Creator of friendly, expressive furniture and lighting, the Columbian-born, German-based designer explains why making things look simple is actually the hardest thing to do
“I don’t know if it comes across in my work, but I’m very emotional.” No, Reinhard Dienes doesn’t mean that he goes weak at the knees every time he sees another excessively cute kitten on YouTube. It’s more that he invests a lot of himself in his work, and aims to create things that have more than a bit of personality.
The idea of expressive, personality-infused products is a fashionable mantra among designers, but Dienes delivers on the promise.
He’s due to launch new lighting the following day, at Maison & Objet in Paris, which illustrates the point: La Grande, for German firm Anthologie Quartett, is a range of table and pendant lights with long, adjustable conical shades. As a table lamp, its movements are curiously avian, like an ostrich lifting its head out of the sand; and as suspended lighting with multiple shades (called La Grande Enorme), more like a mechanical caterpillar, each cone a dangling leg.
“It looks different pointing in every direction – happy or sad, or excited – and it changes the whole light,” says Dienes. “I like my products to look like they have feelings.”
Anthologie Quartett is one of several ongoing relationships Dienes has with manufacturers; others include Singapore’s Foundry Collection, for whom he has recently designed a desk, Capa, and German firm Ames.
His Tonic furniture for Ames began as a modular shelving system, and expanded to include a new collection of tables, launched at IMM Cologne in January. It’s all fixed together without screws, the legs slotting directly into the body, a feature that is symptomatic of Dienes’ desire for “design that is very simple, very functional. I look for those perfect solutions, so that when people use those products it makes things a little bit easier for them. But making something simple actually takes a really long time to do.”
He also thinks hard about longevity, building in modularity and flexibility to ensure that whoever buys his furniture will keep hold of it.
The Tonic bookcase, for example, switches from horizontal to vertical just by decoupling the (screw-free) legs, flipping it upright and reattaching them. His Le Belge shelving is a system of oak rods and planks, held together with sea-green butterfly screws, that “can make one small table, or shelving ten metres long and two metres high. And you can always adapt, buy more, make it bigger, make it smaller. I think this system explains exactly what I’m trying to do.”
Born and raised in Colombia, 30-year-old Dienes has been settled in Frankfurt since he came to Germany in 2003 to study design at the Academy of Arts and Design at nearby Offenbach am Main.
He is half German, which explains his choice of destination for his studies, but he speaks with a seductive Colombian lilt (and apologises for “only” being able to speak three languages). Frankfurt suits his working needs, he says – “The scene isn’t as big as somewhere like Berlin, but everyone knows each other, and there’s more industry here so it’s easier to get certain things done, like making prototypes.”
“I look for those perfect solutions, so that when people use these products it makes things easier”
He now teaches at the academy in Offenbach, giving him a cushion of stability in a world where income can be erratic, and allowing him some freedom to experiment with his own projects.
He’s recently been back to Colombia to try to develop some household products that will offer a contemporary reworking of the country’s small terracotta industry.
Dienes likes to create a tension between materials that are hand-made and machine-made – his Friday light is made from mouth-blown glass and pressed aluminium, for example – and he’s looking to do something similar here, although this has a feeling of being more personal, because of the Colombian connection.
“I love that kind of work,” he says. “You don’t have briefings, so no one’s telling you what to do. You’re just doing it because you love the project. It’s a luxury.”
Dienes implicitly differentiates between the products that he develops on his own, and then finds a manufacturer for, and those that come directly from a manufacturer, with a complex brief to consider before he’s even lifted a pencil.
The former suits his working methods better because he likes to experiment with a material first, and then see what forms it suggests to him.
For his Wyzer wall clock, it was a case of finding the right materials for a problem that had been nagging him: “I wanted to make a clock with really big hands, but one that was light enough to work with batteries, not mains electricity, so you could put it anywhere. I got inspired by PET plastic water bottles – they’re thin but strong – which meant I could have these big, big hands that were very light.” Wyzer is in fact all hands and nothing else, “so you can mount it on the wall and make the biggest clock in the world.” Dutch firm LEFF Amsterdam snapped it up within 30 minutes of Dienes unveiling it at Frankfurt trade show Ambiente.
Other projects have not been so straightforward, like the Capa desk. With its asymmetrical form and multiple finishes (Capa means “layers” in Spanish, and was initially imagined as a series of stacked boxes) it has all the friendliness and personality Dienes strives for, but it was hard going. “I think I made 13 different presentations about it in the end, it was always changing, changing, changing. It’s taken something like two years to finish, but now the colours, the proportions, everything is perfect.”
Although designed for the home, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t translate to the workplace, and its folded metal privacy screens show that Foundry Collection is probably hedging its bets as to its end consumer.
Despite Capa’s drawn-out development, Dienes has still created something that reflects his passions – it is customisable, for example, so you can add or subtract different types of shelving, or have the screen on the left, right, or double up and have both; and it shows a sensitivity for balancing materials and finishes. Capa is also the physical manifestation of the thing that Dienes tries to impart to his students – pushing through problems to achieve success: “You have to learn how to keep on working to develop an idea, and never give up,” he says. “Things don’t come immediately; things come from hard work.”
His second bit of advice is equally pointed: “I always explain that you don’t have to change the world with one design; it’s about making something simple that can help people every day.”