European Cities

Barcelona is an avant-garde design mecca

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Barcelona, city of design: Those elegant art nouveau curves, the riot of Antoni Gaudi's extravagances and excrescences. Those are the standard images that come to mind.

But how about Barcelona, city of design: A high-end bar crafted to look like a low-end dive; a jewelry emporium that shows ceramic rings cut from old dishes; a chocolate boutique that offers a truffle made with South American corn and Japanese seaweed.

Doing the standard "design tour" that gets packaged-up for Barcelona's millions of tourists can be like taking a walk 100 years ago, when art nouveau was radical and Gaudi had yet to meet his fatal trolley car. Last time I visited the city, I went looking for something fresher. Even in design-challenged Washington, I'd heard hints that Barcelona was on its way to being one of Europe's new centers for truly avant-garde objects. I decided to see whether I could confirm them on my own custom-made, one-day design tour.

I knew that I'd need local guidance -- the cutting edge tends not to be tourist-friendly -- so I found my way to Curro Claret, a 40-year-old Catalan designer whose Web site includes projects such as a breadboard that funnels crumbs to a bird feeder and a vase made from an oil spill's leftover sludge. He was clearly my man in Barcelona for vanguard design.

Claret arranges for us to meet on the ground floor of the ultra-stylish Hotel Omm, in the middle of the Eixample neighborhood where most tourists head to see Gaudi and friends. We, instead, are contemplating a towering front lobby lit by huge sandblasted globes by the Catalan designer Antoni Arola, shining on sleek modern pieces by such international heroes of modern design as Arne Jacobsen. It's all as stylish as could be -- and the subject of an immediate apology from Claret. This kind of showy modern decor, he explains, is not what counts as cutting-edge in Barcelona.

He really brought me here, he says, for the building's facade, by Juli Capella, a leading local architect and design curator. We head outside and gaze up at a featureless expanse of minimal white tile that has been peeled back in sections to let in light and air, like an Advent calendar someone forgot to print a picture on. But there's more to the facade than that interesting look: Its "peelings" also keep the building's windows shaded from the brutal Catalan sun.

Next stop takes us around the corner to the venerable Vinçon housewares store, whose name is on the lips of anyone who knows anything about Barcelona design. A main front room is full of fairly standard modern furnishings such as you might get at Ikea or Conran, or even Crate and Barrel, but it also reserves space for the politically charged Social Texture T-shirts of Marti Guixe, one of the city's best-known and most radical designers. Each shirt comes lettered with a simple declaration of a role in society -- "consumer," "social artist," "ex-designer" -- forcing buyers to announce the part they want to play in life.

If Vinçon is the more accessible end of Barcelona's design world, our next stop takes us to its other extreme. Well-hidden on the second floor of one of Eixample's elegant beaux-arts apartment blocks, with no signage of any kind beyond a name on one of the doorbells, lurks Klimt02, one of the world's great homes for radical jewelry. An airy Old World flat has been fitted out to show off the very latest in wearable art: those ceramic rings, by a German, as well as silver pins made to look like old-fashioned toothpicks, by the Catalan Marc Monzó. Leo Caballero, one of the gallery's hip, young owners, says that his clients appreciate "art they can take wherever they go" -- although he also admits that the more radical and sculptural pieces probably spend most of their lives in a drawer or display case.

Eixample is home to many of the city's high-end design showrooms. One we spend some time in belongs to a Spanish bathroom-fixture manufacturer called Cosmic. Although most of its products still operate in a standard, if very attractive, minimalist mode, in the back of the store there's a big display of Simplex sinks by Barcelona's Martin Azua. Azua, who has arranged to meet us at Cosmic, shows us a nice deep sink made of ruby-red plastic, with a metal hook instead of a faucet; the hook is meant to let a length of standard garden hose, and a standard garden nozzle, replace the fancy hardware that most posh sinks demand. (The sink is advertised for outdoor use, but Azua says he prefers the idea of using it in fancy interiors.)

Almost time for lunch -- but first we need to ruin our appetites. A short cab ride takes me and my guide to a banal residential neighborhood and to a tiny shop front where the young chocolatier Enric Rovira goes truly cutting-edge. An "ensemble" of chocolates called "Oceans" includes a corn-and-seaweed truffle titled Pacific (get it? -- corn's from that ocean's western edge, and seaweed's from the shores of Japan) as well as an Indian truffle flavored with pistachio and tea and an Antarctic one that's an effervescent white chocolate with a tiny dash of sea salt. Rovira's probably more avant-garde, at least within the world of sweets, than anything we've seen so far.

Our lunch stop, in the Raval arts district, does its best to hide its avant-gardism, which only makes it more high-cred. Dos Palillos restaurant is in the ultra-trendy Casa Camper Hotel -- owned by the hip Spanish shoemaker, and equally stylish. (Of course it is: It was designed by architect Fernando Amat, owner of Vinçon.) Dos Palillos serves high-end Asian tapas in its high-design backroom, but its street-front bar is carefully designed to make sure you'd never know it. Stacked beer crates act as temporary seating, a crude shelf harbors plastic sports trophies, and the bar stools are deliberately cobbled together, handyman style. All a careful simulation of the kind of modest bar that once filled the Raval, explains Claret, rather than the real thing. Lunching at the bar at Dos Palillos is like eating inside a big ironic wink.

Things get a touch more straightforward in the afternoon, with a tour of the Raval's design hot spots. There's a visit to a local Camper shoe-shop, which gets frequent makeovers by the latest in hot-shot designers. (A facelift by the German Konstantin Grcic, for instance, involves covering some surfaces with a field of tiny mirror tiles, so your reflection looks like low-res pixilation.) We also stop by Room Service Gallery, a concrete-floored space that shows the very best in radical design from Germany and Holland -- it's showing chairs made from factory scraps by Dutchman Maarten Baas.

Soon, in typical Barcelona fashion, it's back to thinking about food. Most people visit the great Boqueria market to enjoy its vintage ironwork, but we're there to check out a few incursions of more modern tastes. There's the fishmongers called Genaro, done up with polished-concrete walls, bold metal lettering (it's made to echo text-based art) and asymmetrical cases holding its fish. And the famous little lunch-counter called Pinotxo -- named after the Pinocchio-sized nose of its ancient, Muppet-like owner -- recently redone in sleek stainless-steel and wood veneers by the fashionable architects at Pepe Cortes Associates. (If you ask me, the food's the real creative treasure at Pinotxo. I discover the esoteric pleasure of braised rabbit chops -- dozens to a serving, each the size of a quarter and tender as could be. The chickpeas are almost as good.)

Finally, for "dessert" at the end of our long day, we walk the length of the famous Gothic quarter -- gorgeous as ever, if not exactly avant-garde -- to catch performative candywork in a store called Papabubble.

Papabubble is not, strictly speaking, Catalan: It was founded by recent immigrants from Australia. But it fits the avant-garde ethos I've witnessed elsewhere in the city. Occupying the recently abandoned premises of a 150-year-old tinsmith -- creative reuse is a design obsession in Barcelona -- Papabubble feels like candymaking as it might have been practiced in Weimar Berlin, then reimagined by the Cirque du Soleil. In a spotlit room, black-clad hipsters practice punk confiserie, pulling and kneading hot rock candy as tortured tangos -- Kurt Weill meets Tom Waits -- make the warm air throb.

Gaudi might have approved.

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