11 Min Lesezeit

serien.lighting is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. A large exhibition recently took place at the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, showcasing the fascinating designs that the lighting manufacturer has developed over the decades. A conversation with the two founders, Jean-Marc da Costa and Manfred Wolf, covered topics such as money, courage, expertise, challenges in production, prejudices against rural areas, and a unique aesthetic of refinement.

Interview with Thomas Wagner

Jean-Marc da Costa and Manfred Wolf | Photo: serien.lighting

Let’s talk about money and courage. You were still in college when you founded serien.lighting. Where did the capital come from? By capital, I don’t just mean money, but also social and creative capital.

Manfred Wolf: We didn’t even think about money. In the room where we are now, there were only a couple of workbenches where woodworking tools were in use. Next door, the parts were hardened in the oven and then dipped in an oil bath. Here we produced the first lights in small quantities. It didn’t cost much, the materials were in my father’s cellar.

Jean-Marc da Costa: We were in a privileged situation. We couldn’t just sit back and relax, but we had the opportunity to start. Although we lacked experience – we quickly learned how to work with semi-finished products and turn them into a lamp. We didn’t have financial worries. Manfred had his little house in Weiskirchen, for which he hardly had to pay rent, and I had made good money with flea market sales. When we became truly independent, it was difficult to pay ourselves a small salary.

Wolf: It didn’t work out in the first year.

da Costa: Nowadays, you can’t do anything without crowdfunding. Before you start, you need a bag of money first. (laughs)

It wasn’t just about money, but also about expertise.

da Costa: We built cutting and punching tools ourselves, we soldered, bent, punched, assembled, and packaged. We did everything ourselves. Since we didn’t have to worry about paying rent, we could focus on implementing the idea of starting our own company – and for about two years, we prepared small series of six lamp designs in private.

Wolf: There were five: Lift, Quadrat, Reflex, Status, and Status/Wand.

da Costa: Yes, there were five lamps – and we produced about 30 of each.

STATUS Floor, Wall, 1982, Design by Jean-Marc da Costa, University Project, later in Series Production | Photo: serien.lighting
“IN SERIES – Light. Form. Material. 40 years of serien.lighting,” Exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts, Frankfurt am Main, March 21 – April 21, 2024.
QUADRAT Suspension, 1983, Design by Manfred Wolf, University Project, later in Series Production | Photo: serien.lighting

Combining design and business worked from the very beginning?

Wolf: What was more important was actually the courage that you mentioned, and an understanding of the world we wanted to enter.

Was it difficult?

Wolf: Not really.

da Costa: We knew a few stores in Frankfurt that sold Italian lights, but we didn’t know how big the competition was – Artemide, Flos, what kind of players they were. There were also reservations. For those who shopped in Milan, what came from Rodgau couldn’t be anything.

Wolf: It wasn’t exotic enough. (laughs)

da Costa: Then there was the contact with Wohnbedarf Stoll in Cologne…

Wolf: … and we did the following: We packed our designs and a drill into the car, drove to Cologne, and presented our lights to Mr. Stoll. This was two days before the Cologne Furniture Fair. Mr. Stoll was so excited that he gave us space for the presentation and a day later presented our lights to his colleagues from the Association of Creative Interior Designers.

Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to start a company as a designer?

Wolf: It depends on what kind of design you do. If you do vehicle design, you will hardly be able to start a car company. That’s a different ball game compared to furniture or lighting.

da Costa: Through a friend in the clothing industry, I knew how to approach and win over retailers. But we were clear that only those offering high-quality design were suitable for us.

Wolf: We said: We have to start at the top. You can always scale from top to bottom. Scaling from bottom to top doesn’t work.

da Costa: The design connection was already there in my family. My father was an architect and had a sense for such things. My grandfather owned a penthouse in Bad Soden with furniture by Dieter Rams and a Braun system – I still dream of that today.

Wolf: This world was completely foreign to me. I didn’t know any of it. My parents had built a nice house in the 1950s, furnished with 50s furniture. These were gradually replaced by old German oak. It was my sister, who studied architecture in Darmstadt, who introduced me to design.

What is the secret of your collaboration?

da Costa: In terms of design understanding, we had relatively different ideas. Manfred was influenced by working with metal from a young age – putting together small parts, building hinges, and so on. Our model “Turbo” was a great example of that.

Manfred was the craftsman?

da Costa: Roughly speaking, it has developed into something like an aesthetic of building. Manfred designed “Quadrat” around the same time as I designed “Lift”. “Lift” design was influenced by Wolf’s world, “Quadrat” was more Italian, more from the architect’s corner, which is my world.

So, you complemented each other well?

Wolf: We always knew: If we both like it, then it’s good. (laughs)

Jean-Marc Da Costa and Manfred Wolf | Photo: serien.lighting
Jean-Marc da Costa and Manfred Wolf | Photo: serien.lighting

Are you geniuses of dialogue?

da Costa: We always had a productive way of engaging with each other.

Wolf: On the design level. Unfortunately, today there are a few less pleasant aspects – the company has a certain size, and we have a responsibility. We create beautiful designs or others create them for us – and Jean-Marc would like to produce them tomorrow. Sometimes I have to say: I don’t think we can sell that.

da Costa: The conditions have changed over the decades. If you want to launch a new product on the market today, you have to invest six-figure sums quickly.

Wolf: That used to…

da Costa: …interest us a damn, to put it bluntly.

Wolf: For 20, 30 years, we just did it because we liked it.

da Costa: Where we were essentially only occupied with production and no longer with creating new designs.

Wolf: Yes, there was such a design hole, I remember that. Today, you probably can’t even see that in the chronology.

da Costa: For example, we long believed that only we could manufacture the “Lift.” When we received the first prototype from an external company, we almost couldn’t believe it: They could do it too, maybe even better than us! (laughs).

LIFT Suspension, 1983, Design Jean-Marc da Costa | Photo: serien.lighting

Let’s stay with the “Lift” for a moment. I had a friend who was a sculptor. When he saw the “Lift,” he was immediately enthusiastic. Since he didn’t have much money, he got two sockets and tried to recreate the lamp – without a housing, just two sockets with the new small fluorescent tubes.

da Costa: That was also our approach at the time – using an innovative new light source that had just come onto the market, the so-called compact fluorescent lamp.

This also resulted in a different aesthetic expression.

da Costa: The light source determines the shape. The table is quite long, so I am going to arrange the tubes in this way, right?

Wolf: Additionally, both could be operated with one device.

da Costa: Two small tubes together only consumed 18 watts – and that provided sufficient light, I believe, twice 900 lumens. The design in detail was strongly influenced by the metal parts, by welding them together, by additives, and the visualization of mechanics.

Wolf: The main problem was sourcing the cable. Such a cable was not available on the market for 230 volts. It took time until we found a manufacturer for it. The cable not only had to stretch but also contract back.

da Costa: At that time, there were models like the “Lumina Daphine” or the “Tojo” by the Castiglioni brothers that served as inspiration for leaving the power supply unit visible. The “Tojo” is still a cult classic today.

Were there influences from other areas?

Wolf: It was the era of New German Design, and there were some people who were committed to the artistic side. We always made it clear: Our products are not art.

da Costa: That’s why we named our company “Serien.” The New German Design mainly consisted of unique pieces.

From the beginning, your program was: industrial, straight forward. Did you go against the mainstream, or was functionalism always the basis for you?

Wolf: We definitely felt committed to Bauhaus. The HfG Offenbach was, so to speak, the successor of the HfG Ulm. So: More Bauhaus than New German Design.

Were there reservations against your approach?

Wolf: The trade was grateful that there were people doing something like this. It went very well. In the first proper business year, we had a turnover of 120,000 marks; in the second, it was 360,000, and in the third, already 780,000. It developed quite well.

da Costa: The furniture by Dieter Rams was more in line with our approach. Folded sheet metal, and then the cushion fits well dimensioned on top. That was more our way of thinking. We were definitely aiming for an alternative to Italian products.

Wolf: The New German Design was not a business, for no one, except maybe for the press.

And for the museum…

Wolf: …if one managed to get there.

“IN SERIES – Light. Form. Material. 40 years serien.lighting”, Exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts, Frankfurt am Main, March 21 – April 21, 2024 | Video: serien.lighting

Does originality still matter at all?

da Costa: In design, there are trends and developments. Let’s take the generational change at Tobias Grau, also a successful German company. The sons studied art and created things where at first I thought: What kind of Mickey Mouse stuff is this? Now I respect it because I think they have translated the spirit of the times quite well into a product.

Wolf: That’s the trend – and it’s easy to sell online. It’s no different with furniture – everything is completely Mickey Mouse. Lots of color, no details, just a bit round, nice, kind of childlike. Maybe at some point, people will get tired of being mentally only online, not really present in reality. Constantly walking around the world with a screen naturally changes perception.

Keyword: Virtualization. How would you say the future of lighting design looks?

da Costa: A lot has already changed. We have switched our lights from diesel engines to power-electric. There is also an increasing demand for which type of light is needed for what purpose. Or is it just a “put-down product” that sells only once per household?

Wolf: By working with LED, we suddenly find ourselves in a market where we have never been before: the project business. In the past, this was only possible with fluorescent tubes. Today, the lights fit both in a single-family home and in a large hotel.

ZOOM XL3 | Foto: serien.lighting
ZOOM XL3 Suspension| Photo: serien.lighting
CURLING, serien.lighting, @Stylepark | Photo: Olaf Becker

How important is the project approach to you today?

Wolf: The importance of project business has increased significantly. Architects value product quality and are not only active online. Customization and specialization are also key factors. Additional features such as presence sensors, emergency power, switching options, and more can be incorporated. I believe that without this project business, we would not be where we are today.

da Costa: As lighting is integrated into the building, the design of the fixture is becoming less important. Design solutions are still relevant, but they are very integrated into the architecture. It started with downlights, and the new trend is frameless and as small as possible. Eventually, there may be windows that light up in the evening.

Wolf: When designing a menorah or a chandelier, the designer is challenged creatively but does not have to make decisions as an entrepreneur about whether the fixture should go into production and how the packaging should look. This is, of course, a very nice thing.

Could one say that your approach to design is to make the functional interplay of the elements visible? Could the aesthetics of serien.lighting be described as the refinement of the practical?

Wolf: Definitely. I have often wondered what sets our products apart from others. Sometimes we work on things for a few years because we say: No, that’s still not what we envision. Others would have brought it to market long ago, even though they know the mechanism doesn’t work. Anyway, let’s get it out there first. When I make something practical, I make it big, then it always works. If I make it small, it’s a risk. This is where the art of refinement is revealed. Many people don’t see that, but they see that it looks good, elegant, and delicate.


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