. “I like teaching”, he says. “It makes you rich – in ideas. My trips feed me a lot.”
Over the years, Pensi has worked on a few non-furniture projects – notably desk accessories for Sabat and stylish housewares for the Soko collection. But he reckons he’s “never had the chance to make real products”, unless you count the light-fittings.
His work for B-Lux and sister company V-Lux marks an exemplary collaboration between designer and manufacturer. The trust that has evolved between Pensi and Mr B-Lux, Agustin Ibarretxe, the larger than life character behind the company, has allowed experimentation with both form and materials. Most recently, Pensi has worked with “frosted” polycarbonate to create Alys, Belys and Celys, three complementary ranges of affordable fittings with a classic feel.
Pensi sees nothing remarkable in this interest in materials. “Materials are in the brief”, he says. But his concern with technical details has won him praise in media such as the Italian magazine Domus for the “conscientiousness of the design process”. However, while he is getting away from mere image and focusing on materials and technology, he is still producing beautiful objects.
Although materials may be in the brief, Pensi acknowledges that the idea is not. “Looking at the brief gives no clue to the design,” he says. “Yet how you do it is the most important thing. I would say it’s a lonely task to design the best. It’s a lonely moment – not always a happy moment, but good.”
Given this claim to isolation in his designs, is Pensi influenced by anyone else? “I don’t think of it, but I’m sure I’m influenced by other creatives in Barcelona, and by Charles Eames,” he says.
Then there are the comparisons often made between Pensi’s successful Gorka seating range, designed for Akaba in 1993, and the work of Danish master Arne Jacobsen. He has gone on record as being inspired by Jacobsen in the design, but now he maintains: “I didn’t think of Jacobsen when I designed it. I only spoke of him afterwards.”
There are contemporaries he admires too. Italian great Antonio Citterio comes high on the list, but it is Philippe Starck who is awarded the honour of top slot. “He’s something special”, says Pensi of this French guru. “What I admire in him is the possibility that he can do anything.”
A string of design awards behind him, Pensi is still surprised at his own success. He was surprised by the book, simply titled Jorge Pensi and published in Barcelona by Gustavo Gili, surprised by the invitation from Richard Sapper to lecture at Stuttgart, and he continues to be surprised every time he is asked to speak at international events.
Though he is keen to move forward, particularly with his current work for a German company, he remains indebted to Spain. He hopes fervently that the companies which helped him so much can now develop a strong international reputation – something Amat and Perobell have already achieved.
And so it is back to the chairs. “I’ve done two or three successful chairs,” Pensi admits with characteristic modesty, stressing that the next two really will be the last. “Everyone wants chairs,” he laments. Members of the international café set who have sampled Toledo will understand why.