Design is collaborative work, says Alvaro Catalán de Ocón

Taking place in several different venues around the Spanish capital, the sixth edition of the Madrid Design Festival focused its efforts on recognising the excellence and importance of the work of designers and on showcasing a discipline that is essential in improving people’s day-to-day lives.

“Design harbours many of the answers to the uncertainties and complexities which our society is facing today. The climate emergency, the depletion of natural resources, energy efficiency, overconsumption, habitability and mobility in large urban nuclei, rural depopulation, the loss of the traditional artisan trades and demographic movements: all of these issues can and should be addressed from a design perspective,” declare the festival organizers from the cultural management organization La Fabrica. 

“Madrid Design Festival was born with the aim of bringing design to the largest possible audience and thus contributing to the development of a design culture in our city and our country,” director Alvaro Matias said, welcoming the visitors. 

A few busy days filled with inspiring programmes, introducing the best of Spanish design, flew by. Despite the versatility of the programme content, one name seemed to pop up in all possible connections: Alvaro Catalán de Ocón.

Alvaro Catalán de Ocón. Photo: Veronica Camera
“Throughout history, the uses of basketry have evolved to suit the needs of the moment, but with the arrival of plastics in the 1950s (and later on with corrugated cardboard boxes), the basket making industry declined and was displaced to become a purely decorative craft. Nowadays, 100 million PET plastic bottles are used daily, of which only 1 out of every 5 is recycled. The rest becomes litter, goes to landfills or ends up in the ocean, polluting our ecosystem. This contrasts with traditional basketry, which uses natural materials that decay naturally and constantly. It takes 700 years for a PET plastic bottle to start decomposing.” Photo: ACdO

A Madrid local, the comprehensive designer is most well known for the global social design project taking the form of a lamp series: the PET Lamp. 

Coming up on its tenth anniversary year, the PET lamp is a prime example of the ACdO studio’s approach: an inviting, environmentally and socially responsible series of works that does not abandon the aesthetics. The material used is recycled plastic from those bottles that fill every corner of our planet. Each lamp collection is made locally by hand, in small communities around the world.

The PET Lamp team at ACdO Studio says that the project is one way of approaching a global problem (the waste from plastic PET bottles) using a local craft (the basket-weaving tradition). Today, there are several communities of artisans around the world making PET lamps, in Colombia, Chile, Ethiopia, Japan, Austria, Thailand and Ghana.

“Basketry is one of the most ancient crafts and probably the origin of all textile arts worldwide. The process of interweaving different natural fibres for baskets and mat-making is one of the most universal craftworks. Authorities on the subject declare that there has never been a tribe in any part of the world that has not employed some type of basket. Basket making emerged as a response to the human need for receptacles for storing, transporting food, etc. It also works as a way for the transmission of knowledge, securing the transmission of the symbols, beliefs and rituals of a culture from generation to generation. Analogously, modern PET plastic bottles have taken over our world as containers for liquids, replacing basketry and pottery. These bottles also bear a printed tracking number that tells us about its production, bottling location and target market,” the PET Lamp team writes. The Home/office chair is also pictured. Photo: ACdO

Weekly: As well as the PET Lamp, there are also the Plinto Brass Vases for dried flowers, the Riad Table series, Rayela Plywood stools, the Candil Lamp and my favourite – the Cornucopia Wall Light. What do you think is the common denominator in your approach to the design of these products?

Alvaro: I have been told a few times before that the ACdO collection seems as if each product had been designed by a different designer. It’s a comment I relate to and makes me think that I’m on the right path. I think that design shouldn’t have a style but a method of working, and this would give each product its own character according to the brief, material and manufacturing process that you are working with. At the same time as a designer you set yourself some principles which can guide you on the way. I’m glad that Cornucopia is your favourite as it was my first project and it set some of those principles I still maintain in my work nowadays, such as reductionism, the possibility of serializing the product and storytelling as another function of the product. 

Then there are the aspects of one project that you carry on to the next. After the PET Lamp, for example, I fell into the textile world, which I then applied to the Home/Office Chair, Ceramics Cu and Plastic Rivers. It’s also a project dealing with waste from an upcycling perspective, such as the Alhambra project or Plastic Rivers, which do it from a recycling point of view. There are always more abstract bonds between products than just visual or stylistic. 

I think that design shouldn’t have a style but a method of work and this would give each product its own character according to the brief, material, manufacturing process that you are working with. At the same time as a designer you set yourself some principles which can guide you on the way.

Alvaro Catalán de Ocón

Weekly: During my days at the Madrid Design Festival, I joined the opening party of the PET Lamp Exhibition, explored your installation at Matadero, had lunch at your multi floored studio and celebrated you winning the Madrid Design Award. All these events had a very warm atmosphere – how important is the local design community for you? And what’s that like in Madrid?

Alvaro: Madrid is a city with incredible energy, it has always been part of its character and what the visitor grabs first. You don’t need to be born in Madrid to feel “Madrileño”, and in a couple of months you become part of the city and invited to all the events, parties and nightlife. Design is a collaborative work, and the city’s atmosphere helps to create a design community which is quite recent and unique. There isn’t a design tradition in the city, so there are no rules to follow, and the new professionals are happy to share their experiences and knowledge. All of these particularities of the city are creating a very interesting melting pot for design. 

The warm atmosphere of Madrid. Photo: ACdO

Weekly: How do you see the value of design festivals and events for a designer like yourself – especially in the future?

Alvaro: I think that design festivals are becoming more relevant than fairs, which just have commercial goals. Through a festival, you can feel the energy of the city where it happens, by seeing fresh and not necessarily finished and commercial projects. There are then other channels to reach the market, but festivals are important to keep up the tension and create a critical perspective around design. Their danger is making design an experiential event based on creating content for the media and forgetting about the product itself. I would like to see a biennial festival though, where you can show more mature and better resolved projects.

Weekly: What can we expect from you in the future?

Alvaro: This year in Milan we are presenting a book celebrating the 10th anniversary of the PET Lamp. It has been a fabulous life experience, an adventure, a design project, anthropological research and much more. We have taken over 20,000 photographs and have made a special effort in selecting their B side: those which might have not been shown before but which tell a more intimate story. It’s like a family album aimed at those who have, one way or the other, been related to the project and have made it possible. We have had the chance to look back at these last 10 years, but mostly to think ahead to the following 10!

AcDo studio. Photo: ACdO

Learn more about the PET lamp here and visit Madrid Design Festival through here.