Mapping Design Made in Germany

Regional structures – global perspectives: Germany’s design scene is especially strong in the provinces, and it is from these bases that it must work to achieve international success. The future will show whether this industry has the courage to experiment and can grow to become a key economic sector.

‘I used to be known just as Stefan’s wife,’ says Saskia Diez. It took some time before her designs also achieved recognition in Germany – independently of the success of her husband, the industrial designer Stefan Diez. She works as a jewellery designer in Munich’s Glockenbach quarter, and in her studio she has displayed a selection of ‘Isar stones’: simple, smoothly polished, discoveries from the nearby River Isar, which lends its name to the new collection. Saskia Diez has set up a studio together with a small showroom in a building facing onto the Geyerstrasse. In the coach house in the back courtyard, her husband and his team have established a workshop flooded with daylight – and the gallery level accommodates the office and the flat of the Diez family. Here they design, work wood, polish and live their lives.

Munich is a microcosm of design in Germany. Besides Saskia and Stefan Diez, other designers working here include Ingo Maurer and Konstantin Grcic, Nitzan Cohen and Clemens Weisshaar. In the grahic design field, Thomas Mayfried and Mirko Borsche are leading Munich-based designers and the BMW automotive company sets standards in car design. Nevertheless, with just a few exceptions the various design disciplines remain strictly isolated from each other. There is no design capital in Germany, but instead various centres, temporary highlights and regional clusters. In Berlin, the fashion designer and ‘enfant terrible’ Michael Michalsky regularly creates a furore at Fashion Week, while Cologne becomes the hot spot for the furniture industry every January during imm, and the Stuttgart region boasts a concentration of industrial design that includes not only many companies but also major agencies. ‘Actually, German design comes from the provinces, from places like Iserlohn and Aich. That’s a fact I sometimes have difficulty explaining,’ says Andrej Kupetz of the German Design Council. The design map of Germany is an atlas of various economic regions. Berlin hardly plays a role in this respect.

Small and medium-sized enterprises such as Thonet have regional roots and have been managed by a family for generations. In Thonet’s case, production and manufacturing know-how is released out into the world from the north Hessian town of Frankenberg – supported however by Milan-based James Irvine in the role of Creative Director. ‘From my office I can see 50km, all the way to the Swabian Mountains, so I am equipped with a clear horizon and broad perspectives,’ says Markus Benz, the Managing Director of Walter Knoll in the Swabian town of Herrenberg. ‘You don’t score goals just by spending money. And this relationship between cause and effect is true for design, too: in this discipline experience is a crucial asset when it comes to processing techniques, their effects and long-term collaboration with designers,’ says the entrepreneur, summing up the 145-year history of the furniture brand. But where in these business structures can one find the open spaces and niches for young designers and start-ups?

Learning by doing was the unconventionaland un-German principle that the furniture designer and architect Philipp Mainzer applied when he set up the e15 label in London 15 years ago, even before he had finished his degree course: ‘We had created the logo ourselves and there were just a few tables. Apart from that, no one wanted our designs,’ says Mainzer as he recalls the early days. When demand for the angular, solid-wood furniture suddenly shot up, e15 moved from
London to Oberursel near Frankfurt am Main. ‘That was a lot more effective in terms of production,’ states Mainzer. ‘The old machinery in England wasn’t up to the job, and then we had the transport costs as well. At the end of the day, Germany offered significantly better possibilities for good-quality manufacturing.’ Even without its own manufacturing facilities, e15 has become the ‘wunderkind’ of the German design industry. The managing director of the label, has no problems with the fact that their designs are now viewed in Asia as being typically German. ‘In principle, what we’re doing is very generic. Maybe it’s exactly the attempt to introduce neutrality which is very German.’

Quality and durability, directness and constructive solutions: these are traits that are often attributed to German design, especially in other countries. Grcic also recognises advantages in the classic qualities: ‘In recent years I have often become aware of what could be referred to as characteristically German aspects of my work,’ says this star German designer, ‘namely the consistency in the process, the constant and continual work on a particular item and theme which allows things to be repeatedly reworked and improved.’ But despite the oft-cited sobriety, more and more openings and niches for experimenting are opening up, as demonstrated by the ‘kkaarrlls’ platform of the State Academy for Design in Karlsruhe. Initiated by Volker Albus, this unconventional project will be presenting – for the third year in succession – selected furniture and objects by students and alumni of the academy during the Salone in Milan. The exhibition is intended as a kind of start-up help for young designers who produce their work in small editions. But they retain the rights to their creations and can also hunt for manufacturers in the international arena. ‘Germany’s Next Top Designer’ was how Architektur & Wohnen magazine described kkaarrlls. So here we finally have a successful attempt to try something new in Germany’s design scene - otherwise so dominated by economic considerations - and maybe even to challenge Europe’s most renowned training institutions. Whatever the case, it’s good to see plenty of irony and the desire to experiment at kkaarrlls – one aspect that reflects well on the quality of the education being provided. ‘Generally speaking there’s still a lot of idealism around. A platform like kkaarrlls couldn’t function without the infrastructure of the academy,’ explains Albus, himself a designer, design critic and professor of Product Design at the Academy in Karlsruhe.
Individuality and large-scale serial production – regional clusters and global structures: the future of design in Germany lies in this mix of different facets that can lead to a paradigm switch. Moving beyond the lifestyle segment, design could grow into a key sector for the German economy. The spectrum of design activity – from motor vehicles by way of fashion and industrial products to furniture or jewellery – presents many opportunities, many of which still have great potential. One hopes that kkaarrlls, with its typical German values of consistency and perseverance, will play a groundbreaking role in Germany. That would benefit not only design students and graduates, but also the German design sector as a whole. •

Text: Sandra Hofmeister

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