E15 - Philipp Mainzer → Interview

First of all, could you tell us a bit about your practice and the origination process of E15, please?

I went to the Architectural Association (AA) in London, which is not an Architecture School in the classical sense. So during my last year of studies in 1995, I started E15 together with Florian Asche who I knew from my studies in product design at Central Saint Martins. I just had the desire to make those first pieces, which were four tables made out of solid oak, and that is where it all began… I then designed the logo and a small brochure and we started approaching some retailer and eventually they bought the product. However, in the beginning we had to find manufacturers who we could license to produce our furniture. They were almost laughing at us, convinced that you couldn´t sell a table out of oak and that nobody wants oak furniture. The end customer however liked it!

Your background is in Design through your studies in Product Design at Central Saint Martins in London, as well as in Architecture, which you studied at the Architectural Association. Has it always been your plan to deliberately combine these two practices?

Yes, that was always clear to me. I started designing furniture as I enjoyed it but there was never a business plan, we just started. There was no strategy behind it but I certainly knew that I wanted to do both. Hence, while designing the first pieces, I also continued with architecture and it has always been a part of E15.

Many E15 designs received important design awards. What is characteristic for an E15 design?

From the beginning on, our focus has always been on the material. At that time, in 1994, no one even thought of using wood. Some people used Wenge, a tropical wood and everything else was extreme minimalistic, pure and super cold. Trending materials were glass, aluminum and lacquered finishes. Yet, we simply wanted to use the good old European oak. We met somebody who was trading with that material and he was making floorboards. That was the starting point and then it really developed from there. From the idea to do furniture with that particular material, we have up until now expanded into metals: bronze, copper, steel or powder coated aluminum help to balance the strong character of the oak, marble and glass. Even if we use glass, it is a fully colored glass not laminated. E15 really is about high quality, naturalness of materials and of course the craftsmanship. Working with classic materials such as marble or wood bring in a lot of traditional craftsmanship.

For E15, you work with numerous designers and act as the production hub. What role does the collaborative aspect play?

When we started E15, my partner Florian Asche and I did every design by ourselves. This strategy changed over the years, as we are big fans of collaborations. Working with external designers and especially artists brings in a certain dynamic, new ideas and inspirations. As soon as there is a good idea we like to use and promote it. Hence, the collaborative aspect is a big part of E15 and adds a lot to the firm´s character. Some examples hereof are an edition with Carsten Fock, another one with Kitsuné or Mark Borthwick who works with us on a regular basis. The fact that all those people come from a different background and do completely different things is not only really inspiring for me but also for the customer. It really tells a lot about E 15, where we come from and where we see ourselves: If you isolate our product it is very generic, not trendy or stylish. It is simple and basic, well made and proportioned but from a product point of view it is difficult to charge it with emotions except through the material. Here comes the architecture in again. We try to think beyond the product and think about the space that it enters into. Hence it is better not to be over designed.

What does a design process look like?

Designers normally just send us a sketch, and we try to bring it to life if we find it intriguing, it matches the current plans or development. From there on it turns into mock-ups from cardboard to proto types etc. it really depends on the product. We try do as much as possible in-house, but also have external specialist we work very closely with. By now, we know pretty much exactly how to make a wooden table and then there are products where it takes longer. For Milan for instance, we work on a number of lights, which creates a whole new range of technical challenges.

Is the relation towards the designs and its designer rather characterized from a retail point of view that corresponds with the E15 ethos or do you develop the designs, strategies and notions together, hence you actively take part in the design process?

We are usually very much involved in the development and production process - from the beginning to the end. Designers or artists usually approach us, however, it can also be the other way around. We for instance, commissioned Stefan Dietz directly. Stefan Dietz designed the Houdini Chair, which is now a permanent feature of our collection and has won several awards such as the interior design award cologne 2010 or the German Design Award 2012 Gold amongst others. I had known him for a long time and knew he was the only person who could design that chair. He introduced a new material to us: Plywood. Up until then, we hadn’t touched Plywood as we stuck to our well-known solid wood. However, he managed to convince us by combining the material with a concept that reflected our understanding of craftsmanship. In the end, the chair itself became haute couture: As you can bend plywood, it is made out of one piece, resulting in a very distinct silhouette and unique design. It is a perfect symbiosis of materiality and craftsmanship that fits very well into the e15 ethos and allows us to expand our range and the materials and techniques we work with step by step.

Several of the E15 designs are represented in Museum collection. Is this rather a byproduct of the good design and materiality or an establishment by the firm. Hence, do you favor a quality product to be used widely or is a particular focus on the “artistic” value and its uniqueness?

We are not trying to do art but rather put the art next to our designs to sort of reflect on it. The E15 selected collection is our collection of limited pieces and collaborations with artists. The carpets by Carsten Fock are for instance one part of this collection. Those pieces are limited to a number of 7 and truly referred to as art. The furniture itself is crafted through a very elaborate process, yet we don’t want to limit it. All our designs are supposed to be supplied endlessly. In the end it is of course great to see them in a museum. The latest design to enter a museum is our Ferdinand Kramer collection at the Museum for Applied Art in Frankfurt.

Is there a rhythm on which you take on a new design?

Yes, every year. The amount however varies. This year we added a lot of accessories to the line for the fair in cologne, so there were around 10 new designs, and another 10 for Milan and that is already a lot for us. However, it still differentiates us from the “big players” – the Italian designers in the field of furniture design – as they try to come up with new pieces on a seasonal basis such as in fashion. Hence, after two years you don’t see the same sofa anymore. We produce every year everything.

To what extent is your architectural firm linked to E15?

We have it spatially within one building but could there be one without the other, or do these two practices complement each other completely?
The link was always present. Only two years ago, we decided to separate those two entities, at least for communication purposes. It is still the same company and office but for communication it was just too difficult to convince potential clients to give us a contract for a building when they see E15, which is mainly furniture.
I think that now one can do without the other but there is no reason to separate them completely. There are a lot of synergies. We sell a lot of our own products along with our projects and do a lot of interior design projects. In China for instance, we do projects where we do everything – sell the whole package. On the other hand we design the products with the architects and designers or we develop products for projects and they then become part of the collection or the furniture company makes them. It is certainly this broad range of disciplines that we cover as well as a bridging from design services to making the products that differentiates us from other companies.

What’s next?

Next on our agenda is the Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2014 in Milan, where we are going to present our new collection including a new series of lights. Further, we have quite a few new architectural projects in the pipeline. We actually now have more projects with the architectural firm than ever, so it seem that the separation of communicating the two entities does pay off.

E15 - Philipp Mainzer
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