by Buford Davis
Fifty years ago, film auteur Stanley Kubrick faced an unusual challenge in preparation for the production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The director’s emphasis on detail prompted him to take a significant hands-on role in costuming and set design. For dining scenes aboard the Jupiter-bound Discovery One spacecraft, imaginative culinary design was required that suggested a maker who had went beyond the context of contemporary aesthetics.
Instead of attempting to fabricate a futuristic stand-in, Kubrick’s solution was to select cutlery already in existence. He chose a hyperminimalist set created more than a decade earlier, in 1957, by Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen.
Truly strong design, regardless of the application, tends to resist the anchors of time and place, as well as the cultural influences that come with those markers; designs that offer the illusion that they always have been around yet defy antiquation.
The ability to create such pieces is rare, and Martin Kastner is one designer whose body of work is proving he possesses it.
Kastner founded and heads the Chicago-based studio Crucial Detail, which is dedicated to practical and innovative culinary design. The works consistently challenge diners’ expectations and reimagine the relationships between food, technology, object and diner.
The five-person studio team takes on a range of projects, from commercial product design, to collaboration with the chefs of Team USA in the Bocuse d’Or, one of the world’s most significant cooking competitions.
“There is not really a set design process. It varies every time,” explained Kastner. “I try to normalize design and come up with ways that are innovating to solve a problem.
“To me, design is a very semantic process; being able to articulate a problem that you need to solve. Typically, the process is asking what exactly are we trying to do, and the starting point is usually to identify what kind of function we are trying to serve.
“Something might look or sound like a great idea, but you definitely have to take a lot of what you do and throw it against the wall to see what sticks.”
Many of the designs created at Crucial Detail reveal a pared down elegance, whether it is the organic shapes of the Forkbowl and Nip tasting tumbler, or the industrial, almost clinical austerity of the Peacock miniature skewer set, the Eye ice chip holder and the gleaming, futuristic Bocuse d’Or 2015 Team USA platter.
Also, Kastner said he seeks to avoid evidence of a designer’s signature in the work.
“I like to believe that there is no style. I’m sure there is a personal fingerprint, but in terms of the form, it is definitely not intentional or trying to lay that cohesive language or style.”
Another factor is the client, who often enters a project with preformed stylistic preferences.
“The design needs to fit within their world,” said Kastner. “You have to adapt to what it is your collaborator brings to the table, rather than impose a preference.”
Kastner is a blacksmith whose early career experience included restoration of a castle in his native Czech Republic.
“In preservation, you always have to use the tools and follow the processes of the day that were available to the craftsmen at that given locale,” he explained. “You always have to adhere to those principles.
“You’re retracing other people’s steps, which is interesting and a great preparation for design, but it also wears you out a little bit.”
Desiring a more expressive occupation, he returned to school, focusing on sculpture and conceptual art.
“I studied traditional techniques and technologies, finding contemporary uses and language for them. It touched on areas of my interest in design — thinking about objects and the culture of making — and the evolution of technology.”
The studio After leaving Prague for Chicago, Kastner realized job opportunities were limited for a blacksmith with a master’s degree in fine arts, a situation that led him to establish Crucial Detail more than 10 years ago.
“I took the time necessary to understand the value in thinking about design critically,” he said. “Thinking about objects and their roles, I was interested in sensory perception; how an object moves through space, in terms of conceptual art projects.
“And design, in a way, is just on the other side of that fence. It is very much about thinking of very similar phenomena, but it has practical application. It is an extension of the culture of making, conceptually thinking of an object, and aesthetics. Those three things have always been a part of it for me.”
Crucial Detail has garnered significant attention from the design world, including a Global Innovation Award for the Porthole infusion vessel from the International Home + Housewares Show. And Kastner was named among the world’s most influential 100 designers by The Future Laboratory.
But anyone assuming that Kastner easily has adopted that added role of marketer and businessman would be mistaken. “I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “I really do not think of myself as a good businessperson. It is definitely a learning process.”
Kastner’s attraction to culinary arts as a powerful means of expression began while assisting his wife at her work.
“My wife is a photographer, and when she was in school, she worked at a French bakery as a night job to support herself,” Kastner recalled. “She would call me at 4 in the morning, and I would come and help her make sourdough or what not.
“At that time, it was difficult to find really good-quality bread. For me, growing up in Europe, that’s what we ate every day. We had ample quantity and good quality. But here, I wasn’t getting that. So when I had the opportunity to come in and help make the food, it struck me how charged it is, both culturally and emotionally.
“It had me thinking about food as an expressive material, as opposed to just to feed you. It really crosses a lot of the boundaries that we may normally not be allowed to cross. Food enters our bodies. It is nutritional. It feeds you. The flavor, the scent, the texture — so that exposure opened up this whole notion of what food can be.”
Bocuse d’Or victory
Kastner was a member of Team USA in 2015 and 2017 for the Bocuse d’Or, which is held every two years in Lyon.
The United States won the competition for the first time in 2017, with chef Mathew Peters awarded the top prize. The achievement followed the team’s first second-place performance in 2015, finishing just behind chef Ørjan Johannessen representing Norway.
“(Kastner) developed all the tools that allowed us to get the timing and execution that we wanted, and the design that we were looking for,” Peters told National Public Radio days after the victory.
“We’re talking about reinventing cooking equipment in general, whether it was a potato press that he was able to create that gave us a specific form and shape that we were able to execute out of, as well as sharpening tools, (making it so) that we were able to get the perfect carrot size and shape.”
“You walk in and, for the first time, you realize that so many of the things we do are applicable to the cooking process,” said Kastner. “We make tools, molds and shapes all of the time. So we can apply that to the cooking process and help them make the food more precisely and faster. And that way, we can really connect to the cooking process more closely.”
In a little more than a decade, Kastner’s studio has solidified an international reputation for the some of the most innovative, compelling culinary design in the world. So what does the future hold?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I hope we can maintain all three branches of what we do, which is custom one-off projects, but also the larger volume collection that ultimately goes to restaurants and consumers, and also the ability to do pet projects and things.”
“Hopefully, there will be more interesting problems that come our way to solve.”