After completing his studies in Business Management at the Madrid Complutense University, Alvaro Catalán de Ocón began his training in Industrial Design at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan (1999–2000). He then graduated with honours from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London (2000–2004). In 2004 he opened his own studio in Barcelona, where he designed the La Flaca lamp, winner of the Design Plus Award (Frankfurt). In 2009, he moved his studio to Madrid, where he also teaches at the Madrid Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) and is a member of the DIMAD Executive Board.
In 2007 and 2010, his designs were exhibited at the SaloneSatellite in Milan and in the latter edition he won the Design Report Award. Since then, he presents his new projects at Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan every year.
In 2011 and 2012, he created and developed the PET Lamp project. The project has allowed him to found ACdO, his studio's platform for self-produced design, which has received several international awards and nominations.
His work is part of design collections at the Centre Pompidou and the National Centre for Visual Arts (CNAP) in Paris, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne and M+ in Hong Kong, among others. His designs have also been exhibited in internationally renowned galleries and in different exhibitions such as the London Design Museum, 21_21 Design Sight - Issey Miyake Foundation (Tokyo), BAUHAUS Dessau (Germany), Museum of Arts and Design (New York) and La Sala Vinçon (Barcelona). The studio has also received the AD award for Best Emerging Design Studio 2014 and was selected by the Dezeen Awards as the best design studio in 2019.
Alvaro invited us to his new studio in Madrid where we conducted the following interview on his career, work and new projects:
Interiors from Spain: Do you remember your first design from when you were a child?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: My first product was my box of paintings, which I still have today. I remember making it out of a broken wooden box from my mother that I improved by taking it apart and putting it back together.
Interiors from Spain: You studied Business Management in Madrid and then decided to study Industrial Design in Milan. Was this something that you had planned to do?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: I wasn't sure what it meant to be a designer. It took me a while to realise you could be an industrial designer and that I could do this as a profession. I approached it through painting and sculpture, moving towards a career in architecture, but I wasn't too sure about that either. At that time in my life, I chose things that were safe and familiar, which at the time was the business degree. Maybe I did it to buy time.
Now when I look back, perhaps I would have liked to take a gap year to think about my future. However, these studies definitely gave me a base that helps me today in the company we have created, which is as much a design studio as a furniture company.
Interiors from Spain: You started studying design in Milan, the home of European Design, but graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. Why the change? How did these experiences enrich your idea of design?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: After two years in business, I did my military service and that's when I decided to devote myself to design. At the time I was studying business there were no official design degrees in Spain, so I finished it to have an official degree and then went to Milan to start studying design. I decided to start from scratch, instead of doing a postgraduate degree. I think it was the right choice because that way I became part of a different generation, a generation that had already made the leap from analogue to digital, to the Internet, to travelling, to doing Erasmus exchanges. My generation skipped this step and, as I was mature when I did my degree, I experienced it differently allowing me to get more out of it.
Italy has a similar teaching style to the Spanish one, based on memory and the accumulation of knowledge, etc. Finding this system in Italy gave me a great foundation for design. Design is a technical and a humanities degree and there is a huge design culture. My theoretical foundation comes from that year of studying in Milan. However, at the time, Italy was very focused on the industrial designer being linked to a company and that marriage allowed the system to make sense. As the designer didn’t have access to the means or the industry, production systems required big investments so you had to be very established on national and international levels to be able to manufacture and sell your products. But it was clear that this whole system was changing and that self-production, design/art and storytelling were beginning to emerge within design. It was a completely different approach. For my generation all this was beginning to change: from your small studio you could design products and manufacture them on a small and medium scale with hyper precision using CNC manufacturing processes, as well as being able to distribute and market them yourself over the Internet. I stopped being interested in studying in Italy under this system that was so closely tied to business. It was then that I decided to travel to London.
In London, design education focuses more on the enterprising designer. There, you design something, create a product and promote it. You distribute it and market it, it's like an introduction to self-production. It's a freer way of understanding education and you didn't always have to go to class. Everything was much more independent, it was a bit like a master's degree, which was much more useful to me at the time. Besides, I think 2000–2004 were London's best years.
Interiors from Spain: Back in Barcelona, you created your own studio in 2004 and with one of your first designs, the La Flaca lamp, won a Design Plus Award in Frankfurt (Germany). Tell us about that moment.
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: The two degree projects that I did went into production, one of them being Cornucopia. This started out as the final client project for Suck UK, the company that proposed the project, and that we continue to self-produce today. I finished my studies with two products in which I’d contributed to the whole process. At that moment, I thought it was time to take the leap myself and set up my own studio.
With the prices in London, I couldn’t afford a transition period to enter the market, experiment and take risks. So I decided to move to Barcelona which was a great place for design in 2004, as you could still produce in your 'neighbourhood'. The La Flaca lamp was born from the same values as Cornucopia. It took me two years to develop and I presented it at SaloneSatellite in Milan, the cradle of design. It was here that I won my first award. After that, I was also awarded a Design Plus Award at the Light & Building fair in Frankfurt.
Interiors from Spain: From 2007 your designs began to be displayed in the SaloneSatellite in Milan and since then you’ve also exhibited every year in the famous Rossana Orlandi Gallery. How was your experience at SaloneSatellite? How important is it for your studio to be included in the RO Gallery designers?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: In those years, the SaloneSatellite was essential for a young designer's progress, as it was a kind of entrance hall to the Milan Furniture Fair. During their free time, business owners exhibiting at the Furniture Fair scouted for fresh products at the SaloneSatellite. There, you could only present prototypes that needed a manufacturer to produce and sell them. I exhibited in Milan for the first time with my friend Francesco Faccin.
Rossana Orlandi was only starting out at that time. She was very clever, being the first person to encourage designers, graduates from Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, to self-produce their own creations. This is how she paved her way in Milan, in a new market, breaking the moulds of Italian design and offering what the SaloneSatellite didn’t offer: sales. It’s a similar system to that of a fair, you stand out front with your creative proposals and try to sell these products and any that are requested. That's the next step of designing a product, thinking about its reproducibility.
I started with RO in 2011, commercially Rossana is the most experimental in the Salone. Above all, it works very well at a communication level, opening the doors to the rest of the world. With globalisation, the Milan fair has become a place for world design and you no longer aim for a majority market, but focus on the numerous minorities. It’s the most important thing that Rossana offers because its sales are smaller and more local, but it provides a platform for a wide range of buyers.
Interiors from Spain: In 2009 your studio arrived in the city where you were born, Madrid, and since then your designs have formed part of Madrid's wide cultural offer. What did this change mean?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: I arrived in Madrid after having been in Milan, London and Barcelona and it was like arriving in the desert. But it's true that sometimes so much design is also tiring, an environment so focused on design also nullifies creativity to some extent. Arriving in Madrid, my city, taking advantage of the teaching position that I’d been offered at the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) was like the opportunity to say 'the time has come'.
Madrid and its people exude energy and vitality. Also, the city had just experienced a cultural take-off, especially in design. This was achieved with the support of private institutions that are promoting design with great energy such as DIMAD, and La Fábrica creating the Madrid Design Festival. Now what Madrid needs is institutional support.
Interiors from Spain: Between 2011 and 2012 you created one of your most well-known projects: the PET Lamp. What makes it so special? How do you expect it to evolve over the next few years?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: PET Lamp came about in a totally spontaneous way while I was on holiday in Colombia. One evening while talking to an artist friend who was doing a project with plastic waste from the Amazon, he suggested that I be part of that project, along with an architect and a landscaper and come up with something. The aim was not to solve the problem, but to raise awareness about it. It was definitely a new subject at the time, concern about the plastic waste accumulating in the middle of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, or the 'seventh continent', was only just beginning to grow at the time. While having a drink with my friend, the idea came to me. Bottles are similar to the Japanese tea whisks that are made from bamboo cut into strips and can then be woven, changing their shape. This process creates a unique product from a unique material. I told my friend that I'd do just that.
Back in Madrid I continued with the idea in the studio with a student intern and began trying out different options. Soon after, Enrique Romero also started interning at the studio and we returned the following summer to Colombia with the first models that we made in the studio throughout the year.
We understood the power and potential of this project, but it had a very 'hippie' aspect that went completely against what design should be. Design has traditionally been at odds with both self-production and craftsmanship. This project was a testing ground for this way of mass-producing a product.
We gathered a group of Eperara Siapidara and Guambiano craftsmen in Bogotá. Both groups were from the Cauca region and had been displaced by guerrilla warfare. This also provided a social component, which was something we wanted to include in the project. Then we began to see that lots of hot topics for society were beginning to come together: craftsmanship, design, recycling, ecology and all with a social backdrop.
In the workshop we learned to collaborate with people, which is much more enriching and complex than working with machines. You aren’t programming a machine, but working with a person and dealing with their creative individuality and specific way of working, which is deeply rooted in their culture.
When we presented the project to the craftsmen, we realised we didn't want to focus on the final product, but had to focus on the process and methodology. Visually, we left the craftsmen free to use their traditional drawings and colours because they knew them better than we did and we didn't want to lose that knowledge. In this way, we can bring dignity to these displaced people through their work. The world of forced displacement is something we have to consider, because a displaced person brings with them an enormous amount of culture and a very different and rich vision of the world that we wanted to merge with our own. In PET Lamps we merge the industrial and capitalist world of the West represented in the PET bottle with the more anthropological world of ancestral and indigenous cultures and minorities through their textile tradition.
After returning from the first workshop we were very excited as we realised its potential. Being very photogenic, once you’ve seen it you don’t forget it. The client knows that it’s very exclusive and unique, that it tells someone’s story. We were able to create a product that is mass-produced and unique at the same time.
The project started with three people and now there are twelve of us and a total of about 100 craftsmen and collaborators around the world. We are all aware that we are all pieces of a greater puzzle. The project is constantly evolving: we’ve been in Chile, Ethiopia, Japan, Thailand and Australia, and now we’re going to Ghana and will go back to Australia. For now we haven’t included Spanish craftsmen in Pet Lamp, but we’ve collaborated with them using ceramics. I'm currently working on a table, floor and wall version.
Interiors from Spain: Your latest work is the 'Ceramics Cu' collection. Where did the idea come from? What was the working with such a superior material like?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: Through basketry we reached ceramics. When we went to talk to the basket makers of Pet Lamp, they told us they were the first people ever to make a product with their hands because fruits were carried in baskets when they were collected. The ceramists, on the other hand, contend that they were the first, because a more sedentary lifestyle could be led by creating ceramic containers to hold water and so there was no longer the need to go looking for it. However, the first ceramics were made using baskets that were later burned. The mud hardened and the basket disappeared, leaving its trace on the outside of the ceramic container. The project tries to reflect this story, however...
After a talk at the university, I saw that students dyed the glaze with copper wire. In addition to dyeing the glaze, it left a fine line of colour, as the melting point of copper is the hardening point of ceramics. And then with the glaze, the colour would show.
So we thought of using copper to weave baskets and impregnate it in ceramics, combining those three components that have always been linked to ceramics. It’s been great to play with these three materials that have always been there and combine them with two very traditional techniques.
In Milan, 'Ceramicas Cu' has been well received. We sold everything we brought and have loads of orders, so now we’re working on production. We made the product in Talavera de la Reina, in an amazing workshop in San Gines, which has been awarded the National Crafts Prize. We also have a responsibility to revitalise our traditional production centres.
Interiors from Spain: One of your big commitments that is already a big part of your work is self-production. What are the keys to making a living from it?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: Self-production makes it necessary to create a product that you can market well, that reaches the public and above all that allows you to meet the demand. So you should be able to organise yourself and get ahead of the demand, if this doesn’t happen then you start losing track. A different structure to a traditional design studio is necessary. For me, going into business with Enrique Romero, who runs the production, and Sebastian Betanzo, who runs the management of the company, has been key, because without them it would not have been possible.
Interiors from Spain: How much of your production is sold outside Spain?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: 80% of our sales are international. The key countries that we sell products to are France, the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia and the USA.
Interiors from Spain: You’ve collaborated with ICEX in the Technical Design Conferences in Japan and last year you participated in the DESIGN DIPLOMACY event. How were these experiences? Any suggestions?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: ICEX has always followed us very closely. In terms of marketing doubts, we’ve always had a very quick and agile response. However, for exhibitions we haven’t found an optimal way of working together, because creating a stand always requires a great effort economically speaking.
I believe there are two levels of action: the more established companies that require very large and costly events and another lower level that is fresher, that can go further with far fewer resources. A young studio with less money can be given a big boost in alternative areas since they can't access those big events. One suggestion might be to make events less institutional and more accessible.
The Design Diplomacy was a very nice event, it’s small and alternative, generating different synergies, more on a personal level. I find it very pleasant and enriching. I want to go again this year
Interiors from Spain: A few days ago you participated in the ICEX-Interiors from Spain stand at the ICFF fair in New York with several of your designs. What are your expectations for this exhibition? What about the North American market?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: What we hoped to do was to get a foot in the door and see what the experience was like, as ICFF is a very interesting fair. Next year we’d like to have more prominence and not only be part of a stand, but be able to do something that is truly ours. The ideal scenario for us would be to do something more institutional at ICFF and something more alternative at the design week events in New York.
The US is a massive market, so we want to be well structured to enter the market. Our idea is to find just one distributor that has a store in each state to reach the entire public and then to manage the contract logistics from Spain to make it more personalised.
Interiors from Spain: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects for this year?
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón: On a commercial level they involve entering the US market.
Now is when we start with new projects. We want to persevere with the textiles world, to enter the world of carpets and continue moving forward with the Mayan ceramics project.