Dalí was "the most exciting and clever person I've met" says collaborator Oscar Tusquets Blanca
Architect and designer Oscar Tusquets Blanca was a close friend of Salvador Dalí and collaborated with the artist on a number of furniture pieces. He spoke exclusively to Dezeen about his career, parties with Dalí and his latest furniture based on the Surrealist's paintings (+ slideshow).
Tusquets Blanca, 75, has turned his friendship with Dalí into a number of exclusive furniture collaborations for BD Barcelona, the company he founded with other Spanish designers in 1972.
Taking furniture-like elements from Dalí's paintings, Tusquets Blanca realised them as actual products, like a sheep phone table with a drawer in its stomach and a chair wearing high heels.
BD has also produced furniture by legendary Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. Its distinctive output includes a monkey-shaped table by Jaime Hayón, a penis-shaped vase by Ettore Sottsass, and a shanty town-inspired cabinet by Doshi Levien.
As well as his work with BD, Barcelona-born Tusquets Blanca is known for his architecture. Among his many projects are the mosaic-tiled Toledo metro station in Naples, Barcelona's renovated Art Nouveau Palau de la Música and Paris' white marble Pavilion Tusquets in the Parc de la Villette.
He has also designed products for the likes of Alessi, exhibited his paintings around the world, and published several books.
When Dezeen met with Tusquets Blanca, he was in London to launch the brand's first UK showroom in Clerkenwell, along with a new Dalí chair, Invisible Personage. Grandfatherly and gregarious, he shared a stream of stories from Catalan bohemia and his time with the "crazy" artist.
"It was impossible to be bored with him," said Tusquets Blanca. "He is always exciting – so brilliant and so personable."
Before meeting him, though, Tusquets Blanca was suspicious of Dalí. "We thought Dalí, he's connected with [Spanish military dictator Francisco] Franco, he's a little fascist," he said.
However, he discovered Dalí was an architecture fan when the artist approached Tusquets Blanca in 1968 to compliment him on some of his projects. This surprised the young architect, who had only graduated in 1965 and worked on a few houses.
"He liked to speak with me about [Italian architect Francesco] Borromini and Italy, and normally the people around him were not interesting at all," he said. "They were opportunists who wanted to take something from him."
His opinion changed even more when Dalí invited him to one of his parties, full of "beautiful people, actors, beatniks".
"After two hours of being there, I changed my mind absolutely," said Tusquets Blanca. "He is the most exciting and clever person I've met in my life."
In 1972, the pair embarked on their first collaboration – the famous Mae West Room at the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres, the painter's home town, just north of Barcelona.
This also involved the creation of their first piece of furniture together – the Dalilips sofa. They aimed to mass-produce the polyethylene sofa, modelled on West's lips, but because of technological limitations, BD Barcelona was not able to until 2004, 15 years after Dalí's death.
BD produced a number of Dalí's designs over the years, including the high-heeled, brass Leda armchair and a side table titled Xai, which takes the form of a sheep.
The artist appointed Tusquets Blanca one of 12 life patrons of the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation, the institution that certifies which products are official Dalí works. This has strengthened the ties between the artist's estate and BD Barcelona, whose Dalí-inspired pieces are all certified.
The latest piece is the Invisible Personage, a shaggy armchair adapted from Dalí's 1935 painting Singularities. It is manufactured from Tibetan sheep shearling, with ram skin shearing for the thread.
"We know there is a market for limited series at the moment," said Tusquets Blanca. "So we have to make things like the Invisible Personage limited and expensive."
"When we created BD and did the Dalí sofa, we made it in plastic, which was very inexpensive and Dalí was very excited," he continued. "To him, the plastic was fantastic, the Pop Art of it."
The architect and designer believes the industry has changed in the 40 years since, and mass production has lost its allure. "Now, furniture by Salvador Dalí has to be precise and handmade, because otherwise they copy it in China," he said.
Here's the edited transcript of our interview with Tusquets Blanca:
Alice Morby: How did you start out in the design world?
Oscar Tusquets Blanca: I finished my studies in architecture in Barcelona in 1965. In this period we had a big influence in Italy, Milan in particular. I was more often in Milan than Madrid! There was this tradition in Italy that architects would also design furniture – Magistretti, Sottsass, Castiglioni. For us it was quite natural that when we began and didn't have much work as architects, we would design some furniture.
In this period in Spain, design was absolutely unknown, and for this reason we created BD. We decided to do the production ourselves. It was very naive, today perhaps it would be impossible, but in the 70s, because we were a very underground, small company, we managed. The design I make is not really industrial design – I don't like the word industrial design. The furniture of Salvador Dalí is not industrial, absolutely not. If I can make something in plastic and stamp it, I am happy. If I can make something in Murano glass in just five pieces, I am also happy.
My whole life I have made architecture and design at the same time – and painting, and some writing. Writing I began when I was 50 years old. At the beginning, I didn't like to write. But now people say, to read a book by you is the same as to go to dinner with you. I made six books, so if that means 60,000 people have gone to dinner with me, I am quite happy.
Alice Morby: How has the design world changed in the 50 years since you started your career?
Oscar Tusquets Blanca: As well as with BD, I also worked with Driade and Alessi – mainly Italian producers, one or two Germans. This experience with Italian producers in the 70s was very exciting. Now its different. Back then, it was very familiar. They created this company, and they worked directly with me.
I am very classical as a designer, I like to know how an item is produced, and I think if I am involved in the evolution, the design goes better. Now I think a lot of designers make an image in 3D on a computer, and the question of how it is made, if is comfortable or not, they are not so obsessed with. In this regard I am very classical. Even this chair [the Gaulino, designed in 1987], the most graceful thing I designed. Is comfortable, no?
Alice Morby: Yes, definitely! Could you tell us more about your relationship with Salvador Dalí?
Oscar Tusquets Blanca: It has been very important in my life when I was a very young architect. I finished my studies in 1965 and I met Dalí in 1968. Salvador Dalí lived and worked in Cadaqués, a little village in the north of Catalonia. At a party, he met me and said "oh Tusquets, I am very interested in your work". And I had only designed two houses! But he likes two things: smart people and architecture. He liked architecture very much.
In this period, I was a little against Dalí for political reasons – we thought Dalí, he's connected with Franco, he's a little fascist. But he said, "would you like to come to my house, to my studio tomorrow?" and I said yes. He worked to a very strict schedule. He painted every day at seven o'clock, then he'd receive a lot of beautiful people, actors, beatniks, all kinds. After two hours of being there, I changed my mind absolutely. He is the most exciting and clever person I've met in my life.
It was impossible to be bored with him. He is always exciting – so brilliant and so personable. We became friends I think for these two reasons: Because I was young and the girls I took with me were young, and because I was an architect. He liked to speak with me about Borromini and Italy and normally the people around him were not interesting at all. They were opportunists who wanted to take something from him.
He was constructing in this moment the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres. It is a pity, because I arrived a little late. I think if I had arrived before I'd have had more influence on the museum. The relationship was not easy because I am a little Bauhaus, nationalist, and he was completely crazy, Surrealist – he always imagined completely absurd ideas.
Alice Morby: How did you start working together on furniture?
Oscar Tusquets Blanca: The first important thing that we made together was the Mae West Room – the face of Mae West in an actual apartment. One day I went to the museum and said, "Salvador I saw this picture that is a flat surface that explains a space. Why we don't do a space looking from one point that reproduces the paintings?" He was very conceptual at this moment. He said, "fantastic!".
I proposed to Dalí I'd make some furniture inspired by his paintings, and he was absolutely excited with this, though by then it was the last period, where he was very ill. We took some of the furniture from paintings and some from drawings that Dalí made in the 30s when he was working with Jean-Michel Frank. These last things – the sheep and Invisible Personage – they are the last interpretations of paintings of Salvador Dalí.
We know there is a market for limited series at the moment. So we have to make things like the Invisible Personage limited and expensive. Forty years ago when we created BD and did the Dalí sofa, we made it in plastic, which was very inexpensive and Dalí was very excited. But that was 40 years ago.
Alice Morby: Did he like the fact it was inexpensive?
Oscar Tusquets Blanca: Yes, to him the plastic was fantastic, the Pop Art of it. Now, furniture by Salvador Dalí has to be precise and handmade, because otherwise they copy it in China. All our Dalí furniture is certified by the Dalí Foundation. Dalí created the foundation and made 12 patrons, more or less all politicians – the mayor of Figueres, the mayor of Barcelona. He asked me to be in the 12, and I remain there. I am one of three still alive. They are very strict about it – what is merchandising? What is original? All our works are certified by the foundation.
Alice Morby: When you approach your work now, do you still create with Dalí in mind?
Oscar Tusquets Blanca: He influences me, naturally, though I come from another direction. My painting has very few relations with Surrealism. As an architect I was more or less nationalist. But we both love Gaudí, for example.