Convey the enthusiasm that in this job there’s still things to be achieved

The exhibition “Full House: Design by Stefan Diez” is still being assembled at MAKK. But what is already clear is that what will go on display in Cologne will be far more than a simple show of his work. We talked in advance with Stefan Diez about his concept.
by Thomas Wagner | 1/5/2017

A very few large framed structures stand in the two-story entrance hall of MAKK, Cologne’s Museum of Applied Arts. Piece by piece they grow upwards, some more so, some less so, to form cabinets, plinths, and shelves, in and on which soon models, prototypes and finished products will be exhibited that Stefan Diez and his team designed in the course of the last 15 years or so. And then developed ready for market. The boxes and shelves are all in black, creating a sense of structure and diversity in the open space. Here and there a few sprinkles of color will be added before the opening; and once all is ready, purpose-developed lighting will create additional accents. 

What we can already intuit is that the show will not simply be a matter of depositing some products here and adding the one or other model or prototype. Someone for whom reflecting on his own work as an industrial designer forms an integral part of the design process itself is evidently trying to find surprising, intense and coherent ways of advancing thinking on exhibitions of the design and development process. And he goes even further: Rarely has an exhibition at MAKK so perfectly referenced the imm cologne context, rarely has one so precisely taken up those issues and interfaces driving industrial design in today’s day and age. I met Stefan Diez while he was busy assembling the Cologne exhibition and talked with him about the concept, his take on design exhibitions and the latest developments in industrial design.

Things are still getting unpacked. Furniture, luminaires, models, prototypes, everything that will soon be on show is already on site. Yet all that is standing is the frame, the display (a structure consisting of striking black frames, plinths and shelves). There’s still much to be done. Nevertheless, Stefan Diez is surprisingly relaxed. Maybe this is because he not only devised a concept for his show at MAKK in advance, but together with his team tested it all at his studio in Munich, so he knows that what is just starting to evolve here will work.

In the "New Order" system by Hay, quite different exhibition pieces can be found: Stefan Diez at the construction in Cologne.

A new job for “New Order”

If you look a little closer, you’ll discover that the entire exhibition architecture consists of elements from the “New Order” furniture system. However, “New Order” has never before been used the way it is used here. Nowhere have the possible combinations and permutations of this complex system been extensively presented, neither at the Orgatec nor at the Salone del Mobile. “Actually,” Stefan Diez explains to me, “they’re simply large tables, elements from ‘New Order’ by Hay that are now performing a new task, including the cable ducts, i.e., all the things you need for an exhibition anyway. Since the table legs are made from extruded aluminum it was no big deal to cut them off in the corresponding length.”

What you immediately notice is that here nothing has been left to chance, everything has been developed carefully and with precision, things thought through and advanced further. “Of course,” Diez outlines as we stand looking at one of the boxes to which paneling still needs to be attached, “these create spaces, but this does not mean that we are simply exhibiting interiors. These are cells for displaying artefacts. You’ll see that the exhibition architecture functions here as a meta-structure, but you won’t have the feeling that you’re sitting in a shoebox. It’s just that visitors should enjoy enough calm to be able to concentrate on what is on show.” 

The problem with a design show is the money

So much for the framework, the setting. And how does one create a design exhibition in it? Diez does not hesitate for a moment, and explains quite frankly that “the way I see it, the problem with a design show is very often the money. You can’t display things in a space such as that at the MAKK without making an effort. Simply placing products here and there on the floor can’t be the solution. You would see everything at a glance, there would be little creative tension, and given that the room is nine meters high, our products, originally destined for a quite different scale of place, would then look as though they had completely the wrong proportions, they’d look flat.”

So how to go about it if the budget is clear? How to present the objects to ensure they do not look as though they have simply been stood in one corner or other and to make certain the exhibition does not call to mind a furniture store, with the difference that in the latter you can sit down and try out the chairs or sofas on show?

“The question,” Diez says, “of what you actually want to say about design in such an exhibition is of fundamental importance, of course. But essentially the focus must be on persuading the companies involved to support the project, especially if you are doing something to coincide with the imm cologne. This concurs with my overall approach to design, namely to first identify what scope there is, and here in Cologne and in the context of the imm is different than, for example, if the show were to be in Munich at Die Neue Sammlung. At any rate, what we seek to do certainly thrilled Hay enough for them to make furniture available for the show that is worth a sum well into six digits. Elsewhere, no one would do that. And emu, e15 and Buschfeld, in fact all the companies involved, have likewise weighed in. Buschfeld, for example, is a company based in Cologne that makes lighting systems – and we need good lighting for the exhibition. So we pondered things and thought: Great, we’ll try and combine the potential Buschfeld offers with the potential of using Hay furniture such that at the end we get a new product. And by product I do not mean that Buschfeld simply supplies and installs a few lighting sets, as that would not be interesting for anyone. No, we sat down with Buschfeld and together devised a concept for how in future ‘New Order’ can be electrified and illuminated.”

For two years Stefan Diez has been working on a project for office furniture manufacturer Wagner.
As an example, 30 prototypes will be shown in the exhibition.

The exhibition generates projects

The focus is, so much is clear, on more than creating an exhibition. What evolves from the concept for the show is a project in its own right, which, as it takes shape, not only prompts any number of practical questions that call for responses. During the work readying the exhibition ideas arose that would not have come about without the project. “Full House” therefore not only presents what came about in the past. Rather, the exhibition is the moment that sparks collaborations from which new products then arise. Which actually means that what we have here is a completely new kind of exhibition.

Stefan Diez defines the approach more closely: “Exactly, the exhibition itself has become a project. And as regards the lighting, in a first and swift step we deliberated what few modifications and smart adapters were necessary in order to combine the Hay and Buschfeld worlds. I’m really looking forward to seeing how that functions here.”

It would, Diez insists, hardly be possible to realize such an exhibition without such synergies being tapped and new product ideas being developed from them: “We simply couldn’t afford to spend a whole year working only on an exhibition that would in the final instance result only in a crate full of products.”

The unfinished is consciously included

I follow up on this: Usually, the process at design museums is precisely that. Products and prototypes get displayed on plinths or placed in vitrines, don’t they? – “And for that very reason,” Diez says, “I was insistent that it would be better to think beforehand what the challenges and fun of such a project should be. So we then endeavored to combine as many aspects, ideas and projects as possible – to forge a link between Buschfeld and Hay obviously, but also to incorporate cooperation with the company Wagner, and this is still ongoing, a pretty great team based close to Augsburg. We’ve now been working for almost two years on a project with Wagner, so we’ve chosen 30 prototypes that typify the collaboration – they’ll be displayed on a shelf that is almost nine meters high. We’re showing such a mass of work because Wagner is seriously supporting the project and has been happy to understand that you don’t simply have a designer invest in a project for two years without paying for the development effort. I feel that is definitely the right attitude and therefore want to give something back in return through the exhibition. If someone covers your back then it’s a lot more fun and far more efficient than spending two years working on a detail. To date, I’m really pleased with the results. Once the development work is complete there’ll be an entire family of seating furniture, each of which will feature a shared detail between the seat and base frame that delivers great comfort and healthier sitting with very little mechanical input and will therefore extricate chairs from that horrible world of seating machines.”

Showing how they’re made

Once again, Diez focuses not on considering individual projects in isolation, to keep them completely separate from one another, but to dovetail them all. “The idea for the Wagner chairs,” he continues, “is something I showed Rolf Hay when he visited our studio. Two years ago I tried brokering contact between the two companies, as I felt it would be a great idea to aspire to cooperation between Hay and Wagner in the field of office chairs. With his informed opinions, Rolf certainly left his mark on our project, and the two companies are now envisaging collaboration.” 

In this way, new and different connections arise in a variety of areas. “Sure,” Stefan Diez says and laughs, “that’s the idea of a network, a large family.” Only to add: “If we present prototypes from the project with Wagner then it’s like displaying an open book. We do not lose anything if we show things this way, if we reveal to the outside world the way we work. What we are displaying is not something you can buy. It’s like paying a visit to a studio.

What strikes the eye here is that no aspect of this whatsoever is pretentious or only of relevance for the exhibition. When Stefan Diez speaks of networking, then there is nothing airy-fairy or abstract about it. All the ideas have as their starting point, have their roots in projects that have either already been realized or are ongoing and thus topical. And what is also central to all this is that it is exclusively the designer who interconnects the products and forges links between different manufacturers. All of the cooperation projects arise from a close concern with the particular object in question; no idea is the product of an outside take on things or imposed on the product in question.

Key elements get emphasized

But how, or so I ask, can the exhibition link individual projects with the respective design process? At first sight, the answer is surprising: “As regards the exhibition, the design process does not interest me the way we have already seen it in design exhibitions. The emphasis here is not on some linear, more or less readily comprehensible processes, nor really on the steps between an initial trial model and the finished product. If I were to do that, then it would be as if an acrobat were to explain why he or she needs to practice all the time.” What immediately springs to my mind: It is no coincidence that Stefan Diez named one of his chairs after a famous conjurer and escape artist – Houdini. However, he goes on to say: “I did not know what the message behind it was supposed to be: That it is hard work that as a designer you always need many small steps to reach your goal? I feel exhibiting any number of interim steps makes sense, but it is a bit of a stopgap for the real thing. What I and others like me find interesting about design is that with each and every project we rely on a standard operating procedure as it were. For me, it is a matter of course that, when we design a chair, it involves building 30 different trial models. There’s no other way of doing it. What makes all the difference are the one or two ideas that change everything. Those are the decisive key moments. In an exhibition the emphasis must therefore be on highlighting these key moments and visualizing the effect they trigger. So I dedicated myself to identifying what the key moment was in each project, and outlining it.”

"What makes the difference are one or two ideas that change everything": Stefan Diez in conversation with Thomas Wagner.

Diez expounds on his decision: “I believe that simply describing a linear process or one that proceeds in loops and leaving the viewer to make sense of it is quite unlike the ability to define and describe the core of an idea. If you display too many models then viewers will take a look and by the time they get to the third vitrine are simply bored and rightly say to themselves: I’ve just seen ten models of a chair, again. The object must be to be more courageous and say: This is it, this is how it functions. Which is why we have largely not bothered to justify something in terms of its genesis. It’s important not to show something even if you could.”

Diez offers a concrete example of this: “In the case of ‘Chassis’ at the end we have displayed the two wooden molds we built in order to convince a chassis-builder to create the prototypes for Orgatec 2008, without which Wilkhahn would never ever have been prepared to commit to the immense investment required for the tooling. That’s the reason these wooden molds are so fundamentally crucial for the process. But only by placing them on a plinth have we managed to give them the significance they deserve, which is not evidenced in the photos of them we have used to date.” 

He then changes perspective and returns to the structure of the exhibition: “On the top floor is heaven, that’s obvious. We’ve placed all the projects there that we consider “invisible projects,” namely ones that never made the grade and which we were never able to present, for example studies undertaken together with Stylepark and Vorwerk or Merten, or with Bree, with Rosenthal. We really have expended a lot of energy along the way.”

To get the wall gleaming

There are other things to be discovered that are completely different, something Diez explains by citing a project embarked on with Spanish luminaire maker Vibia: “In the case of the luminaire, and we have been working on it for three years now, we have been concentrating on glass as a light conductor and on LEDs, the light dots of which are introduced into relatively thin 5mm panes of glass. For example, a glass tube that is 140 centimeters long and has been made by the specialists at Schott will be on show, into which an LED strip will be inserted through a slot on the top edge – you don’t see where the light comes from, and the entire tube starts to gleam at those points where a pattern has been etched beforehand. The resulting light is marvelously soft. The principle can also be applied as a wall, as a flat pane: When you turn the light on, it only starts to gleam at the edges. Now we’ve all seen luminaires along the edges of which LEDs have been glued. In our case, however, all you have is a pane of glass and that’s all you see when you turn the light off. If you switch it on, however, then the light spreads flat across the wall so that the entire wall starts to gleam.”

Nothing going – without enthusiasm

Companies are slow-moving tankers, and you need a lot of patience and great powers of persuasion in order to maneuver one in a specific direction. Diez knows what he is talking about: “One thing is really important to me with this exhibition: I want to convey something of the enthusiasm that in this job there’s still much to be achieved. We’ve not reached the end by any means. But that’s the impression you might easily get judging by what you often hear when other people are talking about design. People of the caliber of one Eugenio Perazza, the head of Magis, have become very rare. For some visitors, the one or the other thing may seem coincidental or arbitrary, but what I want is, take the example of Wilkhahn, also to show what prompts a company to be so courageous and plump for a design and invest in it. And this isn’t a matter of the shape, of someone saying: ‘This incredibly beautiful chair just has to go into production.’ It’s a matter of passion, of that spark of enthusiasm that spreads like wildfire... and visualizing that, now that was the real challenge as a designer, visualizing all those years spent working on this particular chair. And at the end of the day it is all innate in the shape, and all else disappears from sight. This is also one of the reasons why we are doing an exhibition in a museum and have not opted for a product presentation in a furniture store. In the latter you can also tell this story, but here in the museum the focus is not to be on the finished product but has to be about something else: What exactly does the studio do, what does it and all those who work there achieve? What exactly is our work? To work the way we work is always a bit of a tightrope act; sometimes it’s all ‘blood, sweat and tears,’ other times a pure joy – and the show needs to convey all of that.”

Current issues in industrial design

Stefan Diez champions a very clear position not only as regards how best to conceive a design exhibition. For he is more than prepared to put his finger firmly on the issues with which industrial design currently has to contend: “We conducted a large number of interviews for the book that is coming out to coincide with the show and it is astonishing that more or less everyone we spoke to has come up against the same thing: There used to be a clear division between industry and the crafts trades. The potential of the latter was clearly circumscribed and you knew what its qualities were. And industry likewise has its own particular scope. With the emergence of digital tools both have started to converge. And if as a manufacturer you now have the opportunity to invest less and are prepared to accept that the product will then become more expensive, or to invest more and possibly go bankrupt, then very often people lack the courage to produce something in large numbers. Essentially, what then gets marketed are prototypes that are manufactured by artisanal-digital means. Products that for years have disappointed one generation of designers after another, because the royalties from such products are simply ‘zero.’ The development lead time is immense because the designers have to do everything themselves, from the cutting forms and the CAD models right through to the photos. The effort expected of designers when collaborating with industrial partners is significantly greater than in the past, but the numbers that are rolled out at the end are falling by the day.”

However, I object, haven’t numerous manufacturers not long since noticed that this won’t function in the long run? “In the studio, we use the entire array of digital possibilities but we are most determinedly interested in having a company at our side that is interested in realizing the product on an industrial scale – or at least is prepared to help shoulder the investment costs. I am pleased to say, though, that many companies have now thought this dilemma through and are on board.”

So there are products where the former approach is called for and others where the latter process is the right one, and it is part of the designer’s brief to make this clear, is it not? “That hits the nail on the head. Today, we are moving toward being ready to do that, meaning we can use the advantages of this potpourri of new processes to our own advantage, when building prototypes and developing what are technically speaking often not all that simple solutions. At the end of the day, we need companies that support us so that we can afford to handle the entire development process.”

What causes a company like Wilkhahn to choose a design? Copies of the chair "Chassis"

No cause for concern

I want to get to the heart of the matter and ask: So things are looking up and there’s no cause for concern as regards the future of industrial design? And Diez doesn’t pause for a moment before answering: “Definitely not. We’re not at some point or other where we could think that we’ve learned all there is to learn. On the contrary: The way we work today, on the basis of networks, there’s hardly a single company that possesses all the knowledge you need to develop a product ready for market. Manufacturers are more like publishers today, and depend on each of the producers involved sharing its expertise. And the companies don’t possess treasure chests where they horde all that special knowledge and when required simply delve into it. This is another reason why companies definitely have an interest in collaborating with a technically well-versed design office when it comes to having someone act as the key intermediary between all the different players.”

In order to describe the changes, Stefan Diez narrates how a designer used to work – until only a few years ago, and what he himself learned: “I was once assistant to Richard Sapper, and was regularly down in Milan with him. In his studio there was simply one large table, on it was a reel of scotch tape and a few paper clips – a huge table, that was his entire office. And it’s not like he really had assistants, it was more like some of his students occasionally collaborated with him. It was all no big thing. When a design was ready, he would head to his manufacturer in the Brianza – and the latter would handle more or less everything else. The companies had all the knowledge about how to realize something. A short time later, and this became possible owing to outsourcing and globalization, there was then a plasma-like state, and now many things have to coagulate in a new constellation. We live in an era in which much is happening, much is changing, and in which much is changing for and in design, and that has its good sides.”

And then work continues assembling things in Cologne. 

Full House: Design by Stefan Diez
MAKK – Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln
An der Rechtschule 
50667 Köln

Jan. 17 – June 11, 2017
Special opening hours during imm cologne and the PASSAGEN from Jan 17-22, 2017:
Tues. – Sun. 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
During this time entrance is free of charge


Full House. Diez Office.
eds. Sandra Hofmeister and Petra Hesse
336 pages, approx. 850 illustrations
Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König
ISBN 978-3-96098-071-1
EUR 39.80