Something daring and decisive hides in Thomas Feichtner's designs. Shapes that are expressively geometrical show that design is a process that brings us to a result, and this process is like a mathematical equation that always ends by astounding us.
Thomas Feichtner is an internationally-renowned Austrian industrial designer, who has received several international design awards, including the Red Dot Award. His Carbon Chair was displayed this year in the Austrian pavilion at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, where Thomas exhibited together with other selected Austrian industrial designers. This big chair, of which only 8 were made, consists of multiple sheets of woven carbon fibers, coated with epoxy resin and bent to make the three concave legs, typical of Feichtner designs, of the comfortable chair. When Thomas designs, he experiments a lot. He is interested in ways of designing that exceed globalization. He feels closer to sustainable design and tradition, than to mass industrial production. Therefore, he has been invited by many famous producers who favor the tradition of manual craftsmanship.
Sustainable design, recycling and reuse in design. What is your opinion on these themes?
Thinking about sustainable development is the responsibility of every designer. On the one hand, this involves the selection of the materials and the production method and, on the other hand, the theme that is selected for the final product. There is a responsibility, however there is no point in moralizing too much about it. All professions have a certain level of responsibility. For instance, let's look at a mobility project in a city. If the subway were free, there would be fewer cars on the roads, but this is the task of politicians, and not of designers. It does not only involve the production of good design ideas. On the other hand, designers do not always search for good solutions, they also create a lot of garbage. By producing new ideas and creating new items, they are making current items old. Therefore, I agree that designers are responsible for sustainable development, but we should not overestimate their importance.
There is a large problem in the education of young designers. If a designer only thinks about sustainable design, and must at the same time resolve a complex problem, they will have difficulties starting their own business after their studies. Not many designers will get the opportunity to think about the new mobility method in Shanghai after they finish their studies. Many designers have difficulties starting their design work immediately after their studies. I myself felt quite a lot of pressure, for about five years after finishing my studies. I had the feeling that thoughtful and intelligent solutions were expected of me, and it was only after some time that I found that this was not the case. Someone also has to design sofas!
You have collaborated with traditional Austrian producers of silverware, porcelain, furniture, glass, and so on. What do you think about such collaborations? Do you prefer it to classic industry?
Traditional crafts do not enthuse me more than industrial design, or vice versa. What fascinates me is the method of work, which differs between craftsmen and working in industry. Working with craftsmen means being involved in the entire production process. From idea through production to distribution. On the other hand, in industry the designer is excluded from everything that is not connected merely to the idea or creativity. This means that someone is thinking about the product in Vienna, and the product is made in China. Such work is only possible in industrial production. It is also interesting in its own way, and it has some advantages. However, it is a special kind of satisfaction to work for family companies on my street and in my town, where I am included in the entire process, and I know that the owners have assumed the same risk as I have, to get to the final product. It is a kind of partnership, and a satisfaction when the client decides to take a risk for the purpose of creating something new, doing something unknown, for which there is no assurance that it will function or be realized.
How do you find inspiration for your work? How do you tackle projects?
The difference between my generation and the current one is that, while I was studying, there was no internet. Every one of us thought that we were geniuses, that our ideas were unique. In principle, we were thinking the same as students at the faculty in the neighboring city, country, or another part of the world. We thought that we were individualists, but we did the same things as other design students. This way of thinking made us confident. Today's generations face great pressure in international design, a blogging atmosphere and new ideas that are harder to center, as self-criticism is at a much higher level than in my time. Today's generation is searching for inspiration online. If you ask me where my inspiration comes from, I say that I have to unplug first. Unplug from all media and electronic devices. And when I do that, I have so many questions that I would like to research and find an answer to, and I realize that I can't do this via the internet. Then I find my own way to express myself and to create. Unplugged.
A few years ago, when I was travelling a lot and didn't have much time to sit at the PC, I rediscovered sketching. I could no longer make a 3D model or use accurate dimensions to communicate. The idea had to be clear, and presentations were made with sketches. When typing on the computer, I start with coordinates x, y, z and I determine the length and height. You start with details, so you can make a larger image. When you sketch, the process is turned around. You start with the bigger picture and finish by resolving details. You can think generally. And when you see that your thinking is working, you focus on details and then on small details and even smaller details. Like a story. I can tell it in one sentence and subsequently upgrade it with details, stories within a story, and in the end I get a long tale.
Right on the opposite side of sketching, and even farther from computers and 3D models, is 3D printing. Is this something that has potential or does it have a halting effect in the sense of design development?
Our studio uses 3D printing for making models. We have never used it for a final product. On the one hand, 3D printing is quite fascinating. It is a kind of revolution about how to make something completely independently. I think that technology has not advanced to the extent that it can fulfil all expectations in this area. I remember when predictions were made about paperless offices. Today we know that this is far from reality. Despite the progress in computers and technology, we are still swimming in paper. 3D printing is a great opportunity for companies to do something that is rather complicated and complex, without any knowledge and skills – but, at the same time, I think that this can also present a problem.
New generations of designers will increasingly use these technologies. What is the most important message you want to pass on to your students, the future designers?
Creativity. To be a designer is to be constantly exposed to change. Design will change in the next one or two decades. New materials, new techniques will emerge, the method of work will change, the environment will change. The only thing that won't change is how to be creative in your thinking. Nevertheless, design must be your passion. But it should not be taken too seriously. Design is playful thinking, it must be entertaining, it must enable visual and aesthetic pleasure. We sometimes call it styling, or what is beautiful. I don't have a problem with this. Beautiful things attract me. Like all of us.
Let's return to your design, your thinking and the development process. Can it be separated from your private life, can design remain only a job?
I have learned how to concentrate on thinking about projects. I am well aware that being creative does not mean a walk in the park, expecting that something will suddenly cross your mind. I have to concentrate to do this, I have to focus on the problem for several hours or for days. I have learned that I can stop the thinking process after dedicating some time to a project and start thinking about other things. So, my thoughts in the morning or evening are completely normal. I think about my children, school, what to eat for breakfast... In some way, this is salvation. Many projects run around my head, some which haven't yet been realized, and will never be realized. These projects won't leave me alone. I know that I won't have time for them in the next few days, weeks or months, and when finally an opportunity shows up, I lose interest. This is probably the dilemma of any creative designer. Therefore, I keep my ideas in sketchbooks. I sketch to relax my mind, and I can focus on projects that I'm working on.
I like working on one project at a time, and not on ten. I work together with my wife. She can work on ten projects at the same time, while I can only concentrate on one. There are days when I don't read email, when I don't have time and when I'm concentrating on the current project. I always finish a project, but my thinking only goes in a linear direction. Perhaps this is typical of all men.
And perhaps it's just a stereotype? It certainly seems that self-confidence and a man's touch can be observed in your designs. Do you design with a specific end user in mind?
Yes and no. When it entails a knife, fork and spoon, I know that many people will use them on a daily basis. Otherwise I'm not oriented towards the final buyer. When I design, I think about the company that has invested a lot of money in the product. For producing the Silver Bowl, for instance, EUR 15,000 were spent, and I don't think about some Russian oligarch that will buy it one day. That does not interest me at the time. What interests me are the people who have worked at the company since they were 15 years old, and will continue to work there until their retirement. Generations work there, and pass on their knowledge about manual craftsmanship to the next generation. I think that it is all about all being one, we are all aiming for the same things, friendship, neighbors, quality of life, even if it sounds pathetic.
To conclude: many of your products have three corners, and your chairs have three legs. Do you have a special relationship with this number?
It's not the number 3 that fascinates me. I am fascinated by the procedure that must be mathematically balanced. If you have a problem, you can analyze it to the extent that it becomes simple. And, in the end, you come to a perfect result that pleases you. The same goes for design. If I design something and a part does not present a simple solution, then it is not finished, in my view. I'm satisfied when the designed item is simple and logical. I don't like things that seem complicated, or when you can see the accumulated thinking problems within those things. That, for me, is an unfinished design process. And I don't like it.