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On the occasion of Hartmut Esslinger’s 80th birthday, four companions provide insights into their collaboration with the designer. They describe Esslinger’s influence on design, recall formative experiences and shed light on the qualities that made him such a successful entrepreneur.

Feature Image: Darius Ramazani

Paola Antonelli,

| Senior Curator, Architecture & Design
| Director, Research & Development
| The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

When did you meet Hartmut Esslinger and how did your perspective on design change as a result?

I had grown up in Milan, surrounded by the kind of design and designers that make journalists and curators swoon, and I had studied all the pillars of industrial design history from Central and Northern Europe at architecture school. And yet, it is only when I met Hartmut in Silicon Valley in 1990 that I understood the real power and consequences of well-designed products. 

In what way? Could you explain that in more detail?

In the offices of frog design in California, he told me about NeXT, about Apple, about Snow White, about the formal language he’d used to give engineers the freedom to position vents while making the computer slim and elegant, about the bas-relief Apple logo, about the arguments over the colour of the computers… We all know the legend by now, but suffice it to say that I brought home a Mac SE, smuggled it into Italy in its carrying case with a rainbow apple stamped on the front, and marched merrily through the “nothing to declare” lane at Malpensa airport. In truth, I had a lot to declare, then and now. For one thing, when revolutions happen in science, technology or the galactic mind of a Steve Jobs, designers like Hartmut are the peers who bring them to life, influence behaviour and change the world. 

Paola Antonelli © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. | Photo: Peter Ross

Andreas Haug,

| Hartmut Esslinger’s partner at frog design

| Founder of PHOENIX Design

Photo: privat

How would you describe Hartmut Esslinger’s influence on design and innovation?

Design, properly understood, is always innovation. In this sense, Hartmut’s influence on the thousands of projects that have been created at frog design over the years is of paramount importance. He is always looking for a new and unique approach with added value. It is also thanks to him that design is no longer an end in itself, but above all an important economic factor.

Do you have a special memory of your time together at frog design?

It was a glorious summer afternoon in the early 1970s when, as a recent graduate, I travelled to the Black Forest with my presentation case to apply for a job as the first employee. I met Hartmut in his parents’ garage, where he had set up a modelling workshop. He was sitting at a stationary drill, concentrating on a flat loudspeaker grille. In the manner of Vasarely, the holes had a pattern. They were small on the outside and grew larger towards the centre, creating a three-dimensional effect. Nothing could go wrong, which is why he didn’t immediately notice my arrival. I thought I’d come to the right place. Shortly afterwards, he invited me to his wonderful panoramic terrace for coffee and Black Forest cake to talk shop about design, and by dusk we had agreed to give it a go together. Years later, however, as our work became more professional, we had to give him a ‘workshop ban’ from time to time to prevent possible damage to the model.

What do you think: Which of his working methods have made Hartmut Esslinger such an influential designer and entrepreneur?

Hartmut is always willing to question and improve the results of his work, and he has great powers of persuasion in communicating these developments to his clients. He is bold, persistent, visionary and willing to invest in the future. His passion ultimately led to Steve Jobs, dressed in jeans and trainers, walking through the door in Altensteig one day.

Katharina Unger,

| Former student of Hartmut Esslinger 

| Founder and CEO Livin Farms

How would you describe Hartmut Esslinger’s influence on design?

It goes far beyond design language and functionality. Hartmut Esslinger has brought a ‘fun factor’ to design: emotionality. Above all, however, he expanded the boundaries of what is understood by design and product. He was a pioneer in building bridges and making design relevant as a strategy and tool for business, marketing and innovative thinking. And not in the form of brittle theory, but in a very practical, natural and tangibly intuitive way in the realisation of his ideas and their design.

Is there a special memory from your collaboration with Hartmut Esslinger?

I studied under Hartmut Esslinger. I have rarely experienced such a strong role model effect as the one Hartmut had on his students. His influence on his students can still be felt today. His work ethic, his vision, but above all his humanity. 

I personally spent an afternoon with Hartmut years ago in Hong Kong, where I lived at the time. He took a lot of photos with his Leica and marvelled at many things. I was fascinated by the fact that he, who had already worked internationally in the 1970s and travelled so much, was still so enthusiastic about things. I believe that this enthusiasm and curiosity is one of Hartmut’s secrets.

What is it that has made him such an influential designer?

Form follows emotion’ is not an empty phrase for Hartmut. He makes decisions quickly, designing from his gut, but with a lot of visual and technical ‘vocabulary’ in the background so that even the visually untrained can understand the product. He is uncompromisingly authentic.

Photo: Paris Tsitsos

Heiner Zinser, 

| Former client of Hartmut Esslinger, | Managing Director of KaVo

Photo: privat

How would you describe Hartmut Esslinger’s influence on design and innovation, particularly through his work at frog design?

For decades, Hartmut Esslinger’s work at frog design has inspired, influenced and shaped products in the medical dental sector with innovative shapes and colours – whether for dentists and dental technicians, dental students or clinics. Esslinger has left traces that will be visible far into the future. He always had an entrepreneurial mindset and championed his innovative ideas with great enthusiasm, without losing sight of technical feasibility. He consistently dispensed with technical bells and whistles. He focussed on what was essential and practical for the user, be it the dentist, assistant or patient.

Equally important to him was the choice of materials and colours, as well as balanced ergonomics and high standards of hygiene. Thanks to his worldwide business contacts, he was always at the forefront of technology and introduced new ideas at the various stages of development, which always helped us to progress and set us apart from our competitors. His motto was ‘Technology in its most beautiful form’.

What personality traits made Hartmut Esslinger such an influential designer?

Hartmut allowed for the opinions and wishes of others and incorporated them into new developments with great skill and a wealth of knowledge and experience. It was always a high quality and focused collaboration, both on a human and professional level, which has remained a warm friendship and bond to this day. He loves technology and is always curious and interested in the latest developments and processes worldwide. He is a great car fan. 

Do you have a special memory of working with Hartmut Esslinger?

Whenever Hartmut sat down at the piano after critical development situations, you could always hear the Black Forest deep in his heart.

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