"My teachers are the craftsmen of this world"

Interview with the designer Sebastian Herkner,
creator of the SCHRAMM beds CALM and FOLD

He is probably the best-known representative of the new generation of German designers who cause an international furore: Sebastian Herkner. Born in Hohenlohe in 1981, he studied product design at the Offenbach University of Art and Design, worked at Stella McCartney's studio in London and opened his own studio in 2006. Fame came quickly: Herkner was employed as a university lecturer and honoured with awards such as the Wallpaper Design Award, the German Design Award and the ELLE Deco Award. At the imm Cologne 2016, he was guest of honour.

Herkner designs for renowned companies including Dedon, Rosenthal, ClassiCon, Pulpo and Fontana Arte – for Schramm Werkstätten, he has developed a new generation of box spring beds: CALM and FOLD. Flexibly manageable sleeping islands for the mobile inhabitants of the online world. Herkner himself travels all over the world, developing furniture, lamps and tableware with manufacturers and craftsmen. The centre of his life is still Offenbach, the city where he studied. 

A conversation about the blue of childhood, the magic of glass blowers and good taste.

By Stefanie von Wietersheim  

How does one become a designer of tables, lamps and beds? Did you already build furniture as a child or did you want to become a forklift driver, a pilot or a gardener?
"I always wanted to be active in the creative field but I was unaware of the term product designer – during my youth, it was not as common as in the past 10 to 15 years, during which product designers have been more in the limelight. I did know architects, artists and fashion designers. And, of course, legendary designs such as the Wagenfeld lamp or the chairs of Charles Eames. The idea of becoming an industrial designer came relatively late. But yes, I always wanted to design and create."

Did you have any role models? 
"No. Never. For a long time, I did not even know that there was something like a product designer."

Did you have a mentor? 
"No. Today, however, I consider the craftsmen with whom I work on different continents to be, in a certain way, my teachers. They have incredible knowledge, patience and skills that I admire. For instance, the glassblowers who make the feet for my "Bell Table" need up to 10 years to be able to blindly blow into a wooden mould, with a special breathing technique and sense of time. The carpet weavers in Colombia teach me just as much as the weavers in the Philippines and the carpenters, upholsterers and dressmakers at Schramm in the Pfalz, where no robots are used at all and a craftsmanship tradition is passed on. That intrigues me! Eyes and hands!"

What was it like working with the fashion designer Stella McCartney during your studies?
"Inspiring. I was in her fashion design studio in London for one year where I worked a lot with fabrics. I think it still has a strong impact on me. In contrast to furniture, working in fashion is on a different scale and in a different rhythm. The new visions and collections are presented four times a year; with my current customers, we are working towards the Milan trade show which is just one highlight of the year. In Stella’s design studio, I learned about different colour concepts and schools of thought, as well as working with collages of colour and material. The interdisciplinary dialogue is still very important for me as a product designer, as is working with photography and music."

Is there such a thing as a typical German designer education? 
"Mmm, I don’t know. I studied at the Offenbach University of Art and Design where you deal with applied design, you think very technically and innovatively, but also foster a freedom for self-development. Your education is less oriented towards becoming an author designer – even though I have become one myself! In the study courses at the Design Academy Eindhoven, one is certainly much less restricted, more artistic. The same applies to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art in London, as well as at the Lucerne School of Art and Design. But each path is very individual." 

What is good taste for you? 
"Good taste is always individual for me, entirely personal! This can also be unconventional with kitschy elements built in. It would be terrible if we all had the same furnishings. Furnishings grow with you over your lifetime. The worst thing for me would be to buy a complete interior in a furniture store in one go. In doing so, you would ultimately be adopting the taste of the furniture dealer, but not your own! That is why I admire good interior architects who are able to empathize with the life and personality of their customers and interpret them in their home." 

What does your home look like?
"I live with my partner surrounded by things we have found and collected in many places over time: souvenirs, vintage furniture, sketches by designers and works of artists I hold in high regard. In addition, we are surrounded by many of my own designs. I find it important to use them, to live with them, to deal with them, to see how they age. I communicate with them, test them and analyse them over and over again. I sit on my terrace furniture, lie in my bathtub, and for several weeks I have been sleeping in my newly designed Schramm ‘FOLD’ bed."

And what’s that like? Sleeping in a bed you have designed and developed in a workshop? 
"It's unfamiliar! As is always the case when you have a new bed and a new mattress that is firmer than the one before. I find the idea behind "FOLD" truly relevant and use the flexible back part every evening. Here I am the typical target group of the bed in which one can easily read on an iPad, watch movies and communicate online via social media. Our life in bed has changed drastically in recent years! I am always extremely critical as a designer, but I must say that it works well. Not least because during the development phase we tried out a lot of things together with the experts from Schramm: sitting and lying, softer or fluffier, a spontaneous look ... The fabric should be removable because one often comes into contact with the head section." 

Your favourite colour? 
"Throughout my life, I have experienced a strong colour development. As a child, I loved blue. But when you're small, you only know the colours of the paint box! Over time, my colour spectrum has grown. My constant travels, in cities and cultures, have been decisive. A red looks quite different in Colombia than in China or Russia, and also has a different significance in cultural history and everyday life. With maturity and growing older, there are many more colours which I deal with again and again. I also think you should be more confident when choosing furnishings, even in the case of linen or bedding; not only white, beige and grey, but colours! The world is full of colours! Colours we do not even see!" 

And favourite names? You always have to give your designs names. 
"Oda. Like the painter Oda Jaune, the wife of the late artist Jörg Immendorf. And Manu. Like my partner. I like playing with names and turning them around for my product names. From Manu, I created "Uman" for my new chair for the company Very Wood." 

Your favourite book? 
I collect books about art and design, of course. At the front of the shelf are: 

Hélio Oiticia: "The Great Labyrinth"
Hans J. Wegner: "Just one good chair"
Kenya Hara: "Design Design" 
On the other hand, I read the newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung" in my bed every morning. 

If you were reborn as a piece of furniture, what would you like to be?
"A rocking chair."

Dear Sebastian Herkner, thank you very much for this interview.