ROLF BENZ 594 BY SEBASTIAN HERKNER
Sebastian Herkner knows a lot about iconic design. Perhaps the most obvious evidence to support this is the new high-back seat, Rolf Benz 594, by the “Designer of the Year 2019”. The comfortable seating furniture with a finely balanced curved back, firmly upholstered seat shell and pleasantly soft seat cushions looks like a hug in furniture form. We met the award-winning designer in his studio in Offenbach and talked about inspiration, sustainability and life and work during these Covid-19 times.
Sebastian, you designed the Rolf Benz 909 dining table a year ago. Your new Rolf Benz 594 armchair has just been launched. How long did it take to develop it and what was your biggest challenge?
We worked on the armchair for a year and a half. The biggest challenge was definitely the unusual shape of the armchair. Right from the start, we wanted to create an iconic piece of seating furniture. Rolf Benz wanted a high-back seat with a unique look, an unmistakable design. You have to feel your way with that sort of task. You start by drawing, you make a few sketches and then you sit down at the computer. Working with the artisans and prototype engineers on site at Rolf Benz was especially crucial here.
The form finding was a multi-stage process. We made lots of real, upholstered prototype models with lots more drawing in between. Sometimes, we even drew directly on the prototypes with marker pen! Take a bit off here. Add a few degrees there. Change the contour here. Of course, the computer helps with all that. But ultimately, you have to experience the actual object with all your senses, quite literally you need to “sit with” the armchair for a while. Walk around it. Perhaps even kneel in front of it. Look at it from different perspectives. And gradually, you get that little bit closer to the final armchair. It’s a really exciting process but it’s time-consuming.
In your opinion, where does the armchair look best and what is it especially good for?
Rolf Benz 594 is a real all-rounder. It can be staged in many different ways and adapts well to different rooms and usage scenarios. It can be used as a standalone piece of furniture such as a cosy armchair for reading and relaxing. Or it can be positioned in a group of chairs, in an open plan office, for example, or a hotel lobby. For meetings, interviews or for small talk.
Which combination of materials do you like best for this armchair? Do you have a personal favourite?
That’s a difficult question, there are so many options. The armchair can be individualised in many different ways. However, since we have lots of concrete at home, the base frame made of natural oak would look really good. For the cover, I would probably go for something more structured or fluffy. I think bouclé is great, for example. Or even velvet. That also makes the whole thing feel lovely.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I find it really easy to find inspiration. I'm really curious and I’m observant. You have to be very open to pick up on different stimuli. It can happen anywhere. Even in your normal everyday life, you can always notice something exciting and suddenly discover a wonderful colour or an unusual combination of materials, for example. I also find inspiration in the studio. In the archives, or while talking with my team. In museums or on trips, too, of course. And sometimes, it also helps to watch craftsmen as they work to find new solutions. You simply have to remain open.
Are there any role models who have particularly influenced you and how you work?
I find it difficult to list certain designers or people. You quickly forget one or other of them. That’s why I prefer to refer to the artisans who so cleverly realise our designs behind the scenes. All of them at Rolf Benz do such amazing work and their know-how is incredible. It’s knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation. That’s what I think is exemplary. We are extremely fortunate to have master craftsman training here in Germany. It’s a valuable cultural asset and I really appreciate it.
Many successful designers move to Berlin. You, on the other hand, opened your design studio in Offenbach 13 years ago. What makes Offenbach the perfect location for you?
Offenbach might not be one of the most attractive cities, admittedly. It was more a case of love at second sight. It’s a small city. It’s manageable. But I feel happy here. It’s my home. My friends are here. On top of that, Offenbach is a very multicultural city and therefore full of inspiration. It has lots of great shops and restaurants with different cultural influences, all within a very small space. But of course, Offenbach has a convenient location right in the middle of Europe and it’s close to an airport. I’m very fortunate that I travel a lot. I can quickly get to Rolf Benz in the Black Forest by train. I can go on a day trip to Venice. Or to a trade fair in Paris. That’s a huge bonus. But, of course, things have changed a great deal thanks to Covid-19. These days, I’m on the phone more often or approve things over Skype or Zoom. That also works pretty well. It’s meant that I have got to know Offenbach again in recent months. The farmer’s market and the great things it has to offer, for example. That really adds to my quality of life.
You travel the world a lot. Did any country particularly fascinate you on your travels?
Travelling is a privilege. I really enjoy it. When I was a child, going Christmas shopping with my parents in Stuttgart was always a highlight. Today, the circle has widened a little, and I occasionally travel to Taiwan or Columbia. It’s incredibly inspiring. But I don’t think it matters how far you travel. What’s more important are the people you meet and what’s specific to the area. When I travel, I want to discover what’s special. The B-side of a city, just like a record. That’s what’s exciting. It could be in Taipei, or in Ulm. You don’t always have to go as far away as possible. Just have a good look around, wherever you are. Covid-19 is currently giving us all a chance to completely rediscover our surrounding area. I’m taking that opportunity.
What distinguishes creations by Sebastian Herkner? What’s important to you?
I pay special attention to materiality, colour, quality and craftsmanship. I notice that quality and longevity are becoming more important to people again. Sustainability is gaining in importance. This is good. I don’t want to make products that are trendy and then thrown away after 6 months. I want to make products that last. Life-long companions that would ideally also make subsequent generations happy. This also means products that can be repaired or, in the case of seating furniture, reupholstered. Our resources are becoming scarcer. We have to think differently and keep sight of the whole process. That’s what I think is so great at Rolf Benz. They still manufacture on site in the Black Forest. On other words, short channels, and of course, sustainable quality.
In your designs, you interpret characteristics from different societal and cultural contexts and create artefacts with a unique personality. Which observations went into the Rolf Benz 594 armchair?
Everyday life is becoming increasingly hectic. We run from A to B and don’t really take any notice of our environment. Our work processes are becoming faster and faster. We are attached to our cell phone, laptop and tablet and life is increasingly digital. Tactile experiences are becoming obsolete. Our high-back seat is a response to this development and is intended to be a place where you can retreat. Something real and tangible. The keyword here was cocooning. A place you can sink into. A place to sit back and arrive. To dive in and breathe deeply. Somewhere you can relax, contemplate, have a quick power nap or read a book – but of course, it’s also a great place to check your e-mails or surf the net. If that’s what you want to do.
Your list of awards is incredibly long. How does it feel to be “Designer of the Year 2019” and how important are titles and awards to you?
Of course, it’s an acknowledgement. Especially for the team. For the company. For the effort. For all the work that goes into product development. But I prefer it when I see my products on Instagram, for example, with the hashtag #SebastianHerkner. Then I can see where the products ended up. The context they are used in. Who treated themselves. Or even who saved up for it because they absolutely had to have the product. The background stories are exciting, and that means much more to me, actually. It’s also great when I go to a hotel and suddenly find one of my tables. Those are the best moments for me.
What do you like doing when you’re not creating pioneering designs?
Creativity is my passion. That’s why I don’t really think of work as a job. It’s more of a privilege. I get to do something that I really like doing. The variety is exciting. It’s not as if I’ve been working for 8 hours and come home feeling completely exhausted. Everything’s much easier when you can do something that you enjoy.
Can good design change the world?
Changing the world doesn't necessarily require good design. But a designer has a pretty big responsibility. They can influence how things are used. How we recycle them. For me, personally, it’s got nothing to do with creating hip products that lie on the shelf for a season and end up on the rubbish tip two years later. I think that we, as designers, have a certain responsibility, As a result, we can certainly also help shape the world a little. Less, but better. Buy less, choose better. I think we can change the world with that. Of course, designers alone can’t do that. But we can, of course, provide an impetus, encourage discussions and contribute towards making the world a little better with responsible design.
Thank you for talking to us, Sebastian.
Pictures: Sandro Jödicke | whitedesk