Creative Serviceware with Designer Martin Kastner

May 2012

Designer Martin Kastner may be at the forefront of the culinary design scene, dreaming up solutions for Chef Grant Achatz’s serving dilemmas, but his beginnings were humble. From working as a metal worker and sweeping floors in a bakery to owning his own design studio, Kastner has come along way from his native Czech Republic. He’s now producing designs, new restaurant experiences, and serviceware for some of the nation’s top chefs (including the likes of Eric Ripert, Laurent Gras, and 2005 Chicago Rising Star Alex Stupak).

Inside his Chicago-based studio Crucial Detail, Kastner pushes the boundaries of perception, form, and function, creating solutions—like the self-supporting antenna—that allow chefs to get even more creative with their presentations. And his latest collaboration with Steelite has helped beef up production, putting those designs in the hands of even more chefs.

Kastner recently took a few minutes away from the kiln to chat about his background, his thoughts on design as an artistic medium, and why his job isn’t quite the dream you’d imagine.

Katherine Sacks: You trained as a blacksmith and also worked in restoring metal works in a medieval castle. How do you bring that experience into the restaurant industry as a serviceware designer?

Martin Kastner: I think it’s mainly understanding materials and processes. In a way, the castle work just made me want to do something else. I had to look at every project in the context of its time and only implement the tools of the time. You can’t open a 15th century padlock with a torch and then weld it back together. You have to figure out the context of the piece, it’s like a puzzle. It made me not interested in being in someone else’s shoes.

KS: How does that background influence your work?

MK: The training is a little more rigorous than here. A lot of stuff gets drilled into the back of your mind, becomes automatic. Plus, the presence of hundreds of years of art history, along with a social revolution happening in your transformative years is a good thing. The background in trade and crafts gives you a good footing to do stuff yourself and to understand the material. If you understand one, than with the next one you can expand your horizons. Experiencing a revolution makes you question everything. Everything is so contextual and so connected, so of course it affects what I do, but I’m not consciously aware of it. All those things are relevant, but there is not one influence I could point to.

KS: So what changed your interest from metalworking to serviceware?

MK: I started the design company while living in Ohio, doing mostly architectural accessories like handrails and furnishings. The design scene there back then was pretty bad, much like the food scene; it’s changed so much. When we first moved there, I was mopping floors in a restaurant next door to a bakery where my wife was baking bread as a night job during college. Sometimes I would get the call at 4am to help out. I was really intrigued by the material, its working properties, and its cultural place. I grew up in central Europe, and bread is this great and fresh thing there. Looking at it and connecting to this material, I realized it was a fair medium to work with expressively, in the same way any other art form is expressive. I approached the guy she was working for, but we didn’t connect. I felt like [cooking] is a skill set that takes years and years to refine. I had seen art combined with food but either the food had always fallen short of what it needed to be or the art element did. It needed execution on the same level, and I didn’t think I could possibly figure it out on my own. So I kind of just left it, planted in the back of my mind. At that point I had already spent 15 years working on other skills.

A few years later, I got an email from Grant [Achatz] looking for new ways to present food. It was really intriguing because there was no condition. He didn’t ask for a plate or knife or spoon, instead he said they had culinary concepts that were really hard to serve and needed solutions.

KS: Were you always attracted to design? What did you want to do as a child?

MK: I wanted to be a bricklayer. I had this obsession with making things that last, but bricklayer as a profession is the very low of the low. I got a lot of pushback from my family and teachers. Then I found this school, an art school focused on metalsmithing, and it just appealed to me. Being a blacksmith, you are heating up this material derived from the Earth and transforming it with a hammer. Every 12- to 13- year-old boy is a little bit of a pyro. It won the argument of what I should be doing. It was kind of all ego and pyromania.

KS: At a recent tasting, Antoinette Bruno compared one of your dishes to a woman’s belly button. Your serviceware seems to break every rule in the book, moving outside the typical form to provide new ideas for function and atheistic. Where do you get your inspiration?

MK: [For the “Mounds” piece], I had a few chefs ask for the same thing, a liquid-solid platform that was very unconventional. I kept thinking about how to approach it and then realized it’s already happening in a landscape. That’s where that came from. I try to boil problems down to a simple question one can answer. It’s hard to explain what that really means, but you have to try to forget all you know about a subject. If you are designing a chair, you focus on the butt being elevated, on the butt being a certain distance off the ground. Then you think how to support that butt, not what you know as a chair. It’s a lot more technical and more practically driven then it would seem.

KS: So do you work to create a certain look or feel or do you design based on experience or necessity?

MK: It depends what it is, but usually user experience is the defining element. At that point it doesn’t matter whether it’s a book or a bowl; you are really looking at how the user will interact with an object. Though sometimes there is a material I might like and want to use, or sometimes you just need a basic vessel.

KS: Describe your style as a designer.

MK: Contextual. It’s not a description of a style, but it’s an approach. Everything is contextual. Designing a piece for Laurent Gras’ cuisine, the result aesthetically has to be completely different than designing for Grant Achatz’s cuisine, because if it isn’t than the communication is broken. If I said I had a certain style, I feel it’d mean that I’m just designing something that isn’t truly based on a dialog with a client.

KS: Do you think of your sculpture and design as artwork? Do you consider yourself an artist?

MK: Yes, sometimes, and there is a reason for it. Design is problem solving, a craft, applying a set of skills, where art is a means of expression. Cooking is a craft, just like making a porcelain bowl is a craft. But the minute you can transcend that and try to communicate and express ideas that are not verbalized by the craftsmanship aspect, then it becomes an art form. In this sense, design can be an artistic, expressive outlet just like any other area of human activity.

KS: Tell me about the Crucial Detail collaboration with Steelite. How did you begin working with the company?

MK: Nick [Kokonas] came by the studio one day, and I had some samples from the factory I was using in the Czech Republic. I was explaining to him what foot projections were on the samples. The next day he was at Alinea and, coincidentally, a Steelite representative came by with some of their new samples. Nick pointed out the foot projection and brought out some of my plates.

[Steelite] felt there is a market for the higher level, more stylized, and more function-specific pieces. For me, it means I don’t have to handle production and distribution as much. Before, half the studio was pallets of plates. The thing is, I never thought any of this would sell; when I first started it was an academic exercise, something I was interested in, but I really didn’t feel had relevance to the outside world. But then people started asking for the pieces, and I started producing bigger and bigger batches. Eventually when it got to the point of continuously selling this stuff it meant we were manufacturing serious quantities so when Steelite came by, it made sense to partner up. I could focus more on design, plus they bring a very practical perspective. They know what other people are looking for, what makes sense to complement what I am already doing or how to best round out the portfolio.

KS: Can you describe your design process?

MK: Conceptually, it starts as a verbal process. You ask a question. What are we trying to accomplish? Once you can answer it, then you move onto a form that will work with that answer. I either sketch or model by hand, in material, or on a computer. I take the material, it could be wire, clay, paper, and play with it, going through iterations to figure out the scale and volumes. Eventually you get to the point where you have a good representation of the piece as you envisioned it or that fits the parameters. The factory afterwards has to do a similar process; they do their best to get it close to what you ask of them. And then there’s the revision process where we go back and forth, a push-and-pull, to get to a result that I like but that is also reproducible for the given manufacturer. There are things I’ve been working on for 8 years and they are still not done, but usually it takes a few months from start to finish.

KS: You create very cutting-edge serviceware. What do you see as the future of restaurant serviceware?

MK: I don’t know that I can see a whole lot of change. I don’t know that places like Alinea are representative of the restaurant industry. What is happening there doesn’t relate to the standards of service industry-wide, it just doesn’t apply. People are definitely going to play with their food a little more, people have opened up to food being a medium for an experience. It happens in the non-fine dining experiences all the time; people eat in their car, out of paper or aluminum foil. Or take a look at the candy aisle, it’s crazy. On that level, it will go beyond the expected experiences to more open, creative approach.

But I don’t think it will seriously affect the mainstream. At the end of the day, I don’t want it to affect the mainstream. I want to have my noodle stand and my hot dog shop, and I don’t want cellists to attack me every time I want to eat my food. On the whole, restaurants will remain restaurants and they aren’t going to be transformed a lot in terms of the way we experience them. There isn’t a whole lot to change. The mainstream set of tools used now revolves around versatility and cost as the primary driving elements.

KS: You’re referencing the cello performance that is becoming a part of the Alinea experience, which you are helping to create. Can you tell me about that and how you plan on using music to enhance the dining experience at Alinea?

MK: The entire dining experience including every single aspect of it really should be thought of as a composition. We’ve wanted to explore the synaesthetic potential of dining, to test the interaction of sound, texture, and flavor, for a long time but the idea started to take shape when my wife photographed an opera and I was backstage, really close to the instruments. I really wanted to share that physical experience of the proximity to a musician and his/her instrument. We brought two cellists into Alinea to test whether we can merge the musical and culinary elements into one composition. We found a narrow band of workability, using sounds to complement flavor and using flavors to compliment sound. One of the things we’ve learned is that the brain prioritizes sound over taste, so that sharp sounds can actually act as a palate cleanser.

Once we tested it, Grant [Achatz] got very excited about it and wanted to implement it within the context of Alinea. As a first baby step, I wrote a score for the chocolate mat plating; it adds a layer of complexity. It’s completely transformational to the experience; it’s become a lot more emotional and dramatic. But it’s just a stepping stone; it doesn’t really interweave sound, flavor, and sight. Right now you are still a passive consumer; the goal is to make it an active participatory singular experience. Hopefully we will get to combine all the senses at some point.

KS: All of the projects you work on—from videos and books to the serviceware design—seem like a lot of fun. Do you love your job?

MK: I think there is an idea that what I do is always fun, but I have to say 90 percent of the time, it is work that needs to be done to get to the next step. It can be pretty boring. Every project is difficult; you are doing something you haven’t done before, and when you are looking for solutions you hit a lot of dead ends. I’m always shocked looking back how much communication was involved with the outside world, how much time was spent learning and communicating versus making.

I think my favorite part is always whatever is different from what I was doing just before. Every project starts out as exciting, and then it grinds you down a little; it becomes a job to be done. The idea is the exciting part, and then you have the tedium that you need to get through to deliver. The fact that the tedium ends and you have a new idea to work on is what keeps you going.

KS: What are you most proud of?

MK: I’m proud of all the work together as a collection. It’s my finger print. Seeing these things together in once place is a rewarding thing.

KS: What is on the horizon? What new projects are you working on?

MK: A variety of things: a couple of websites, an app, a book, and centerpieces for a restaurant. There’s also a potential project not for a restaurant at all. And hopefully we’ll get to explore the synaesthetic experiential projects outside of the restaurant context.

KS: Where will we find you in 5 years?

MK: I would hate to say here, but I feel like it’s extremely likely that will be that case. I have a suspicion I will be here, doing the same thing. It could be a lot worse; I could have a really mundane life.