17 March 2016

Studio Sebastian Herkner

Text: Jessica Sicking

Short product cycles, fast-changing collections, and high margins: continuous cost optimisation is no longer limited simply to the fashion industry. In recent years, it has become increasingly common in furniture manufacturing, too. While this may lead to products that are affordable to a larger number of people, the results also include a lower product quality as well as the loss of jobs and traditions. The designer Sebastian Herkner aims to bring design to a wider audience in a way that counteracts these trends, one that involves using traditional craft techniques and showcasing materiality, colour, and form. As the guest of honour at the 2016 IMM Cologne – the international furniture show – he will be presenting “Das Haus” [The House], using the project as an opportunity to share his ideas with an international audience and to stimulate the dialogue. Here, he talked to us about the key aspects of his work and discussed developments in today’s furniture industry.


Sebastian Herkner set up his own product design studio in 2006, a year before he graduated from the Offenbach University of Art and Design, and took an interest in traditional craft techniques and materiality from an early stage. His furniture, lamps, products, spaces, and installations boast an authentic, handmade character; their appearance improving with age. For Herkner, it’s important that consumers get a sense of how a product is made, of the various steps involved, of how the material changes during the course of the process, and for them to realise that his are not mass-manufactured industrial products. He describes this process as story- or crafttelling – each product telling the story of its own production. When embarking on a new project, he always makes a point of engaging with the client, the material, and the given manufacturing possibilities “in order to understand where [the firm] is coming from and to look behind the scenes. I try not only to meet the bosses, but also the people behind them, the craftsmen, for instance, who are every bit as important.”


Now, together with a team of three, Herkner works on up to 20 projects at a time. Quality plays a key role and is “defined first and foremost by materiality,” he says. Far from seeing his products as artefacts from a throwaway society, he regards them as lifelong companions. The appeal lies in making craft techniques and traditional materials more accessible while also contributing to society – by helping to safeguard jobs and manufacturing facilities or by increasing awareness of cultures and traditions. His work is no longer limited to commissions in Germany since he has also been involved in projects in Colombia and Africa. Herkner ensures that these projects reflect a “respect for and an interest in the people, their skills, and their traditions. I try to transform [their techniques], and translate them into something contemporary and European – or at least something that bears my signature.” All this, though, is less about following the trends of the day, and more about pursuing one’s own convictions: “It’s important, not just for young designers, but for designers in general, to develop a distinct signature, an independent attitude. For me personally, materials and production location are very important.” Herkner draws inspiration for new projects from various sources and situations – be that in everyday life, at trade shows, or during his extensive travels. “Working on a craft project, as I have been in Colombia, is not part of some great trend. It’s about integrating a social aspect, about supporting craft enterprises. It’s enjoyable and by engaging with other cultures and with artisans, you learn a great deal.”


This interest in other cultures and engaging with others is also reflected in Herkner’s design for the Cologne furniture show in January 2016. Trade shows are, first and foremost, about networking. You find inspiration and see new products, you “meet friends and acquaintances and have a good time, but you also come in contact with firms, something that just wouldn’t be possible in any other way.” His design combines all these different aspects: materiality, social responsibility, and networking. Its overarching theme is openness and hospitality. Having experienced such hospitality on his travels, Herkner wants to give something back. With refugees very much in the news, this seems like a good time for each of us to take a renewed look at how we deal with strangers and other cultures. Despite being laid out with traditional spaces such as living room and bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, “Das Haus” offers a high degree of transparency, allowing us, thanks to various sight lines, to roam around the house unimpeded by doors or fixed walls, until we come to its heart, the central meeting space in which visitors are invited to engage and interact with others – including Herkner himself. “To my mind,” he says, “a designer, whether working in the furniture industry [or elsewhere], has a responsibility to treat everything as though it were being produced on their own doorstep.”


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