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Profile: Sebastian Herkner, the new design star who wants to create products that "communicate"

Sebastian Herkner is a busy man. At April’s Milan Design Week, he presented new products for some of the most prestigious furniture brands such as Dedon, Moroso and Linteloo, to name a few. He may be the new star of international design, but the German designer, 37, remains discreet, modest, frank, determined, hardworking and ever curious, showing a maturity beyond his years. 

“I’m super happy,” he asserts. “For me, it’s not really work; it’s a passion. Starting from sketching and paper models to the end product that has a conversation with the user and with other surrounding products, seeing how it is displayed at home, I think that’s really interesting. I’m interested in making products that can ‘communicate’ with others, that are not trendy, that are classic, that become your companions, with which you live together as friends.”

The Bell side table

Rising to the top

His breakthrough design came in the form of the Bell side table, which he had initially unveiled as a prototype at the 2009 Salone Satellite in Milan, before it was picked up by young Spanish firm ABR and subsequently by renowned German manufacturer Classicon. Unlike conventional tables with glass tops and metal bases, he turned that notion upside-down with a weighty solid brass and glass top balancing on a delicate base of coloured handblown glass. The best-selling item is still being produced in new shades and with marble tops. A masterpiece, it not only celebrates the beauty of materials with colours and surfaces, but also the virtues of hand-craftsmanship.

(8 Sebastian Herkner products you need to know about)

Herkner’s works embrace a spirit of symbiosis, intermingling modernity, craft, technology, inventiveness and numerous cultural contexts. His love of traditional artisanal techniques and learning from foreign cultures inform all of his designs, in which he highlights function, material and detail.

The Banjooli outdoor chair for Moroso

Seeking adventures

The avid globetrotter went to Senegal in 2013 to create the Banjooli (“ostrich” in the Wolof language) outdoor chair, braided with vibrant threads normally used for fishing nets, for Moroso. His partners were seasonal workers, artisans and farmers. The following year, he travelled to Binga Craft Centre in Zimbabwe, working with women in a society with a long heritage in basket-making, in order to create a series of woven grass fibre baskets incorporating the brightly coloured synthetic fibres of easily-found rice or corn sacks, which he combined with clay pots. Then, there is his cherished collaboration with Colombian brand Ames, inspired by the country, its inhabitants and the time-honoured skills of its artisans, as evidenced by the shapes and colours of the collection’s outdoor furniture, throws, rugs, cushions, vases, baskets and bowls, all handcrafted in Colombia.

He recently released the cheerful Bici, his take on the Colombian panaderia bicycle used in rural areas for carrying goods, which adopt the tubular steel frames of his Circo furniture series manufactured by a small family workshop in Bogota.

“I like to visit people in countries that are not typical places for design like Italy, Germany or France, to understand their techniques, the typical crafts and to create something new with them,” says Herkner. “I need all the fantastic hands of their artists and artisans who are able to develop a product and to finalise it with the quality that the company and I want to achieve, so to be in contact with the people and to communicate with them is very important for my work. It’s really about communication, colour, material combinations and doing something new.”

The Bici bicycle for Ames

History matters

To him, preserving and reviving heritage and endangered crafts is also a social sustainability issue. Today, designers cannot ignore knowledge of materials, their life cycles and ageing. He always asks questions about usage, and the solutions he brings to the table are always based on the idea of usability and sustainability. “I don’t want to make products that just last one year,” he discloses. “I want to make products that will last for a long time. It’s important to have a vision and to understand the changes in society. In general, we have to be very responsible about the materials, resources, energy and value of products, because nowadays a lot of people buy products and throw them away. We have already far too much waste in the world. We have to be more selective. Resources are not endless. When I did the Bell table, it was about glass and brass, real materials with high value, which are beautiful, solid and authentic. Maybe it’s good sometimes that products are a little bit more expensive, but also the quality is higher – you keep them your whole life.”

The Pipe collection for Moroso

Past is future

Born in 1981 in Bad Mergentheim, Herkner grew up in a village with 800 inhabitants and was a creative child. He interned at Stella McCartney in London – which helped to refine his focus on materials, colours, structures and textures – while studying industrial and product design at the University of Art and Design in Offenbach am Main, a small town bordering Frankfurt. He then decided to set up his own design studio in 2006. Having started his business working from his living room, he now has a team of four.

“Offenbach is a small city with 150,000 people,” he notes. “I have my friends, family and office there. It’s a good place to live. It’s not a big city like London or Paris, but I feel very comfortable. It’s very important that you feel very comfortable in your private life. And it’s a very interesting city – it has the most different nations in Germany because a lot of people arrive in Offenbach/Frankfurt. That makes it really interesting because, for me, as a designer, it’s very important to get a lot of inspiration from different cultures. That’s why I travel a lot to Asia and to South America – that’s really my source of energy and inspiration. I have been a lot to China, Japan and Thailand. Every country in the world has its typical crafts, colours, foods. It’s interesting to go there, to spend time there and to understand the country with all your different senses: smell, taste, touch and sight.”

The Arp sofa for Linteloo

A varied portfolio

This year, Herkner presented the Moroso Seku lounge chair named after the Wolof word “parrot” for its bright colour combinations and seating shell woven like a feather dress. The Linteloo Arp modular sofa echoes the round and smooth forms of Jean Arp’s Sculpture of Silence, while the Thonet 118 chair is a sturdy, multipurpose chair inspired by the universal Frankfurt chair with solid construction and the brand’s 214 classic featuring a bent wood frame and wicker cane seat.

The new Moira series of dimmable LED pendant, table and floor lamps for Furstenberg sees the porcelain specialists enter into the field of lighting for the first time – a departure from its usual tableware products, thus opening a new market for them – as Herkner demonstrates the versatility of the unique material, its thinness and translucency, its ability to create a special atmosphere by diffusing a light that is particularly warm and soft, and its potential to capture the spirit of the times in new ways. He states: “Not doing a porcelain set for the table, but lighting, having a new challenge, I think that’s important. You learn a lot, it makes the brand interesting and also gives it a vision for the future.”

Herkner speaks about balancing a brand’s identity and his own approach on a project. “It’s very important that you are honest and show respect, so I visit the company to understand it. I really try to do something for the brand. It’s not just something for me, an ego project. It has to fit the brand because I have a responsibility to the brand, that it sells well, because there are a lot of people working for the brand. I always try to find the best solution and, of course, I add my own values to it.”

Of interior design

In addition to product and furniture design, Herkner has also dabbled in interiors, working on a series of cafes in Frankfurt, the luxury hall of a department store in Hamburg, a boutique hotel in the south of France and exhibition booths for brands like Nya Nordiska. “Interior design is challenging because it’s not just a product,” he remarks. “It’s a space for someone specific: a home for a family or a cafe for a neighbourhood, but it’s super fantastic to have the opportunity to do a whole scenario, a whole context, a world. You can dive in and feel free, and it’s fantastic to have all these partners and brands doing lighting, furniture and tableware, so you can use them for this world you are creating.”

 

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