Recently, a young european designer met the New York retail guru Murray Moss. “He told me, ‘Slow down, you’re going too fast,’” says Tomáš Gabzdil Libertiny, the Slovakian-born, Rotterdam-based principal of Studio Libertiny.
Moss may have a point. Probably the most talked-about new kid on the block last year, Gabzdil Libertiny impressed the critics in Milan with his eerily beautiful honeycomb vases for Droog (designed by man, built by insects), then did it again in December at Design Miami, this time with another understated, underrated material—paper—in a live design performance entitled “What is Nature?”
Gabzdil Libertiny coined “slow prototyping” to describe the process behind his With a Little Help of the Bees vases (not only does it take 40,000 bees one week to create each vase, but that week can fall only between April and June). He could apply the phrase just as easily to his follow-up collection. For Paper Vases, reams of paper, each sheet printed with the identical image of a tree, were bonded together and compressed tightly to form a solid block. Visitors in Miami watched as these blocks were carved on a lathe using a traditional wood-turning technique, forming 10 limited-edition sets of five unique bowls and vases. As the waste matter was discarded, a faint image of the printed tree emerged on the turned surface. The story: tree = wood = paper = wood = tree again. Moss bought two.
For Writing Table No. 3, also on view in Miami, 22,000 sheets of blank white newsprint were cut into long, thin strips, which were pressed together and sanded smooth to form a tabletop. Held in place by a 6.5-foot-long frame of American walnut, the paper surface appeared solid, but as Gabzdil Libertiny demonstrated, all it took was a finger’s touch to reveal the truth—the “pages” yielding to disclose a slight gap between them. “You think it’s a flat surface, plaster or something,” the designer says, “but it’s very soft, very tactile.” Fragile, too, and easily stained; in Miami, anyone who wanted to touch the table had to don white cotton gloves.
Those detecting a willfully perverse streak in Gabzdil Libertiny’s work may be missing the point. “Today there’s a tendency to have one object that does everything—a kitchen table that’s also a workbench, for example,” he says. “Particularity is not appreciated; it’s dismissed as too snobby. But I like the idea of furniture limited to certain purposes. In this case you can’t eat pizza off it, or drink wine, but it’s a very good writing surface,” he says.
Gabzdil Libertiny graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven two years ago, then put in time working for Maarten Baas. Inspired by his architect father, Gabzdil Libertiny had started a design degree at the Slovak University of Technology but “escaped” to study painting after he found the program too engineering-heavy. “I think I read too much da Vinci,” he jokes. His fine art background means he is unapologetic about both the intellectual content of his designs and the laboriousness of their manufacture: “I’m interested in how value comes across in a work,” he says. “You tend not to overlook it if you see a certain quality in the making of an object.”
Ideas, he says, often come from serendipitous explorations in his workshop. The paper vases, for example, began with the discovery of what happens when you attack a promotional brochure with a bench saw. Even his business cards embody his bizarre production methods: For his first trip to Milan with last year’s Droog Smart Deco 2 show, he dipped printed cards in beeswax. “In Miami, I met the owner of Cibone Gallery in Japan, who told me he still has the beeswax card on his desk. I like that. It may be somewhat sticky and irritating, but you won’t forget it!” For Miami, because he was working in paper, he made blank white cards: “When people have to wait 15 seconds for me to write my contact information on it, I am binding them to me.”
After a heady start, Gabzdil Libertiny is in no rush to repeat himself. This year began with a group show in London and an appearance in MoMA’s current “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition, but Murray Moss’s words are still ringing in his ears. So, while experiments with welding and ceramics beckon, it will be slowly, slowly—as with beekeeping and wood-turning, mastering these new arts takes time. “Now,”
he says, “I want to breathe in and see what else I can do.”
Fiona Rattray is a freelance writer based in London. Formerly deputy editor of Blueprint and style editor of The Observer, she has also contributed to The Independent, The Telegraph, and Elle Decor.
Portrait by Raimond Wouda