Philipp Mainzer
© e15

Philipp Mainzer: “It just depends on how you use it”

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Short Profile

Name: Philipp Mainzer
DOB: 23 October 1969
Place of birth: Mainz, Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany
Occupation: Product designer

Mr. Mainzer, what does it take for you to feel at home in a space?

Books are super important for me, we have stacks of books all over our flat in Frankfurt. Art is key as well, we have a lot of paintings and photography… It’s actually a lot of friends, Mark Borthwick, for example, from Brooklyn, New York, is a dear friend. We have a few of his pictures. Ingmar Kurth does all of our furniture photography, so we have some of his pieces, too. A nice selection of furniture is of course important — but not too much.

Not quite the answer one would expect from a furniture designer.

Well, we’d rather have a nice piece than two not so nice pieces. The set up in our flat, for example, is very simple. I like classics… “Home” is very much linked to the selection of pieces, that you can sense that somebody actually has put his personal idea in there.

“A good design is when it doesn’t look designed. It should look well thought-through, well-selected, but it shouldn’t look too distant.”

Does that take away from the spontaneity when it comes to purchasing things for your home?

It terms of furniture, that doesn’t happen to me very often… But maybe because we don’t need any! I find my relationship to the pieces we own grows very slowly since it takes so long for us to decide on what to buy — there’s two of us, myself and my wife, making that decision after all. After 15 years we still haven’t put any light fixtures up yet! We’ve had all our pieces for a long time and we’re quite happy with it. We have a long table which I love, it’s 360 centimeters long — and the kids play there and there’s a section where we work and there’s books and then there’s a section where we eat.

How much of it is your own designs for e15?

I think it’s important to mix: antiques, vintage pieces, design classics… Ikea we don’t like so much. But even at our company, you can do a nice apartment with all e15 furniture, that’s the idea, it’s not this typical Italian thing where you buy into one brand and then it looks sterile and fake, and you look like you’re sitting in one of these ads. We want our furniture to lend itself to combine with other products very well, to blend in with other collections at any price point. I think a good design for furniture and for interiors is when it doesn’t look designed. It should look well thought-through, well-selected, but it shouldn’t look too distant.

No one wants to live in a museum. 

Yes, sometimes it feels like you can’t touch anything, and that’s wrong. A well-designed piece should still allow you to move it and change and use it. In the home especially, there should be a sense of warmth in how you place the furniture, it shouldn’t be too designed but more natural, very simple.

Warmth is also a very important part of your design process, right?

Right, wood is a very warm material; it’s a very natural material. People are very used to it, they’re very familiar with it. They’ve been making furniture with it for thousands of years… At e15 use this particular wood with very wide boards so you get the full grain, all the knots and cracks, and then we just oil it — it’s not lacquered. As soon as you put a lacquer on it, you sort of kill it and it becomes distant, but the oiled matte finish, you actually get the depth. Wood has this magic. But warmth is really in how you design the product.

Does this count for materials like concrete and marble as well?

Concrete, sure. Marble is also a warm material, it has a lot of character and naturalness to it. Steel as well, it just depends on how you use it. Same with aluminum… But if you use aluminum with steel and glass and lacquer, then it becomes cold!

What about the addition of technology — does that futurist aspect mean a design becomes cold?

No, but it would definitely take away. You can’t focus on it anymore. A certain amount of technology is good, I mean, we’re all used to it, we have iPhones, for instance but for us personally, we don’t need it. Some people like it, but… We’re low-tech: we have wi-fi, we have a television… But these Smart homes where you can control everything from the music and lights to the doors and windows and heating… That’s a lot. I don’t think you really need it.

It’s funny that people seem to be easily trusting of such forward-thinking technology-integrated design, and yet I read that years ago, people were skeptical of your wood furniture. Times have changed.

Exactly, when we did the first furniture fair in 1996 in Cologne, people were laughing at us for what we did. Even the way we use the wood, with the cracks and knots, this you can see really a lot now in design, even though in the beginning, people would say to us, “You can’t use this, you can’t use wood that’s faulty.” But wood is never faulty! The Japanese have done it all their lives with wabi-sabi, when you appreciate the faults that make the product even more perfect.

And now large furniture pieces made of wood are everywhere. Do you think pieces like your Bigfoot table helped that development?

Yeah, for sure. I have to say yes! (Laughs) But our products are still different: they are very reduced in shape, very pure and that gives them a global approach, a simple design that is hopefully timeless.

How do you approach timelessness with design?

Our products, if you isolate them, they’re very simple. They’re not connected to any particular time or trend or style. That’s the secret to making them timeless. We try to avoid combining too many materials because as soon as you start combining materials and colors, it becomes very much connected to one particular time. For example, if you look at walnut, a dark brown with a stainless steel, it’s a very particular typology of eighties design.

It’s true that a timeless product actually doesn’t stand out, but blends in.

Yes, so if you have just a pure solid wood product, you can’t really place it anymore. I always use the word generic when talking about this timeless quality. It’s a very negative word actually — our PR lady always tells me, “Don’t use that word!” (Laughs) But I can never find a better one.