Mechanical Critters, an Interview with Chico Bicalho

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by: Design Translator

About 6 months ago I discovered the work of Brazilian designer Chico Bicalho in, of all places, the Artist village of Leura in the Blue Mountains of Australia. I was in a rush, but the mechanical critter’s uniqueness probed my consciousness, and drove me to seek out the designer of this wonderful product.

I totally love them and managed to finally get my hands on some last week. My critters, The Cosmojetzs, are a joy to play with, even though they are neither sports car slick, or Apple chic. Instead they are so beautifully honest and simple that it reminds me of the simpler joys in life, like a smile. It reminds me that Design is and has always been about fun, and that we designers often incorrectly take our products and product development work a little too seriously.

Check out this wonderful video of all his designs in action.

With the power of the internet I mange to locate him as I was eager to learn more. An amazingly friendly person, Chico’s interview was frank, honest and as wonderful as his work. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did speaking to him.


DT: Hello Chico, first of all thank you very much for taking the time off your busy schedule for this interview. I know like most designers we are very eager to jump right into the juicy design bits, but before that, I think it be great for you to share with us a little about your unique background and how you got into design? This would be a wonderful primer that will set-up the framework of your design profession today.

CHICO BICALHO: I have always worked with 3d. When I was a little kid, besides being fascinated with animals of all kinds, I made objects. While kids my age made drawings, I made corky objects. Some were weird, like the time when I was about six years old, and went out of the house where I lived with my mom and dad in Rio, a quiet street with houses, and stumbled on to the corpses of about 6 or 8 rather large rats, poisoned, probably. I then returned home and fetched a can of silver spray paint, and proceeded to paint each rat thoroughly, enjoying the shiny look and texture of the metallic dead rats. Later that day, the rats were removed, and an oval spot of silver paint, with the outline of each rat remained on the asphalt for a few months. Looking back, the piece could be almost looked at as “art”, but I am certain it was just fun.

I built weird boxes with hinged doors leading nowhere, small catacombs for dead lizards, I also melted lead, and dripped it in cold water, cast weird things, built dangerous slides, and played with my mom’s Polaroid camera from an early age. Later, I studied sculpture at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), and, ironically, the sculptures I made were absolutely flat, and 2d. I became interested in public, site specific art, working with large painted areas on grass, working with different forms of light projection, and, eventually, came to the conclusion that sculpture and photography were the same thing, since one always (or almost always) photographs objects that have mass. I then got a MFA in photography from NYU realizing I would eventually have to earn a living.

I made over 4,500 Critters by hand, and sold them to two stores only; MXYPLYZYK in the West Village, and The Guggenheim Museum Store.

I did manage to live as a portrait, and architectural photographer since about ‘87, and in ‘92 I began to develop the windups now distributed by Kikkerland Design. Critter, the first one, began its wired existence as a hand made product, based on a Japanese gearbox bought in quantities from a surplus store on Canal St. NY called Canal Surplus, now defunct. I made over 4,500 Critters by hand, and sold them to two stores only; MXYPLYZYK in the West Village, and The Guggenheim Museum Store. Since 1997, Kikkerland Design began to distribute Critter, and production moved to China. Since then all other windups sprouted, and, in the near future, LE PINCH, and MXYKIKKER will be introduced, bringing the total models to 17.

DT: Wow I love the story about the Metallic rats! I can see you had a great inherent curiosity about life and things when you were a child. For my next question I like you to share your passions, and what inspires you as a designer?

CHICO BICALHO: I believe the reason why I come up with these windups, it is because I want to create objects that is both humorous, and unpredictable in behaviour. But, most importantly, I see, mirrored in each one of them, a certain passion I have for creatures that are not looked at with “respect” by humans, such as insects that have no particular aesthetic appeal. I see them as some of the world’s most endearing creatures, mostly because we oppress them, as much as we do oppress just about every other form of living thing. I train myself to respect every form of life on Earth, and believe they are just as important as we are. I don’t like touching animals that don’t like to be touched. I realize this discourse sounds demagogical now days, but it is absolutely true. The difference being, we have the strength to destroy the planet, and no other animal does, meaning, we, humans, if seen from a distance have taken the form of a plague, infecting the Earth. Sounds ugly, but it is the truth; we are the scum of earth, if viewed by any other form of life on the planet, aren’t we? Since there is no point whining about the planet’s destruction, I have chosen to work against it, or try to “do my part”, by undertaking a modest reforestation project in Brazil. Since 1996, I have been working with a small group of friends to recover a 20 acre area of Atlantic Forest destroyed in the late 1970’s Over 110,000 trees have been planted the past 12 years, and, another 200,000 shall be planted the next 10 years.

Sounds ugly, but it is the truth; we are the scum of earth, if viewed by any other form of life on the planet, aren’t we?

Reforestation has given me incommensurable pleasures, and a lot of work as well. One thing that struck me some time ago was that a circle was completed, since reforested areas became, in a sense a kind of “public art” that encompassed a much farther reach of “public” than I could ever imagine. Among my favourite “viewers” are birds of all kinds, insects galore, porcupines, skunks, armadillos, lizards, bats, bromeliads, and the occasional orchid as well, all attracted to the new forest.

DT: That is a fantastic vision and I can see that all your work ties into a great common personal philosophy. With your Critters, could you tell us a little about the design process you use and how you created with the many wonderful mechanical contraptions?

CHICO BICALHO: Curiously enough, the creative process has never been repeated from one windup to another in the seventeen products created so far. The first ones were created physically, by getting pre existing gearboxes and attaching the legs by placement of the wire, and booties, then sending the “hand made prototype” back to the factory. The keys were designed using Quark Xpress, believe it or not. Some were created by taking a photo of the gearbox, and using Photoshop, another odd approach, I must admit, then I used Auto CAD for a couple of them, and later Vellum Cobalt 3d modelling. No matter what happened during R&D, the process has always been different from one to the next, and, as samples were sent form the factory in Hong Kong, improvements were made via e-mail and digital photography. Indeed an unorthodox approach to product design.

DT: I think that is a fantastic approach. I notice designers today tend to get caught up in the world of 3D and computers and forget the more hands on approach to design in the past. Personally I used to design all my products in Auto CAD or in Illustrator as well.

This leads me to my next question. What about working with the other people in the product development process? For example do you work with engineers at your factory in Hong Kong? What about Kikkerland, how do you work with them? Does Kikkerland do your marketing, or product planning, or are they just a distributor?

CHICO BICALHO: I really like the idea of collaboration between designers, and I always look forward to sharing a product development with people I love and respect. There are two designers whom I have always hoped to work with, my good friends David Dear, and Jozeph Forakis. We have frequently talked about working on something together, but it hasn’t happened yet. My experience working with Guga Casari, a fine Brazilian designer, and woodworker now living in Italy couldn’t have been more gratifying, and successful. We came up with ZéCar, conceived from the beginning to have all its royalties (plus now a matching fund from Kikkerland) towards our reforestation project. Thanks to ZéCar buyers we have planted over 100,000 Brazilian trees the past eight years, and will continue to plant for many years, until a unique and richly diverse forest is standing.

Thanks to ZéCar buyers we have planted over 100,000 Brazilian trees the past eight years, and will continue to plant for many years, until a unique and richly diverse forest is standing.

For five years I have been working in collaboration with my wife Isabella Torquato, and the team work is generating very interesting results. Isabella is very creative, down to earth, and organized; we have filled each other’s gaps, and grown together as a team in amazing ways I never suspected would be possible. We met ten years ago working; she hired me for a photo shoot for an ad campaign she was working on, back then, which was very successful, and we did a few other campaigns together as well. For the past five years, Isabella and I have had a business that covers essentially three things; graphic design, photography, and product design. We get along very well, and have developed a relaxed system of living, and working together, which is very helpful for business, and love. Just recently, Isabella has been working with me developing wind-ups. Her vision has opened up a new space, and approach, which I believe will take the wind-ups (it has already) to a new level. The new products, Le Pinch, and Mxykikker have Isabella’s thumb all over them, and I am very proud. We both are huge admirers of Charles, and Ray Eames, and we’d love to be a small fraction of what they were some day in the future. We are also dedicated environmentalists, and we love travelling together.

The company in Hong Kong that develops the wind-ups has a lot of participation in the development of each product. We have an approach, whereby we not only let them come up with the technical aspects, and solutions for each product (the way gears and sprockets are arranged), but we give the chief engineer, and owner the freedom to “design” certain aspects, meaning, I don’t get very uptight about small details from a philosophical standpoint. Sometimes a mechanical solution becomes a design aspect. I am a fan of Marcel Duchamp, and I like to think sometimes we have to give chance a chance, and see what other people will come up with, in a sense getting a form of “readymade” from the factory, and see if the mechanics of their solutions work for us aesthetically, and it often does. Sometimes we have to make touch up adjustments, but it always works out nicely. I know for a fact the people at the factory, the owner especially, loves to work on our windups, because they don’t end up concealed behind a plastic, or tin shell. For them it is fantastic that the gearbox is fully exposed, paying eternal tribute to their work. I have had a magical interaction with the owner and chief engineer at the factory we work with, and, two months ago, his wife came all the way from Hong Kong, and visited us in Rio for a couple of weeks. We like to joke that we are “long lost cousins” because they came originally from Macau, and I am 1/16 Chinese, my ancestor, also coming from Macau. I am part Dutch as well (from Pernambuco, Brazil), and Kikerland being a Dutch company, I love to think, maybe Goddess put us all together.

I am a fan of Marcel Duchamp, and I like to think sometimes we have to give chance a chance, and see what other people will come up with, in a sense getting a form of “readymade” from the factory, and see if the mechanics of their solutions work for us aesthetically, and it often does.

Kikkerland does all the distribution for our products. There is no planning, except, which product should be introduced when. In fact, my approach is to get a concept approved with them, then I work with Hong Kong, and avoid involving Kikkerland as much as possible, because they are a busy bunch out there. When the product is fully developed, and the colors figured out, I ask them to send samples to New York. It works out great for them, because they get the whole thing finalized and digested. The rest is up to them, like paying for molds, orders, etc.

DT: Chico, those were just some of the most wonderful and insightful stories about of your relationships with designers and the people around you. It is very true that nothing can happen on it’s own and you have shown how ideas can become great if it connects with the right people.

I like to sincerely thank you very much for taking the time to be part of this interview. As a closing, perhaps you could give some advice to designers looking to make their own very special products for the world?

CHICO BICALHO: You are very welcome Brian; it’s been a pleasure. Please let me know when the interview goes up on the site.

My advice to young designers would be the same I would give anyone willing to work creatively. Get to know yourself, because, sometimes, the work most meaningful to you is right under your nose, and if you don’t know who you are, you will end up searching in places where you will exhaust, and frustrate yourself. Keep an eye on yourself and another eye on your public, but, most of all, the work has to excite you, because if it doesn’t, it is unlikely it will excite other people. Learn to love your product from beginning to end. Do not be afraid to come up with absurd concepts, just think that every absurd, wild idea can be tamed, and made feasible. Do not leave stones unturned. Push concepts and explore every aspect to the most minute detail. Always strive for quality of material and durability in your products. While working on R&D, press for the highest quality possible of material, craftsmanship, and finish. Learn to love every step of the process, remember the process has to be exciting to you on every level, because the important thing is the journey, not the destination. When the product is finished, it is no longer yours, so, nurse it during R&D like a loving mother. Make sure your work has meaning, even if the meaning is just to make people smile.


You can check out more of his toys at Kikkerland.

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