Typical at any big international furniture fair is an energy surrounding the work of a hyped designer. Buyers, clients, producers and the media hover, toast and celebrate the man-of-the-moment’s success; for it is more often than not a man.
At last week’s IMM furniture fair in Cologne the buzz was on German designer Sebastian Herkner. Young, handsome and immensely talented – he’s the triumvirate of a power-house designer. Yet unlike some of the big name male designers of the generation preceding him, Herkner is more content than glory and thoroughly committed to the behind-the-(celebratory)-scenes of his considerable achievements. Thonet recently commissioned Herkner to reimagine their classic “Frankfurt Chair”, popular since the 1930s. For Chair 118, he stuck to the bentwood frames the company is renowned for, worked with whicker and redesigned the leg details so as to maintain the object’s reputation as an all-rounder.
“Nothing matters more to me than craftsmanship,” Herkner says from Thonet’s stand. “It’s why I think this collaboration has been so successful. Here it is about craftsmanship, honesty and a classic aesthetic without being stuffy.”
After graduating from Offenbach University of Art and Design, Germany, and interning with Stella McCartney, Herkner opened his own studio, which is now ten years old. He has attracted an enviable amount of attention working for brands like Cappellini, ClassiCon, Dedon, Fontana Arte, Moroso, Pulpo, Wittmann, and of course Thonet.
“My starting point is always the same,” Herkner says. “I like skill, technique, colour and materials. And a project is always about communication, between me and the company and between me and the customer. I want to work with real people – I want to understand them. The tie between the product and the user must always run deep.”
With six products in total in this edition of IMM Herkner says he does not feel stretched. “I never press my personality on a brand,” he says. “These are not ego projects. I only ever use my language in a way that suits a brand’s needs.” This approach to commissions and collaborations was a theme most of the designers Damn spoke to at IMM referred a lot. “You can not just send pictures to a company and have the product made,” Herkner says. “And ever since I was a student, I believed this. I went against the grain early and was always completely committed to craftsmanship, even before it became a trend. It’s how I built up everything I have done.”
“They have a good balance there,” Herkner says. “We learn a lot about history, and how this discipline works in the Bachelors, and in the Masters there is a lot more artistic freedom.”
But it was also during his internship with Stella McCartney in London where Herkner’s particular style was honed. “My thinking made a lot of sense in that environment and it really helped,” he says. “I am very interested in colour and materials, and in mixing the unexpected to create an attitude. It was this that I took with me to my own studio. Of course, she also has a very ethical way of working with no fur or leather.”
Surrounded by so many competitive brands all vying for the same attention at a fair like IMM, having this sort of attitude Herkner refers to is more necessary than ever before. It is not just about getting noticed, it is about creating work that attracts the right attention, that endures beyond trends, and that celebrates quality that taps into the mentality of the times, yet isn’t dull. Ever.
And Herkner has it.