Enjoying the material
von Meret Ernst | Jul 16, 2012

The book’s title says it is a “Workshop Guide” from the kitchen of Swiss design and architecture office Atelier Oï. In this instance, we can more or less take the kitchen reference literally, namely as the intention to offer an insight into the “méthode Atelier Oï”, to show what ingredients and what approaches are used by the team (it now consists of over 35 staff members) when developing its ideas into designs and products. Renate Menzi’s brief introduction in French, German and English takes up the culinary metaphor: “It functions like it does with yeast and bread, when designers take something from a past project and use it as the basis for a new dough.” The curator of the design collection at Zurich’s Museum für Gestaltung brings together the leitmotifs informing the transdisciplinary design by Atelier Oï. The designers have refused from the outset to specialize and thus the portfolio includes jobs for perfume flacons from Bulgari through to the conversion of a 1960s motel into a new studio building. Instead of specializing, Atelier Oï works on things that are a mélange of product design, scenography and architecture. For this mélange, Renate Menzi suggests, multiplies the design potential and has moved the studio on to ever larger projects: from the watch pack for Swatch to the DYB competency center for jewelers in Corcelles nr. Neuenburg – a three-storey, 70m-long factory with an integrated exhibition that is part of the Swatch Group.

Developing product ideas in dialog

This undisciplined approach (in the best sense of the term) is successful because Atelier Oï has developed its own methodology. The three founders joined forces in 1991, fresh out of college and consciously resolved to stay in the small town of La Neuveville close to the linguistic border with German-speaking Switzerland and not to head for one of the two design hubs of Zurich or Lausanne – to keep them active and fast. Today, they are long since busy receiving visitors from all over the world, which was not always the case and the early days in the 1990s were tough.

“All the mistakes we made, not to mention the successes of the last 20 years,” are attributable to us alone,” declared Aurel Aebi recently at a press conference. He founded Atelier Oï together with Patrick Reymond and Armand Louis, and since then the three have been equal partners in the game. It is no coincidence that their name stems from the middle of the Russian word troika, for the latter threesome is a model that expresses the principle underlying their collaboration. “Product ideas arise in dialog, and only he who listens can also convince,” is their creed. And because you can’t draw in a collective the inquiry into types of materials using models and prototypes is essential.

Thousands of material patterns at hand

Material means experiment. They love questioning the conventions of how to use materials. Birdseed is pressed together to form edible birdhouses, paper stacked, fabric set oscillating, ropes tightened and gelatin poured into perforated molds. The inhouse Matériothèque now contains several thousand patterns, always ready at hand. Another important item: the archive with models and systems parts that they set up back on Day One. The archive is now something like a materialized collective memory and an important basis for how ideas can wander from one project to the next. “This repertoire we have is key especially if you have to work under time pressures.”

Relaying ideas

Time was precious, for example, with a job that came in from Milan. Less than 15 days were available to develop an exhibition for Centro Culturale Svizzero. What the public visiting the Salone in 2006 then raved about took up the scenographic work for Mudac Lausanne that had been used one year earlier to showcase the winners of the Eidgenössischer Wettbewerb. And the designers then advanced the principle to used it for a side table, dumb waiter and wardrobes for Kollektion Atelier Pfister in 2010. The work with ropes that made such a splash at Centro Culturale was later incorporated and moved forward for two products: the gigantic spools of yarn spread around the hall morphed into “Reel”, a family of side tables that B&B Italia brought to market in 2008. The yarn spools then provided threads that served as ropes for bells. If you move them, volumes made of individually suspended aluminum rods start to oscillate. These volumes in turn gave rise one year later to the “Allegro and Allegretto” luminaires for Foscarini. One idea follows from the next, and the book presents plenty of such developments that bridge various projects.

The illustrated book is structured by theme, each with a brief introduction, and is great to leaf through. It’s a bit of a pity that the design is not on a par with the work of Atelier Oï. For a photobook, the quality of the images is too uneven, and as a handbook it all seems too designed. Meaning you’ll most probably go for the list of works published in 2004, with its clear alphabetical structure, as it’s a book that is a tool and a volume that truly inspires the senses.

Workshop Guide Atelier Oï
By Renate Menzi
Hardcover, 224 pages, German/English/French
Avedition, Ludwigsburg, 2012
Euro 39.90

”A composition of cords”, photo © Atelier Oi
”Tome”, photo © Atelier Oi
Installation for Designer Werktag, photo © Atelier Oi
Culture-ship ”Romandie”, photo © Atelier Oi
Interior of the “Romandie“, photo © Atelier Oi
”Oiphorique”, photo © Atelier Oi
Staging for Ruckstuhl, photo © Atelier Oi
Factory Jaquet Droz, photo © Yves Andre
”Reel” for B&B Italia, photo © B&B Italia
”Les Danseuses”, photo © Atelier Oi
Changing forms of ”Les Danseuses”, photo © Atelier Oi
Armand Louis, Aurel Aebi and Patrick Reymond from Atelier Oi, photo © Marco Zanoni