Mathias Hahn is a curious combination of British and German design sensibilities. After a rigorous industrial design education in Germany, Hahn moved to London to complete an MA in Design Products at the Royal College of Art. He set up Okay Studio, with some fellow RCA graduates in 2006, where he combines his interest in playful reworkings of existing, everyday typologies with a craftsman’s interest in material possibilities.
ICON How do you conceptualise the way in which you work, especially given your cross-disciplinary design background?
MH I was actually having a conversation the other day about the divide between industrial design, and maker or craft-based design. I don’t see the difference. For me, the process is the same. If I go and work with a glassblower on a one-off piece and experiment with how to treat the glass, it’s the same process as going into a plant, talking to engineers, realising the potential of their facilities and trying to experiment with that.
ICON Why do you think there’s still a strong cultural distinction between these?
MH I think, at least for the public or people not directly involved, it’s easier to say that this is one thing and this is another. You need to separate things to be able to understand them. I work a lot on the computer and with rapid prototyping, but at the same time I couldn’t survive without having my workshop where I can go and just weld something, make a paper model or whatever. I don’t separate these things. I see them as evolutionary.
ICON In 2012 you won a “Best of the Best” Red Dot award for your Jinn light. Talk us through the project?
MH This project came into place when the company approached me with a carte blanche, and said, “We’ve seen your stuff – do you want to do something with us.” We met up and they explained to me how they work and how they manufacture stuff. I went to work and came up with a few concepts, but in the end I thought, “I’m just going to show them one thing.” They came back straight away and said, “Yes, we want to make this.” They understood how to treat the material and what I wanted.
ICON And the design? Where did that come from?
MH It’s not always the way I work, but sometimes I like to think about classic typologies and question where they come from and why they are the way they are. Every repeated form is like a story – it’s semantics – but we’re not always thinking about it. So I started sketching classic lampshades, and then I realised it would be more interesting to get rid of the structure keeping it all in place and reverse it so that the light was in the base and reflecting off the shade rather than distributed from the middle. So it’s a twist on the typology, but at the same time it’s instantly readable.
ICON You also worked with Asplund on the ME Mirror. How did that project come about?
MH Two years ago in Berlin, Hermann Weizenegger had this concept of a “black box”. He curated a show of prototypes from different designers and then invited industry people only, so no press or public. Inside there were little letter boxes where manufacturers could say they were interested in the prototype. It was a statement project to ask, why do young designers present their stuff and go through the media before the manufacturer has got involved? It was a kind of critique of the system. That’s how it came into being.
ICON And what are you working on at the moment?
MH We’re just finishing off work for the Cologne fair. This year in Milan, for Zeitraum, we released a table collection – E8 – and they’ve been quite successful. They came out really well because initially it was just the design for one long table and in the end we developed a whole family. You can order the table in any configuration from 120 to 260, and that worked really well creating all these mid-sizes on the same language. We also introduced stains – before they were mainly in solid timber, so the colours are a nice development. We’ve got an extendable version of the table for Cologne, which is nice because it’s a traditional timber mechanism and not a high-tech digital push-button thing. And I’m working on a new desk series, also for Zeitraum.
ICON You’re in the unique position of being able to view the German design scene as both an insider and an outsider? Any insights?
MH That’s tricky. I think what I really like about being here [London] is the diversity, which exists in a completely different way than most other cities. If you compare it to Berlin or Munich, it’s still a very different way of thinking and I really appreciate this diversity. On the other hand, the longer I’ve been here, I’ve realised – because I never really liked any of these clichés [about German design] and I never really thought of myself as being very German – that some of these clichés are kind of true. Like, one of my studio colleagues sometimes shakes his head at me for being the guy who will cross town to get a single screw. So, I’m realising that in some ways you can’t fight your background and your mentality. In a way, being here makes me feel more German.
Louise Billgert and Sylvain Deleu