Design democracy, from Dublin to Berlin

Once Stephen Molloy stopped swotting in Dublin, he discovered the fun and ownership design brings


If they didn’t sell themselves, Stephen Molloy would be an excellent salesman for his ingenious design products.

Sitting in his Fundamental.Berlin studio, the Dublin-born architect and designer plays absent-mindedly with his “Push” bowl between his fingers. What starts as triangles etched into a flat, circle of copper, can – thanks to the miracle of opposable thumbs – be transformed into a perfectly imperfect bowl.

The shelves around us are filled with many such clever design products, which Molloy and his design partner Gunnar Rönsch call Achtsamkeiten: small tokens of affection. There are prints, frames, a clever wire-mesh lampshade – all available by mail order – as well as furniture.

Not bad going for a self-described “overachieving swot”. Born in Dublin in 1981, Molloy attended St Andrew’s College in Booterstown. But breezing through Ireland’s points-driven education system didn’t prepare him for the freer, artistic environment of the Bartlett School of Architecture, London.

“I was lost without the certainties of the Irish education system,” he says, unsure how to respond to the contemporary design and art around him. Eventually a friend took him aside, and said: “It’s very simple. Either it triggers a response in you or it doesn’t, that’s all everyone else is going on. You have to trust yourself; it’s not worth being intimidated by.”

London to Berlin

Molloy thrived after internalising that idea, working in the architecture studio of Sir David Chipperfield, first in London and then in Berlin.

“He wasn’t as big then as he is now,” says Molloy, “but it’s an office where his energy and his presence is all over every good project.”

Molloy says his move to Berlin in 2003 was motivated more by the drift of creative types to the city than by having a German mother.

“The focus of the family was very much Ireland, there was no natural pull factor.”

He enrolled in Berlin’s Universität der Künste (University of the Arts, UdK) to get his masters in architecture and followed his time at Chipperfield with spells with J Mayer H and Graft Architects. In 2011 he joined forces with fellow UdK tutor Gunnar Rönsch to open Fundamental.Berlin, an architecture and design studio.

Soon the design products, envisaged originally to fill time between architecture jobs, became their main focus, and remain a product of the designers’ shared sense of nerdy fun.

“Our design ethos derives from looking at mathematical principles in nature and abstracting them,” says Molloy. “Maths is everywhere, something we experience in music, rhythm, natural landscape. There’s a whole rabbit hole of conspiracies we don’t go down; instead we’re just here to say it’s fun.”

Molloy concedes the world he inhabits has a reputation for trying to be intimidating, but he channels into his work now the lesson he learned in London, that design is “something that has to make you smile secretly, you have to have your own response”.

“We’re trying to make people feel something we’ve designed belongs to them and that they own it.”

Own the idea

Fundamental.Berlin products are stylish, strange yet familiar. Their best-selling Push bowls embrace two ideas that worked well for Ikea: the economics of the flat-pack philosophy and of leaving the last design step as the first step of ownership.

Molloy admits an inherent tension in the world he occupies, where the design industry often works against the individual response design is suppose to encourage. “You can mass produce the supposed glamour and desirability of a designer brand more easily and more predictably than you can mass produce actual quality craftsmanship,” he says. “When you consider owning something, you should ask yourself: do I find it beautiful, will it be useful, is it well-made?”

What does he see when he looks towards Ireland in the years he’s been away? “I think a period of new money is almost always going to cause awkward vulgarity,” he says. “But as prosperity stabilises, I think people learn to trust their innate sense of what they like and what not.”

As for his adopted home, Molloy says Berlin remains a good place to study design and start out. “As an outsider in London there are a lot of black shiny high-gloss doors closed in your face,” he says. “Berlin has matured in recent years and is slightly less porous, but there are still opportunities. What it doesn’t have, though, is drive and a dynamic commercial spirit. To get on here, you have to be even more driven.”

Frames derived from fishnets, and tableware inspired by maths

Push bowl

“This comes from the architecture of domes and examines how triangles, the most stable shape in architecture, can be made flexible. You can make all facets sit perfectly, but sometimes it’s more beautiful when they don’t. It’s not a super-permanent piece, it’s there for the moment.”

Flip coasters

“These are based around a bit of geometry called the Penrose tiling system. The magic of these is that they allow surprising combinations based on two different tiles each – with a cool and warm colour. Each is big enough for a cup, together they hold a pot.”

Picture frame

“Fishnet tights were the inspiration for this. Things become more interesting if you obscure them slightly. A picture of great sentimental but not great aesthetic value becomes more striking. It’s a real-life Instagram picture. It’s Berlin design made in an etching works outside Venice.”

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