When Munich-based designer Stefan Diez dropped in to London showroom Viaduct last month to help launch in store his New Order collection of functional storage and shelving furniture for HAY (see the shop’s video of the intense set up here), we grabbed him for a quick chat.
The designer began his career as a cabinet maker in the 1990s before studying Industrial Design at Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart – a place, he notes, where craft is a hugely celebrated thing. He set up his studio in 2003 and has since worked on a steady stream of furniture and product design projects for clients including e15, Thonet, Moroso, Established & Sons and HAY. Materials and their unknown limitations often provide the seed of an idea for Stefan and his finished products – an eclectic bunch that they make – are all defined by the same intelligent simplicity and pared-back beauty. We distilled some of his thoughts about how he gets to the end results…
“There are some aspects of product design that trigger me a lot. There’s function, what will people do with it, which interests me very much at the beginning of a project. There’s the material, especially new materials I’ve never worked with before.
Naivety is a source for inspiration – having the chance to have a naive approach to a material is very refreshing. You don’t see all the obstacles that are coming, if you had I’m sure you would not have started a lot of them. On the other hand, whatever you do has a consequence in terms of the projects. For instance projects that are financially unsuccessful in our studio can be responsible for projects that we do afterwards because someone got triggered by it, or inspired. That’s why it’s dangerous to say we do only commercially successful projects or we want to be professional and all this stuff.
Soba, our bamboo project was financially uninteresting, but I had the chance to go to Japan, meet a lot of interesting people, experience great food and have the challenge of a material that I’ve never worked with before and probably won’t work with again.
It was desirable to do something that the Japanese would not have done – they would not have used the green bamboo, for them it’s the most ordinary one. I could see the material without any prejudice. Through all the craftsmen’s workshops I saw the super refined bamboo work, but the more it got refined, the less the character of the bamboo remained. So to me the most honest expression of bamboo was just the one that I found in the bamboo forest – the greenish bamboo, which to me was extremely beautiful. The green has this light patina, and it has layers and shades. It grows very fast in seven years so it’s like a pest, you have to really cut it otherwise it conquers a whole island.
It’s a gift if you work with materials that have a natural colour, like wood. With textiles I like it when there are different shades making the surface interesting – it makes it bit easier to work with colours. Once you are painting something it’s more critical to get it right. A bright colour can be very offensive or other colours get boring if applied to a big area – a tabletop for instance, which is likely to have a very big surface.
When narrowing down the colours for a collection sometimes in an exhibition you see all the colours in one spot. When we worked with e15, which is colourwise for me the most advanced company that there is because they experiment with really unusual colours, it was more challenging and they were driving the palette.
Craft is very inspiring for me and something that’s been neglected in the past. The Arts & Crafts movement, which was of course very strong in the UK, was also important in Germany and Austria and the roots of many Academia of arts are in this movement. I am a craftsman by education and come from a crafts-oriented family background. My father would drag me to hundreds of workshops when I was small because of his work and that was the foundation for me to a very natural access to workshops and materials.
Computers are a great help but they are also cutting off a lot of aspects of good design. You can easily apply any material in a render machine, like you can make a glass chair with one click. It makes no sense – the computer does not understand the material. One could also say pragmatically what effort do you put into a project and what is the result you get out of it? Getting a good balance in that is at least one of the aspects that’s important for a good project or product. If it’s imbalanced it looks forced. All these aspects are important for defining a good object.
The more Europe is getting closer together the more particularly the nations behave – especially the regions. Of course the minute we work with an Italian company we come across prejudice about what Germans are, and our prejudice about what Italians are, and we laugh about these things. I don’t see any negative in it.
There are expectations about how a German should work – we’re precise. Do you want to meet expectations or just create them? Both is interesting, probably. Our studio is half French now and now we have some Polish and Italians so it’s nice to see how all these European nationalities getting along with each other.
New Order has been a benchmark for us – it’s complex in terms of material, it looks super simple, you don’t see any connections and it’s functional and very crafted. Coming up, we have worked on a table for Herman Miller – sold by Vitra – that will probably be shown in November. In the future, lighting is interesting to me because of atmosphere and colour. We’ve just started on some interesting projects in the studio – lets see what’s coming out in ten years.”