Milan 2013

This That Other by Stefan Diez for e15


11 April 2013

This That Other: Stefan Diez new seating collection for e15 is all in the name. Below, the German designer discusses his work, industrialisation and why design is changing.

Presented at the Salone del Mobile, Diez' collection includes a side chair - This - a lounge chair - That - and a stool, Other. Named for the famous card trick, This That Other recalls an earlier collection by Diez for e15, Houdini, in both its name and appearance.

Like Houdini, This That Other is defined by the angle of its curved back and upturned seat, and made from the same oak veneered plywood. Neither collection is ostentatious, instead creating design interest through unusual geometries and lines. Looking at the two collections next to one another, This That Other's ancestry is clear to see.

Yet the differences between the collections are hinted at by their magic-themed names. Houdini is artisanal and handcrafted; ill-suited to industrial manufacture. Like its namesake the escape artist Harry Houdini, it is something of a one-off; a characterful piece defined by the craftsmen who work to produce it.

This That Other's connection to the eponymous card trick is equally apt. The This That Other trick is well known, its secret easily discoverable through google or youtube. While there may be only one Harry Houdini, any magician can perform This That Other. Similarly, Diez's new chair has been optimised for industry and is intended to be produced in numbers. It is, like its namesake, an easily repeatable trick.

Below, Diez discusses his new collection, it's connection to Houdini and why design needs to become less about designers and more about brands.

This is your second collection for e15 following 2009's Houdini and subsequent developments of that. How did you approach it?
The Houdini collection was quite strong from an aesthetical point of view. So we had a good background and that was a big advantage. With this second collection we looked at that first product and tried to evolve it, instead of confronting it with something completely different. This That Other is definitely a little Houdini. It’s not a radically new design we’ve put in the world; it’s an evolution from the Houdini adapted for a more heavy usage.

Why build on that base rather than create a clean break?
I think the Houdini created a certain formal language that worked very well with the rest of the e15 collection. So when we did the new collection we didn’t want to start from scratch. We wanted to hook onto the existing style. But Houdini was a tailored chair. It was made from cut-outs glued together, with a lot of hand crafting processes in between. The new one is all industrially produced. There’s a lot of investment in tooling and as a result we can offer it at a much better price. That’s what you want when you’re going into a hotel or a restaurant.

How much does that industrial aspect shape the design process?
With Houdini we couldn’t use a very thick backrest because we needed a very, very thin plywood to be able bend it by hand. Here we have a tool to do that and so could use an 8 or 7mm plywood instead. That’s the essence of industrial production. You invest in tooling and then you can offer better quality at a lower price. The trick was to take the heritage from the Houdini that was totally handmade and transfer that to a kind of "t-shirt version". It's a more manageable chair: you can wash it more often; It doesn’t need a special hand wash programme.

What's your relationship with e15 like?
We have a very strong link and that means that I don’t need to profile myself in the projects I do with them. Philipp Mainzer [e15's creative director] deliberately left a space in e15's collection for This That Other and didn't let any other product penetrate that gap. That's a commitment we got from the manufacturer, which then gave us a freedom in the design process. We were not forced to show off with this product because we weren't competing with something else already there. If a designer doesn't get a commitment like that, he just thinks about his own advantage and tends to create something egotistical. If companies committed more to designers - and the other way round too - I think we could develop better products that don’t need to do so much.

What happens if you don't have that kind of commitment?
For the past 15 years part of the concept of a designer has been to show something egocentric that will stand out in the crowd. Designers were creating unique installations or unique works and then placing them in the cosmos to stand out and create an identity for themselves. But then you get a lot of very egotistical products in the market, which probably compromise on comfort, usability and so forth. They’re aesthetically very strong and a messenger for the designer, but that doesn’t work if everyone is doing it. That feels like the situation we have right now.

Do you think that is changing?
I do. It’s not profitable for the company or designer and I see a lot of brands struggling. Prototypes are expensive; press is expensive; fair stands are expensive. If you don’t make money out of that in the end, you won’t survive. One of the most successful companies at the moment is Hay and they don’t even show in Milan. So there’s a certain paradigm shift going on. In the past it was normal for a designer to work for just one company; probably 80 per cent of Charles Eames’ work was for Herman Miller. But now we’ve forgotten about that and designers work for 10 or 20 companies. It’s very difficult to develop a clear character as a designer if someone who is looking at your work has to find it in so many different places. Sometimes you actually need to buy a book on a designer to understand his mission, because then you can see all his work in one place and suddenly it makes sense. That's a pity.

How is the role of the designer adapting?
In recent years our work as an industry has not taken the consumer or client into consideration so much, but rather saw the designer as a PR utility. But that won’t work in the long run. What I see now is companies beginning to make themselves the focus. So you don’t talk about a partcular design from this or that designer, you talk about the company's range and companies are becoming more holistic. e15 is a very good example of that. Everything fits together and you can equip a whole flat with it. That’s a great tool.