A lot of successful studios rely on a distinct, highly recognisable style. In fact they are often hired because of their specific design idiom. You’ve always avoided that, not following a singular style, but rather a pattern of styles, a multitude of different possibilities, sometimes overwhelming and loud, sometimes rigid and minimalistic. The result can be quite intense.
PI: Absolutely. It may be a truism, but the user is really at the core of everything we do. It’s a people business. When we first opened the studio, one of our main drives was not to become stuck with one style, one discipline or one typology. Keeping your eyes wide-open and seeing what the world has to offer, as well as constantly trying out new viewpoints is always at the centre of what we do.
GF: Our approach is highly individualised. As identity architects, we develop unique and very precise answers to our client’s needs and to the spaces we encounter. It’s a very exciting process, since identity is never stable. It’s continually in motion, formed and re-formed by the diverging traditions of the past, desires for the future and the daily business of the present.
Might this be considered a disadvantage in times when people like to rely on particular brands and recognisable design idioms?
GF: Well, we get very different clients coming to us with very diverse tasks, from all sorts of cultures and backgrounds, and we enjoy finding a very specific solution for each of our projects. A project in China obviously demands a different response to a project in Central Asia, which has a much more Islamic background. A Russian or German project will be different again. It also makes a huge difference whether we are dealing with an individual or a corporate client. Design is something that provokes an intense dialogue, and we usually interact strongly with our clients. It’s fun to work with people who are highly knowledgeable in their fields and know what it is they want.
PI: To put it in a nutshell: Our clients are all very different, so our initial concepts and our responses are as well. This is the beauty of what we could call open narration. Many people look at our work and we are always surprised how different their perceptions of what we do are, depending on where they come from. I might meet someone who says, ‘I love your work. You’re so minimalistic, white, functional …’ Interesting, I think. Then the next person comes along and says your projects are so sensual and they are all about greenery. OK. And then someone asks you about ornament and communication in space. And all of these conflicting aspects have their validity.
Speaking of initial concepts, how do you usually begin a project? You must have developed certain core concepts to achieve different atmospheres.
PI: I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. There is no certified process.
Even after all these years, you don’t follow any winning strategies?
PI: We enjoy meeting people, experiencing their thoughts and ideas. That is where everything begins. And this is the beauty of our work: Almost every day we encounter a new life concept, a new kind of business, a new set-up. And they’re all quite different. We never think in terms of right or wrong. Part of our energy as a studio derives from the fact that we’re not scared to try things and do things. We always aim to be as open and curious as possible.
GF: The most important thing is to go beyond the boundaries of language, to understand what the project is about at a deeper level. We’re curious to experience how somebody expresses him or herself, what he or she is going to use as imagery and reference projects.
PI: You often have a gut feeling about what the project is really about. If you can identify that, it gives you a certain freedom to forget everything you’ve heard before.
Understanding a client
I’m curious to learn more about what you call your gut feeling.
GF: It’s a mixture of having good intuition and being a good listener, who can hear beyond what is being said.
PI: The gut feeling works as follows: Suddenly, you understand what it’s all about, but you don’t get stuck with images, especially not the images your client brings. This is good, because everyone has certain images, desires or ideas in their mind, but it’s not about responding directly, but about finding out what lies behind them. And hopefully coming up with a surprising solution. If this turns out well, reactions are often along the lines of: ‘I never could have imagined that …’ In any case: The solution must always be relevant to the client.
That sounds great, but aren’t there usually constraints in play: such as a limited budget or usability?
GF: A project without budget constraints is fun, of course, but we also love projects where we have to work within a tight budget. This forces you to design more precisely and decide exactly what you want to spend money on. If there are no limits in terms of money, there is always the risk that things become somehow arbitrary. With a tighter budget, you have to concentrate and focus on core ideas.
PI: That’s one aspect. The other is that we design all our projects to be user-centric. They are worked out from the perspective of their potential users. We know very well what happens when you open a door, what you see, what you smell and feel. There is a whole choreography; it is a carefully staged situation. We realise that people might not use it in that way, but at least we know exactly what we trigger through certain elements. Sometimes these are only small moments, so we have to be very sensitive of how clients use the space and what we can achieve with that.
Context is everything to you?
PI: Exactly. Context is not only the place, but, in a wider sense, it has always been a very strong influence in all of our projects. This can range from an actual spatial context that is given by the building or the location, to the functional needs of users, to the expectations, hopes and dreams of our clients or their target groups. In might also encompass a much larger context: that of society. Context is the climate in which we operate. We take as much as possible into account.
That’s a very holistic approach indeed. But you can’t possibly take everything into account.
GF: Correct. We use what seems relevant to the project, but we like context a lot. Schorndorf Town Hall, for example, was a historic building, so we had a very strong context that we had to respect. Das Gerber is embedded in an urban context with all the debate surrounding inner-city shopping malls. If we are dealing with a private home, however, the context is more intimate.
PI: So we try to remain as respectful as possible to what we discover as context, while at the same time being self-confident enough to add our own dimension.
Let us return to something you said before: meeting or surpassing a client’s expectations. This implies understanding him or her. Would you compare your role to that of a psychologist?
PI: No, never. Which brings me to the most important aspect of all. There is literally nothing we could do without the trust of our clients. Our relationship with our clients is at the very core of everything we do. I would attribute the success of our projects to the fact that we usually establish a very intense relationship with our clients.
But how do you make sure you understand a client fully?
PI: I would never say fully, that would be presumptuous. A lot is intuition, you develop a feel for somebody. And we’re all pretty good at developing this kind of feeling. We often get the client to think about how they would use the building, how to navigate through it, how do I work, what am I going to touch, and this produces a very intimate discussion of what you will do in the building. If you do it right, this really establishes a strong degree of trust. If your client feels you actually care, and this is what it’s all about in the end, it allows us to go much further with our client than if you only function as a service provider. When they realise you’re doing something extraordinary for them, they really go with you, they invest in things they might not have seen before. It may sound a cliché, but a lot of our clients became good friends.
Dealing with 75 projects at a time
How many projects are on your desk right now?
PI: I guess I’m working on around 75 projects right now. As I’m working on many projects in parallel, my perception is that all these projects are in constant flow. I often leave a project after the design development phase and return to it when there is a need for a design change during the construction phase.
How do you manage such diversity while going into every detail?
GF: It helps to be methodical. I also now have a lot of experience under my belt and a fantastic team with a wonderful level of energy. The speed our processes have and the flexibility we need to have in the kind of business we’re running is pretty crazy, especially to outsiders. But as you know, we’ve now been doing this for more than 20 years.
You mentioned being methodical. Have you as a person changed a lot in the past two decades?
GF: Well, your expertise and experience certainly grow. We can now react more flexibly to our client’s demands thanks to a larger team and a growing number of specialists. Hardly any project can overwhelm us these days.
PI: Actually I’m still working along the same lines, I would say.
Which you seem to enjoy?
PI: I like it. Some of what I’m doing now I can trace back to old projects I started during my studies and while working in Chicago with Ben [Nicholson]. Yes, I’ve always had an interest in a collage approach, in bringing in other points of view. For my first design at university, I teamed up with a literature student. I’ve always tried to open up my projects and to have more influence than just my little architecture project. When I developed my first design for a doctor, I again collaborated with an artist and a literature student. I’ve always enjoyed collaboration and introducing different people with different viewpoints into my projects. I still love to design, and I’m still in the very fortunate position to do exactly that and not be devoured by a purely management role.
GF: Of course we do have to manage, but our set-up is pretty ideal for us right now.
Telling a straight story is pretty boring
And there really is no common mindset, no winning strategy, no golden rule to follow? It can’t all be down to intuition, can it?
GF: No, of course not. Beyond being very passionate about what we do, we understand our craft. Intuition reflects more a feeling of how far you can go with a client. And what the mindset behind a project is. From there we develop an idea and a strong concept.
PI: There is no project without an idea. And the idea needs to be strong. It can take a little while to develop an idea, sometimes we work on three parallel ideas simultaneously. This actually happens quite often, knowing there is no one definitive answer to a problem. There are always answers in the plural.
GF: And it’s about identifying the right one, especially since briefings are not getting any better. Often the first step is to find different answers so you can discuss with the client what the potential consequences might be, what it could mean for the positioning of a brand.
PI: The first image is always the first image, but it has consequences about how the whole project looks and feels, and what it has to do with a wider context, and that is quite helpful. We often develop two or three concepts and discuss them all with the client to make sure we have really understood the problem. And also that the client has understood the problem with all its ramifications, which is often even more important. Out of that evolves a strong concept. The idea informs everything in the project, you can follow it into the smallest detail of the furniture.
Would you call yourself a storyteller?
PI: We prefer to call ourselves identity architects (laughs out loud). Storytelling is a big thing right now, you know. I think this notion has been somewhat overinflated. Let me put it differently: When we first started out, we were quite aware (and still are today) that everything we do here, be it visual strategy, the building, the interior, everything we design here, is ultimately communication. That’s our belief. Call it storytelling or what you will, we are always communicating with the user in whatever we do. The question of communication is key to our work, and I like that better than storytelling. But yes, of course, part of communication is making a conscious decision about how you tell the story.
GF: The goal of many of our projects is to create spaces that live through their complexity. It’s about discovery and not being able to comprehend a room at a single glance, but instead discovering details on repeated visits.
PI: We believe it’s pretty boring to tell a straight story. It’s more about defining an atmosphere of intimacy, where you discover something you think you remember, but can’t quite put your finger on, and then you fill it with your own associations.
GF: We like shapes that conjure up an association, without exactly knowing where it comes from, playing with collective and subjective memories and creating an atmosphere where you jump in with your own story. Telling the story yourself is always the best way, because you adopt the design as part of your own narrative, rather than being given a narration that is there whether you like it or not.
Still, there is great appeal in a straight story. It’s clear, it’s functional …
PI: Functionality is a craft. We love a good floorplan that is well-crafted and worked out to the finest detail. But it is still craftsmanship. What we really enjoy is complexity in narration. And this is what we call architecture.
Saying yes to new opportunities
There is a wonderful complexity to your work that appears to evolve quite easily. How do you decide which design paths to follow?
PI: It is always a back and forth. Sometime you need to have more courage, but you can’t find a way to express it properly, it’s just a formal solution and you have to pull back again. Sometimes you go way too far and again you have to pull back. You have to veer off to the left and to the right, this is all part of the game. Some projects you just drop and know that the decision was right, and with some projects, you have to struggle for weeks before you get to the point where you feel you have an appropriate answer.
GF: We try hard not to get stuck in a formalistic attitude. If the idea is strong, it will find the right means of expression.
PI: If you do stuff only because you think it’s funky, it tends to be the wrong thing to do. It needs to come out of the project and out of a strong idea. How loud or how subtle it is has a lot to do with what the project needs to achieve. A commercial project in a busy environment sometimes needs to be louder than a private space, but this also depends a lot on the client.
Sometimes this isn’t the case? Sometimes silence is a wonderful answer to a busy environment?
PI: Exactly. Sometimes the opposite is true and a private project is very loud because the client is like that, or a public project is subtle, reflecting the business around it. But again, this depends on having a strong concept, a strong idea.
GF: That has always been our goal. Not only to produce visually striking projects, but intelligent ones. We like smart projects.
Would you call yourself a collector? You collect things like mirrors or awards and display them, you collect talented people for your team, you collect ideas from all over the world.
PI: Probably not so much a collector as a collagist. That’s what I’ve always been good at: taking things out of context and reassembling them in a way that makes more sense, or creating a new sense. I’ve always found collage very appealing, as a form of art as well as architecture.
Is this what drives you?
PI: Obviously we have a desire to design our environment. And we love what we do. Which is important, because if you don’t love what you do, how could you do projects which have love in them? We enjoy meeting with people, we enjoy travelling the world and working on projects in far-flung places, meeting the unexpected. We really enjoy projects we’ve never done before in places we’ve never been to before. These are the ones I always say yes to right away.
GF: We love to jump straight into cold water and start swimming. Our studio loves adventures. We’ve always been open to unexpected projects, responding to them in unorthodox ways.
As identity architects, how do you see your own identity?
PI: First of all, identity is never a stable thing. As we define it, it’s always a mixture of outside and inside perception, so you have to balance these two things. And if you’ve got that in tune, you have a good place to start. I’m certainly someone who was defined by having an Italian father and a German mother, a Sicilian, catholic, socialist father and protestant mother. Growing up between these two cultures nourished my collagist energy. I’ve also always had a good sense of touch and sensuality combined with the protestant work ethic of getting things done.
GF: I’m certainly influenced by my family background. My grandfather was an architect and builder. I grew up playing in construction workshops. As a teenager, I was fascinated by craftsmanship and the business culture of a socially minded, family-run building firm.
Identity can be influenced by strong personalities. When I was fifteen, I got to know Everard in London. He was a great history of art intellectual. Through him, I became fascinated with the complexity of our art and architectural history. My background and interest in the arts lead me on to study architecture.
The beauty of our profession is to work closely with people, and have a visual and cultural output.
An identity needs to live, to grow, react, redefine itself. This is what happens to our studio and to ourselves all the time. There might be a stable idea at the core of what we are, and this keeps us together, but our identity as a whole can change from project to project.
Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to be a German design studio?
PI: A lot of people hire us because they say we make German design, and I never really know what they’re talking about (he bursts into laughter). Of course I do know what they mean, but I don’t identify with it. We definitely bring secondary virtues on the craftsmanship side to our projects, and this is something we enjoy being very good at. This is an absolute asset, especially on the international market.
GF: Being a German studio opens a lot of doors to us right now. Germany is a very valued member of the international community. This has a lot to do with the current political climate and this might change, but right now our reputation is quite high, and this helps.
PI: It helps to get a project, but it never makes you successful. You need to be totally flexible to adapt to your client without losing your edge in guiding them. Otherwise you’d be a very unhappy person. And that doesn’t help anyone. You need to be happy (laughs again). And your client needs to be happy, and then you’ll find a way of handling the project. This is a balancing act, of course. To push a client further, yet remain responsive enough to know when you have to let go, especially in cultures where decision-making processes are completely different to ours, not as rational or linear as in Germany. This is something you have to learn, otherwise you cannot succeed.
Being successful beyond commercial success
Designers are often seen as trendsetters, at least two or three steps ahead of their time. With this in mind, where would you position yourself in comparison to other design studios?
PI: This way of thinking is not relevant to us. We rarely compare ourselves to other design studios. We are competitive, we love good work and we acknowledge work that is totally different to ours. We never think in terms of ahead or behind. And we’re not jealous of others. I’m very much interested in what we are doing right now. The whole idea of the studio has never been to be ahead, but to excel in what we do.
GF: The question I hate most in interviews is the trend question. It doesn’t interest me, and frankly, I don’t have an answer. Of course we’re part of a society that has particular interests and mega trends, we are aware of them, but the term trendsetter seems to be overly concerned with ensuring you are ahead of certain developments. We prefer to focus on relevant answers for our clients.
PI: Of course we believe in success, that’s what drives our studio, but success goes beyond commercial success. Money is important, but not so important. What’s essential is that you feel you have found the relevant answer, one that excites clients and users alike. That goes beyond ‘well done’ or ‘good work’ or ‘yes, it’s successful in terms of numbers’. It should touch the user. This is far more important than all these objective parameters of approach. Then it’s real success. As long as we’re there, we’re doing pretty well. That is what we’re aiming for, and in fact this is a lot. So we don’t care about trends or whether we are trendsetting.
Money? Your answer was almost a paraphrase of the character Helmut in Night on Earth, a clown and expatriate of the GDR now working as a taxi driver in New York City. He said: ‘Money? I need it, but it’s not important’.
PI: I’ve worked pretty much since I was 13, and I always liked doing something for my money. At the same time I’ve never cared about money. I’ve always spent too much and I’ve always had enough. If I start thinking more about money than what it is I’m doing, then I will get tight and lose my playfulness. For us as a studio, we believe in a certain easiness and generosity in dealing with money without being overly naïve, of course.
GF: Today we carry a big responsibility for our team, so we care about the numbers and make damn sure we can pay our bills. It’s not just about naivety. But if you think big, you get big. You have to be generous with your thoughts to begin with, then things will happen. But if you’re tight, then you’re always going to be small.
Building the perfect team
What do you expect of your team, especially of new people applying for a job?
GF: I guess we’re a very demanding studio. What we’re looking for are high-energy, open-minded, curious people, not those who wait for someone to tell them what to do. We like good listeners, those with the courage to go for something. And they also need to be somewhat stress-resistant.
PI: It’s a challenge, to be perfectly honest. We grew into this situation. Our studio is an intense organism, especially for new employees it can be quite a tough transition. There is nobody waiting for you, you have to jump right in. For people who love this kind of energy, it’s a perfect place to work. We give a lot of responsibility to people if we feel the energy is right. Sometimes, even an intern can lead a great project if we feel he or she is able to cope with it, of course with the help of the team. It’s really all based on energy.
Just to clarify your way of team-building. There are no fixed teams, everything is constantly changing?
PI: We like to call the way we work ‘spaghetti organisation’. As our workload changes so quickly and dynamically, it’s difficult to maintain fixed teams as a general rule. Right now we carry out some 160 projects a year, which means 3 projects a week coming in on average. Not every project is a construction project, of course, but we consider every project a project that we will ultimately invoice, it could be a study, a business card or whatever.
Everything is going faster these days …
GF: Timeframes are ridiculously short. You can get a huge project in a two-line email. Something like ‘Hey, call me! We have an interesting project to design, 5000 m² …’ and so on. You meet the guy a week later and have to deliver the first design two weeks after that.
There are still your two names on the doorbell: Ippolito Fleitz. Could you see the studio growing into a huge company? **
**PI: When we first started out we only had one client. Then at some point someone told us we’ll need a tax adviser, so we got one … There is a certain, let me put it like this, positive naivety in play. As much as we are strategic with our clients, the same does not apply to our own setup. Still today, there is no master plan for where we want to be in five years, not in terms of quantity at least.
GF: We have always wanted to deliver good work. Some years ago, we decided to take things to the next level and change our structures. As much as we are curious in our projects, we are curious to see how this works out. For us as designers running a studio, I see this change as part of our personal growth. We have created a community that grows as a team. A lot of projects we do right now are only possible because we are a much bigger studio.
PI: Right now, I’d say we don’t want to be a 300-people studio, but how do I know what the future will bring? The short answer is: We have never defined our success by the number of people working for us. The be-all and end-all for us is that we continue to do excellent work.