by Jasmin Jouhar.
It’s impossible to pin them down: Hamburg design duo Besau Marguerre works in all sorts of creative disciplines at once, including product and graphic design, interior styling and exhibition design. A conversation about thinking in images, the courage to use colour and the happiness of creative moments.
The Eimsbüttel borough of Hamburg: it’s morning, the sun is shining, the trees lining the Isebek Canal are a lush green and the little local shops are just opening up. There’s a group of folding wooden tables and benches on the pavement in front of a corner house on Weidenstieg. Next to them, a little triangle of well-tended garden that has been wrested from the crossroads. An idyll in the midst of the city. Shared by creatives from various disciplines, the office community on the ground floor of the corner house is also part of the idyll. If you happen to stop by at lunchtime, you might see them eating together at the long table in the shop window. Design duo Besau Marguerre is based here too. And as if they were trying to take the village idyll to extremes, Eva Marguerre and Marcel Besau even live in the same house as well. The couple has come to appreciate the convenience of the arrangement all the more since their son was born. The little chap has already discovered that the office makes a wonderful playground and regularly wheedles his way into a visit.
Success thanks to wide range
The commission to develop the interior concept for Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall in collaboration with architect Daniel Schöning brought the thirty-something couple to the media’s attention in a big way. Furniture manufacturer e15 from Frankfurt added the resulting collection to its product portfolio and now produces the bench, occasional table and high table as the “Elbe” range. But even before that, the couple had made a name for themselves in the design scene. They keep pretty busy with their projects for companies like Vitra and Artek, who have been regular clients for some time now.
That allows Besau Marguerre to deploy the full spectrum of their studio’s expertise: they don’t just design products and furnish interiors, they also work as stylists, develop graphic concepts and devise product presentations – from exhibitions and trade show booths all the way to pop-up shops. The two of them founded their Hamburg studio around six years ago after graduating from the University of Arts and Design Karlsruhe. The “Nido” stool, which is made of resin-soaked fibreglass, established their reputation overnight. It was followed by numerous styling commissions for magazines and companies and a lamp by the name of “North”, also for e15. At Salone del Mobile 2017, Besau Marguerre staged the exhibition for the ein&zwanzig 2017 newcomer contest organised by the German Design Council. Once again, the result demonstrated their huge talent for dealing with colours and materials and their instinct for atmospheric settings.
Studio Besau Marguerre © Silke Zander
Interview with Besau Marguerre
You see yourselves as an interdisciplinary studio. Even so, is there one thing you’re best at?
Eva Marguerre: No, really not, and that’s what’s different about us. Every area of our work is equally important to us, and the various fields have grown together very naturally. That’s not to say we didn’t think about whether it wouldn’t be better to specialise when we started out. We were worried whether our clients would understand our approach or if it would seem random. But our collaboration with Vitra is a good example of how well it works. We’ve developed tools for the POS system. We do visual merchandising and seasonal presentations for shops and window displays, as well as trade show booths, pop-up shops, photo shoots for catalogues and brochure concepts. We like to keep our eye on the big picture, the entire universe surrounding the product.
And are the different kinds of work mutually inspiring on a day-to-day basis?
Marcel Besau: Definitely. The project for the Elbphilharmonie concert hall is a good example. It brought a lot of things together, like working on the furnishing concept on the one hand and designing furniture on the other.
Marguerre: There are so many products out there that designing yet another side table sometimes seems like a very random exercise. But I’m sure every designer knows that feeling. In the case of the Elbphilharmonie, we spent weeks doing research but didn’t find anything suitable. There simply wasn’t a product family consisting of a bench, high table and side table on the market. So it made sense to design something specifically for that particular place, something permanent.
With the benefit of a few months’ hindsight – are you pleased with the Elbphilharmonie?
Marguerre: Yes, I am, which is actually very baffling. I’m normally very critical and often see things that could be better when everything’s done and dusted.
Besau: The concept works. We get a lot of feedback, and not just from professionals – unlike a piece of furniture that’s only shown at a trade fair We get calls, mails and visits from people who have been to a concert and fallen in love with the furniture.
We can’t change the fact that we live in a certain era, and I think it’s good if you can see that. It’s the here and now that matters.Eva Marguerre
Tell me about your background.
Marguerre: Even as a teenager, I already knew I wanted to study design. When I was 14, I had a work experience placement with two designers in Krefeld. During my stint there we went to the furniture fair in Cologne, and I can still remember how euphoric I was. I applied to the university in Karlsruhe because their product design course has an interdisciplinary slant, and that was something I was already interested in back then. It meant I could study not just product design but scenography, graphic design and exhibition design as well. Even so, I still felt as if something was missing. Then I read a magazine article about interior stylist Peter Fehrentz. I’d never heard of that particular profession up until then. It was a revelation. Although he himself didn’t take interns, he put me in touch with the Living desk at Brigitte – the biggest women’s magazine in Germany. After doing an internship there, I spent all my university holidays working for the magazine, and later on, I worked for Peter Fehrentz as an assistant for several years.
How did the two of you meet?
Besau: The classic way: at university. I started out studying industrial design in Wuppertal, but I wasn’t happy there. Although I found the creative aspects interesting, the course was very much focused on industrial products. Graphic design was an absolute taboo, for instance. In Karlsruhe I was able to study a very wide range of different things: I did courses in scenography, lots of graphic design, media art, programming. It was a wonderful, very liberal approach to finding my own perspective on design.
How did you hit on the idea of founding a studio together?
Besau: Even while we were still students we did a lot of projects together and soon realised that we enjoy working together and complement one another. We’re both team players and consider it a huge luxury to have a partner with the same goals and the same passion for the job.
Where do you think your great sensitivity for colours comes from?
Marguerre: Colours have a huge impact, even if a lot of people won’t admit it. When we design a product, we usually know what colour it will be right from the start, when we’re still in the process of developing the form. I often find it difficult to explain why I opt for a certain colour; it’s intuition – a continuous process. Obviously you’re influenced by trends as well. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing; the focus is always on the project in hand.
Besau: We’ve often been told that our approach to colour is courageous. But I’ve never seen it like that – colour always permits a very emotional kind of access to the object.
But there’s often something fashionable about colours. Ten years from now, your projects will look very different – perhaps that’s why some people call you courageous?
Marguerre: We can’t change the fact that we live in a certain era, and I think it’s good if you can see that. It’s the here and now that matters.
Besau: From a market perspective I suppose it is courageous. On the one hand, especially in the furniture business, colour is a popular tool for product communications – at trade fairs and in catalogues, for instance. But unfortunately, people are still more likely to buy something grey, black or white.
We’ve often been told that our approach to colour is courageous. I’ve never seen it like that.Marcel Besau
Colour also played an important role in the exhibition you did for the German Design Council in Milan 2017. Why did the Design Council come to you?
Marguerre: They liked the fact that although we do interior design we always think in images because of our work as stylists. They wanted somebody who would design an exhibition with good scenographies and emotional imagery. In most cases, this type of exhibition places the products on white pedestals and presents them in a very reticent way. We wanted to bring out the special qualities of the works and show the materials, colours, backgrounds – like a three-dimensional moodboard. As well as highlighting every one of the prize-winning projects individually and drawing attention to their special qualities and story.
It seems as if only offering product or furniture design is no longer a viable business model – would you agree?
Marguerre: It’s difficult – especially in the beginning. Once you’ve managed to get 10 or 15 products up and running on the market, you can make a decent living. But how is a young designer supposed to get there? You’re paid in the form of licences. Ultimately, it was our studio concept that saved us.
But still, it’s a difficult situation …
Marguerre: Yes, but the manufacturers are struggling as well. If I put myself in their shoes, I can understand the licensing model. When I did an internship with Stefan Diez, I saw how many years he spent developing a chair. To start with, I thought he must be doing something wrong. But eventually I realised that the manufacturer was investing just as much, it was a risk they were taking together. That’s why we prefer to work for companies with a small collection that’s built up slowly and will endure rather than going for sheer numbers and bowing to trends …
… and then vanishing from the market as quickly as you arrived. What direction do you want your studio to develop in?
Marguerre: We want to stick to our policy of small but good. I love working in a team. We’ve got two employees and the four of us are really good together. If we doubled in size, we’d end up just coordinating things and making appointments – we wouldn’t be involved in the creative side of the business at all anymore. That’s definitely not what we want.
Besau: I know it’s a cliché, but everything changes when you have children. Obviously we want to spend as much time as possible with our son as well.
Studio Besau Marguerre © Silke Zander
So how do you manage to achieve a good work-life balance? Even today, almost all the famous product designers are men, especially in Germany.
Besau: It’s not a very modern thing to say but I’m sure it all boils down to the fact that it’s women who have kids. The old gender role often kicks in again pretty fast.
Marguerre: I don’t only see myself as a mother, but people often don’t understand that. Working mums still aren’t considered normal. And yet I think I’m a better mother for working. Before our son was born a lot of people said things like “Just you wait and see: your job won’t be important anymore once you’ve got a baby, everything will change.” But that’s not how it is. I love my job, and it’s just as important to me as before.
Has starting a family changed the way you work?
Marguerre: Working at weekends or doing the occasional night shift used to be the norm.
Besau: At the end of the day, we just don’t have “normal” working hours. In our case, our ideas arise from the dialogue between us; each of us thinks in a certain way and comes up with an approach. Then we put it into words and that sets the other person thinking. And the office is by no means the only place where that happens.
If an idea happens to come to me at midnight, why should I stifle the creative moment instead of sharing it with Marcel?Eva Marguerre
Marguerre: We love hiking, for instance, especially when we’re on holiday in the mountains. I don’t know how often we’ve said “Right, we’re on holiday now and we’re not going to work.” But then we go hiking and somehow we end up bouncing ideas off each other. For a while I tried quitting for the evening at a set time and concentrating on my private life. But at least in our case, that doesn’t work. If an idea happens to come to me at midnight, why should I stifle the creative moment instead of sharing it with Marcel? That’s the kind of moment that makes you really happy – it never wears thin. We consider ourselves very lucky to have the job we do.
First published in the designreport edition 04/2017. All pictures © Silke Zander.