Philipp Mainzer could have celebrated the 25-year anniversary of his company e15 last year. However, the pandemic prevented any sort of large celebration. We spoke with Mainzer about how the coronavirus has changed work processes, why his main focus is not on big designer names and what connects him with musician Max Herre.
Interview: Gerrit Terstiege.
Putting the question: an interview with Philipp Mainzer, e15
Mr Mainzer, you yourself are responsible for the “Backenzahn” side table, an emblematic e15 design. It celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. What gave you the inspiration for it? A trip to the dentist?
I was inspired by solid European oak, the material. e15 started with a collection of four tables that, while very minimal, were still warm and homely. My actual inspiration for the Backenzahn [meaning “molar” in German] was my desire for designers to use the entire tree when working with wood. For the legs on the “Bigfoot” table, we used the tree’s inner heartwood. Its stubborn structure normally makes it a woodwork leftover. The lengths we had left over from production in those days could never be used for a table leg. This left us searching for some way to use the material that was there.
What came first, the shape or the Backenzahn name?
The name is very catchy, though, as it depicts something very straight-lined and simple that suddenly spawns something humorous. e15 also celebrated another anniversary last year – its own 25-year existence. Coronavirus likely put paid to any kind of large celebration for this. However, I would be interested in asking you how the pandemic – and the cancellation of major furniture fairs, for example – has affected your company and its processes?
In terms of processes, there is of course a lot that has changed internally, if only because of work from home and the constant digital meetings. All of this has now become completely normal. However, meeting in person is something I still find very important. The cancellation of the trade fairs gave us the chance to establish other formats and time just to concentrate on what we are good at doing and who we are. When it comes to the “party aspect”, though, of course we miss the fairs a great deal.
Furniture made of solid wood, like the Backenzahn, offers its own kind of sustainability simply because it lasts decades. Was this aspect important to you from the very start? The topic of sustainability did not have as much weight in 1995 as it does today.
Sustainability was important to us from the outset. We saw it as natural that we would use wood from sustainable woodlands and, at the start, even recycled wood. It is also an important element of our communication. We started out in London, and sustainability was not an issue there in those days. For us, it was part of our DNA – and still is today.
“For us, sustainability was part of our DNA – and still is today.”
— Philipp Mainzer
What role do you think the simplicity of a design has when it comes to its sustainability?
We can talk about many types of sustainability. For example, we can talk about materials. Where does the material come from? Is it recycled or recyclable? However, this has little meaning in the end if we make a product whose aesthetics are considered unacceptable after a year. That is why aesthetic sustainability is actually the most important aspect of e15’s sustainability. We aim to create products that integrate into any kind of surroundings rather than push into the foreground. But at the same time, our furniture also makes a statement and gains the attention that it needs. The timeless and minimalist designs mean that the person looking at the furniture does not grow tired of it. In fact, our furnishings even become more beautiful over the years thanks to the patina. Those who do not appreciate such signs of ageing can have our tables sanded and freshly oiled. Then they will look like new again.
American artist Donald Judd is considered an important proponent of minimalism. He also designed very robust tables and benches. Did his furniture designs have a defining role in your approach as a designer?
Yes, Donald Judd is truly a major role model of mine; I cannot deny it. His designs included furniture but also artwork. He achieved acceptance for his form of simplicity, which was pioneering. In my opinion, the way he furnished his rooms is just as pioneering as the art he created. What connects him to e15 might be the idea of the table. Tables are of course a core theme for us, whether they are dining tables or conference tables or even a side table. The table is often the central furnishing in a living space or space in general. Judd also celebrated this. He celebrated these individual parts and gave space to them in his various studios and houses that he furnished in Marfa and New York. This is also what we constantly have in mind – the table as the central object in the living room, the place where everyone meets and ultimately where most things happen in family, social and even business contexts.
Copenhagen-based architect David Thulstrup recently designed a family of sculptural side tables for you. What are the criteria you use to decide if a design or designer fits the e15 brand?
There are no clear rules for this. My wife and I built up the collection – at first it was just me; later on, both of us together. Farah has a background in fashion design, so she brought even more depth into the collection. When we look at new products, our focus is always on them corresponding to the collection and integrating into its entirety. All of the products need to be combinable with each other, just as they need to be combinable with products from other manufacturers. We often receive designs that others send to us. In contrast, we deliberately asked David Thulstrup about a side table. We got to know him through the Gasoline project, where we made a special-edition bar stool for him. We developed a great, friendly relationship in the process. We do not actively scout for new designers, though we do not have any inhibitions about approaching young talent. Big names are not our priority. While we do have products by Stefan Diez and David Chipperfield in our portfolio, our strategy was never about collaborating solely with famous personalities. We work with newcomers, too.
“Big names are not our priority. While we do have products by Stefan Diez and David Chipperfield in our portfolio, our strategy was never about collaborating solely with famous personalities. We work with newcomers, too.”
— Philipp Mainzer
In the last 25 years, what product was the most difficult and took the longest to develop?
That would possibly be the Houdini chair by Stefan Diez, the first he designed for us. The thing about Stefan is that he never just comes up with a design, but ultimately also designs a new technology. The form it takes is derived accordingly. The instructions were to develop a wooden chair for us without using any costly press equipment. Although it took a while, Stefan developed a new, highly intuitive process in the end. It was based on a combination of solid and malleable parts and could be used to manufacture the HOUDINI chair with sophisticated yet cost-effective craftsmanship. This production technique also influenced the form taken by the chair, which emerged from the process almost automatically. This approach is the basis for many e15 designs, with the material and production technique informing the design.
Let us move away from contemporary designers and look at the subject of historical designs and rereleases. Following furnishings by Frankfurt architect Ferdinand Kramer, you are now also releasing designs by Stuttgart architect Richard Herre. How did that come about?
An acquaintance put us in contact with musician Max Herre, whose father had already thoroughly examined Richard Herre’s estate. We then decided to release multiple designs in order to tell a story that illustrates the designer and does justice to him. We begin with a chair and a rug. Herre’s work was very multidisciplinary, which is something that these two products are intended to express.
You collaborate very closely with the heirs and rights holders for this. Some people would take a less meticulous approach and simply plagiarise. You have had some unpleasant experiences with this in the past. What is the best protection against plagiarism?
It is not always possible to protect yourself. There are indeed different legal approaches, for example filing a design patent or obtaining copyright protection. In the end, however, the most important thing is to inform customers and make people aware of the original. Customers must understand why they should buy the original and why it sometimes costs more. That is, I think, the best protection.
You also number your products, brand the e15 logo onto your furniture and have developed certificates of authenticity. These are all actions that give buyers a feeling of certainty about getting a genuine e15 design.
Yes, that is what we do. People react very positively to it, too. At the same time, you need to be very quick to establish and publicise a new product. As I said before, communication is an essential tool for increasing customers’ awareness of authenticity and originality. If you successfully sensitise architects, retail partners and customers to this, imitators will not stand a chance.
How will your company develop as time goes by?
We will keep doing the things that we do well and can stand behind. I do not expect to become bored any time soon. We plan to keep improving and offer a great, sustainable collection. As time goes by, we wish to be a significant, independent brand in the market, offering people this type of quality and this type of aesthetics.
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