Milly Burroughs meets Austrian designer Lukas Gschwandtner ahead of his debut solo show at Jermaine Gallacher’s showroom on London’s Lant Street
- TextMilly Burroughs
“It’s always been important to me that people don’t think I’m a furniture designer, I feel like that’s something I am not.” 24-year-old Lukas Gschwandtner’s conviction in who he is, or rather is not, could be the envy of someone twice his age. His words, however – particularly those chosen to talk about his processes and purpose – are flared with a cautiousness that suggests a knowing respect for the unpredictability of the future.
While perhaps not destined to be his life’s work, chairs are the subject-du-jour as Gschwandtner prepares for the opening of his debut solo show, In Verwendung A Collection of Chairs and Lamps, at Jermaine Gallacher’s showroom on London’s Lant Street on Thursday. “It just happens to be chairs now,” the Austrian explains. In a rush to dispel any presumption that his career is defined by this moment, he adds, “they just happen to be the outcome of my observation of seating. It doesn’t necessarily mean, to me, that I am a furniture designer. This question, ‘what do you do?’, it’s the hardest.”
Gschwandtner confesses to anxiously avoiding design dealer and interior designer Gallacher’s initial enquiries about the possibility of a solo show, for fear of feedback significantly less flattering, but as Gallacher explains, his appreciation of the designer’s work was immediate. “When I saw Lukas’ Melange chair for the first time, I remember thinking, ‘wow I’ve never seen anything like this before,’” he says. “True originality is hard to come by, everything that Lukas makes has both elegance and a ballsiness – I just love that combination.”
Despite residing in London, having come to the capital to study Spatial Design at Chelsea College of Art, Gschwandtner’s deeply personal connection to his docile Austrian upbringing is reflected in the intimacy of his hyper-personal work – particularly in the Melange chair, which is dedicated to his friends who helped him design it. “Growing up in Austria it was so beautiful how slow-paced everything was and how much time was given to rest,” he explains. “It’s just so beautiful how time has such a different value, you can sit with your friends and talk all day and you don’t feel guilty about it. I feel like people have just forgotten how important it is to exchange your words.”
Inspired by the cafe culture of his motherland, Gschwandtner explains how he asked his friends to measure their bodies, positioned comfortably in their favourite chairs. “I just sent them a Facebook message asking for them to do this and all of a sudden I realised they’d all travelled together as a group, from house to house, taking photos and measuring themselves while getting drunk at the same time. I received all these beautiful images and I cried! So from that moment on I applied those measurements to everything I did.” He adds, “I still use their measurements, and actually in the end I started to come up with one unified measurement, and with that I was also criticising Le Corbusier’s Modular, creating my own personal measurement that comes from my friends.”
Having grown up in Salzburg, Gschwandtner moved to Vienna at the age of 14 in order to attend Schloss Hetzendorf, a specialist art school, and found himself in what he describes as a somewhat surreal scenario: “It was just me and my friend and our teacher in the whole class, and the whole school was in a castle. It was like this wild dream or something. Only now I’m realising what the fuck it was. I had this amazing life in this school with my friend and my teacher in a castle, and now I’m in London and I cannot find a castle.”
Although Gschwandtner opted to study leathercraft, focusing on handbag design until he was 19, his teacher’s architectural background became the foundation for his obsession with spatial poetry. “For her it was so important that we understand space and that we create it, and it doesn’t matter what scale is actually applied.” As demonstrated in his most recent work, Gschwandtner insists that he can only envision a future where intimacy is at the core of his work, and that despite being taught in architectural principles from his early teens, the thought of designing an entire building is one that daunts him. “If I had to do a building I’d be stuck for ten years redesigning a doorframe. I’d be doing one detail for ten years because I couldn’t move on.”
London may lack the romantically pedestrian pace of the Austrian capital, but the city’s demanding cultural voyeurs have an appetite for emerging creatives that demands answers to questions some, like Gschwandtner, may not have had time to prepare for. Discussing the unavoidable pressures of a solo show, he articulates the anxieties that the offer presented. “That was frightening, because it’s a huge thing to do a solo show, and I just don’t know if I have a statement, if I want to have a statement. Do I need one? Who am I? All these questions have been following me [around] for weeks, and then I just thought I should do what I’m interested in. That’s the most authentic thing for me to do, just to keep concentrating on that interest. I found other ways to show that interest in how we sit, so I scanned my butt, which was an interesting experience. I just wanted to have a very honest response, a very visceral response, to the seat itself.”
Like many of his contemporaries, it’s the opinion of his friends – the ones who acted as his collective muse for the Melange chair – that concerns Geschwandtner most of all. “My friends are actually coming from Vienna, and I’m scared because they will see everything and know that most of the measurements have come from their bodies. What if they think it’s ugly?” he says. Considering the almost autobiographical nature of his process, he adds, “everything I’ve been doing is so personal, and I don’t know if it’s the right way to do it, but to me it seems the most reasonable”.
In Verwendung A Collection of Chairs and Lamps is at Jermaine Gallacher’s showroom at 59 Lant St, London, SE1 1QN, March 28 – March 5, 2020.