INTERVIEW WITH STEFAN DIEZ – NARATIV

The Innovative Mind Is the One That Leads the Way – Stefan Diez, exclusive

Stefan Diez has become one of the key German designers by discovering new methods for product innovation, which brought him to the top of the design world. His masterly precision, functionality of his designs, logic and minimalist aesthetics were beneficial especially to Wilkhan, for which he invented a new way of chair manufacturing, coming up almost inimitable products.

When it was launched, the Chassis chair swiftly became an icon of the 21st century design. Admiration and respect for the work of Stefan Diez has increased after he designed new models of chairs for the “founding father” of the industrial production of furniture – Thonet, revitalizing the spirit of this 190-year-old company, with the largest number of sold chairs in the world.

His goal is to design objects that fully correspond with the style of the companies they are created for, which would help their corporate development. However, he says that if the company itself doesn’t know which way to go, it should forget about design. So far, he has worked for Rosenthal, Moroso, Wilkhan, Thonet, Homme, Authentics, etc.

The market filled with products is increasingly looking for quality and diversity, which is exactly what designers like Diez offer to the companies that are ready to adapt to innovation and restrain from following trends, but instead, to create them. We spoke with Stefan Diez in Belgrade, at the Design Week which took place in late May 2011.

The world was fascinated by your Chassis chair designed for the German company Wilkhan, for the production of which you have invented a new method of manufacturing. Why did you choose this new procedure?

When you have to design something today, it’s like having to plant a new tree in the forest – so many things already exist, so if you don’t start from innovating the production process first, you remain stuck inside old boundaries, you remain a small tree that doesn’t spread its branches. When I am working on commissioned projects I often

start with innovation of the production process, not because that fascinates me, but because, for each company, you must create an adequate concept that will enable it to be unique and competitive. As designers, and consumers, we need new fascination and freedom to create a new product. That freedom is achieved through innovation.

A Chair Made Of One Peace Of Metal!

Wilkhahn has a long tradition of innovation and design, and when they decided to go one step further in 2005, asking me to design a universal chair for them, it was a great challenge. They wanted a chair designed and produced in a way that it can become a base for modern business environment in which people are considered valuable as individuals. I had never designed a chair before, so I did a long research with my team, in order to understand the volume and the complexity of the task.

The issue is not to design a mere object for a client, but to invent a concept which is like its metaphor, which mirrors its identity. We explored a new form through a variety of materials, textile and wood, and then we came up with the idea to make a chair inspired by bicycle seats. This concept reflected the Wilkhahn’s image – it’s something dynamic, easy, appealing and human.

After the presentation of this concept at Wilkhahn, I began to research, looking for a production process that would enable the development of this chair and we decided to make it with high-pressure injection for molding one peace of metal, as it is done in automobile industry. The hardest thing is to find the right concept, but when you find it, all further steps are easier. It is very important that the client is opened and innovation-oriented, to understand the evolution of the production process.

Innovating Tradition – Thonet

Soon after Wilkhahn, another major challenge arose. Thonet, the company that invented the industrial production of chairs, asked you to design new models for them.

I have to admit that Wilkhahn and Thonet were quite a challenge, because both companies are very famous and have a long tradition. To carry that “burden” of heritage, especially working for Thonet which has been manufacturing chairs for 190 years, was a privilege, but also a great responsibility. However, having worked on the Chassis chair, I already had considerable experience. The main feature of the Thonet products is not so much the design itself, but the fact that it invented a method of furniture production, a procedure of bending solid wood, invented by Michael Thonet in the mid XIX century. In the XX century they developed it further by introducing furniture made of bended metal. It was clear that that was essential to their production and it was my task to find a modern version of that production, which would be applied to all their products. This way the first in a series of chairs for Thonet – bar chair Thonet – 404 was produced, with a seat shaped as a horse saddle and the legs below tied in a knot.

Can you describe the path of your development as a designer?
My father was a carpenter, he built furniture. His workshop was in our house and I used to spend a lot of time there from an early childhood. First it was my playground, then I started to explore, and then to develop my first work habits. I worked to earn my pocket money. It is probably what directed me to train to become a carpenter. It was very demanding, but I learned a great deal. After that I did not know exactly in which direction I would be developing, I only knew that I was interested in interiors. I went to the Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, where I learned from Richard Sapper and Konstantin Grčić. It turned out that the design for me was never just an option, but the legacy and the influence of my early childhood.

Like Teacher, Like Student

I was persistent and I always aspired to learn from the best – the best carpenters and the best designers, because the concrete know-how is the most important thing. After I graduated from the academy, I worked with Konstantin Grčić, and at one point he encouraged me to open my own studio.

The hardest part was the beginning, but I managed to exhibit my work in major competitions and fairs. I was approached by Rosenthal, a company for which I have designed various products, including household articles and their showroom.

Working with good companies as clients you begin to gain credibility, because you work on tangible projects, design objects that are produced and launched to the market.

A Designer And a Businessman

You work as a professor at the Design School in Karlsruhe. What do you teach your students? We are working on actual projects, sometimes we collaborate with the industry, and sometimes we do independent projects. I want my students to find their own path, not to do things my way. It is the principle I learned from my parents who never explained everything to me, never commented on my life. They would rather let me explore and discover things for myself. I show the perspective to my students the same way, bearing in mind that it is very difficult to motivate people without dominating them.

What would be your advice to young designers?

Stubbornness and great perseverance is important for young designers. They must find a way to articulate what they think and what they can do. The first projects are the most difficult and they must be the most ambitious. Experience brings the necessary serious approach, balance and patience. The hardest thing for young designers is to find a manufacturer who would produce their designs, materialize their ideas of which there are thousands. Their prototypes are mostly funded by their parents, and if you don’t want your design to remain just a hobby, you must be persistent in order to cross that line and bring your design into production, that is, to the market.

It is only through experience of collaborating with companies and going through production, that one becomes a designer. It is not enough to be just a designer – you must also be a businessman so that you can position yourself better, choose and make business agreements, understand clients and present your work properly.

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BDW was a wonderfully rewarding experience. I think the mix that made it work so well was a tangible passion for design realized in the most relaxed and friendly atmosphere that I have come across for any event like this – truly inspirational, long may it thrive.   As for what is a smart, forging partnerships and working with like minded designers and clients always seems a pretty smart and rewarding way to go about design and I have a very good feeling that BDW will be the catalyst for many such collaborations.

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