Summer Talk #3: Sebastian Bergne
an interview by MATHIAS SCHWARTZ-CLAUSS
Sebastian is a British industrial designer renowned for making everyday objects special with his essential and human approach to design. Two years ago, he gave a workshop called “Gravity” and will be back this summer with another one called "Balance", in collaboration with Franziska Kessler.
What in your life brought you to become a designer?
Sebastian: How long is your film? (laugh) Well as a child I had a lot of difficulties at school. I was dyslexic and I had certain interests which were more in the creative direction, what you could describe as artistic interests. It was something I was good at, and you tend to gravitate towards the things that you are good at.
What interests you today if you look at the contemporary design scene?
Sebastian: I think the design world has changed a lot since I started. When I started working in design, it was still more or less an anonymous subject. Let’s say it was not a subject of common interest to the public.
For the past 20 years, it has changed enormously, for the good and for the bad I think. It has become a fashionable subject to study and a fashionable profession to want to do, which is good. But at the same time, I think the values have changed, because it's under the spotlight. I always liked how the effort which goes into things is hidden. How it is just used by people and enjoyed by people, without getting into all the complication of why did the person did it this way or not. They just use it.
"I always liked how the effort which goes into things is hidden. How it is just used by people and enjoyed by people."
What are the main concerns of your design?
Sebastian: Initially I'm interested in doing a good job for my client, whoever that might be. So to me, solving that problem is still the most important thing to satisfy when you're designing something.
You are competing with other designers. Why would a client choose you, what is your identity?
Sebastian: I bring to the things that I design, not only a good solution, but something that adds a little bit of character, or a little bit of a difference to an object. An intelligent solution but with a little bit of a sense of humor or a bit of a character, some aspect which is a little bit clever… Something well designed but with just a little extra human touch.
I wonder when you say a little twist or a little bit of an extra...
Sebastian: I say this because you don't need very much in a design to make it special. You only need one idea. People are not able to digest too much at the same time. It is actually often about removing stuffs. You might start with a lot of ideas and you have to find the strongest way forward. I like design which is very clear and concise. If you think of different things that I've done, most of them are kind of distilled, they have one clear idea.
Are you, as a designer, rather trying to find a universal language? Or are you trying to give identity to one specific target group?
Sebastian: I like the idea that as many people as possible will understand and like what I do. In that sense I'm trying to be universal. But an object can also have different levels of understanding of course. When you make something you might have your first impression of the object. Just like when you meet a person for the first time, you have a first impression: you like them or not, they are tall or small or whatever... And maybe there is a first idea of how you understand the product. Then when you spend a bit more time, you get to know the object better. One day you turn it upside down, look underneath and you think “oh, this is quite well put together and I can actually take it apart and do this with it, or use it in another way which I didn't think about in the beginning”. So you unravel and discover more levels about something.
But yourself as a designer are not in control of all that. It's nice to think that someone might enjoy an object for different reasons, and might appreciate some of the small details that you put in which is maybe hardly noticeable at first glance.
"When you make something you might have your first impression of the object. Just like when you meet a person for the first time..."
In your presentation yesterday, you showed a large variety of objects: from this Tefal cooking device to the lego. It is quite a wide range. And you have been in the business for more than 20 years now. How far do you find you are diversifying your capacities and how far do you find that you are specializing?
Sebastian: Looking back, I find that there are different phases. Sometimes you become more interested and therefore kind of specialized in a certain area for a while. And then maybe you get less interested in it and you take other opportunities which push you into other areas. So it goes in waves. But generally speaking, I've always enjoyed diversity.
For a while I was more concerned about establishing myself as a designer, just doing stuffs and getting it out there. That was my main motivation. Today, I've proved to myself that I can do certain kinds of things. So in terms of professional achievement, when you've ticked off certain things and you feel more confident about doing your job, you are more relaxed. And therefore you're looking for other interests to stimulate you, to get further with your profession.
Do other artistic disciplines still consciously influence your work as a designer?
Sebastian: Yes they do. I tend to get interested in things as a general subject and then I find interests which might come from science or from art. So it's not so much within a certain discipline but more across a discipline. For example, this week's theme at Boisbuchet is "gravity”. And this is kind of a scientific phenomenon, right? But the way I look at it is how gravity as a subject is used, referred to and addressed in different disciplines: in art, in film, in fashion, in advertising etc. So it is a horizontal approach across different disciplines. That's how I tend to look at a subject.
Could you describe how you are organizing your work?
Sebastian: I have a small studio. We are usually 3 to 5 people, depending on how busy. And I lead the creative process on all projects. The people who work with me are primarily there to support and to facilitate the projects. That being being said, there is a conversation between us, obviously. Because it tends to be a small team, there is a sense of responsibility. At the beginning, we always discuss a project with everyone, just to get general input, and then I distill what I consider to be my main directional interest. And from there, we work towards creating some kind of result.
3 to 5 people you said. That's a very small team for the amount of work you are producing, that's very efficient.
Sebastian: Yes. Well, it doesn't always feel very efficient, but we do produce quite a lot of work for such a small studio, it's true. First, I discuss a subject quite a lot, and then I move quickly to one, two or three directions I believe are promising in terms of developing an idea. Once I become clear about how I imagine something to be, it's just a question of building it.
"Once I become clear about how I imagine something to be, it's just a question of building it."
What do you want the participants of your workshop to experience in these 6 days?
Sebastian: The most important thing is that they achieve something they didn't imagine they could do. I think most people come here with preconceptions. And either they will be disappointed, or pleasantly surprised. Surprising yourself, being surprised by this kind of experience, is something truly great. In most educational processes, it's quite prescribed. You kind of know at the beginning what it’s about: you'll be doing a course in this, you know the outline of the course, it's quite predictable in a way. At Boisbuchet, I like that they can do something which is unpredictable.
Is there anything you aim to leave behind professionally?
Sebastian: I like to think that I had the opportunity to create a comprehensive understanding of my work. It's a question of feeling understood. At the moment, I don't feel that way yet. If you work a lot, people see little glimpses of what you do. But it only really becomes interesting if someone puts it together, creates some kind of order out of a not really linear process. A career is never linear, and you need to kind of stop and put it together, make some kind of understanding of how things fit together. And then by doing that kind of process, it may become interesting for people to read or to understand at a later date.
Would you prefer to do that yourself, or would you prefer somebody else to do this?
Sebastian: I would prefer someone else to do this, or to collaborate with someone else. I think it's something very difficult to do yourself, because you don't have enough distance from it.
Up for Sebastian Bergne's workshop this summer? Have a look!
Workshop "Gravity" by Sebastian Bergne 2014 © Domaine de Boisbuchet