View of the research lab: Prototypes of flexible office armchairs for Wagner (on the l.), the “Bandit” side-table for e15 (middle) and the “Chassis” all-round chair as realized for Wilkhahn.

Pushing boundaries

A stroke of luck: In his exhibition “Full House” at the MAKK in Cologne, Stefan Diez develops new perspectives on design in a globalized world and in so doing presents himself and how he works.
by Thomas Edelmann | 2/9/2017

Occasionally new attempts are made to address the old question of how you can exhibit design and architecture so that not only experts and insiders, but also interested visitors can draw insights from your presentation. Gone are the times of great visionary stocktaking, such as the 1980 show “Design is invisible” in Linz. Back then, on the eve of new avant-garde currents such as Memphis, the makers and authors subjected Modernist design trends, the 1950s and the Postmodern (contemporary at the time) to a critical analysis and offered contemporary actors a forum for self-presentation. Past and present merged with the perspective of something new. No matter how important the presentation would prove to be for the development of essential design attitudes in the next 40 years, it remained an episode.

Moldable using complex machines or by hand: The early “Bent” piece by Stefan Diez and Christophe de la Fontaine in a version dating from 2006.

How should you exhibit design?

When the world of historical preservation and explanation institutes, otherwise known as museums, encounters the fluid, dynamic sphere of design, fascinating productions can emerge, but this tends not to be the rule. It is an open question whether it was daring or despondency that prompted the Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln (MAKK) on frequent occasions to open its doors to external curators in recent years. At any rate an outside view offered a different perspective on contemporary trends. “Isn’t it romantic?” asked Tulga Beyerle in 2013, referring to poetic and provocative positions in contemporary interior design; her object assemblages appeared inspiring. In 2015 René Spitz paid homage to system design, which stepped up to tame “chaos in daily life” and ultimately may have merely increased it by way of new dogmas.

The designer takes the helm

And now we have “Full House: Design by Stefan Diez.” Diez Office was responsible for the concept, organization, exhibition design and assembly. You could see this as the final declaration of bankruptcy of the type of museum that first archives historical achievements in creativity from past eras, and then fails to find an investigative approach to contemporary design, actions which both culminate in self-created forms of presentation that are merely adequate. To a large extent, museums in Germany lack expertise in publishing and critical research work. So are designers now to also take the helm when it comes to presenting their works and their work methods in a museum context? To design their monographic exhibition themselves and also provide the sponsors in the guise of their clients?

Try and fail again, but failing better: section from the “Equinox” switches project for Merten (upper row) and the “Shuttle” container system for Thomas Porzellan

Let me say straight off that the presentation in Cologne is a rare stroke of luck. Because without further ado Diez transforms the exhibition into a personal project and temporarily moves his team, network structures, as well as his workshop from Munich’s Glockenbach district to the museum premises in Cologne. And the result is outstanding.

The title of the show “Full House” refers to both a playful testing of just how much is possible and the filling of the Cologne museum building, which immediately after opening back in 1957 was criticized by Swiss architecture magazine “Werk” as “being as good as useless as a museum solely on account of its height.”

Everything is connected

Originally named the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, for a long time it was agreed it did not a provide suitable setting for special exhibitions. Spread out over a wide area, the premises lacked spatial cohesion. It seemed impossible to arrange the thematic and dramatic thread here so tautly that it did not slacken anywhere. Stefan Diez disagrees. “Everything is connected,” he argues. That is not only to be seen literally. After all, for the Cologne show one of his favorite projects, the shelving, furniture and room system New Order, which he designed in 2012 for Hay, serves as a unifying presentation system. Sometimes as an open frame it even invites visitors to slip through next to the exhibits, only to then become a 15-meter-high shelf, like some endless Jacob’s ladder. Getting stuck in a dreary retrospective or creating a museum piece about himself was completely out of the question for Diez. Not only do he and his team avoid that; they also manage to produce an attractive presentation. He addresses design work with an aesthetic dimension, which for a long time was nowhere to be seen in a design exhibition. With Buschfeld, a highly traditional luminaire manufacturer from Cologne, he developed in situ a means of incorporating the latter’s lighting system into the “New Order” family: a good example of the “temporary overlapping of interests” that lets Diez turn his clients into development partners. (See article: Convey the enthusiasm that in this job there’s still things to be achieved of Jan. 5, 2017)

Full House: Stefan Diez filled the MAKK hall, generally considered unusable as a museum space owing to its height, in a playful manner with examples of the various turning points from his key projects.

Techniques are borrowed, transferred and put to new use

Born in 1971 in Freising near Munich, Stefan Diez grew up with his parent’s carpentry business acting as a playground of sorts. Today, his own children can – as observers at least – be part of the business of designing and trying things out at Diez Office in Munich. Key moments in his career: After training as a cabinetmaker he studied Industrial Design and later worked as an assistant first to Richard Sapper in Stuttgart, and then to Konstantin Grcic. Fifteen years ago he set up his own studio in Munich. He looks for and finds specialized manufacturers, suppliers, researchers and material experts for his projects. It may well happen that somebody who has just developed a plastic lid for one of the projects might tomorrow make a clasp for a travel bag. Techniques are borrowed, transferred and put to new use. Take the plywood chair Houdini, made without tools by e15 using a method borrowed from model airplane manufacture. The chair features in the show alongside the even more technically advanced sheet-steel chair Chassis for Wilkhahn – both as a pattern and a finished product. Referring to an early project, namely the folding furniture “Bent,” Diez says it could only be made either “with a highly complex machine” or folded by hand.

Stairway to Museum Heavens: the “New Order” shelf system for Hay, “This” chair and “That” armchair for e15 and LED luminaire “Guise”, an ongoing project for Vibia
Exhibition as project: Stefan Diez took his “New Order” system for Hay and together with Cologne luminaire-makers Buschfeld developed it into a modern display cabinet, here presenting his Arita china set SD/2016 (with Kawazoe Seizan).

Diez is just as skilled in industrial production logistics as he is in hands-on manual work that is needed when it comes to realizing structures, connections or scale models in the studio. You can look for elegant flights of design fancy in vain in Diez’ work. His work might be painstaking, but almost always produces results that exceed the specific project brief. A key motif is the joint exploration of borders, which includes the team, clients, and the family, given the intermingling of living and working.

Jointly sounding out borders

Diez does not simply want to explain processes in the exhibition. He fears this would make them appear banal and devoid of mystery. Rather he captures them, has them merge into impressive imagery. Take the early outdoor furniture item Couch for Flötotto (2005), which as a light outer shell with a sturdy interior is produced in Asia and filled like a beanbag in Germany. We are shown the model-like prototypes, which are essential for a project. The practical aesthetic dimension is represented, for example, by the load test for the chair Kitt for Hay, whose backrest is integrated with the museum architecture.

The search for borders – for the studio, client, family, leads to a permanent creative tension, which visitors to the show can share. In order to avoid simply looking back, Diez persuaded several clients to let him look at what was being developed and show products publicly before their official market launch, transforming this it into a forward-looking show. Office chairs for Wagner, a metal folding table for e15 and an LED luminaire for Spanish firm Vibia provide fascinating glimpses of future products.

Look at how it’s done: representation of the “Couch” stiffened seating sack for Flötotto that demonstrates how design can address globalization.
The exposition design shows how "Couch" will be filled.
The light outer shell with a sturdy interior is produced in Asia.

Invisible projects

Decades ago Lucius Burckhardt argued and spoke out for invisible design, claiming the focus was not on the form, but the context of use. And he roundly rejected those products that tend to keep their users dependent or seek to embroil them in new dependencies. For Diez “invisible projects” are those never actually produced, for various reasons. In another shifting of borders, a special section of the show is devoted to such projects, which are normally not talked about. That also includes projects Diez developed jointly over many years together with Stylepark for Merten and Vorwerk. Only brief mention is made of extensive research work on a switch system that was to form a new typology for changed technologies. There is lengthy documentation of the various development phases of the Thermomix called “Magic,” which would have established a new design for such kitchen appliances. Something of a Beckett’s optimism is evident here: “Ever tried./Ever failed./No matter./Try again./Fail again./Fail better.”

Taking it to the limits is often teamwork: Snapshot of the Stefan Diez Office in Munich with Dominik Hammer, Thomas Schmitz, Joel Hoff, Jonathan Mauloubier , Karin Schuster, Stefan Diez, Kathleen Späth, Timo Weil (from l. to r.)

Today the utopia of design being able to improve people’s living conditions seems more realistic to Stefan Diez than it did 30 years ago. It is less and less easy to offer things at a higher price simply because they can be considered design. “It is,” he says, “not the time for formalism.” Design that sounds out borders offers different, better options. It is well worth taking a good look at this self-portrait of Diez.

Full House: Design by Stefan Diez
MAKK – Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln
An der Rechtschule
50667 Cologne
Through June 11, 2017

Full House. Diez Office.
Edited by Sandra Hofmeister and Petra Hesse
With texts by Sandra Hofmeister, Stefan Diez, Christian Gärtner, Konstantin Grcic, Sophie Lovell, Oli Stratford, Robert Thiemann, Thomas Wagner and others
336 pages, approx. 850 ills.
Koenig Books London
ISBN 978-3-96098-072-8
€ 39.80

Full House or How an exhibition can also be a project and a great vitrine.