Embracing fun as a design philosophy, Markus Friedrich Staab brings together visual references. From Dadaism to Josef Albers, the German designer reimagines his functional art pieces
Staab’s evolution through the arts
Functional art is the most recent point of the artistic journey that Markus Friedrich Staab has been on since he was a kid. Born 1964 in Aschaffenburg, Germany, Staab’s journey with creativity started when he was around fourteen years old, when he was experimenting with painting and drawing. Growing up, his interests evolved too, and moved him closer to the world of music, and his high school rockabilly band that he describes as his first love.
Dabbling back and forth with painting in the meantime and creating almost non-stop, Staab has been working with furniture for over ten years now, which emerged from a happy coincidence. Coming across a series of chairs discarded on the street by their previous owners one summer, Staab decided to collect them in his small atelier, and realized shortly that he had run out of space to store them.
This initiated his work as a functional artist, as he decided to create something new out of them, adorning them with elaborate drawings, painting, and patterns. «I came to the formula as easy as it could be. It’s the best», he says, highlighting the beauty of the coincidence that turned out to be his passion, and evolved into the blurring of the lines between functionality and aesthetics through his pieces.
Chairs and other furniture as a reflection of our zeitgeist
Staab’s design philosophy matured through his new artistic medium and embraced his willingness to represent the slice of time that we are living in, or that which the furniture originates from. Maintaining that furniture is not simply made up of functional objects, he views every object and piece that humans place in their surroundings to reflect its time, its owners, and an expression of taste. His conceptualization of furniture and a person’s created environment revolves around their potential to mirror the layers of personal and cultural meanings and stories embedded within. «I was always interested in design through the way I lived. I just never knew it».
Focusing on furniture brought out the appreciation he had always had for them, which had been apparent in the way he created his own environment too. Surrounding himself with pieces that he describes as having a certain quality, regardless of their price or literal quality, he achieves an environment that carries meanings which reflects his life. It’s not just chairs he works on, but due to the small size of his atelier located in his house from the 1910s, his artistic choices are rather constrained. Staab expresses his adoration for tables too, likening their broad surface to a canvas where he can create bigger paintings, although their size is usually restraining. Referring to himself as a one-man shop, his small atelier reduces the number of projects he can work on, making his work very small-scale and one of a kind.
Breaking away from the mundane and mass-produced
Creation entails a novelty that is becoming harder to find in the mass-produced furniture of our time. Staab describes his goal as an artist as liberating such pieces from their original state and bringing out a new object with a unique intrinsic value. «The original is a vehicle to be transformed in an even nicer way».
He reminisces of the time when he had posted his work on Instagram, and the original creator of the chair reached out to him. Afraid that they would be unhappy with his work at first, he was later relieved to be supported by them, taking the message as a compliment. Not perceiving things as holy or untouchable is key in his work and creates space for him to add his modernity and contemporaneity.
Since he doesn’t stumble upon discarded furniture every day, Staab has shifted his focus to auction houses and antique and finding better ground material to increase the value of his work. Depending on what kind of furniture he’s looking for, he chooses a European auction house to buy from.
For 50s and 70s design, his go-to is Paris, while for traditional furniture from the 1800s with the mountain cabin feel, he opts for an auction house in Vienna. Taking existing work and making them into something else doesn’t stop with him, and Staab expresses that he would feel happy to see the same happen for his creations. «If you’re taking something to another place, I think that’s a great thing».
Re-used, re-done, re-loved
Staab’s work is sustainable by nature, despite not having had that as a main goal when he started working with old chairs and furniture. His work emerges from the coincidence of having found these pieces to rework, but in the end, it becomes an example of imagination in play when it comes to reusing materials.
«My intention is to give people great things that they can think about, or even if they don’t think about that they can just enjoy» he says, and that thinking about the pieces also goes into the realm of resource efficiency and respect for the environment. Staab stresses that its’s much better to take material that already exists, especially given his use of wood. Expressing his deep concern with deforestation, he refers to the news of forests being chopped in Brazil, which equals the area of a large region in Germany.
«They just chopped away Bavaria», he exclaims. Given the great amount wood that can be reused, he states how the wood out there doesn’t belong to us, but to many generations after us, showing his frustration for big-name mass production-based furniture companies that continue to chop up wood. With the awareness that his work isn’t one hundred percent sustainable, even from the use of certain lacquers for painting, Staab sets an example for ways in which creatives can rescue old material and give it new life.
Finding the right people with the right open mind
One of the main goals that Staab aims to achieve through his work is gaining the right people to follow his work and his art. «What I do professionally is not for everybody’s mind». he says, and points towards the ideal group of people that he would see his work being appreciated by.
This is a group that would of course be interested in design, but more specifically design classics, dating back to the 1800s, and the mix of the new and old. They would also be interested in owning pieces like this. The concept of finding the right people also emerges when it comes to his plans for the future, and his quest to find craftsmen that will take his work up to a new level.
Not being trained in any carpentry, metalworking, or anything of the sort hinders some possibilities when the focus is on working with furniture, and the amount of time it would take to fully learn them would also set him back a couple of years. Staab is especially on the search for people to help him in making galvanized pieces, and he already works with an eight-year-old ebonist in Bavaria to create intricate inlays in the wood.
The right people are also what created the original pieces of furniture that he builds upon, and the right people are also the ones he collaborates with, and he breaks the fourth wall by also referring to this article. Finding the support of others is maybe best summed up in the analogy of the chair that he works with, and how it is the symbol of support, something you can rest on. A chair is where you can sit and concentrate, creating the necessary backing for creativity to flow. «Even though I do everything alone. I can’t do anything alone».
Functional art and having fun
When he first started creating art, Staab’s cousin showed him a book on 1900s art, which is where his fascination with the Dada movement originated. Not really interested in what he called ‘normal’ painting, for him, Dada brought the breath of fresh air filled with fun. He took up their sense of not taking oneself too seriously and applied it to not only his art as his design philosophy, but also his life.
Making a deep frowning face, he demonstrates how he sees many people as being, and expresses his willingness to change that through fun in creating. Fun itself is not enough of course and mixing it with the meaning that pieces carry is his recipe for a successful piece of functional art. Bringing in visual references from artists like Josef Albers with his choice of colors, his work lends itself to functional use as well as aesthetic beauty. «It’s a useful piece, not only to admire, it’s not a statue», he says, but also seems to be going back and forth on his willingness to have people sit on the chair pieces he creates.
It is impossible to take a furniture piece fully out of its context of being a functional piece while reinventing it, and Staab’s pieces hang on the bridge between sculptural art and objects of utility. Bringing his love for commonplace things into his work which aims to let their unique shape and expression shine moves his work to hold a state a place of joyful self-sufficiency.
Markus Friedrich Staab
Born 1964 in Aschaffenburg, Germany, Staab has been active as a visual artist in sculpturing, painting & music composing since 1986. In 2010, he started his work on sculptural and functional art, focusing on reimagining. And giving old pieces of furniture new life through a joyful outlook.