30 September 2014
In recent years I have met Katharina and Thomas often, at exhibitions, fairs and conferences. Then there was a period in which we would run into each other everywhere, even by chance, at stations and airports in cities that did not belong either to me or to them. I am thinking this as I head for our next appointment. I observe them from outside, through the glass door of the TBA21 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary) in Vienna and it occurs to me that I have never, not once, not even for a very short time, seen either of them alone, one without the other. It’s a rather romantic thought, but under the meters of rain that separate me from them I linger on the image of these two young designers who seem to fit together perfectly and productively, in life and in work, and to have done so for such a long time (ever since their twenties) and in such a rare way. Katharina notices me and the thought is interrupted. In any case she doesn’t seem the type for sentimentality. We have chosen to meet here partly because they want to show me the interiors of the bar at the TBA21, which they have recently redesigned. At last a real interview. After years of quick-fire questions and continual encounters, I am left with a great curiosity, and the desire to find out just what it is that makes this couple tick.
Where and how did it all start? Since when have you been so irremediably, happily, complementary?
Thomas: I’d like to answer [oddly it is Thomas, only rarely the pair’s voice, who begins, interviewer’s note]: it was at college, first here in Austria, studying product design, then at Kingston University in London. We were really young: I was 23, Katharina 22. In particular, it was through working together on a project, a not very exciting thing for which we had to melt all kinds of plastics and inhale a lot of toxic substances. Going back to Austria together, we realized we wanted to study more and elsewhere, and luckily we were both accepted at the Design Academy in Eindhoven.
Katharina: We knew straightaway, perhaps unconsciously, that we were complementary. I wasn’t very good at doing technical things, the more boring ones, like calculating and using AutoCAD. I had more of a facility for telling stories, for understanding what was interesting and intriguing, and so I needed someone like Thomas.
Thomas: Definitely, and I was looking for someone like Katharina.
[They laugh, interviewer’s note]
Katharina: The truth is that in the beginning we egged each other on: our first projects were fairly weak, we both needed to grow. As a couple, it was as if we were taking the place of an educational system that we didn’t find satisfactory.
So, Katharina, how would you describe the way Thomas approaches design?
Thomas: Something nice and positive would be welcome…
Katharina: Joking aside, things have changed a lot over time and today it’s really hard to describe our roles: it’s as if everything has gotten mixed up over the years. While in general you can say that Thomas is more “technical,” more oriented toward a practical and logical solution, nowadays, if he stops being like that, then I do it. Vice versa, while I have a marked critical bent and tend to be more “conceptual,” as soon as I stop being critical and lucubrating, he gets down to it. Perhaps we have taught each other our aptitudes and have become good at reversing our roles.
I’d like to look at the route you take to arrive at the object, in part because in your works the process is always fairly evident. The story of the object is in the foreground, and sometimes seems more important than the end result. What is the relationship between design and storytelling?
Katharina: As far as we’re concerned you can’t have one without the other. On the one hand, an object that doesn’t have a fascinating story behind and ahead of it has nothing to do with us; on the other, we’re not interested in an object that isn’t aesthetically valid too, or at least curious—above and beyond its narrative potentialities. Having said that, we always start out from the story.
If design, and not just yours, is more and more a question of storytelling, how is its function changing?
Katharina: Telling the right story is already quite an important function. Design becomes a catalyst of discussion and reflection, it places itself at the center of a conversation, stimulating it. There are already too many “mute” objects, we don’t need any more.
What books do you read?
Katharina: Well, Thomas has a gigantic book on the bedside table. I told him at once that he’d never read it, and in fact it’s still there untouched…
Thomas: We read all sorts of things, not much on design in the strict sense, a lot about everything to do with the “documentary”: essays on particular situations, researches in the field, etc.
Have you ever taken an interest in proxemics, the behavioral sciences or psychology? I’m asking because if we take projects like Layered Me (in which a mirror breaks up the image of the person reflected in it) or It Takes More Than One (in which the mirroring function of a surface is only activated in the presence of at least two people), it would appear so.
Katharina: I’d say not, we’ve never read or studied anything like that, never gone into these subjects. Let’s say that if there is some “philosophical” aspect to our work it stems from the observation and experience of reality.
Katharina: We are interested in getting people to interact. Often we make our objects react to the more or less conscious gestures of observers, but you shouldn’t feel obliged to participate. There is a story, you can choose whether to read it or not. If you don’t, then you have only a partial understanding of the object, but we won’t hold this against you.
On the subject of stories and meanings that overlap, does Collective Works also imply a political statement?
Katharina: Yes, but perhaps I should let you say something Thomas, it’s always me doing the talking.
Thomas: Come on, you’re the one who’s good at it.
Katharina: Once again it’s not a very explicit statement, but an attempt to stimulate a political reflection. If it looks as if machines are going to take the place of human beings, we have built a machine that is activated only in the presence of a group of people—simple bystanders who make it productive with their attention. The other unusual aspect is that to set the machine in motion these people don’t have to do any work, they just have to “be there.” As you can see, there is no unambiguous stand, but there is enough to stimulate a discussion that can go in many directions.
Speaking of politics and ethics, many people claim, using a word that has now become hackneyed, that your work is “sustainable.” Do you think this label is appropriate?
Katharina: The critics started to talk about sustainability when we did the project called The Idea of a Tree. All it took for them to describe us as sustainable was to see a couple of solar panels pop up. We are not, just as no one can be completely: sustainability is an objective you can aim at, and it’s right to do so, but it’s impossible to achieve it fully. Human beings in themselves are not sustainable.
So not even the open project RealLimited, which works with the visualization of data on endangered species, is green at heart?
Katharina: In reality, the project has a different purpose: to challenge the idea of the limited edition. We wanted to stimulate a reflection on why the market feels the need to insist on numbered editions by drawing attention to what is really limited in nature and being ironic in a way about those who make limited products ad hoc. Another characteristic of ours that is made plain in this project is that we like to collect data (on an animal species, for example) and then interpret it and turn it into objects.
On your website I found this statement: “Part of their design process is to examine, experiment, analyze and reject. This critical view often questions and affects the relation between producer, object and owner.” Who is going to clarify this for me?
Katharina: Now it’s really up to Thomas.
Thomas: It might seem one of those declarations thrown together at random, and perhaps we could have said the same thing in a simpler way. But the essential point is that many of our projects, especially the relational ones, are designed to get the person who buys the object to be included in the process, and in a way contribute to its creation. In other works, this interaction is less obvious, but as the story of the object is always in the foreground, the buyer is still involved in an explicit manner: choosing or not choosing an object means choosing or not choosing the process and the thinking that has produced it.
Similarly Unique is the name of a recent installation of yours, but it could be the title of many of your projects.
Thomas: Let’s say that ours are almost always one-off pieces that closely resemble one another, because for the most part we create machines that in their making of objects include chance, variability, something that the “system” registers faithfully, but cannot control: like the weather on a particular day (The Idea of a Tree), or the accident that leads a certain number of people to gather at a given moment (Collective Works).
Katharina: And this is fun because it makes our objects resemble what grows in nature, by including an element of unpredictability. It’s a bit like with trees that grow in similar ways, but never the same. The idea of “growing” objects instead of making them is an intriguing one. It means generating open systems, that can evolve.
Building machines is central for you, but how much are you responsible for the technical part? And what are, more generally speaking, the skills that a designer ought to have today?
Thomas: We construct all the hardware and all the mechanisms of our projects, but when it comes to programming we always turn for help to other people. Today designers should know how to do everything: make objects, videos, take photos, produce graphics, texts and more. But there is a point where it seems wise to stop.
Again, in general, what would you teach of what you’ve learned? Or rather, what do you teach, seeing that you only stopped studying a short time ago, but you’re already involved in the training of new designers?
Thomas: What we would like to teach is not easy to pass on. But we try, we try to understand what our students are made of, and to get them to understand themselves. We’d like them to get a feeling for what kind of designers they are, partly by looking back at their actions and the results they have obtained. The whole thing is made even more complicated by the fact that we are not talking about definitions, but propensities, aptitudes.
And what kind of designers are you?
Katharina: We have been struggling for years to find a label for ourselves. You know, one of those precise self-descriptions that you can publish on the website to get everyone to understand who you are and what you specialize in. Well, we’ve never managed to find one, but while before this used to bother us, almost to obsess us (because we thought it would be useful from the commercial viewpoint too), today we have made peace with our somewhat “hazy” nature: we are not focused on interiors, we are not focused on interaction, we are not even product designers. But our propensities and aptitudes, our basic capacities, are more and more clear to us: they are what guide the project. It’s a more relaxed approach than that of labels. It’s more analytical, freer and more respectful of one’s own language.