Reluctant ethnologist
Nov 25, 2010
Philippe Bestenheider

Love can move mountains. In Philippe Bestenheider's case, it was his love of the "Lowseat", a chair designed by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso. The Swiss graduate of the Milan Domus Academy once phoned Urquiola to confess his admiration, and by the time he had put down the receiver, had a job under his belt. From 2001 to 2006 he worked in the Spanish designer's studio, designing for companies such as Agape, Alessi and Molteni. Urquiola taught him to listen to his gut feeling, he claims, and that is exactly what he did, when he set up a studio on his own in 2006. His first ever product was for Moroso, as is his most recent one: "Beth" is comfortable and uncomplicated - an informal armchair similar to "Sacco" by Piero Gatti, Cesare Paolini and Franco Teodoro, but with armrests and made of more sustainable materials. Bestenheider's new design is causing a stir in Europe, in particular because of its recycling properties.

Amelie Znidaric: It would seem that until now environmental consciousness was, if anything, a strength of northern European designers and manufacturers than of the Italians. Do you share this opinion?

Philippe Bestenheider: That may well be, but in Beth's case Morosoitself offered me this material. It is digitally-printed, recycled rubber made from old car tires. Rubber is not normally recyclable, but a company near Udine developed a new process for both recycling and printing.

Most of your work has a clear reference to primitive cultures, for example from Africa or the northern polar circle. Apart from Moroso's Africa focus last year, do you have a special interest in primitive folk?

Bestenheider: No, this developed more or less by chance, although in the end it was probably the case. With "Binta", the chair I presented last year, for example, I was far more interested in the form than the pattern. The African materials were supplied by Moroso but I was more concerned with how the surfaces blend. The base of the chair consists of four spheres which intersect one another. It was this geometry, that formed the starting point. I developed a project with the Italian manufacturer Varaschin, which followed a very similar course. I called the chair "Kente", because there is a material in Ghana, which looks similar. Here too, I did not start with the material, but with the structure of the chair. It is woven, and to make this more visible, I chose strong colors for the strips. When I was wondering, what to call the chair, I suddenly recalled the fabrics from Ghana. I came across the name "Kente", a name, which I had not heard before, through Google. It was a similar process with "Nanook".

The chair which looks like a snowflake?

Bestenheider: Actually it is a progression from an earlier project, which I developed in 2007 for a design-competition run in conjunction with the chair-fair Promosedia. I was working with triple-leafed elements, which I joined at their outer points - this gave rise to the chair's structure. It was a geometric exercise, from which lines eventually developed. Finally, I applied borders around the structure, and somehow it all developed as a matter of course. When it came to find a name, I began looking at the Inuits, an indigenous people in the Arctic region. I discovered, that their typical clothing also features edging such as this. And suddenly everything came together. I christened the chair "Nanook" after the Inuit word for bear.

As if it was something archaic slumbering inside, which periodically voices itself?

Bestenheider: Yes, that's right. I like to go back to the origins, so-called primitive art interests me. What is beautiful about the way primitive folk express themselves is , that they do so in such a direct way, which gives cultures such as these their real strenth. It is not overly refined, but close to nature and its surroundings - I find this fascinating.

You like to use strong colors. What value does color have for design?

Bestenheider: It simply makes you happy. And color thrives on contrast. The African fabrics on the "Binta" armchairs for example, start to become interesting, when you combine and mix them, it is then, they start to vibrate. You can see this among African women as well. They don't just wear one fabric but mix them, and thereby create an exciting dialogue. I cannot imagine, that "Binta" would also function, if it were covered in a single fabric. The patchwork, of course, also supports the three-dimensional form.

On the subject of "Nanook" and its crystalline - or as some people say, molecular form - I read, that you also like physics. Are you generally interested in sciences?

Bestenheider: I like to play with geometric forms and this is evident in my new design for de Sede. I do like physics, but not exclusively. The design's similarity to molecules only became apparent to me afterwards - like with the Inuits.

What did you want to be, when you were a child?

Bestenheider: First a vet and then an inventor.

And what motivated you to become a designer?

Bestenheider: If you think about it, it is not such a leap from inventor to designer. Design involves tinkering with forms and materials.

Philippe Bestenheider