Modular Man

Futuristic, visionary, flexible, modular: all words that have been used to describe the work of Werner Aisslinger. The Berlin-based architect/product designer rocked the design world in 2003 with the first prototype of Loftcube—a self-contained, customizable pod designed to be docked on flat rooftops, hooked into the host buildings’ water and power systems and lived in by urban nomads. Those who have since seen the Loftcube at design fairs around the world are impressed by not only its parasite-architecture, portable-penthouse concept but also by its Jetson-esque look.

Also known for his boundary-bending approach to new materials, a penchant for modularity, and edgy chairs that have landed in the permanent collections of such world-class museums as the MoMA, Metropolitan, and Vitra Design Museum, Aisslinger continues to produce furniture design for top companies like Cappellini or Zanotta. He has recently taken on major commissions, among them developing the entire interior concept of the slick Hotel Daniel in Graz, Austria. All this at the same time as creating a modular office system for Vitra called Level 34, and now the fine-tuned version of Loftcube, which was on view at Milan’s Salone internazionale del Mobile in mid-April.

Here, the ebullient and prolific designer—who recently returned full-time to Berlin after nearly two years of living in the Italian countryside, where he concentrated on family and developing prototypes—discusses his design philosophy, new moveable projects, and the importance of archetypes.

Looking at Loftcube or Level 34, it seems as if your work has a lot to do with mobility and modularity. How important are these concepts to you?
Mobility isn’t necessarily something I searched for, but modularity interests me incredibly. I’ve been working with modules for a long time—shelving systems and such. Modularity is good for the user; over the course of a lifetime, furniture can change and be further modified.

On the other hand it’s also smart from the industrial end of things. From manufacturing to warehouse storage to shipping, it’s much simpler if you have a building-block system. As a designer, modularity makes things more complicated—you have to be very exact in seeing how things work, whether screws are visible or not—but for the user, it’s worth it.

Is the Loftcube you showed in Milan the final version?
Yes, it was never truly finished before. The final strcutre’s been done for a year, but we had to work out some bugs and complete the kitchen and bath. Now the problems have been solved to the very last detail. Milan was the first time we showed the finished product.

How different is it from the prototype you first showed at Designmai 2003 in Berlin?
Back then the interior was a bit improvised, now it’s more atmospheric and we’re using true products in the interior. We’ve done the kitchen with Bulthaup, the bath with Dupont-Corian, and Miele is sponsoring some of the kitchen appliances. We’re even offering furnishing ideas, like a sofa and bed by Spanish furniture manufacturer Joquer, lighting with DAB, and a Vitra sideboard with my Level 34 system and some floor lamps.

Did you showing anything else in Milan?
I’m doing an armchair with Viccarbe that has a plastic seat shell made with a rotational molding method that will have fabric covers in various colors. And there’s also “gap”, a thin stackable plywood chair that I designed for Fornasarig— a 200-year-old Italian manufacturer based in Veneto. And two knit armchairs.

Knit chairs?
It’s difficult to really wrap your head around it, but it’s been my own little project for the past year and half. They’re prototypes I’m doing myself, without a manufacturer.

There are two worlds in knitting—textile knitting and technical knitting. In technical knitting you can work with synthetic fibers, but also metals like stainless steel. There are firms that do this for the automotive industry, especially in Germany. You can make some really incredible stuff by programming the machines to knit in 3-D or produce thick 3cm knit. In our two prototypes, the frame structure is made of a stainless steel tube, and the fiber of the “garment” is strong polyester in various colors and knitting structures. This allows it to be used outdoors.

What’s the difference between doing chairs and creating entire spaces like Loftcube or Hotel Daniel?
It’s a different headspace for each. With a space you have to think of surface, texture—the entire composition. It’s like creating a collage. But technically it’s simpler. Product development is much more technically difficult. Every screw has to be thought out. Product development and spaces are two different worlds—but I like to do it all.

So you’re open to all kinds of projects.
My long-term goal is to open the spectrum. With all the three-dimensional objects one could do around the world, I’d like to move beyond furniture as much as possible. I find it interesting when you can shift your work into other areas. For example, right now I’m working on a trailer, an RV and a dock, which is more of a houseboat, a true nautical object. The trailer’s really spacey, not boxy, and you can put bikes and other things on it like an SUV. An Airstream would be the closest thing to it. The RV is a private commission; the houseboat a real “serial” product.

And what about “Book,” which you first showed in Cologne in 2006? It’s so simple but so clever. It’s furniture, but it’s not.
It’s a playful, poetic building-block concept, from which you can create your own room dividers from old books. That’s one of those projects where you think, “Didn’t someone do this before?” Something like this becomes archetypical, so to speak. It’s not a project that’s about earning money, but a statement project. It has to do with modularity as well.

You do a lot of “statement” projects, don’t you?
Yes, but not exclusively. Some projects need to make a profit, of course. But the response to statement projects is greater. People find them interesting. If I hadn’t done Loftcube, I wouldn’t be doing the houseboat—the client knew about me through the Loftcube. I didn’t know anything about designing boats, but it doesn’t matter.

Everything you do as an experimental project returns to you at some point. Even if it’s an economic disaster at the time or it’s nonprofit or you lose money. The commercial and ideal have to do with one another; the commercial profits from the experimental.

Have you already sold some Loftcubes?
In the past three years there’ve been 10,000 requests from 33 countries for the 39 square-meter model (460 square feet – the cube is also available in a 55-square meter/588 square-foot size). A lot of people who find it interesting want to buy it. But as I mentioned, we hadn’t worked out all the details. Now that we’ve figured out issues like transport and heating, we can offer it with the accessories I mentioned.

It’s manufactured and distributed by a company called Loftcube GmbH, founded by southern German businessman Christian Friedrich. A couple of people absolutely want it but it hasn’t shipped yet. But I hope that in three or four months, you’ll see it around.

And then?
I’d like to see a kind of rooftop community. Hotel Daniel now wants to put a Loftcube on top of the property. The building’s near the train station in Graz and it would be visible from everywhere. It’s a great idea. Claus Sendlinger, founder of the Design Hotels Group, and I are also thinking about how to integrate Loftcubes into the booking system of design hotels, either on the tops of hotels or as a roof community in itself. We have to see if this works.

Is Loftcube a reflection of a modern, nomadic society or do you think people are perhaps more nomadic because things like this now exist?
That’s kind of like the chicken or egg question. With the Loftcube it was the right project at the right moment in 2003, especially for the media. At the time the project fit into discussions of parasite architecture, nomadic architecture, modular housing, and mobility. But we’ll find out soon whether this is really something people want.

Maybe the public will think it’s too complicated or expensive and they’ll just check in to a hotel. It does hit a nerve somewhere, but whether it hits a consumer nerve remains to be seen. Are people really nomads, taking their houses with them like snails? And do they want to live in communities on roofs?

Would you live in it?
I’d live in it, but I have kids now and we wouldn’t fit! I could imagine setting it on a piece of lakeside property. Or you could put it in Berlin or another city and have a mini-house for when you’re there. It’s great for people in a city on business for half the year or for people who live alone or in couples. For four, five, six people it wouldn’t work, but you could group a few together.

Who do you design for?
I don’t have a special customer in mind. Some companies say they’ve done a market study and they know what’s coming next, and ask you to “make something that fits”. I don’t want to fulfill a market study. I’d rather set trends myself. And I work for the companies who swim ahead of the mainstream, not follow it.

But it’s also important to think about a product’s half-life, and whether you’d want to live with it yourself. The things I have at home are the things I did uncompromisingly, like the Nic chair. I never want to be just fashionable. Sometimes my style hits a nerve, but for me it’s more about making thing things that last ten, 20, 30 years that are also aesthetic. Things have to have something archetypal.

You’ve said that when design is good, it captures a kind of soul.
It’s hard to give a shelf or sideboard soul, but if you make something organic—a chair, or an armchair—you can give it more emotion. One component of the soul has to do with archetypes—you see a bicycle and you know it’s a bicycle; it has two wheels, a seat. A chair is like this, too—you recognize it as a chair.

The second component is that people are attracted to forms that evoke associations that have to do with nature. And texture can also make things more emotional. But you can’t just think, “I’m going to make a soulful object.” Either it works, or it doesn’t. It’s more of a coincidence.

You’ve had a few good ones! Would you consider Loftcube your masterpiece, if we could go so far as to use the word?
It is one of my masterpieces. The first was the juli chair, designed for Cappellini in 1996—the first German chair design since 1964 selected for the MoMA collection. The second was the “soft” chaise designed for Zanotta in 2000.

These are the things that make you well-known outside Germany; it’s like you’re the German poster boy of design.
Really? And here we sit in our small office in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin! That’s good to know.

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