Led by the innovative mind – Stefan Diez interview
What advantages offer investments into innovative products in todays high technological competitiveness and market saturation? In a short period of time Diez met two huge challenges working with the famous companies Wilkhahn and Thonet. His task was to reinvent their heritage. For Wilkhahn, he invented a new method of chair manufacturing, whose results are almost inimitable products. When it was launched, the Chassis chair quickly became an icon of the 21 century design.
However, after Chassis, admiration for his work increased even more after he designed new chair models for Thonet, a „founding father“ of the industrial furniture production – revitalizing the spirit of this 190-year-old company, with the largest number of sold chairs in the world. So far, Diez has worked for Rosenthal, Moroso, Wilkhahn, Thonet, Homme, Authentics, Gandia Blasco, etc.
Tell us something more about your background and what has influenced you to become a designer?
My father was a carpenter and he built furniture. His workshop was in our house and I used to spend a lot of time there from early childhood. First it was my playground, then I started to explore, and then to develop my first work habits. I worked there 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 Grcic. It turned out that design was never just an option for me but a legacy, something that influenced me in my early childhood.
I was persistent and I always aspired to learn from the best – the best carpentners and the best designers, because the specific know-how is the most important thing. After I graduated from the academy, I worked with Konstantin Grcic, 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.
When we thought everything possible was already done in chair design, you have turned it up side down with Chassis. How the idea was born?
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. 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 uniqe 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 sheet of Metal
Wilkhahn has a long tradition of innovation and design and in 2005 they have decided to go one step further. They’ve approached me with idea to design a universal 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 sheet 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 innovation-oriented, to understand the evolution of the production process.
Innovating Tradition – Thonet
Soon after Wilkhahn, another major challenge came for you. Thonet invitied you to design new chair models. How was it for you to carry such a rich heritage on your shoulders?
I have to admit that Wilkhahn and Thonet were quite a challenge, because both companies are very famous with the long tradition. To carry that „burden“ of heritage, especially working for Thonet – which manufactured chairs for 190 years, was a privilege, but also a great responsability. 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 of 19th century. In the 20 century they developed it further by introducing furniture made of bended metal. It was clear that it 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, whiles in a chair 214, one leg below is tied in a knot.
A Designer And A Businessman
What do you teach your students at the Design School in Karlsruhe?
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 my self. 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 perserverance 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 educated as 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.