Take a stroll along today’s high street and you’ll see hand-baked, hand-crafted and hand-printed. Are we experiencing a revolution or merely a re-emergence of taking things back to basics? The same is true in the world of design. A couple of issues back we featured The Light Phone, a thought provoking, minimalist mobile phone, and Ludwig Rensch’s strikingly orange and beautifully simplistic office printer. Both designed to remove the complexity of modern gadgets, allowing us the time to switch onto bigger things – ourselves.
Sebastian Bergne opened his own studio fresh out of university, during a recession “the one before the one we just had”, is how he put it – 1990. As someone who has experienced the full cycle, recession to recession and what came after, we thought Sebastian’s life in design would help answer the question of revolution or resurgence.
Having thrived at the more creative subjects at the music and arts focused, Beedales High School, it was here that Sebastian’s deeper appreciation for design, and detail within design, was nurtured. Trying his hand at jewellery, the budding designer even then under-stood how fundamental detail was to good design, “This helped understand how important detail was, like silver and the precious materials, you really have to construct everything from scratch, whether you’re making you own hinges or whatever, you have to make everything from scratch. So you have the apprecia-tion and you work it in your own hands.”
Describing his path into higher education as “fairly normal”, Sebastian’s university years culminated in a Masters of Industrial Design from the Royal College of Arts. If you are like me, Industrial Design is something you probably need to Google to understand exactly what it is, Sebastian puts it poetically as “The meeting point between the arts and hardcore engineering sciences.” And it is that meeting point, along with the subjects limitations, that continues to capture his imagination.
It didn’t take long for the recent graduate to put his freshly developed skills to good use. Having set up his own studio in 1990, Sebastian’s first top ten hit came in the form of an acid etched, stainless steel light shade. We asked why he decided to make the bold move and go it alone, “It was kind of a decision and kind of a necessity. I graduated in 1990, that was the recession that was then, the one before the one we just had. I had some opportunities but I was also motivated to try and do things myself and at that time I didn’t have much paid work, so I started my own editions of products.
The first success I had was a stainless steel lampshade that I designed back then. It was acid etched out of stainless steel and clipped onto an ubiquitous hanging light bulb that everyone had and turned it into a beautiful thing. And I could send them out in the post. I sold them through mail order or to shops, this is pre-internet. It ended up in the Design Museum and in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and won diff- erent awards. So that was kind of my first hit single moment if you like!”
More recently Sebastian has found himself involved in education as a tutor and a visiting lecturer, while continuing to work with both big industry and small crafts people. It’s the mix that he really enjoys. This mix and opportunity to vacate the office has led Sebastian to find his studio time more important now than before, as he has more freedom to do what he wants and set the agenda he wants. Which, when talking to Sebastian over the phone, brought us seamlessly to the ring soap.
Sebastian first worked on the the ring soap for a German company in the late ‘90s. The German pioneers pioneered the use of translucent plastic; a material that had previously been used for cheap pro- ducts was now becoming a beautiful and valuable material.
“And that was totally down to design. The designers they worked with were interesting and I was fortunate to be part of that group. One of the things they asked me to design was a soap dish and instead of designing the dish I designed the soap! The idea is important in that product, it’s solving the soggy soap pro- blem. In doing so it became something different, a decorative product if you like, a symbolic object. It has it’s own identity. That’s interesting because you can also create problems for yourself with your product when they no longer look like what people expect them to look like.”
A firm believer in the value of good ideas and not wanting to see them go to waste, Sebastian reissued and relaunched the ring soap as his own (the German company had gone bankrupt and so the soap had fallen by the wayside). But as he mentioned earlier, when creating a product that doesn’t look like the consumer expects it to, it can create problems, “The ring soap, when it was first launched suffered slightly and perhaps today still, because it’s different to other soaps. I went to someone’s house and it was just sat on the side being used as an air freshener because they didn’t realise it was a soap. They saw the ring, it smelled nice, they didn’t get it and it had a sort of cultural feel about it.” We wondered if he had pointed it out? “Haha no. I didn’t say anything actually, because I was quite amused by it! Haha. It was a funny moment.”
Sebastian’s Drop Jug, the most recent product to come from his experiment in glass, was inspired by his want to develop an everyday container for a variety of uses, “It’s for water, it’s for juice, it’s for wine. It’s meant to be something quite democratic in a sense. It’s not about super high end wine serving. It might look elegant or it might look beautiful but it is an everyday thing.” Today’s Drop Jug is just the starting point. One lid that doubles as a coaster and another that’s a drinking glass. Tomorrow’s jug is currently in development and Sebastian outlined a few ideas to us over the phone. Our favourite? “We are currently working on a few different lids that include a coffee filter…”.
Listening to Sebastian talk about his work, you get the feeling that each comp- leted design is subjected to a rigorous process, from concept to manufacture. Quite the contrary. “I kind of go for a solution quite quickly. I kick things around for a while but the process is not that important for me, because in the end the object has to exist on it’s own, it has to be perceived and used and valued on its own.”
Though this approach appears a little laid back, he assures us that he arrived at this point of cutting corners and missing steps due to his extended time in the industry.
It was at this point, having learned about Sebastian’s career, that the completed cycle appeared and so with reference to the Light Phone and Rensch’s printer, we asked him whether we are seeing a revolution of simplistic, logical design. “I’m not sure I agree with you. That kind of design and that kind of approach has been there for a long time. It comes and goes in the way of popularity. Perhaps people are always looking for ways of making sense of the world and I think things and products which are very clear and honest and kind of follow a sensible approach and have values and craft, are attractive in today’s world. And it is having a resurgence because of that.”
Then how about similarities between then and now, in the way the design world and consumerism reacted? “Erm, no? I think at that time the design world was a very different place. When I was a student our points of reference where all in that area, historically all in that area, it was all about functionality and design. It was just a natural way of working at that time for me. That was just what good design was.” Even though there’s a renewed interest, I think it’s for different reasons – a slightly nostalgic view. Perhaps because it comes from a previous time that might have been seen as better or less complicated. Simpler. That approach represents those values and that’s why people buy into it.
Today, consumers have been exposed to a lot more and maybe the consumer environment is quite sophisticated in that way. But I think, actually in addition, there’s an increase in interest today in what we are talking about but also a parallel interest in the story of products. Not the process, but the meanings. With- out wanting to sound heavy, people are looking for meanings and sometimes that has a slightly spiritual feel and sometimes it has to do with their own image and association with brands. I think that is the future, in that it is those values and the associated meaning of products which is the future development. It’s pretty easy to make a functional product that looks a certain way but actually if you can give it a little bit more, or offer people on a second level the opportunity to value it in other ways, that is where it starts to get interesting.” EJ
You can keep up to date with Sebastian’s work and purchase both the ring soap and drop jug at his website: www.sebastianbergne.com