The creative product designer takes culture and craftsmanship to the modern age
In an interview with Sebastian Herkner, Product Designer
Sebastian Herkner Apartment One Forty West Frankfurt for Commerz Real
Author: House of Eden
He is an award-winning designer and tells the stories behind the products. Sebastian Herkner develops post-modern design icons for manufacturers such as Cappellini, Dedon, Pulpo, Rosenthal, Thonet and Wittmann. He works in close cooperation with local craftsmen and interprets tradition in a contemporary way. The product designer from Offenbach talks to us about his definition of slow design and why the balance between craftsmanship and technology is particularly important to him.
"My designs are for people looking for quality and authenticity of materials - It's about genuineness and the story behind the product"
What role does responsibility play in your work?
Sustainability has become a strong public aspiration in recent years. To be honest, I was aware of that from early on. Namely in 2007, at the end of my studies at the Offenbach University of Design: At that time, Offenbach was a small town known for its leather industry and crafts. With brands like Seeger and Montblanc producing their leather goods here. In the mid-2000s, however, these companies left or went bankrupt. This was when the city lost its connection to the leather industry, which was basically its identity and typical for the region and culture.
Bell Table - Source & Copyright by Sebastian Herkner
At the same time, my studies were primarily about new materials and technologies. I questioned that a lot because of the developments I had experienced in Offenbach. So I was more interested in the values of craftsmanship. In 2009, I then developed the design for the "Bell Table" - a hand-blown glass table with a metal top - and incorporated the aspects of sustainability in terms of material and production. But also a certain social sustainability to preserve craftsmanship.
What is slow design for you?
I think sustainability isn't just about the product, it's about the whole story behind. How and where is it produced and who are the people behind? This is also an important part of my design approach. The balance between tradition and innovation as well as between technology and classic craftsmanship. So in addition to material and production, the human rights aspect also plays an important role. To me, this is what makes up slow design.
118 F Chair for Thonet - Source & Copyright by Sebastian Herkner
Slow design and sustainability are strongly linked. It involves more conscious designing and producing. But also conscious consumption from the consumer, which goes hand in hand with a certain appreciation of things. In Germany for example, furniture is seldomly seen as a long-term investment that can accompany you for a long time. Or even as objects that you can resale and give away after years doubtless and shameless. It's very different in Scandinavia. There, Design is part of the culture and you can see a classic design lamp hanging in many living rooms. The purchase decision is driven less by stinginess.
The price naturally plays a major role for consumers and there are many premium products in the design segment. With the 118 wooden chair from Thonet, for example, we consciously managed to develop a product with a traditional German company that is also competitive in terms of pricing. With my Bell Table, which is certainly not immediately affordable for everyone, due to the way it is made, consumers have even told me that they have saved money for a long time to afford it. This is an incredible appreciation to me.
Design icons, on the other hand, are established drafts of classics that are easy to recognize and that usually retain in value. But I think it is more bold to invest in something new and unknown, where you don't know how it will develop in future. But the most important thing is to buy products with an appropriate quality and service, which can be repaired and thus last a long time. We have to change our attitude and continue to educate consumers.
You did an internship at Stella McCartney, what was the reason and what was your most important learning?
It's been almost 20 years since my internship at Stella McCartney and I came across it very accidentally. I designed and painted jackets for friends from the fashion world and Stella saw it and asked who it was from. That's more or less how I got there. It was the beginning of her independence with a small team of five designers and two interns. What was special for me was that by that time she had already developed her own attitude, her own handwriting and philosophy. At that time it was incredibly courageous to do without animal fur and leather in the fashion industry. And that's exactly what made her a pioneer, and today you can see how important it is to develop your own philosophy.
New Imi Side-Table for Pulpo - Source & Copyright by Sebastian Herkner
For me it is the connection between innovation & tradition as well as craftsmanship & technology. Of course we also use the most modern technology, but it is important to me that a product does not cry out for it. I want to achieve a balance. For example, the bentwood of the 118 chair for Thonet is bent according to a hundred-year-old tradition, but then milled in the final shape using state-of-the-art CNC machines. So you get the best of both worlds.
How does your cooperation with the manufacturers work and what is important to you?
When working with the manufacturers, it is important to me that I understand my counterpart, that we speak a common language and have a common vision. Only then the product can be successful. Sometimes there's a point where I can't compromise. For example, I have to know the production sites, otherwise I cannot trust the manufacturer. By this way I am able to authentically tell the stories and experiences from the production in my designs.
Innovations are also usually created in dialogue with the manufacturers. If you always only visibly transport sustainability and innovation to the outside world, in the end it's just marketing. Because both must be deeply rooted in the development of new products, it can be in the packaging, the place of manufacture or transport. Making products from recycled plastic is mostly greenwashing for me. Because it is frightening that this plastic waste exists at all and it would be better to aim for a complete reduction in waste.
Taru Sofa for Ligne Roset - Source & Copyright by Sebastian Herkner
Your focus on the "authenticity of materials", how does that relate to sustainability?
Many of the materials we work with are genuine materials, such as wood, stone and glass. On the other hand, it is crucial to check whether it can be used sensibly in terms of production, use of materials and service life. This plays a major role, especially in the case of valuable natural materials such as marble, which do not grow back easily. Of course, we also use new materials or coatings for surface treatments. In the end, the design has to work. This also includes thinking about how a product ages – I mean in a positive sense, like my grandfather's leather pencil case.
Let Lounge Chair for Fritz Hansen - Source & Copyright by Sebastian Herkner
What does your design process look like and where do you draw inspiration from?
Inspiration can be drawn from anything: friends, travel, museums or art. Traveling to distant countries is a privilege for me. The most important things for me are cultural curiosity and impartiality. I want to get to know the culture, people and cuisine as authentically as possible. Working with local people to understand what is typical of the craft. In dialogue and with respect, experience design with all your senses. I think it's nice to discover the differences, especially in Asia, Africa or South America it's still possible.
I find it much more difficult to get from the inspiration to an idea. Your own intuition plays a major role in finding the right partner at the right moment. For me personally, this is a very emotional decision. Of course, the design then develops further from the idea to the final product. This happens in dialogue with my team and the manufacturer. Here it is important that you have a common vision to strive for. You also have to make compromises, but these can improve the products, e.g. make them more efficient, more ecological or more economical.
What is your design message?
My designs are for people looking for quality and authenticity of materials. For me personally, it's about genuineness and the story behind the product. Perhaps in these digital and fast-moving times it is even more important to have products that are reminiscent of the material and create a certain sense of security. What I'm particularly looking forward to is being able to present my designs live again. In my opinion, this is important in order to really understand the design, to grasp it, feel it, smell it and to absorb it with all your senses.