Berlin-based designer Werner Aisslinger has made a 17-year career out of challenging conventional thinking – within a framework of research, pragmatism and mainstream project work
Like the man himself, Werner Aisslinger’s studio appears a little off the beaten track. Located just north of the Tiergarten, the area captures that peculiarly Berlin condition where small clusters of galleries, record labels and design studios are buried among the lorry parks and used car lots. In London it would be unthinkable for somewhere like this to exist so close to a city centre train station without catching a developer’s attention – and, sure enough, things are changing. A lone construction crane, a dull orange harbinger of impending development, towers above low-slung industrial sheds.
“When I first came here I thought I would stay for ten years or more,” Aisslinger says. “But to be honest, I will not stay much longer. A while ago there was a really good ambience, but then some galleries left. My friend who runs K7 [Records] says he is going to leave. Though people are doing their own thing, it is important for the atmosphere of a place. You don’t want to have a load of bankers around you.”
Aisslinger’s studio, on the third floor of a pretty nondescript block, sprawls over 500sq m, leaving plenty of space for his small team of interns and freelancers. The glass box Aisslinger inhabits, a muddle of books, magazines and prototypes, evokes the home of a mildly disorganised professor. It will be a shame to leave.
Aisslinger moves gingerly. The designer has not fully recovered from a spill he took on a recent skiing holiday and his Napoleonic right arm remains motionless for the duration of our interview. Thankfully, he has shown better equilibrium in his working life, pulling off the enviable trick of balancing straightforward industrial design against experimental work with new and often unlikely materials.
But as we sit down to talk, it becomes clear that Aisslinger has reached a crossroads. It has been 17 years since he exploded onto the scene with Juli, a reinvention of the shell chair for Cappellini, now immortalised in MoMA’s permanent collection. An Aladdin’s cave of memories, his studio is packed with the detritus of a career that began in 1994. Sealed in glass display cabinets like some Damien Hirst exhibit are the designer’s most significant works, including Soft Chaise – a sun lounger that moulds to the body’s contours. Brad Pitt has three of these, apparently.
“Designers have to be able to steer a process from a very conceptual start until production”
Despite the clutter, the place feels empty. Even the sophisticated electronica bleeping from a nearby Mac cannot fill the void. What is missing is people. Aisslinger reveals he has let some staff go, but insists the decision was tactical rather than enforced by the economic gloom shrouding most of Europe. An industrial designer first, Aisslinger slowly found himself chasing the corporate dollar working as an interior designer for hotel chains such as Design Hotels and Weitzer Hotel Group.
Currently, the studio is working on a 149-room hotel at a shopping centre and office complex nicknamed Bikinihaus for boutique operator 25 Hours. The experience has not been an altogether happy one. “You spend more time talking to your lawyers than your colleagues,” he says. “There are people in these projects, managers, who always tell you that you are not doing things in the right timeframe or they are cutting your budgets. If the hotel opens two weeks late, it will lose more money than we earn in two years of planning. You have to be careful that you don’t end up working for two years for free.”
Although this situation has not yet arisen, Aisslinger, whose brother is an architect, is acutely aware of the risks that go with supping the corporate Kool-Aid.
Faced with the prospect of taking on similiar work to feed the machine, Aisslinger balked, retreating to the friendlier waters of product design. “My plan over the next two years is to reduce the cost of the studio and be able to concentrate on working with more interesting brands,” he says.
One brand that falls into the “interesting” category is Moroso, for which Aisslinger has designed Bikini Island – a by-product of the studio’s work at Bikinihaus. Modularity and systems are consistent themes for Aisslinger (modular shelving was his first ever product) and this collection continues on a similar vein. In essence, Bikini Island is an evolution of the humble sofa. Although aimed at the contract market, it reflects the changing nature of family life. “Families don’t sit together and watch TV like they did 20 years ago. One might be downloading a movie, the other doing some research or listening to music or reading. The Island is where they all come back to even if they have different interests.”
Aesthetically, Bikini Island has an improvised, collage feel to it. Blocks of seating are mashed together with small bookshelves, planters or round side-tables, and curtains form playful little niches within it. Similarly, the materials are a mixture of unyielding woods and metals and squishy fabrics. “We wanted it to feel like vintage furniture – say, from 1950s Denmark – connected to a modern piece,” he explains. “There are thousands of Italian companies doing elegant sofas. We were looking for something different.” Originally intended for hotels, the versatile piece might just as easily serve as breakout furniture in a forward-thinking workplace.
On the odd occasion Aisslinger has dipped his toes into office design, his work has been typically perceptive.
Level 34 for Vitra built on the foundations laid by the Bouroullecs’ Joyn, incorporating bench seating, cabinets and shelves into a traditional desk arrangement to create a fluid, adaptable system.
The flexibility of Level 34 is a precursor to future working habits. “There will be less separation between conference rooms, open-planned offices and cubicles,” Aisslinger says. “It will become more difficult for the Herman Millers, Steelcases and Vitras because there will be a need for customised solutions for individual projects. There will be standard solutions, but it will be more complicated. It will be less selling pieces from the catalogue and more integration of the concept, which has to be done with the client.”
Aisslinger is a risk-taker and admires that quality in others. His adventurousness makes for a perfect fit for the Italians’ freewheeling exuberance and his best work seems to come when paired with them.
“You can earn more money in northern Europe but there is no fun in the corporations. The Italians know good brands have to be innovative.” This sentiment runs deeper. Aisslinger cherishes direct contact with heads of companies and it infuriates him when there is no communication between himself and the chief executive. “Ideas for what the future of a product might be never come from marketing people. You get a 10-page brief set by a marketing manager who has looked at what is selling well and wants you to do the same thing,” he says.
One can trace this attitude to the studio’s origins. The story goes that Guilio Cappellini had seen Aisslinger’s first project, Endless Shelves for the then emerging brand Porro at Cologne furniture fair. Impressed, Cappellini invited the young designer to his headquarters. Not daring to appear empty-handed, Aisslinger turned up with a prototype he had been working on.
In typically Italian fashion Cappellini disappeared the day the two were to meet. “I left the prototype and a few days later I got the call, ‘let’s go for it’.” The result was revivalist classic Juli (pictured left), which breathed new life into the shell chair format, thanks to its ground-breaking polyurethane foam seat. Predominantly used to make car steering wheels, the material was never traditionally applied to furniture – a distinction that earned Juli a place in MoMA alongside its spiritual ancestor, the Eames Molded Plastic Armchair.
Aisslinger’s blend of pragmatism and idealism places him at the honourable end of a world that harbours so many empty vessels. His obsession with innovation has driven him down some odd paths, but underpinning this is a firm belief that design can never afford to stand still. Above all, the German rejects elements of the profession that values aesthetics above all else.
“When you see the profession creating only new shapes it is a bit sad. Design gets interesting at the point you are involved in research and materials and the evolution of technology. Maybe as a German designer you are more into technology than someone who is from south Europe,” he says, attempting to fathom his motivations. What worries Aisslinger is the widening gulf between designers and methods of production. “We have to be more like mediators between processes of industrial chains,” he says. “If designers see themselves only as a unit that only gives aesthetic quality, it is not enough. Designers have to be able to steer a process from a very conceptual start until production.”
Of course, production results in consumption, which, if conventional wisdom holds any truth, is the 21st century’s Gordian knot. It is likely to take more than an impatient sword-wielding Israelite to solve the conflict between ever-shrinking resources and consumer society. The responsibility weighs heavy on the German’s narrow shoulders. “Often you are the guy who is adding another piece of trash to the world,” he admits. While not seeking to crown himself Solomon, Aisslinger’s experimental work has nevertheless sought answers to the problem.
“As a designer, often you are the guy who is adding another piece of trash to the world”
Hemp Chair for Moroso (onoffice 73) was the fruition of exhaustive research into the potential of said material. Though not a resounding success, the project was a valiant effort to move the debate beyond cannabis jokes. Indeed, Aisslinger’s portfolio is as notable for its failures as successes. With NETwork (2010), the designer attempted to transform embroidery into three-dimensional object by stitching computer-generated patterns into a host material, which is then dissolved. The remaining material is petrified with resin and left to dry over a fibreglass mould. If NETwork’s web-like form looks fragile, that’s because it is. The structure is not strong enough for someone to sit on and so the end result is an exploration of ancient techniques and 21st-century software.
The designer’s most radical proposal, however, came at last year’s Salone, for which he grew a chair in a greenhouse like tomatoes. The cues – urban farming, a new-found obsession with locally-sourced materials – were obvious and within moments of its unveiling the weird stalk-like form was plastered across the web. Although ultimately not a feasible alternative to mass production, Aisslinger’s vision of an agrarian utopia where the world’s poorest can grow their own furniture taps deep into the designer’s psyche.
Born in 1964 in a small Bavarian town, Aisslinger’ formative years were coloured by sci-fi visions of technology creating a harmonious existence in outer space. It embedded in him an optimistic spirit that no amount of killer robots is likely to shake. For an exhibition running until 9 June at Berlin’s Haus am Waldsee, Aisslinger considered how we may live in the future.
Aptly (and ironically) titled, Home of the Future will marry advances in the world of science with ideas of how they can be applied to everyday life. For instance, the bathroom will feature textiles that absorb water from the air so it can be reused and an aquaponic system that heralds the kitchen’s evolution into a place where food is produced and prepared.
The hyper-localised nature of House of the Future and Chair Farm reveals Aisslinger’s less than glowing take on globalisation. “Stuff is being made in China and transported 10-12,000km to Europe. It is a strange system that will last for some decades, but it will come back to being local,” he says.
Despite (or perhaps because of) reservations concerning China, Aisslinger is reconciled with the eastward drift of the world economy, and opened a satellite office in Singapore in 2008.
To date, the designer has focused on electronics for Chinese company Changhong rather than furniture. “It is incredible what kind of energy they have and they are already a little bit arrogant. They jokingly ask you, ‘is Europe still alive?’ But they like to work with Europeans because they are still not at the point when they have their own design language.” While China’s boom is mighty and unprecedented, Aisslinger predicts trouble once economic growth slows. “I hope they collapse one day,” he says, bluntly. “As long as industry is growing at 10% per year, poor people will benefit. When the curve flattens out there will be a revolution because there are so many poor people in China.”
Towards the end of the conversation, the focus shifts from revolutions to Aisslinger’s passion for vintage cars.
Parked in the courtyard below us is his 1978 Porsche 928, the bumperless wedge that pre-empted the slew of similar shaped efforts in the following decade. Aisslinger confesses that what he really wants is a Lamborghini Miura. “Every discipline has its peak and for me car design peaked between 1975-80. It was a very futuristic period. Cars today are defined by aerodynamics and they all look the same. It is really a disaster. I like cars from a time where people took a risk.”
It seems a curiously elegiac note with which to end but shows, rather endearingly, that even in Aisslinger’s world sentiment has a place.