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Sebastian Herkner interprets tradition to create the future

The 2021 ELLE Deco International Design winner relies on craftsmanship to imagine a modernity that he wants to be qualitative and sustainable. By giving back its importance to the human being, he gives a soul to his creations.

What does design mean to you, and how do you see your mission as a designer?

Personally, design is for me the best way to express my personality and to communicate with others. Design is a very responsible profession. It’s also about sustainability, quality, storytelling, production and recycling. There are many parameters to consider.

You curated the exhibition Homo Faber, which celebrated craftsmanship in Venice last April. Why was this important to you?

Pattern of Crafts is an installation that involved young artisans of various professions, men and women from all over Europe. I chose a pattern that everyone can see when arriving in San Giorgio Island, that of the pavement in front of its church. It served as a canvas for all the works I created. This pattern connects them all together, and also connects the personalities who created them. We created a tapestry with Rubelli to cover the walls of the installation. Each work used the same pattern, in the same proportions, so that the design continued on the walls and extended from one creation to the next. Each artisan interpreted the initial pattern with their own style, materials, and techniques.

When did you first become interested in traditional skills?

I studied in Offenbach, Germany, a town that was dedicated to leatherworking. During my studies, almost all of the workshops closed down, and I realized that the loss of this know-how was considerable, but also that the leather industry created links between the inhabitants of the town. Craftsmanship is extremely important for a community, a region or a country. To imagine Murano, Italy, without glassworks would be incredible! This shock has been the reason why I focus a lot on traditional craftsmanship, naturally counterbalanced by the use of new materials and technologies.

What is the added value of craft to design, and how does it translate into your work?

Craftsmanship gives personality to design and brings a human dimension to it. Handcrafted products are not always identical copies of each other, there are sometimes small differences or even imperfections that show the true beauty of a product. The know-how, and especially the collaboration with good craftsmen, is the key to my design. They are my heroes; they take my designs and turn them into a real product that they give birth to.

What are your most emblematic creations combining craftsmanship and new technologies?

I designed the 118 collection for Thonet. Through it, it is easy to understand the balance that can be achieved between these two worlds. The chair combines a steam-bent wooden frame for the seat, and legs made by CNC machining (Editor’s note: Computer Numerical Control). My role is to be the conductor.

You create modernity from traditional models and materials. A slow design philosophy?

Slow design is also related to quality, and to the ability of consumers to understand the importance of well-designed objects. We need to consider design as an investment, as something we cherish and respect, and that we can pass on to someone else without any problem. Cheap design cannot be passed on at all, nor can it be reused.

What’s the best compliment someone could give your work?

To live with it for centuries.

What is your dream for the future?

That we all consume in a better way. Buy less, but better.


Homo Faber

Sophie Reyssat