Malte Wagenfeld spoke with Lovegrove about his ideas on organic design, his environmental and humanitarian concerns and his unique approach to his work.
You have a very deep commitment to design and its relationship to humanity and the environment. Where do you believe this commitment stems from?
I grew up living in a housing estate in Wales; there were four kids, it was very tough. In the 60s and 70s the working classes were the guinea pigs for all new products derived from industrialisation.
I had a new pair of shoes; they were made by Paul Bear and were plastic slip ons. I kept bending them to try to age them but they would just not wear.
I got exposed to new Formica tops, linoleum floors, synthetic cushions, a print on the wall rather than a painting, curtains made from a weird polymer weave. Food was very much processed, packaged, stacked and so on.
But because we were also relatively poor, you learnt to reheat, recycle and be generally very resourceful and I think this is a fairly normal thing and I think everybody should do that.
I try not to leave food on the plate; it is a matter of habit. I have been bred with this resourcefulness and I think this is not a bad thing. But this sense of resourcefulness is not necessarily a common condition anymore.
Not anymore because things are too easy. I remember I was in an exhibition in 1991, I got Bic razors and made this thing that looked like this phoenix, that highlighted how easy it is to change things but how difficult it is to get rid of things.
This is very much a background condition to appreciating anything and everything for what it is.
When I was a child we had bags of firewood delivered in brown paper bags. I was five or six and I used to nail this wood together and make cross bows and amazing guns, I couldn’t afford to buy these things.
But at the end of the day my dad would throw it on the fire. So I also learnt not to be precious about my own creativity.
What led you to industrial design?
I draw very well, but there never seemed to be any future in that. It was always seen as a kind of hobby. I was inventive, so I always thought that I could be an inventor of some sort, industrial design puts those two together.
When I arrived at arts college I did a year of a foundation course where you did everything, sculpture, ceramics, the whole gambit. At the end of the foundation year you were interviewed to establish what you are really good at and what you might do.
Then I thought about industrial design and I realised that that was something that would never go away. We need light switches, we need cutlery, we need televisions, we need shoes; everything is designed by this rare and fairly unglamorous breed, the industrial designer.
You say to someone you are doing industrial design and they will say to you, ‘Oh good I have a problem with my car can you help me?’. It is how to apply creativity to good effect; it is bringing something of value to people. It’s an art form, as I see it – you are inventive.
It is an amazing profession, but at that time it was not groovy. If you weren’t splashing paint on a canvas you were nobody. It takes a lot of courage not to get drawn into that if you want to be in the ‘in and groovy’ crowd, you were the nerdy guy.
Can you explain your fascination with technology and the possibilities and promises it may hold?
We are in a world of increasing levels of technology, technology we can and can’t see. When I was starting out I didn’t know anything, I just had to guess. I was always respectful of technology. In those days it was fairly rudimentary. It was very apparent and straight forward and there is a beauty in that.
Whereas today if you pick up an iPod, you know it is stuffed to the corners with technology and you do not understand anything. What do you do, do you begin with what you know, where you say, ‘If I touch that button that will happen?’
Technology is intriguing but at the same time you shouldn’t be a slave to technology. Give me a wooden spoon any day, I don’t need to stir my stirfry with a spoon that tells me the temperature.
There has to be room for just normal instinctive life, and there is a pretence in assuming that first world societies with our technology are better than other societies that do not have it. So I retain this very primordial view and I am not sucked into this argument. But I do have this thirst for technology.
I cut an article out of the paper about the Rolex award which awarded someone (Dave Irvine Halliday) for a project in which he lit up an entire rural village with less power than was used by a 100 watt light, that’s fantastic. I would like to have a chance to be connected with something like that.
You dream about how the future could unfold and then go about trying to give this vision form by using your office as a sort of experimental laboratory. Not many industrial designers do this, architects are perhaps a little better known for this search.
I think a comparison with architecture is a good one. I spend much of my time with architects. And when you spend your time with world-class architects who are doing city planning and stuff of that scale and then someone turns around and says, ‘Can you design a set of cutlery?’
It just doesn’t seem to have any gravitas really. But we do need to be careful not to loose sight of everyday things.
My work is divided, not so black and white, you have form on one hand and technology on the other and I like it when they converge like the staircase.
The idea is once in your life you can say I have no idea but I am going to do this thing because I am involved with problem solving everyday of my life and I don’t think that is what I should be doing everyday.
On the other hand, should I have been designing a building with all my thoughts on solar energy and temperature controls and so on? Should I have been doing that?
I have a terrible guilt running through me – would I let myself down on beliefs in alternative energy and light permeability, if I let myself go down the form route?
There is a chance to amalgamate the art with the technology and that is what defines for me a new physicality and our future. You go to New York, I don’t find that city remotely modern, it is really old fashioned, the run down alley ways and so on.
One way of looking at this is to take Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao which is covered in titanium and which is very beautiful because of the play of light, especially at seven o’clock in the evening.
If Gehry’s building were covered in solar cells it would have been demonstrably better, would have been shockingly beautiful; the solar cell would have integrated wonderfully into that crystalline surface.
It would have probably been the same price, that would have been a great positive message to send out for human kind, but he didn’t do it. I would have liked to have done that.
You are optimistic about what you call biometric design, the idea that you can grow objects and grow buildings. How do you explain such a paradigm shift?
One is controllable and the other is not even comprehensible. We say that an axe head is not grown, it is manufactured, it is fashioned as a tool for living and survival.
The same man or woman who made that axe head was made the same way we are. Think about it, a foetus only needs a bit of cabbage or something to grow, it is absolutely amazing.
A number of years ago we were somewhere in southern France near a pool and there was a dragon fly flying over it, a big one, and it flew over it for about an hour. It was darting about extremely quickly.
I was talking to my son about what sort of fuel or battery is in there, where does the energy come from. It was flying about like an Apache attack helicopter for an hour, it was amazing.
So I think, we grow, we are organic, we have hard and soft elements and yet we have a perception that the objects around us have to be hard, rigid and constructed.
When you swim in the sea and see the fish you feel as though you are going back to your origin, there is a sensorial at oneness which I think is not there in a lot of the things that people even like myself create because of the condition of how we do things. It is not my fault; it is just the way it is.
So I am trying to spark up a bit of a debate. The thought that things have their own life-cycle and are integrated into the ecology of our world. Nature does that, it grows trees and forests and all that stuff. We are an alien force that has concreted over half of our planet and I am not sure if that is a good thing.
What are your concerns with consumerism and the social and environmental consequences of this?
It is a matter of where the core influences lie. In the 1920s there was an advertising man, I cannot remember his name, and he identified that we have shifted from a culture of need to a culture of want.
If you go back say 250 or so years, if you wanted something you had to make it. You couldn’t go to a shop and buy it. You were engaged in the understanding of were the material was coming from, now we aren’t.
I express very openly my instinctive concern that things are too cheap. That goes against the whole grain of what I am supposed to say. That is why you never hear any designers saying this.
Philippe Starck talks about finding ways to make a chair ‘cheaper, cheaper, cheaper so it can be sold to everybody around the world’. Well come on, for god’s sake!
Hasn’t this been done many times?
Yes it has been done in an unpretentious way, the archetypal white garden chair that you see on balconies from Cairo to Lyon. They stack, they are impermeable, they are comfortable.
You have to be aware that there is this parallel world of design that will always have more effect on people than the elitist world of design. I see nothing wrong with the idea of doing something better and selling it for more, because you will naturally sell less.
You have said that if a hair dryer sells for 1.5 Euro it ultimately loses its monetary value as you can no longer measure its value by its price and that this condition may in fact create a new value system. How do you imagine this may play out?
The new value system – which is the only one that makes any sense to me – is one where you would not own anything, you’d rent it.
What this would do is shift the responsibility onto manufacturers who would have to ensure a very clean system and incorporate the true value of everything into the thing that is produced, including cleaning the water, air and energy.
When the thing is at the end of its natural life or when people want a new one, that responsibility is held by the company, so although this diminishes their profits, everybody is OK.
You originally thought of becoming a chef. Can you talk a little bit about your fascination with cooking? You mentioned that designers need to cook more.
If I had any free time I would love to take a can of white resin or such, and add some sugar and some fibres and so on and put it in a mould and make a table or something and see what I have done.
People should have time to mess around a bit more even at a high level, not just as students. This is totally instinctive. It may not fit the image of the glossy white staircase, but internally you need to do this to get to the glossy white staircase.
My water bottle is not unique. It is just blowing a balloon into a form. I was in the factory saying to a guy: ‘What is the problem? It is just blowing a balloon into a form.’ He said ‘the split line will show.’ I said so what, ‘we will machine it out’.
It is just basic observation and having a little bit of stubbornness to say, ‘don’t give me that, I know it is possible’. What is your motivation? Are we just going to sell another piece of mediocrity? I am not interested in this. Better to sit down and read a book.
It is hard finding the right balance, earning a living, provocation, not being too weird. I am currently working with a big airline company and I cannot afford to be weird. I have to make sure they can build it and all that; otherwise it is me being self indulgent.