Swiss graphic designer Felix Pfäffli is known for his use of vibrant colors, strong geometric shapes, and playful typography. He is the founder of his own design studio Feixen, located in Lucerne, Switzerland, and has worked with a diverse range of clients, including Nike, Chanel, and The New York Times.
The Indian furniture manufacturer Phantom Hands is based in Bangalore. The company is steadily gaining more attention for its highly skilled re-editions of famous modernist furniture pieces as well as its growing collection of contemporary wooden furniture, which is manufactured by artisans in Bangalore and developed in collaboration with internationally renowned designers. One of these designers is Felix Pfäffli, who has created two new furniture pieces called the Crocodile Chair and Stool.
For V/A writer Markus Hieke met with Deepak Srinath, co-founder of Phantom Hands, and Felix Pfäffli at Milan Design Week 2023 to discuss the Crocodile Chair and Stool project and their collaboration. The interview took place in the context of the magazine’s focus theme on “Fabulating.”
MARKUS HIEKE Deepak, you run Phantom Hands in India; Felix, you run a design studio in Switzerland. How did you guys get to know each other? What was the starting point of your collaboration?
DEEPAK SRINATH My wife Aparna Rao is a co-founder of Phantom Hands. She is involved with color, material, and technique development and mentors the R&D as well as the prototyping program. With my entrepreneurial background I bring in the knowledge of how to run the business.
FELIX PFÄFFLI The initial contact originated from another project, though. Aparna also has her own artist practice, Pors & Rao. Together with Søren Pors she creates robotic art, really fascinating works. She also lead PATHOS, a robotics project at ETH Zurich, which is about movement and the connection to human emotion. In this context she asked me if I would be interested in collaborating.
DS Aparna and Søren were working with engineers from ETH on a simple robotics kit, an interface any artist or designer can take to craft and play with physical movement, no matter what their field of work is. Not requiring any knowledge of robotics per se, the idea is to use the kit to customize things, to create a moving sculpture – or in Felix’s case, to physically animate his posters. Aparna wanted to test how this project could work in very different fields, so she needed case studies and superusers.
FP So she was searching for Swiss designers, and when she discovered my work, she thought that it had some humor to it — especially in comparison with a lot of other Swiss graphic design (smiles). That was basically her reason. She just found my work and, in her words, liked the fact that it is colorful and had so much movement and energy, while also being strongly rooted in the Swiss graphic tradition. She was curious to see if I would be interested in approaching the medium of robotic motion and how I would bring it into my own language. When she reached out, I was like… yeah, robotics and art, that’s just a very interesting combination. So we agreed on working together.
MH Is Aparna still working on that project?
DS It has been spun-off from ETH Zurich into a private start-up. The development continues between India and Switzerland.
FP During one of our meetings at her workspace at ETH, when we talked a lot about robotics, interfaces, and coding, I had also brought a few paper sketches with the robotics kit she had sent to me, and I mentioned that I would love to replace the flat typographic and form elements with three-dimensional wooden objects. At this point Aparna told me: “I would like to show you something else” – which turned out to be a full presentation of Indian craftsmanship: examples of weaving techniques, vintage furniture that she liked, or samples of marquetry. It was a mixture of old techniques and first trials in what Phantom Hands can do with their artisans, such as weaving patterns or laser-cut inlay works. We started discussing options on how to collaborate. I felt super excited and responded quickly—after all I always do things because I love to learn. I like to jump on opportunities, and I did so in this case.
MH What did you specifically like about the examples that Aparna showed you? What got you excited?
FP Well, I have to say joy definitely gets me going. I basically just took a piece of their furniture and deformed it here and there. Then I made an animated gif and sent it to Aparna to show her how many possibilities we had. I did it really quickly, which is how I usually work. I am involved with a lot of projects and not all of them work out. That’s why I formed a habit of just dropping ideas and wait for the reaction. If I receive positive feedback, I begin to dig deeper. In this case I just tried to treat the furniture in the most surprising way, quite naively. I wanted to do a piece that has quite a loud story somehow, expressing very strong shapes. For the gif I proposed the chair with edges on the armrest that look a bit like teeth. That is why we call it the Crocodile Chair.
MH Sounds frightening! Will this be the name of the collection?
DS Yes, the Crocodile Chair and the Crocodile Stool.
FP I like the fact that the shapes could be interpreted as aggressive, but they also have a very playful quality, especially the way in which the joinery comes together. In this case it is not about hiding the joinery; it is about celebrating it! The pieces are put together in a very bold way, which is the opposite of how you would normally shape a chair.
DS When we did a sort of preview of the pieces at India Design, a big design fair in New Delhi, we presented these chairs in a section called “collectible design.” Everybody thought they were made of building blocks and that you could take them apart. As Felix says, normally the joineries are not exposed, but here you can clearly see how the pieces come together. Everybody was fascinated by that, wondering: what is going on here?
MH The design is based on one of your original classics, isn’t it?
DS Yes, it is based on a very well-known armchair from the Chandigarh project in India, attributed to Pierre Jeanneret. Together with his team, the Chandigarh Collective, he developed several pieces of furniture in the 1950s, which were meant to be reproduced without license by many different manufacturers. Because it is open-source, we are not the only producer of the Chandigarh chairs; about twenty other companies, among them the Italian brand Cassina, produce it as well. Some of them produce it in a very industrial way, and their products are missing the human touch. For us it was interesting to think about a playful approach to reinterpreting this design classic – for some people it may seem a bit irreverent, but that’s also kind of the idea.
MH How did you make sure to preserve the comfort of the original armchair in the adaption?
FP I changed nearly everything – sometimes only a little, sometimes quite a lot – aside from the angles. I also added a little more comfort with textile. The shape of the armrests has always been taken for granted, as being perfectly designed. Adding the teeth to them has been the most important design decision for my version of the chair. I am used to being a perfectionist, especially when it comes to typefaces, where you easily work on a project for a year. Very often it is only one move that is the most important one, and all the other adjustments are basically about making this one move more visible.
MH How much graphic design were you able to bring to the designing of the chair and the stool?
FP Well, I am very much into colors. This is why I started with the idea of a very colorful chair. The shape was important, too, but more in a sense of a two-dimensional sketching process. As mentioned, a big part of my work is designing typefaces, and with them it is even crazier how much everything is about the shape. For me shapes are finished at some point, just because I know exactly when I have enough curves and edges to complement each other – but also to make the shape unique and interesting. I designed the legs of the chair in a similar way as I would a letter for a typeface.
MH I would describe it as searching for the perfect curve.
FP I think it is exactly about that, yes. Just testing and remaking the shape until it turns into the right thing. When I saw the first prototype back then in Bangalore, it was very obvious to me what we needed to do. It was about reshaping four or five corners, and suddenly it felt right.
DS Surprisingly the difficult parts are the colors of wood and textile. The reason why the chair has not been ready yet for this year’s Milan Design Week is because we took on this crazy challenge of trying to make the fabric and the wood come as close as possible to each other in terms of color. Which is an almost impossible task because wood and fabric behave very differently. The fabric we use is hand-spun yarn and it is vat-dyed – an old dyeing technique, a crazy process.
MH Is reproducing the same tone over and over again the tricky part?
FP In Bangalore we visited Ravi Khemka of Zanav textile, who is the producer of these textiles.
DS He is a master textile maker in Bangalore.
FP Absolutely! It is crazy; he has so much experience. We were able to create our own textiles, starting from scratch with the yarn. We combined linen with cotton, and then we were trying to figure out how our pieces of wood reflect the light. The guy knows exactly how to weave a textile so that it would reflect in the same way. In the end there was a big shelf of possible cotton yarns. We would just pick one and then they were hand-spinning the textiles for us live. After just a moment we had these pieces, fifteen by fifteen centimeters in size, all different. Really fascinating!
DS It was about fine-tuning the fabrics according to the colors of the wood. We will use three colors, four versions actually: there’s a black, a gray, and a brown, plus one multi-colored option.
MH And which one turned out to be the most challenging?
DS The black one. We got the brown and the gray versions pretty much right, but to match the fabric of the black version with the surface of the wood turned out to be very tricky. The guys at the Phantom Hands workshop were literally bleeding black. On the last day before the launch and failing to find the perfect black, Aparna spontaneously staged this photo with the team – both to communicate to Felix and lift the morale of the team. (laughs and shows an image of workers sitting on the floor, pretending to kill themselves like in hara-kiri style, their chests soaked with black dye).
FP It is really about nuances. But luckily at Phantom Hands they are super curious to figure out things, and in the end this effort is not just for this one chair; it influences the whole collection.
DS When we started doing the project, we eventually realized that it might not fit into our regular contemporary collection. One day over lunch Felix and I came up with the idea of PH+, which is a new platform within the brand for experimental design. It allows us to look at different kinds of distribution. You rather find this in a collectible design space rather than at a regular showroom.
MH How did you manage to produce a prototype considering the distance between Switzerland and India as well as the fact that you, Felix, are not trained in that field?
DS Some of the designers we work with build their prototypes themselves, others just send their drawings and we prepare the prototype completely. In this case, the physical prototype was built by us in Bangalore.
FP Three days after I sent my drafts and plans, I received a 3D model of it. They have designers in-house who make 3D models, which I did not expect. But thanks to that I was able to explode the parts and to look at the joinery, at the way they would work it out. Then it’s just like working with a physical model: I would adjust it a little here and there, and then they produced an actual piece.
DS We work with a collaborative software so that you can work on something from different places worldwide. We are very traditional regarding the craft, but we combine this approach with technology. The craftsmen who made the prototype had a lot of fun. It is so different from what we normally do.
FP And that is again an interesting thing about this collaboration. Because the workers suddenly receive a plan which works totally differently. The carpenters needed to learn new skills in order to produce the design. We’re currently working on other designs as well, like a wooden marquetry project, a lamp, and also another chair. To turn these designs into reality at some point, we are experimenting with designs and crafts—and there is still a step to go to expand our abilities.