For Vienna Design Week's Passionswege, Graz-based White Elephant design lab collaborated with Neue Wiener Werkstatte &mdash an established, family-run furniture and upholstery business based in Styria, Austria &mdash to create five furniture pieces based on the techniques used in the company's workshops, breaking open upholstered furniture and making poetry out of the production process.
At their opening, we spoke with Tobias Kestel, one half of White Elephant, who provided some insights into the lab's collaboration with NWW. He discussed time capsules, inner voids, stalactites, seeing the world from the Moon and the future of the industrial designer.
Tobias Kestel and Florian Puschmann of WhiteElephant Design Lab
Core77: How did this collaboration come about?
Tobias Kestel: When we were invited to take part in the Passionswege by Neigungsgruppe Design, we were honoured. A few months later we were told that we were to collaborate with NWW, who are also based near Graz, and we were excited to be working with such an established company.
Core77: How did you approach working with NWW?
TK: In the first meeting, I remember NWW were interested to see that we were looking at everything and taking pictures of different areas of the workshop. They realised we were looking at things differently and were interested in the images we took. We felt it was good to show them that they were doing things that were really fascinating to us. We were able to come in, highlight what they were doing and show what was special.
Images captured in the NWW workshop during development of the Stripped Sofa
Core77: How was it working with the craftsmen in the workshops?
TK: The whole process was really smooth; we were happy that we were matched with NWW. We worked with the in-house designer; we knew what he meant and he knew what we were talking about throughout the entire process. It was a new experience for them to see how we work, and they enjoyed the pieces we made with them. For them they could really explore our approach and see the results; which is often a big concern when working with designers, as businesses have to invest a lot of money and time so they need to know what comes out of it at the end of the process.
Core77: What is the White Elephant approach when working on a project like this?
TK: Our role as designers is to walk through this world and see things that we feel are fascinating and pick an object to try and 'lift it up' and show people - so that everyone can see this discovery and we hope be equally fascinated. It just needs a little intervention.
Core77: How did this approach affect how you created the Varnish Table?
TK: We found this table covered in spray paint that was used in the spraybooth and saw that it had grown stalactites. We really liked that shape. We saw that the table was similar to the affect of ice building up on trees in the mountains during the winter. By placing a flat surface on top of the table we were able to create a small intervention and highlight how the table was originally something used everyday in the workshop but now had transformed in something fascinating.
Core77: How were you inspired to create the Time Capsule piece?
TK: It started from having seen the inner structure of the furniture, seeing the voids and realising that they would be covered up for a long time. NWW promote the fact that they manufacture furniture that will last for generations and knowing that the unused space would be sealed we thought that the idea of something being in there but cannot be accessed for a long time was an intense feeling.
We were also thinking about the stories of when people hide things or messages behind walls or when carpenters leave newspaper articles or their signature.
Core77: How would you be able to work again with NWW or continue this relationship?
TK: It is something we have not discussed yet, but perhaps we would take these products and develop them or put some into production in an edition of ten. For the Varnish Table, for example, they spray paint all the furniture anyway, so they would not have to throw any of it away. The last colour they use would be the last colour of the table. They could turn something that would probably cost money to throw away into something of value that could be sold.
The Piggyback Couch Table combines a trolley from the workshops with furniture modules strapped on piggyback style.
Core77: What are you influenced by at the design lab?
TK: We are fascinated by natural phenomena and the potential of the qualities of material. For myself, I have begun thinking about how things work, especially systems like money, land ownership and energy. A lot of the time I want to try to look at things as if I were standing on the Moon. People would act and think differently if they saw their lives from a different perspective, as if they were looking down at themselves on Earth from the Moon.
Core77: Where does White Elephant want to go next?
TK: We often talk about these kind of topics, especially how in ten to fifteen years we will use energy differently and global travel will slow down and systems of production will become more regional and decentralised. This will definitely change the role of the industrial designer, Now, it is based on linear output, you produce something, you shoot it out and replace the older product, but I think that it is changing and will have to continue changing.
We are not really actively trying to address these issues with our work. It is just for our research and it influences our perceptions of what we are doing. We can appreciate the impact of manufacturing processes and the differences that something one-off and made by hand can have compared to something that is made in batches of a million.
White Elephant DesignLab is run by Tobias Kestel and Florian Puschmann since 2007. In their work the two industrial designers (both graduates of the University of Applied Sciences/FH Joanneum, Graz/Austria) join designers and experts of different fields such as design researchers, media artists, sound designers and illustrators.
The PASSIONSWEGE format, a core component of the VIENNA DESIGN WEEK, brings designers together with Vienna shops and manufacturers with on-the-spot experimental projects and interventions.