Sustainable balance

Jeannette Altherr tells us about “MYA” for burgbad, the advantage of capsule collections, and the need for harmony in design.

Anna Moldenhauer: Jeannette, you have been working with burgbad for some years now and “MYA” is the second collection. What was the idea behind it?

Jeannette Altherr: burgbad wanted a product that made it possible to transport bathrooms, namely small units that save space and that people can disassemble and transport independently. In addition, the units had to be suitable for sale by online retailing. With regard to the visual impact, we wanted to create a homely atmosphere that was more than just functional, to think outside the white box, so to speak, that you so often find in bathrooms. Hence the “MYA” collection includes accessories like a basket, a tray, and a stool. All the elements of “MYA” can be used in other rooms too: The bathroom storage units can just as readily come into their own as bedside tables, while the towel rail with its practical features would equally be at home in the kitchen. It’s a capsule collection that can be integrated into many areas of life, a basis that can be used flexibly.

Why did you opt for the idea of a capsule collection?

Jeannette Altherr: In the form of “MYA”, we wanted to create a high-quality collection that functions like a basic wardrobe item – something that suits lots of different people, reduced down to the essentials, easy to combine and aesthetically pleasing. The concept of the capsule collection also enables us to remain independent of the existing collection. Within the burgbad range, it functions like a self-contained unit. This formula means that the different collections at burgbad can exist alongside one another independently, which provides for a great deal of scope for creative development. It has helped us to tread new ground with burgbad.

What was the main challenge of this process?

Jeannette Altherr: Visionary ideas are generally hard to digest, so you have to find a way to translate them that is not too extreme, create something that works as an everyday item but is nevertheless progressive. I think what’s needed is a systematic approach, a recognition that everything is interconnected. As a designer, you are part of the cycle of consumption and I think this comes with a responsibility to improve that cycle continually.

In keeping with the notion of a capsule collection, “MYA” is restrained in its colors, will it stay that way?

Jeannette Altherr: “MYA” is not made up of showpieces, but rather items of background furniture. If the elements were colored, the uniformity would be lost. The reduction in color helps with the atmospheric balance, creating a pleasant dialog with the space, particularly in small rooms. What’s more, a lot of shapes don’t really work in strong colors, because they quickly appear artificial and lose their original character. “MYA” is more about neutrality than about expression. The material is meant to retain its naturalness, so right now I can only imagine colors that are already inherent in the wood.

Alongside a pared-back approach, sustainability is another defining factor of “MYA”. Among other things, the leather surfaces are tanned in an environmentally friendly way and the conical container “VIV” is made of recycled plastic. What is the idea behind this?

Jeannette Altherr: The greatest problem with consumerism, I believe, is products then have short lifespans, are designed to meet short-lived trends or function merely as sculpture in abstract settings. For me, sustainability is very important in terms of both the way a piece looks and the materials used to make it. It’s important to create visual longevity in the design that is contemporary but not cool or overly minimal. One source of inspiration for “MYA” was the wooden furniture of the “Shaker” movement, since it appeals to a collective memory without seeming radical. The items are reduced but create a homely atmosphere. That’s the effect I wanted to achieve for “MYA”. The oak has also been kept slender but at the same time very stable, and the pieces are made without composite materials. In parallel, we are researching the area of sustainable materials, including a leather-like material made using fungi. I believe sustainability is an interplay of various factors.

"MYA" by Altherr Désile Park for burgbad

Can you explain the idea of harmony in design a little bit?

Jeannette Altherr: As designers, our ideas are connected by beauty and good living. Beauty is more than a means of selling – it is a promise of joy. The expression, the aesthetics of our surroundings influences the way we feel, the way we behave, whom we want to be. We can have different ideas about what’s beautiful, but we all have a fairly clear notion of what is not beautiful: destruction, gracelessness, loss. We are also increasingly concerned about a world and a future that appear to be ever poorer and more dystopian. The individualistic idea is increasingly giving way to the recognition that we are part of a living system. Simple, functional and linear thinking should therefore develop into a holistic and complex approach in design too.

So sustainable design calls for a holistic way of thinking.

Jeannette Altherr: Holistic, but also differentiated. You feel your way to solutions, review them, diversify them, face contradictions and uncertainties, see things in constant development. Our dilemma is that we as product designers are directly dependent on the consumer world – while we as human beings, as responsible citizens, know that excessive forms of it are problematic. Sustainability is no longer an individual task but rather a collective goal. The question for us designers is: What contribution can we make toward ensuring that products are once again worth maintaining and repairing? How can we design, produce and consume in a way that is more sustainable? It’s up to us whether we accept and distinguish this complexity and whether we help to bring about change. There is no generally applicable solution here – from the greater prisms can be drawn many local answers.

In these uncertain times in particular, it’s essential that we reflect on design too, I agree with you there. What changes are you seeing right now?

Jeannette Altherr: I am sure that the online trade will grow more strongly and people will upgrade or enhance their homes as spaces for living. Living in tiny apartments with minimal furniture no longer has the same appeal as before the pandemic. We can no longer make use of the services offered to us externally the way we could before and we are limited in our room for maneuver. Many people are now choosing to move to the country because you can live more independently there. In my experience, the more intense contact with nature also changes people’s view of consumerism. You gain greater appreciation for high-quality products that are both functional and versatile. “MYA” offers this balance.

Jeannette Altherr