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All Eyes on Hanne

Interview: Anton Rahlwes, Fotos: Ticha Matting

Hanne Willmann is staged in the press as the new star of German furniture design. As one of the few women in the industry, she automatically becomes a role model.


“In the beginning I was called ‘newcomer’. In the meantime I sometimes read ‘star designer’ even though I myself have the feeling that I am not there yet. But you shouldn’t take things too seriously.”


Hanne, what motivates you to get up every morning and get back to work?


HW The feeling that it is not a job. My job is my baby. I think it’s like having a child for other people’. It is perfectly clear that they have to feed this child. Many self-employed people are probably familiar with this feeling.


In the best case.


HW There are also self-employed people who run a company and where the focus is on monetary profit. For me, design is like an expression of myself. Of course, money is a helpful by-product of good work, and that always has to be in good relation to working hours. My goal is to be able to do ever more interesting and exciting projects.


You once told me that you don’t really know whether you are a particularly outstanding designer, but sometimes feel that you get so much media attention because you are a woman. Is that a good or a bad thing?


HW Yes, in some situations there are such doubts. But then I can always calm myself down again. After all, it’s great if I can help women to be seen even more in design.


Do you think maybe you grow into a picture like that, which is brought up to you from the outside?


HW At the beginning I was called “newcomer”. In the meantime, I sometimes read “star designer” even though I myself have the feeling that I’m not there yet. But you shouldn’t take this too seriously. Of course, the press sometimes needs dramatisation. Incidentally, I also believe that it is a good thing for women to get more attention because of their being women. Female role models have to be created. There are some abroad in product design, for example Patricia Urquiola or Inga Sempé. Nevertheless, there are still far too few. In Germany we find even fewer women in these positions, at most these typical architectural duos with men and women. But there aren’t that many in the furniture industry. And if so, then the classic division in Germany is always: women tend to make ceramics, glass and textiles, men make the big furniture. That’s why I’m really grateful to be a role model. There are many young women, designers and students who want to contact me and want to know what it is like to be in such a position as a woman.


Do you see yourself as a role model?


HW I am happy if I can be one for some, and I am glad that I can do it without the unfortunately too often “typically” male way. Many women who are in management positions in Germany - the best example is Angela Merkel - often have to behave in this pseudo-male way to get respect. I’m glad that it doesn’t have to be that way in my case. I can simply be myself and do not have to constantly assign or question my gender. It is very pleasant.


Have you ever had a moment in a business context where someone said something sexist or misogynistic and you thought you couldn't be political right now, otherwise an assignment will go down the drain?


HW It happened a lot at the beginning. It is difficult to distinguish whether you are being degraded because you are still young and a beginner or because you are a woman. Both often go hand in hand. In magazine articles, for example, you are often trivialised. That would not happen to men. Mostly it is even women who write the relevant headlines. On the other hand, I don’t feel that it has had a negative impact on my case. But there have definitely been unpleasant moments. A manufacturer once asked me: “What would you like to do for us?” I replied that I would like to design a sofa or a shelving system. Then he said: “With us it is often the case that women are more in the accessories area.” He was a little surprised that I wanted to design furniture. In fact, I also have a few accessories in my portfolio – it’s not like I only make system furniture. Nevertheless, I said to him that it would be time then to let a woman do the big things and give the briefings for the accessories to the men. The client was impressed by this announcement - and in the end happy with the result. The example shows quite well how I deal with such a situation. Incidentally, the company is now bankrupt.


“I was recently asked if I was designing in a typical female fashion. I wondered what that meant exactly. For many, ‘female’ is just soft and round, but I would never define it that way.“


You just need someone to break those boundaries.


HW I recently had an encounter with a seasoned, experienced businessman. He wanted to show me all the time that I have no idea. When we walked through the production area, he quickly realised that I have a good idea. After all, I taught technology and construction at the Berlin University of the Arts and the Anhalt University of Applied Sciences in Dessau for four years. I often notice that I am not met at eye level, especially in the beginning. Of course, I cannot say whether it is not the same with men in the beginning. But in many cases I would assume that women have to fight more against prejudice.


You once called Pauline Deltour one of your role models. She is more or less your generation. Do you also have a female role model from the “legends generation” of Dieter Rams or Jean Prouvé?


HW An old-timer, so to speak?


Exactly, is there a woman?


HW Patricia Urquiola is not that old yet, so I can’t name her now. But basically I think she’s great. She does it in a very feminine way. But I don’t have much choice either, I must say. I can now choose between four women, which I think is the best. Sure, there are the old Bauhaus designers, but of the women really practicing I would say it’s Patricia Urquiola. I read in an interview that she works consciously “feminine” so that customers also know that when they come to her, they consciously get feminine designs. I clearly decided against that. I cannot do that.


What should feminine design mean anyway?


HW Sure, you’re talking about soft shapes, warm things, bright and colourful and so on. That is the stereotypical feminine. I was also recently asked if I was designing in a typical female fashion or whether I sometimes think about using that. I wondered what that meant exactly. For many, ‘female’ is just soft and round, but I would never define it that way. I don't have these connotations ‘female’ or ‘male’ for design in my head. That time is over anyway.


Would you like the press to present you differently or to report in a more nuanced way?


HW Sometimes I do. It would be an advantage to talk more about how strong the women of our generation are. There are also texts about me, especially written by young women, in which I am portrayed very strongly and without female clichés.


You can see that there is perhaps more to it than you as a person, but rather the topic that is currently in the air.


HW Yes, but sometimes also wishes: I just got married, for example. A journalist then said to me: “Oh God, not that you are going to have children now!” That was her picture, which she projected onto me: she is now writing about me, trusting in my talent and that I become more famous in the next few years. On the one hand she encourages me, on the other hand she wants me to fulfill her wish to become more famous, not become a mother of three and then stop working. I was scared for a moment, but then I immediately thought that it might have nothing to do with gender in that case, that is simply her wish as a journalist.


But it is also encroaching.


HW Well, she meant it well. I recently watched a panel where two men and one woman were interviewed. The woman was asked: “You are here on the board, how do you actually manage to combine that as a woman with your private life?” She said: “Yes, it is not that easy, but I have a good nanny”, and then half of the interview was just about how she manages her life as a woman.


This battered life, so to speak.


HW Exactly, how can you combine being a woman, motherhood and career? At the very end a young woman got up at the panel and asked the question: “Sorry, I would like to know what is the private life like for the men? How do they combine children and careers? ” Everyone cheered and clapped. I got really angry too. How can it be that with a woman it’s just about her children and not her professional career? Why are women asked that and not men?


Let’s get back to your profession. You work with many different materials. Is this something that is brought to you from the outside or is it a personal decision?


HW It goes without saying that I work sustainably. I don’t think all the time about which PET is recycled - I don’t design with plastic at all, so the question doesn’t come up. I love working with wood, a renewable resource, and make sure to use regional wood. I have decided to only work with manufacturers who produce regionally. But that’s the thing with the regional: let’s say a Thai manufacturer produces in Thailand, then it’s regional. If a German manufacturer produces in China, the product has to be sent halfway around the world. I definitely want to avoid this intermediate route. I also work a lot with artisans, especially here in Germany. You can’t actually produce anything more sustainable and regional. But if the product is thrown away after a year, then your sustainability goes out the window. That is why I hope that my products are either timeless, because they are so simple that they fit in anywhere, or are so high-quality that people want to keep them because of a personal connection to them. This is more like the sustainability idea that I have. And of course, if I were a sneaker designer now, I would have to think completely differently about sustainability.


“We’ve been overwhelmed by product design in the past few years. The Danes have made product design ‘for all’ with many brands. They made sure that we can have design at home with less money and even in younger years.”


From a technological point of view, what things have particularly excited you in recent years?


HW I’m really excited about designs that can be realised by 3D printing. I think you just design differently. This is now an old chestnut, but when you design a chair frame that needs to be made of metal or milled from wood, for example, you think about the complexity of the shape and about reducing it so that as few steps as possible are necessary. The level of the price arises from the complexity of the production or the frame. In 3D printing, the price arises from the weight or volume. That means you can make the most funky, complicated frame in the world - if it has little volume and is totally holey, it is low-complex for the printer and inexpensive. I find this switch between complexity and price that is created by 3D printing exciting. So far, it has had no impact for me because the manufacturers I work with rely on craftsmanship and, to be honest, I do too. Otherwise I have the feeling that I am technologically rather backward and that I currently work a lot with traditional trades, such as glass or ceramics. I look at how things were made in the past and whether you can somehow revive the techniques behind them.


Would you say furniture and accessory design and everything else that falls into this interior area is gaining or losing relevance these days?


HW I think we’re at a turning point right now. We have been overwhelmed by product design in the past five or ten years. The Danes made product design “for all” with a lot of brands. I don’t even mean Ikea, but higher quality brands like Muuto and Hay. They made sure that we can have design at home with less money and even in younger years. But we were completely showered with stuff. I believe that there is a change now, where you consciously reduce yourself to a few, but high-quality or special, well-made things. This is a change that I very much welcome.


What does your design process look like?


HW I find inspiration in different things. A manufacturer may ask me. Then I look at its portfolio, find a gap and start designing. But it may also be that an idea is burning somewhere in me and that I have to realise it. I usually put them on paper in sketch form. Then we actually go straight into CAD [computer-aided design] and start building there, and later into model making to check them out. So there is a constant ping pong of model and CAD. Then we render and put it in a nice presentation, then it goes to the manufacturer, and as soon as he says that he thinks it’s good, it goes to prototype construction. Sometimes we do the development ourselves. It always depends a bit on the competency of the manufacturer.


Other topic: we are surrounded by projects and products that reproduce and constantly reinforce gender stereotypes instead of breaking them down.


HW Oh yes, worse and worse. Especially products for children. When I was a child, the toy sections were not so heavily divided into blue and pink. It got really bad.


What responsibility do designers have in assigning such symbols? Do you think they should refuse to design certain things?


HW Absolutely. I just don’t know to what extent the designers of Elsa from “Frozen” put this demand on themselves - or have a chance at all to say something. I wonder if there are any designers behind it or is it just a marketing team? Things like that are not of a particularly high quality, the logo is popped on from all sides, stickers are everywhere, and then a pink tutu is attached. I think the responsibility rests with us designers, but we hardly have the opportunity to get involved because we are too rarely involved in such processes.


Final question: is there a woman, whether dead or alive, whether a designer or not, with whom you would like to have coffee?


HW Oha, I have to think about that. I’d rather say a woman who is still alive - this may be more exciting if she somehow hears it or reads it and then we can really meet for coffee: Patricia Urquiola.


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