Nils, let’s make the first question a sign of goodwill towards your employees: what has your success over the past 30 years come down to?
That’s a difficult question. But one of many answers is: thinking helps. For example, we said from the very beginning that we were not looking to make just any old thing people will buy, but rather that our approach would be to very carefully consider certain basics first. One principle is, you should never get deeply into the production process and become machine-dependent. It would have been easy to buy a multi-axis CNC machine; then you end up as a CNC virtuoso, but you are only thinking about projects relevant for that.
Another principle – which today everybody is on board with but was resisted for years – is to keep production regional. That keeps you in direct contact with those in charge of it and has proven extremely important, for it’s the only way to be able to break the rules sometimes. You drive over to the workshop and try something out. You soon realise if it is not going to work out; then you go back to the drawing board and keep thinking about it.
A third thing is that because we are driven by passion, we do everything in-house except production. We have a huge logistics operation, for example. Nobody does that anymore because the management consultants all say: “It’s too expensive, logistics is the road, not the plant.” But for us it has been highly beneficial.
Haven’t you ever tried foreign production to save money?
I have, which takes us to the heart of the matter. For the Taurus table trestles, the legs were far too expensive to manufacture because the design process had gotten too complex. There were too many work steps, another phase here, another cut there and so on. Today, we would just have a smarter design. Back then, I found somebody to contract out engineering work who was saying: “No problem, I’ll take care of it. What quantity do you need? What is your target price? I have foreign production capacity.” In six weeks he was back with a leg. It was fine, it looked good. Our price was a whopping 16 Deutschmarks for one leg, but his cost only seven – less than half. However, he also said that we would have to plan in a 20 per cent reject rate for accurate costing. I thought, that it’s still worth it and we can finally put the issue to rest of always being too expensive.
That evening, I took the sample table trestle home with me and was thinking about how awesome I am. But then I started thinking that a 20 per cent reject rate is too much if we are going to be selling such a high volume. That was the moment when I hit the brakes and said: “Nope, time to backpedal.” Today, I am sure that exclusively regional production is a good thing, even though it may involve failure in certain aspects. Nowadays, we handle every board 500 times until we have gotten absolutely everything out of it that we possibly can.
But that ultimately means deliberately going against the mainstream in many cases. Isn’t that financially risky?
It makes no sense to go to the best tailor in town but leave wearing something that doesn’t feel right or fit your look. You sort of look good, but you’re not feeling it. Authenticity is absolutely crucial.
Part of being a professional designer is knowing when to abandon a design, and it’s no small thing to do. It definitely does happen sometimes that we have a part here and say: “Excellent, you can sell that, that’s what the market wants.” But then it’s the 14th iteration, and it may be a little better than the 13th, but the idea is familiar and there’s nothing about it we can really fall in love with, nothing that defines us as a company.
By now however, the so-called cable shelf Gespanntes Regal – with apologies to Wolfgang Laubersheimer – has been in the product range for nearly 30 years, alongside such top sellers like the FNP shelf and the Kant table …
Oh yes, a big success [laughs]. Right now, we are looking at constructing a loading facility to accommodate the high sales volume.
You keep this classic shelf in the assortment even though it is somewhat outdated.
I wouldn’t put it that way; it is an important contemporary piece from that time with a certain graceful aesthetic appeal and tension despite its crazy welded look. The shelf is part of our cultural contribution and we are proud of it as such, this goes beyond regular production considerations. It doesn’t make sense by the numbers, but as a manufacturer, you have to do things like this in my opinion. It feels good – I couldn’t cancel an item like that.
So, for you, a product is not a failure simply because it’s not a moneymaker?
No, it’s not. Being a manufacturer takes vital energy and a never-say-die attitude; when there are obstacles you just keep going forward. Kurt Weidemann once paid me the compliment: “Nils is a guy who will rush headlong into a wall, but he does understand where that wall starts.”
If the relevance is there – for you, for the collection, for the company – I have no problem with it at all. It may be sad, but not necessarily a failure. Failure is not even getting off the ground with a design because of technical issues we couldn’t solve, problems with production or other unsurmountable factors. I also see it as a much worse failure in fact if I make something, finish it, then months later look at it and ask around: “Is it good?” Then a staff member says: “Yeah, it’s alright.” Now that’s real failure. Those are the truly bad decisions where I’ll end up cutting items from the collection.
Looking at your website, you can still see all the furniture items you’ve ever had in the range whether or not you still make or distribute them.
Yes, there’s a lot of them. Of course, people would laugh at a lot of those things today. I still believe however that being hyper-stringent is partly behind our acquiring a certain reputation in the industry and in the world. We stand behind the things we make; you can put a question mark over whether that’s the right thing to do. Stringency is actually key on the design level, not the business level. Looking at things from a business standpoint, you sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. From that singleness of purpose, you end up making things that don’t really have what it takes. And it’s better to be a small but nicely profitable company than to sell high volumes, chasing after every trend in a cut-throat, price warring, competitive environment.
Is there such a thing as failure in success?
I’m not sure what you mean.
When things go so well they get out of control.
That type of failure does happen. Recognition and sales are important to us of course, but it can go bad if a thing takes on a life of its own. If that starts to happen, the primary problem may be not getting the maturation process right. If a product has a defect and after two years of brisk sales hairline fractures are appearing or there’s loosening, you’ve got a major problem on your hands, especially if you’re a small manufacturer. An even harsher problem in my opinion is how success can block your own progress by creating a certain complacency. If you are taking great strides forward without enjoying every step along the way anymore, it can be quite dangerous.
To explore the topic of failure, we started by looking at the etymology of the word. The German word “scheitern” comes from shipping, denoting the moment when a ship hits rocks and splinters apart. Thus figuratively, avoiding failure means navigating away from hazards.
But sometimes the ship you’re in is much too big for you. I’m no boatsman, but I’m a fantastic kayaker and cannot fail due to that reason.
There are many other occasions on which you can fail, too, along the way. Like if I have an idea but fail to pursue it, I’ve already failed before even getting started. Or by turning back early on. That is still failure even though the consequences will be less serious than if I were to keep on going and end up with a disaster.
But that doesn’t always happen. I don’t think many failures are disastrous. A disaster would be something bad enough to drive you out of business. An example: in 1998, I really wanted to have a building in line with our corporate identity, so Peter Zumthor and I planned one and I even bought a site for this. Financing it was a huge failure, however. I was so down about it at the time that I went off on a bicycle trip all the way to Ireland – in March. But imagine if we had gone ahead with it: we probably would have been wiped out financially, but at a minimum everybody would have been looking at the building instead of focussing on our furniture in its proper context. The furniture would have looked like an afterthought. So, we started looking the other way, for a historic building rather than modern architecture, and that worked out great. Failure is not therefore exclusively a bad thing; in fact, it often requires radical rethinking before you realise your first marriage wasn’t the right one.
You once said that you have to listen to objects and let them speak in their language. Does that also apply in product development?
It certainly does. Even if this contradicts what I myself have been saying previously. Thinking helps, but you can also think a thing to death. So, you have to let go and take a leap, accept certain risks. And then you have to stay committed and you’ll discover new things you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. In product design we frequently stumble over a kind of materiality that we didn’t have on the radar screen.
Can you name an example?
Sure, like our Seiltänzer table. It’s always important for me to use untreated materials. We first tried it in scaled steel, in the style of Laubersheimer so to say, but it didn’t work out well due to processing traces. The manufacturers didn’t like it either because it has to be lasered and gets all the machines dirty. Then we wanted to powder-coat it, but it looked like Bene office furniture or Steelcase. So that didn’t work. Next we tried doing it with sand casting and were extremely pleased with it until I went to Milan and saw Konstantin Grcic’s Brut line at Magis.
We continued developing a bit here and there, but it became clear that we couldn’t take it any further – Konstantin having revived the material, everything would have been an homage to him. We were pretty glum about it until one of our team members came up with the idea of treating the steel using tool technology. And today, that’s the crucial detail. The surface is so fine, so honest, it’s an incredible fit with the theme. I think that’s half the reason for the table’s success. Anybody who has touched or even seen it once will have to agree. The table is the outcome of our continuous move in the right direction after a whole series of failures – plus a lot of luck. Thus, failure is actually a highly creative process, almost like a creativity technique. Obviously, you can’t constantly fall on your face, but even if something does totally fail in the end, at least you’ve tried. That’s ten times better than thinking it all over for ever and ever and only moving forward when there’s a big green light.
Thanks so much for the interview Nils.