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90% of all cell phones in Europe are still black
11/1/2009
Florian Hufnagl; photo: Hannes Magerstaedt

Florian Hufnagl has been the Director of Die Neue Sammlung - The International Design Museum Munich ever since 1990. It is considered to house the world's largest and oldest design collection and is present - as an equal partner of art - both at Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and Neues Museum in Nuremberg.

Mr. Hufnagl, all too often the adjunct "design" is abused in advertising to increase the value of products. Are there any efforts to counter the excessive use of the term?
Hufnagl: Indeed, nowadays the term "design" is used exorbitantly - not so much in design but in marketing. Just as many things are called architecture even if the object referred to is a visual pollution of our environment. Likewise, textiles you and I would not dare touch with a barge pole are referred to as fashion. So there is an inflationary use of terms which, by the way, we can now also observe in the word "sustainable". The marketing industry takes advantage of the fact that everybody wants to be a good person even though the word is no proof that the product is really sustainable. Only experts would be able to prove that. The same holds true for design. We need authorities - be it institutions, people or awards - that demonstrate skillful design on an international level.

Family-run businesses, especially in Italy, often have excellent design skills. In Germany the situation is different. Here, we like tailoring products to a mass audience in the hope that we can ride on the back the success of some well-known design or other. Do you agree?
Hufnagl: I absolutely agree. But why is this so? In family-run businesses decision-making paths are extremely short, while in large firms in Germany people are constantly trying to secure their position against intervention by others. Obviously this cannot result in decisive attitudes. Plus, in Germany it is frowned upon if people make mistakes, even though it is mistakes they learn from. It is not our victories that make us strong, but our defeats. It is easier for family-run businesses to accept these defeats. In large companies, usually everyone is involved when they are successful, but when it comes to problems and defeats, generally another department is to blame.

So people don't make any decisions because they are scared that something could go wrong and they might have to take responsibility for it?
Hufnagl: Exactly. And we all know that some decisions in life can be very banal. Shall I do it or not? That peps things up a bit. We might develop a passion, designers and entrepreneurs might become compulsive offenders, as I always say, because they want to blaze a very specific trail. That is what it all comes down to: passion.

Can design - or a designer - change society? Or is design rather a mirror of society?
Hufnagl: There is definitely something to both views. "I wanna change the world" - I don't believe in that. The world has become far too big for every individual to be in a position to actively change it. Yet, individuals can make decisive contributions, they shape the visual picture, they shape our environment.

Does a star designer's signature play an important role here?
Hufnagl: Only those who have a highly recognizable, distinctive signature can be star designers. A star designer needs something that makes him or her stand out and a signature which appeals to a broad audience; that is what is important. And one that "hits" a formal language "right on the head", so to speak - which does not necessarily mean that it is good design.

Does that mean we need the 29th version of the plastic chair à la Philippe Starck? Or do only those ideas that truly produce something new have the right to exist?
Hufnagl: That is a very intriguing question. It is important that we base product innovation decisions on the following question: What is necessary? The main focus of recent years has been to produce and design something for the sake of newness. It was about products that screamed as loudly as possible: "I am here, I am new" and were thus intended to make already existing products look "old". This does not make much sense. We should treat what we have in a way that makes sense as long as it does make sense. And provide innovation together with innovative design when it is necessary and technological developments allow it.

In your opinion, is there something like the greatest contemporary designer?
Hufnagl: In my opinion Alberto Meda is a designer who has achieved a great deal. In his case, I can talk of the emotionalization of a piece of furniture without having to sift through all types of decorative forms and sell them as innovations.

Media philosopher Norbert Bolz once said the following of emotionality: "People are interested in stories, not in product information. Nothing can be sold based on pure product quality!" Do you share this view?
Hufnagl: Yes, it is true, at least to a certain extent. And it also depends on the product segment, for surely, you can't market a jackhammer with emotionality. I have nothing against emotionality and certainly not new decorative forms or color, for I am rather suspicious of the fiery mousy gray of Ulm in Germany and right angles. Indeed, the all-important question in design is: What products do we need when, for what and how should they look? That is what the growth-oriented industry I am questioning here needs to take into consideration. We cannot eat and drink more and more and more, this is not about some arbitrary quantity. This is something we should realize prior to the design process and prior to corporate decisions and marketing processes.

Is the financial crisis increasingly making industry aware of this?
Hufnagl: I hope so. For only when people have realized this will normality return and with it joy in simple things. What this is all about is living with things, decently and with mutual exchange, really exploring them. This applies to both the world of objects and that of humans. I take great pleasure in constantly observing this and I am lucky for I am in a position that enables me to follow it, comment on it and collect it. The art of seduction is beautiful, but who wants to be seduced all the time? It is tiring. We cannot eat the best food every day; it gets boring. Yet it is healthy to think about where, in which place, we find what we call "mature" or "able to make decisions". Naturally, we - the entrepreneurs, product developers and, of course, also designers - can always make a contribution. I do not approve of empty marketing promises that anger customers because they are expected to buy a new product after only three months.

What does the future have in store for design? Which "mega-trends" are emerging, to use this terminology?
Hufnagl: Let's differentiate a bit more here. It is a characteristic of our time that these mega-trends do not exist. There is very strong diversification which will continue to advance, because we are neither aiming for product nor design imperialism. It would not correspond to human nature. In the long term, I expect an increase in the breadth of specific products, with their designs spreading across continents. Moreover, as design is virtually always based on culture, I could imagine that we will start to remember our own cultural identity again. For example, 90% of cellular phones in Europe are still black while they are colored in Asia. That has to do with our history: The first phone was black and made from plastic - this overtone is always present.
Besides, I believe that, overall, we need to accept a loss of form. Nowadays technology is gradually being replaced by software; in the past we experienced a shift from mechanics to electronics. Today, there is a trend towards miniaturization and arbitrariness of form, not only in terms of size but also shape. The difference between a stove and an iPhone, for example, is negligible. An iPhone is nothing but a black glass pane, framed in silver at best. Whether we use it to listen to music, to make phone calls, to record videos, that is a question of - as the Italians say - consuetudine, of habit. Or of market demand: The product itself always looks the same and yet has all kinds of different functions.

Who do you consider the most important designer of the younger generation?
Hufnagl: There is one contemporary designer who definitely outperforms everyone else. He heads a team but he himself incorporates the idea of design: Jonathan Ive. He shaped the iMac, iPod, iBook and iPhone. Significantly, he has not designed any furniture. All these things stand for our world in an unparalleled way and have lastingly changed it.

What design-related question do you contemplate most?
Hufnagl: I ask myself every day: Why do I do what I do? Why do I devote my time to design? Why in such an intense way? And I always find an answer to these questions, at least so far.

Always a different one?
Hufnagl: Always variations. We also grow with the question, it is clearly positive. If I do not ask myself why I do what I do it becomes arbitrary. And things should never be arbitrary. They have to be definitive, justifiable and thus conscious.

Florian Hufnagl; photo: Hannes Magerstaedt