Designer Michael Anastassiades is a true industry luminary. Crowned Designer of the Year at MAISON&OBJET January 2020, Anastassiades established his studio in 1994 and his eponymous lighting brand in 2007. Concurrently running both entities from his North London base, he specialises in the design and manufacturing of luxurious lighting and objects.
In advance of our annual Dark is the Night panel, The Conran Shop visited the studio to discuss his career so far, always picking the most challenging route and creative collaboration.
We are currently sat in your North London studio, please tell us more about what goes on here?
It is the studio together with my lighting brand. The two have always existed in the same space, now of course, as the company grows and the studio grows, they are becoming a little bit more independent. In the beginning, especially when I started the brand, I was just me. Now there is a clear distinction, the studio is designing for my brand as well as for other brands.
You have worked with some incredible brands, what is most important when you’re collaborating?
It has to make sense. I came to this position quite late in my career. I have no anxiety to design for everybody or put my signature on everything. I believe that there needs to be a reason why I should work with a brand. Not just only from my contribution, but also, it’s about who they are and how the partnership work in context. Financially it often makes more sense for me to focus on what we’re doing here and on my lighting. It’s interesting as a designer to engage in other projects. There has been an appreciation of my philosophy to make it happen.
If you look at the brands we’ve worked with, historically they have been quite significant brands. Some of them have incredible manufacturing techniques that they’ve developed over many years. There’s something there that says to me ‘yes, this feels nice’.
You studied civil engineering to begin with, what led you to design?
I used quite an extensive period after my college years to continue my research in design. I was producing more conceptual pieces, not production pieces as such. As much as I wanted to see them as so, they were far from it. Still very successful and rewarding, I was invited to exhibit in numerous museums and institutions. There was always something missing, I felt that as a designer I missed that link with the industry. I had a passion for things, for objects. I love collection objects, I love observing objects and for me, that was a very important part of the work.
I took a very conscious decision to change this. The research could still go on, it can still happen, but how do I design for the industry? If brands didn’t give me that opportunity or I didn’t get the invitation from other brands, because it’s difficult. Brands might expect to see a certain type of work coming from you, but they can’t always connect the dots. So, I decided to take control of that rather than waiting for an invitation. Rather than knocking on doors, which didn’t suit me as a character, I started from scratch and I did it alone. I opened the brand in 2007 and it grew from there. It was a slow, organic growth, but the brand grew, as did the studio.
And then Flos came in probably four years after we launched the brand. They were interested to see what I could do for them as they could see what I had begun to do for myself. The first collaboration with them sparked quite an aggressive approach, not in the negative sense, quite prolific development of ideas as we turned out to be a good match. They embraced the existence of my brand too, which was unique. This taught me that there’s always a first time and that I can be that first time. You don’t have to wait around for someone else to do it first.
You have exhibited in several major museums and institutions, earlier this year you were invited to have a retrospective at NiMAC, 'Things That Go Together', back on Cyprus. How did you find the preparation process?
It’s interesting, the invitation came from the museum as I was already thinking about a large-scale show. There have been various suggestions from institutions around the world to do a show of that nature. However, when the invitation came from Cyprus, it made complete sense to start from there. It’s where I am from, it’s where I grew up and it made sense that it was showcased there. It was interesting as the institution required to be self-curated. It’s quite a challenge because as designers, looking back at your work can be a little sensitive issue. I feel quite heavy. And also as designers, we like to look forward, we don’t like looking back. We are constantly thinking about the next thing we are going to do. Nevertheless, it was interesting to decide which pieces from the last ten years were important to showcase and meant something significant.
It was a good representation of the last decade of my career. I never accepted the term ‘retrospective’ because it is associated with the end of someone’s career, and I’m right at the beginning of mine. Perhaps ‘mid-career’ is more appropriate, although I think ‘survey’ is best. A ten-year survey exhibition.
And it featured your designs as well as collections of objects you’ve amassed over time?
It was a combination of things. From experiments to prototypes, to one-off pieces, to limited-edition pieces, to production pieces. From expensive pieces to cheaper pieces. Everything. And everything was put on the floor as I didn’t want to use plinths to avoid hierarchy in the show. Everything was very simply positioned.
The show was only lit by my lights, basically powered by cables that hung from the ceiling because there were no floor or wall sockets. They were just there, and it made sense.
To return to Flos, your IC Lights use opal glass and brass. That family of lights seemed to spark an opal trend across the industry, how do you choose the materials that you use?
I’m pretty open-minded as to what materials to use. I like honesty in terms of what defines a material. I want materials to look like themselves, rather than trying to be something they’re not. And choose materials that age beautifully over time and also finishes that allow them to age, rather than all of these effects that seem to freeze an object and nothing happens to it even ten years on. I think there’s an incredible beauty to patina in the work. It’s nice, at the end of the day, if the work is timeless, in its language, in what it communicates. The material is the only thing that gives away its place in time; that’s the beauty.
I work with metals, I work with woods, I call them ‘real’ materials. I have nothing against plastics, but I believe that objects should be designed to last. They shouldn’t have a time limit.
Can you tell us more about moving from conceptual work into production-ready pieces with a distinct end-use in mind? How is designing for those things different?
Conceptual design in the main is more interested in the idea behind the product. In my conceptual work, however, it was not just an idea that was describing a product and what it should do. It did it too. A lot of the electronic objects that I was proposing were working pieces. I worked with electronic engineers to develop software interfaces that were challenging. It’s my duty as a designer to design pieces that work. It was fundamental. I think the end-user, it resonated with many people in terms of an audience. My designs raised questions rather than becoming answers to things, they question, ‘what is the role of objects in our daily life?’
And why is it so important?
I was always drawn to lighting because I tried it and I liked it. And I got a lot of encouragement to do it. That made sense for me. Later on, when I’d made more and more, I realised the lighting is like no other type of product. It is unique. A light has to live in two scenarios; when it’s on and when it’s off. Off is about 80% off its life, when it’s on its only 20% of its life. These two scenarios are distinct. You have to design both. You’re not only designing something in a sculptural form, but you have to also design it for when it’s on. It doesn’t mean that the glow, which is the most important part of the light, it's about how it interacts with its form, with the objects around it, with space. It’s a different experience; it’s what makes lighting.
Is there any specific place you go to seek inspiration?
As much as I want to idealise things, everybody has their preference, I think it’s too much of a romantic idea that I get my inspiration from a specific place. The reality is that we find ourselves in the most mundane environments daily that are the most uninspiring places in the world. Yet you have to create. You have to have an open mind and find an avenue to creative thinking even in these horrible spaces. It’s tricky, it’s challenging but it’s possible. At the end of the day, you’re a creative person and you have to work inside that. Yes, I mean, the ideal times in which you find yourself or when you see things, whether that is looking at the work of other designers or artists or having to come across something you see from the past. Or something that seems completely natural. These are more exciting.
Do you have a preference in what you’re designing?
I never want to only design one thing. I take every invitation to design something like a new challenge. I don’t prioritise lighting or chairs, over other types of furniture. It comes in periods usually. I look at tables and I’m fascinated with tables and I study tables. Then decide I need to look at chairs. But I have no preference. I think that every design is a challenge.