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The designer Steffen Kehrle, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
5
questions to
Steffen Kehrle

11/16/2012

Founded by the young designer four years ago, Steffen Kehrle’s studio is located in an idyllic backyard in Munich’s Haidhausen district. After graduating in Industrial Design from Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, he worked as a designer for Stefan Diez from 2007 through 2009. Today he works together with a team of three on international projects from the areas of product, exhibition and interior design. Furthermore, Kehrle has been teaching furniture design and exhibition architecture at the Kunsthochschule in Kassel since October 2009.

MR. KEHRLE, YOU HAVE BEEN DIRECTING YOUR OWN DESIGN STUDIO SINCE 2009. WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES AND HURDLES FACED BY A YOUNG DESIGNER?

STEFFEN KEHRLE The most important thing is to think very carefully about what it is you really want and plan accordingly and with foresight. What is my work philosophy? What are my notions of the design process? Do I want an office, a studio, a workshop? Do I want to work alone or as part of a team? Personally, working alone was never something I contemplated. I need that interaction with my staff and their input, the discussions and constructive dialog. When I have an idea, I pass it on to my team, or they give me ideas that I then look at more closely. For example, we are working on a chair and Dominique comes up with the idea to use spacers so that the chair is easier to stack. This way we are in constant dialog.

The second aspect that I find particularly important is the infrastructure. For me a workshop in which projects can actually be realized is essential. The designer’s profession has a lot to do with hands-on work, with crafting, experimenting and building prototypes. We try to create very accurate models. For each project we produce an initial model rather quickly, which provides us with a starting point. And we then build a very precise model at a later date. We usually spend two to three weeks working on such a model.

For example, when designing chairs for De Vorm we developed sophisticated tools specifically for the production of the prototypes. The chairs are made of plastic bars, thus we created a number of bending templates, which were subsequently used to thermoform the components. They look just as they would if they were made of steel. When the head of De Vorm saw the prototypes, he was lost for words. Building the model had indeed cost us a lot of time and money, but in the long run it saved us a six-month development period. When the prototypes are built client-side, the process often takes ages.

To return to your original question: One of the biggest challenges and hurdles is getting a foot in the door. You need that first client, you need the second – and you need the first really good client. But you also need the first rejections; they play an instrumental role too. The situation is similar to that of a sportsman: When you have invested a great deal of time in a project and it all ends up going down the drain, it’s a really big deal and you are forced to take a hard look at your mistakes and weaknesses. Because that’s the only way you can learn, grow and make progress.

WHICH STEPS ARE INVOLVED IN A TYPICAL DESIGN PROCESS? DO YOU TAKE TIME TO RESEARCH AND INVESTIGATE OR ARE YOUR IDEAS MORE SPONTANEOUS, MORE INTUITIVE?

KEHRLE If a company approaches us directly, our internal processes always tend to follow the same sequence. We have a great deal of interest in research and we enjoy it too, so we try to approach the topic at hand by conducting detailed research in the field. And we like to venture outside of our own world too, looking to art or architecture, for example. We have now built a relatively large library, plus everyone in the office has a good basic knowledge that is not just restricted to product design but also extends to fashion, architecture and art, spanning the entire cultural spectrum. For each project we require a starting point, a formal or conceptual idea or a particular material. As soon as we have found this we can make a start; and we do that in the form of models. That’s when the circular saw really gets its teeth into things!

There is the “big idea”, which is clearly defined: for example, Fiat wants an exhibition pavilion and our idea is to make it using mirrors such that the pavilion’s contents almost run into infinity. That is the idea. But in order to realize this idea, we need countless other ideas – we work together with a structural engineer, we work with beveled steel sheet, etc. And naturally we have to design and assess each of these ideas and look at them in a new way, take them through from outline to detail. Everything is becoming increasingly concrete and detailed, even model construction, which is also gaining in precision and tangibility.

The limitations always constitute an important part of a design process. They crop up in every single project. It could be in the production stage, because the metalworkers can’t bend the material to a 40° degree angle and instead only to 60°. As long as they can be turned into something productive all of these limitations, which you initially interpret as obstacles, culminate in the end in a good product. Then it becomes somehow obvious and you recognize that it couldn’t have worked any other way. This certainty helps me a lot, stopping me from spending ten years working on a project and enabling me (when necessary) to put my foot down and knock it on the head.

YOU DESIGNED A SHELVING SYSTEM FOR “STATTMANN NEUE MÖBEL”, A NEW LABEL FOUNDED IN 2012, AND IT CAN BE ASSEMBLED WITHOUT THE NEED FOR TOOLS, SCREWS OR ADHESIVE. WHAT POTENTIAL DOES A COLLABORATION WITH A YOUNG, AS YET UNESTABLISHED COMPANY HOLD?

KEHRLE For me it’s not about how well established they are but about how ambitious they are. We are naturally attracted to the well-established; designing a chair or shelving system for Cassina has a lot to do with prestige. It gives you an entirely different presence. I experienced it myself when we designed our first product for Muji. Within only three months it felt as if we had received thousands of enquiries about it.

Now while that might not happen with a young, not so well-established label this isn’t so important for me right now. At the moment if a young label can explain to me what they would like to do while working with me and I like the idea behind it, then everything else is pretty much irrelevant. Of course the basic conditions must be right but if that is the case I really like working for young companies.

Nicola and Oliver Stattmann came to us having done a great deal of preliminary work and put bundles of energy into the project. They fought and worked hard for their idea – that is was I expect from any collaborative project.

Naturally the project with the Stattmanns wasn’t always easy, there were problems with the stability and construction of my designs, but all discussions took place on a high level, which gave me the feeling that I was being taken seriously as a designer. I believe this is extremely important, for I take my customers seriously, too. Both sides have to bring commitment to the table, only then can a project be a success.

YOU HAVE BEEN LECTURING ON FURNITURE AND EXHIBITION DESIGN AT THE KUNSTHOCHSCHULE IN KASSEL FOR THREE YEARS NOW. ARE THERE THINGS THAT IN YOUR OPINION ARE LACKING IN PRESENT-DAY EDUCATION ON DESIGN? DO UNIVERSITIES PROVIDE SUFFICIENT PREPARATION FOR THE PROFESSIONAL WORLD?

KEHRLE Teaching design is difficult because there is no “right” or “wrong”. Each and every art university has its own curriculum and certain specialist areas and in addition to this design can be taught in a very individual way that changes from one teacher to the next. You have to try to draw out the strengths in each and every one of your students. At the same time there is another higher level whereby each student has to possess a certain degree of aptitude, skills and knowledge, as this in turn allows them to work well in the particular field. These aspects include design history, contemporary design and skills such as model and prototype construction, hand drawing and 3D illustration together with all the relevant programs. These are the tools of our trade. No matter how good an idea may be, you can’t develop it any further if you are unable to implement it.

The design process is certainly a topic that should be covered as part of a design curriculum, but the difficultly here is not designing or building a chair – humans have been doing that for thousands of years now. The difficulty lays in making a product that can actually be produced. You have to be able to sell it for a reasonable price; it has to be able to hold its own on the market – to achieve this you need a great deal of knowledge and a hoard of skills. Today, being good isn’t enough in our industry. You have to be really good to even have a chance to get a place in a good firm or go it alone and some how gain ground.

IF WE ARE TO BELIEVE THE PREDICTIONS OF THE MAYAN CALENDAR, THEN THERE ARE POSSIBLY ONLY ANOTHER 100 DAYS LEFT UNTIL THE END OF THE HUMAN CIVILIZATION. IS THERE SOMETHING THAT YOU WOULD ABSOLUTELY WANT TO TAKE CARE OF FIRST?

KEHRLE I hope the Mayans made a mistake. My profession, my circle of friends, my family – all of these things bring me great joy and I don’t want to lose them. But I do indeed have one wish: I would really like to take a six-month sabbatical. I am beginning to notice that at some point I need some time for myself, to reflect on my work and take a look at what I am doing and what I can do better. And not in relation to a specific project but all of my work. After three years at Stefan Diez and three years as my own boss, I feel it’s high time to take stock of, think about whether what I do is even good. I can’t do that simply on a fortnight’s holiday, I need a little longer to come that far. And in any case – I can design a lot of things in 100 days, I’d soon think of a few things. Products for the time after the end of the world would be a fine thing. Perhaps I’ll start with a space capsule.

www.steffenkehrle.com

“Isar“ is suited for indoor as well as outdoor use, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
The stackable metal chair “Isar“, designed by Steffen Kehrle for De Vorm, photo © De Vorm
All prototypes are produced in the workshop of the atelier, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Model of the “Fiat 500 Designgarage“, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
The exhibition pavilion for Fiat is built up of a modular steel construction, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
The “Fiat 500 Designgarage“ was presented for the first time in September 2012 , photo © Lorenz Holder
Mirrors are providing reflections inside the pavilion, photo © Dominique Beolet
The promotion prize “Neues Deutsches Kino” for the Munich film festival 2012, photo © Dominique Beolet
Models of the promotion prize, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
Inspirations and products at the atelier, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
“Framework“, a design for the Italian manufacturer l‘abbate, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas
For Japanese company Muji Steffen Kehrle created the clothing hook “Double”, photo © Steffen Kehrle
Parts of the exhibition “Unplugged“by Bureau Mirko Borsche for the Pinakothek der Moderne, photo © Dimitrios Tsatsas

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