Essay #05 - A Breath of Fresh Air

While the entire country talks time and again in terms of Portugal’s 'brain drain', talent returning to its roots and success stories are rarely mentioned in the media. Of Portuguese descent, Toni Grilo is an excellent example of this silent movement that is rediscovering the country’s potential and steering Portuguese companies in the right direction. “News programmes should have a minute devoted to success stories. It’s important for the Portuguese to see these examples and to stop speaking ill of the country,” sighs the designer raised in the south of France. “I’m an optimist, I always think that you can do more and better,” he says earnestly in his French accent, during an interview that turns into a pleasant three-hour conversation.

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Currently living in Oporto, to be close to the production units, it was here in this city that Grilo embraced one of his greatest challenges when he became creative director of Topázio in 2013. Despite considering that, as a rule, when a brand hires a designer or creative director it’s already too late, he was fascinated by the vast history of the century-old company, by its never-ending archive of casting moulds, by its priceless supplies of human capital and knowhow. In an attempt to bring Topázio into the 21st century, while retaining its identity, Grilo has been slowly introducing a new attitude into the company founded in Oporto in 1874.

“When they asked me to be creative director, they offered me a glass office, with air-conditioning. I replied that I wanted a desk in the middle of the factory, so that I could be close to the craftsmen,” he explains.

Although he admits that it wasn’t easy getting his ideas accepted at the beginning, this proximity has allowed Toni Grilo to take an educational approach when it comes to the factory, fostering curiosity and pride in craftsmen with decades of experience in silversmith work, bridging the gap between management, production and the creative process. As the face of the new direction of Topázio, interestingly it was with Christofle, also known for silver, that his name first entered the spotlight.

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After graduating in 2001 from the École Boulle in Paris, Toni Grilo swapped the French capital, as a milieu that was “closed, highly intellectual, with little freedom or connection to the industry”, for Lisbon, where he joined the team at Marco Sousa Santos. He presented Dysfunction, an exhibition featuring welded sculptural pieces made from everyday objects such as cutlery and glassware at the 2005 Experimenta Design fair. This refreshing vision caught the eye of Brigitte Fitoussi, creative director at Christofle between 2005 and 2009, who invited him to develop a series of limited edition pieces such as the Precious Famine table or the From collection, all designed with pieces of classic Albi cutlery. “At the time I had no concept of the impact that this collaboration would have; I like to live in the moment, to enjoy the work,” he confesses. Despite his detachment, the pieces for Christofle placed him on the map of a new and talented generation of European designers.

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Bucking the trend of designers assuming a single visual identity for the various brands with which they collaborate, Toni Grilo presents a more personalised vision in each project, adapting it to the needs of the challenge; an approach more consistent with that of creative director.

“I don’t just consider myself a designer anymore, I’m a creative director, someone who thinks about a brand as a whole, about the production, collection, image and business strategy,” he concludes.

When David Haymann decided to launch a brand, the broad-based profile of Toni Grilo was perfectly suited to the construction of a new name in the competitive market of European design. Although Haymann’s initial idea had involved the launch of a project focusing on the reissue of Brazilian pieces, Grilo was suggested by a mutual friend and ended up shaping the project in his image. “The collaboration with David Haymann started with a flirt and then it ended in marriage. Before starting the design process, I invited him to come to the Oporto to take a lesson in production, to understand the techniques, to visit the manufacturer’s network,” he reveals.

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Despite admitting that it takes two to three years to build a new brand, Toni Grilo ended up accepting the challenge of launching the first pieces in just six months, and the result couldn’t have been better. Unveiled at Maison et Objet in 2012, the collection expresses his great passion for exploring natural materials and for timeless, “difficult to copy” design. The mushroom-shaped Marie lamp is the perfect reflection of this fascination and the hallmark of French company Haymann. It is produced in a range of different materials, including solid oak, polished aluminium and black cork.

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Supplying black cork for various Haymann pieces, Sofalca has become a natural partner for Toni Grilo, giving rise to the newly launched Blackcork. “I was given complete freedom for this project; they told me that they knew very little about design, that it was enough to guide them and they would follow,” he says. Taking on the creative direction of the brand, Grilo contacted some of the most promising Portuguese designers, such as Gonçalo Campos and Daniel Vieira, to breathe new life into this material, used until now as thermal or acoustic lining. Combining design with this ecological material, the collection from Blackcork breaks with the worn image of cork, not only through its darker shade, but also through the clear choice to create attractive objects, which easily fit into contemporary environments.

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Stating that he does not understand the more romantic side of design, “of wanting to save the world”, Grilo is a pragmatic soul. He explores the materials, as well as the journey and history of the brand to find his inspiration; he creates added value, and that is exactly what he did with Riluc. Founded 25 years ago, the company specialising in stainless steel joined forces with Toni Grilo to develop a unique collection, “unlike anything on the market”. A blend of design and art, the sculptural pieces from the Santo Tirso brand take metal to the extreme, creating innovative and surprising shapes. Handcrafted with great attention to detail, the Bibendum armchair, a clear reference to the generous forms of the Michelin man, is Riluc’s most iconic piece, and has served as the basis for a range of products in polished stainless steel, which also includes chairs, tables and sofas.

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Turning the logic of Portuguese design on its head, where designers “are happy to just do the prototype”, Toni Grilo is tireless in promoting the brands with which he works, and recently took Riluc and Topázio pieces to the Design Days Dubai fair, through the Show Me gallery, from Braga. In addition to the brands with which he is currently working, Toni Grilo has embraced another challenge as creative director for the new brand Marm, a project that is “unique, that will present marble in an innovative way”.

According to Toni Grilo, the country “is buzzing, experiencing a very good moment; entrepreneurs are finally waking up and realising the importance of creating their own brands; something that Italians did in the fifties and sixties.”

We may be a few decades behind our European neighbours, but figures such as Grilo are changing the perception of Portuguese design for good.

Article originally published in Essential Lisboa No.61
Toni Grilo photo by Francisco de Almeida Dias