Mad Lab is a Madrid-based design company committed to innovation and good design, both in terms of objects and a lifestyle. The words, ‘To design is to discern and know which solutions new objects suggest to you’ are central to the philosophy of Antonio Serrano Bulnes, creative director and designer of Mad Lab. Here he tells us about his company, his designs and his future goals and challenges. Interiors From Spain: What’s your main aim as a company? Mad Lab: To be a high-profile design company in Spain. What’s more, we have a particular idea of what we want to do — to accumulate enough expertise in our workshop to pass it on to other types of corporate culture that realise the products we’ve been experimenting with designing. Our ambition is also to have the option to manufacture pieces by more designers capable of creating objects for our own line of products. Interiors From Spain: Antonio, what are the main characteristics of your designs? Mad Lab: The main one is objects that are well made, well manufactured — qualities that have become devalued today by the availability of furniture with an artificially limited lifespan. We’re all for reclaiming the long-lasting object — the heirloom — as opposed to ones with built-in obsolescence. Another aspect of my work is to realise and ensure the user recognises a material’s language, its essential qualities without needing to handle it much. It’s about just letting the objects speak to the user and suggest how best they can be used without making a big issue of the material. I also believe in a location as a culture’s means of expression which is found in the methodology of certain companies capable of transforming materials into objects that can be used and enjoyed. And I value the process of acquiring knowledge by trial and error, as a way of gaining the know-how which can then be communicated to third parties. Interiors From Spain: You mainly design furniture and homeware. Why are you attracted to the design world? How important are innovation and technology in the development of your products? Mad Lab: I feel comfortable in the design world and its modern, contemporary objects. It might seem that all has been resolved in terms of design, but that’s not so. There’s a lot more to resolve and I believe it will never be fully resolved because there are no ultimate truths, just changing values. Trying to subvert the system of planned obsolescence inherent in some furniture poses a challenge to those who want to produce well-crafted, solidly made furniture that lasts for many years. Our objects have a magical quality; they’re also decorative and aren’t concerned with mere functionality. Instead, they’re the perfect way to nourish the soul, our hopes and most ancient dreams. They’re like art, they’re things you either like or don’t like. Technology is key to the conception and manufacture of our products. Our pieces might look hand-crafted but CNC technology is integral to their creation, even if it’s not visible. A good example of this is the windows in our piece, Opening: we couldn’t have done the right-angled corners so perfectly without us using CNC technology. Interiors From Spain: Why is wood such an important raw material for you? What qualities do you want to convey with it? Mad Lab: Wood as a raw material is fascinating, it exists in silence and brings warmth. It evokes the legend of the ‘tree of life’, where the four elements — air, earth, water and fire — converge. For this reason, it’s a material that, thanks to its different species, offers unique qualities that connect us to the essence of being human. The result of working with wood, if you let it speak it to you, is that you find yourself with an added value that’s very familiar to the user. It also brings with it this affection that relates to the reptilian and oldest part of our brain, where stories about our original ancestors, Homo Sapiens, survive. I also like working with other materials, such as steel, brass, bronze, plastic, glass, ceramic and porcelain. I’ve started working on some designs for which I’m considering using these materials. Interiors From Spain: Your designs tells stories, but what type of stories? Mad Lab: All kinds. Our Opening, World’s Houses and Houses collections tell stories about shelter, of open windows which you can look out from and look at yourself, and, above all, wood, which connects with humans in an ancient way. And these are essential questions in our lives. Now that our world seems to be shrinking thanks to bigger social networks — which allow us to peer into other people’s lives — it surprises me to see how the Opening pieces have colonised homes in other parts of the world, on, say, people’s mantelpieces or sideboards. An example of a nice story told by my furniture can be found in TreeTable, whose legs recall the tree branches, such as those on sycamore maple trees (Acer pseudoplatanus), you can see in any Spanish town. These branches intertwine to offer a solid shadow that provides a canopy of shade, peace and calm for people walking under them in the hot summer months. Interiors From Spain: You want to involve new designers in your projects. How do you go about this? What criteria do you have for choosing designers? Mad Lab: This is proving a slower process than we originally hoped. We’ve decided that in order to take on work by another designer, we first need to sell it to a market we’ve already nailed and that the object needs to be authentic and profitable for whoever takes part in our adventure. Our selection criteria are very simple: that designers create objects which harmonise with those in our own catalogue of products. There are lots of designers who we’d like to involve and who I think would play an important role in the company. I really admire Konstantin Grcic, Tomás Alonso and many others and I’d love it if they created pieces for our future portfolio of products. We’re also initiating collaborations with other designers to reissue pieces that are 20 years old, but which, in their time, weren’t fully appreciated. These include Entrar-Salir, a piece created by a short-lived company which we think would be a hit today. Interiors From Spain: How is your online e-commerce platform Mad Lab Shop going? Mad Lab: It’s gradually taking shape. Two factors directly influence how well it works — its ability to raise awareness of the brand and ensure the user perceives it as reliable, things which can’t be achieved overnight. In this respect, social networks are vital in terms of making this go more smoothly. We’re finding that small pieces sell better than furniture as they’re cheaper and easier to transport — and this is a key aspect of our business. Social networks play as important a role in our business as online support, since people often find out about you through these. Customers then come back to you in their own time to buy things. Interiors From Spain: You’ve taken part in various exhibitions in Spain and abroad. How do you feel about them? Are they good for business? Mad Lab: We’re currently taking part in the exhibition, Reset Design, organised by The Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) and commissioned by Marcelo Leslabay. It’s described as ‘a travelling exhibition made up of 10 homeware companies set up in recent years in Spain’ and its aim is to tour most of Europe in two years. It’s travelled to Berlin and Zagreb to date. We’ve also taken part in an exhibition of Spanish designers in conjunction with ICEX at the Spanish pavilion at the contemporary furniture fair, ICFF, last year in New York. At the same time, thanks to ICEX’s Commercial Office in the city, we also showed our work at the Sight Unseen Offsite exhibition, which coincides with ICFF. The events gave us lots of exposure. What’s more, we also participate in pop-up shows which can be good for business if you know how to make the most of them and make a profit. Interiors From Spain: Tell us about your work abroad. Which other countries do you have business links or contacts with? What has been the outcome of this? Mad Lab: One of our best projects abroad was the exhibition, Madtastic! Fresh Design From Madrid, in Milan, which was commissioned by Tachy Mora and Javier Abio in 2013 and was part of the Milan Furniture Fair. It took place in the iconic Instituto Cervantes. As well as showing our two favourite pieces — ButaKita and Dressing Table from our LivingBlock collection — we designed and assembled the exhibition stand. This was a great endorsement of our work and posed a major challenge to us in terms of how to put together a small exhibition like this one. Our participation in the programme ICEX NEXT has given us the necessary tools to make our entrée into the international market. We currently have a commercial presence in Miami, Berlin and Amsterdam and we’re trying to get our pieces into the collections of international museums. Interiors From Spain: How do you rate all the hard work you’ve put into the business in the past three years? What are your goals and challenges in the next few years? Mad Lab: The work we’ve put in has been intense but also very rewarding. We’ve brought out of lots of collections and now it’s time to take stock. This year, we’re going to reflect on and consolidate our designs and business. We think this year will prove hugely important for us and that’s how we’re taking things. Of course, there’ll be some sacrifices to make and we’ll have to rethink how we need to grow, a key consideration of all businesses aiming for sustainable growth. We want to continue making things well, and consolidating our business in our area is a key priority. We need to optimise our catalogue of furniture and homeware to make it more commercial and invest more in equipment — these are our plans to help us make a good start to the year and face up to the future.
Industrial designer Jorge Herrera, who was born in Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria, in the Canaries Islands, opened his own studio in Valencia in 2008, having previously worked for such firms as Alfa Romeo, Arkoslight and Dona Living. His international, multidisciplinary training has allowed him to engage with all types of creative activity and deploy many design techniques. Since 2009, the studio has collaborated closely with Italian lighting firm Flos, getting involved in a multitude of projects in terms of branding, product development and marketing. One fruitful outcome of this collaboration has been its Apps lights which scooped a Red Dot Award and Good Design Award in 2012 and Idea Award in 2013, while its GO-IN and Find Me lamps received a Red Dot Award in 2013. In late 2013, the studio became the art director of new Spanish company Stratta, carrying out its branding and designing its first furniture collections. Around the same time, Jorge Herrera also began participating in fairs and events where it made contacts with and secured commissions from companies in Sweden, Italy and Japan, thereby breaking into the international arena once and for all. The studio’s founder Herrera spoke to us about its career to date, its methodology, projects and international experience. Interiors From Spain: We’re thrilled to be interviewing a designer who hails from the Canary Islands. What inspired you to become a designer? Tell us about your training and your first jobs in Las Palmas. Jorge Herrera: To be honest, I don’t really know why I became a designer, but from a very young age I loved playing in my grandfather’s garage and drawing objects. My first effort was incorporating a desk into some made-to-measure shelves I could use to study on in my bedroom. I guess I found my vocation to be a designer around then. I also come from a pretty creative family: my mother is a sculptor, my sister a painter, and they’re both very good at what they do. As for my training, learning about product design in Las Palmas is tricky since there’s no local industry for it. But I think what really mattered at the time was that I was keen to absorb ideas and plan things; I was thirsty for knowledge, curious to know more. The first professional work I undertook was for Italian designer Carmelo di Bartolo, who opened a studio in Las Palmas. There I could take part in projects both for Spanish and Italian companies, and, above all, learn a lot about its method of working. I remember I was involved in designing the interior of a bus with digital technology, created to bring new technology to the island’s villages, a work station for supermarket cashiers and a kiosk for beaches. Interiors From Spain: You moved from the Canaries to Milan. Where did you work and in which area? How has this experience influenced your career so far? Jorge Herrera: Yes, I was working in Milan in the Advanced Design department of the Fiat group whose brands included Alfa Romeo and Lancia, alongside young designers from all over the world —Italy, Mexico, Japan, France, Hungary, Armenia and Malta… At the Alfa Romeo plant in Arese, northwest of Milan, I studied the future of urban mobility — what it would be like in five, 10, 15 and 20 years’ time. Rather than influence me, I believe this experience changed me, allowed me to evolve as a person and designer. Being in Milan — where we took advantage every day of seeing new designs in exhibitions, shops, factories and design studios — was very positive: I believe it was the best form of education. I hadn’t yet presented my final-year project in Spain and at the time was an unregistered student on Polytechnic University of Milan’s Naval and Nautical Design masters degree, which helped me to complete this project later. Interiors From Spain: What can young Spanish designers gain from the experience of training and working in Italy — one of the birthplaces of contemporary design — which you’ve had? Jorge Herrera: Well, many positive things. Simply learning to cope with working while speaking another language is a big one. Also, witnessing design at first hand in one of the world’s international design centres inevitably influences you and gives you a fresh perspective; in my case, it undoubtedly marked a qualitative leap. Interiors From Spain: How do you describe your work? What’s your methodology as a designer, and what inspires you? Jorge Herrera: Describing your own work is rather dodgy [laughs] because it’s something that constantly evolves. So I don’t know that I can describe it very precisely. What I can say is that I believe in design that’s simple, functional and elegant, and I usually adhere to these principles. I think products should be user-friendly and have a clear design language. We also need to explore new ideas and techniques in the interests of being innovative. As for our methodology, we normally begin by researching as much as possible about the project — and not just by sticking to its sector: whenever possible, we encourage the cross-pollination of disciplines since we believe that trying out ideas in different sectors can ultimately enrich the final design. Next, using moodboards, we ascertain where we can take the project in terms of trends, styles, textures and materials. This also lets us contextualise and create an ‘eco system’ of references which later allows us to plan and stick to certain conceptual approaches. We then begin to give shape to the ideas via sketches. In this part of the process we create some very basic 3D models, depending on how much time we have for the project. After this we review the ideas and make 3D versions of the best of them. Finally we put together a presentation which we assess with the client. As for inspiration, I think this comes to you as you’re working. Interiors From Spain: Some of your work for the famous firm Flos has received prestigious, international prizes, such as the Red Dot awards. What did the judges think of your work? What do these prizes — and your collaboration with Flos — mean to you? Jorge Herrera: They’ve made different remarks about different designs. But in general, they’ve said that the pieces are well-balanced in their use of form. Some adjectives the judges used in their comments were ‘delightful’, ‘captivating’, ‘sophisticated’ and ‘discreet’. The prizes are a reward for our good work and a measure of the excellence of our projects. Of course, they also raise your profile in a way that would otherwise be hard to achieve. My relationship with Flos goes much further than designing products for them. We also closely collaborate in terms of its marketing. For me, this has seen me grow hugely professionally in terms of meeting strict requirements and achieving the highest quality. Being able to work with professionals who aim to create the highest quality designs forces you to get your act together and not be left behind. Ultimately, we’re always evolving in conjunction with our clients. If they grow and become more demanding, so must we. Interiors From Spain: In late 2013, you were commissioned to develop a new furniture brand, Stratta, which, incidentally, was unveiled at the trade fair Orgatec last year. Tell us about this fascinating task for you. Jorge Herrera: Creating a new brand from scratch is the type of project you never expect to take on in your professional life. On top of that, when you have a good connection with the company’s owners who have total confidence in you and give you total freedom when you work with them — that’s as perfect a project as you can hope for. And all these positive factors are eventually reflected in the global impact a product has. In truth, we’re very happy with the way the company is shaping up. With Stratta, everything moves very fast; it’s a constant challenge. In barely a year, we’ve gone from deciding on the new brand’s name should have to exhibiting at Orgatec, and now we’re looking ahead to taking part in the Milan Furniture Fair. For us, Stratta is much more than just about creative direction. It’s a fully rounded, 360º project that involves us creating the brand’s DNA, taking its designs as our starting point — not the other way around as often happens in most cases. One thing that took us more time and effort was the analysis and definition needed to come up with a strategy the brand would need to have a clear direction when it starts to create its various elements: logo, catalogue, style of photography, website, types of products and their design, exhibition stands, the entire management of product development, and so on. The brand’s first collection comprises six families of product, which, at the most basic level, caters to different needs and environments: waiting rooms, spaces to relax in, domestic spaces or offices (shared spaces for collaborating in). It’s also worth mentioning that the designs are ‘soft’ — they don’t have an internal frame — a major advantage in itself. And they’re protected by an outer skin which makes them perfect for outdoor use. We’re also currently working with Danish firm Kvadrat to create different covers for the furniture which will make it look warmer and more inviting. Interiors From Spain: You’ve taken part in the Technical Design conferences with other Spanish designers in Tokyo, Japan and Guangzhou and Beijing in China. Have you made good contacts with companies in these countries? And what are the differences between these markets? Jorge Herrera: They’re countries which, though geographically close, are markedly different in terms of design. Japan understands design — it’s industrial textile industry, for example, is very well-established. Conversely, China is a giant of a country which is only just learning about design. As for industry contacts, we’ve made some but these countries are hard to break into: to do so, you need to persevere and be patient. Fortunately, in our case, we’ve started collaborating with one company. Interiors From Spain: Can you tell us about one of your projects in the coming year? And any that are happening abroad? Jorge Herrera: All being well — fingers crossed — in Milan, we’ll be unveiling some new lighting and furniture, and, towards the end of the year, we might be launching something in Japan.
Héctor Diego founded his own studio in 2001 in Valencia. Since then, he has designed for such well-known companies as Toyota, Perobell, De la Oliva, Koo International, Viccarbe, Novum, Kendo, LZF lamps and Miele, among others.