Design by Hand

Digitization both helped and changed the design process. But, designer Kai Linke felt that something was missing and so went back to working by hand.

Interview with Kai Linke by Adam Štěch — Mrz 2, 2017

Kai Linke, studio visit »Design by Hand«, 2017

In an ever more complex world, designers nowadays are active in many different roles in various fields – not only as creators of products, but also as discoverers, agents, and communicators. Digitization especially has led to changes in design processes and outcomes. But, it’s a huge difference if you create an object by hand versus digitally, says designer Kai Linke, leading him to pose the question: Is it really satisfying to use a smartphone to turn a vase from a digital object to a clay object with a fingertip? So, after a few years of working on the computer, he went back to creating objects by hand using wood, stoneware, glass, and paper as preferred materials. An interview by editor and curator Adam Štěch.

Adam Štěch: How long have you been doing design? What’s your main focus in this?

Kai Linke: I founded my studio in Frankfurt am Main in 2009. The studios main focus is to develop products for daily use of manufacturers, as well as exhibition and interior designs.

AŠ: What do you think about the role of a designer in today’s world?

KL: That is a very complex question and hard to answer here. There are more & different fields designers are active in. The professional image and business requirements change rapidly as a result of technical and social developments.

Personally, my role as a designer in this complex world is to be active: to use the chance to discover this world with all it’s materials, colors, surfaces, spaces and connections. I feel it is necessary to ask questions, to be curious, to create visions, to create objects, products and spaces that range between seriousness and fun, symbolism and functionality, and familiarity and conscious irritation

AŠ: How has this role changed over the years?

KL: Our world is becoming more complex. Thus, there is a massive change in the requirements for the designer. The designer is becoming more an agent and communicator between different work units. Designers have to more than ever unite different activities in their professional life. In comparison to the past, there are only a few companies that develop and really produce their own products in-house anymore. Designers are increasingly developing into all-round service providers and consultants. They must be very flexible. Additionally, thanks to the development of new media, designers have the opportunity to present and sell their products at no cost to the public.

»Personally, my role as a designer in this complex world is to be active: to use the chance to discover this world with all it’s materials, colors, surfaces, spaces and connections. I feel it is necessary to ask questions, to be curious, to create visions, to create objects, products and spaces that range between seriousness and fun, symbolism and functionality, and familiarity and conscious irritation.«

Over the last few years computers influence more and more the design processes in my studio. During and after the years of doing my master handcrafted design processes influenced the process of my work. The influences of computer and the digital world help a lot during the design process but also change the outcome a lot. It is a huge difference if you create an object by hand or digitally. This experience was also trigger for my exhibition at Solitude »BY HANDS«.

AŠ: You are working on very different projects: ranging from products, to interior to conceptual experiments. How does this define your work?

KL: Working on products also means working on space or the room itself for me. Even a product in front of a white background generates a room and generates room by its corners, projections and deflections. A product in a room changes the room. At the same time, however, a room can change a product. Products can be characterized by their origin and the spaces in which they arise. Most products are detached from spaces and should be used in a multifunctional manner.

Kai Linke, studio visit »Design by Hand«, 2017

AŠ: So when you design a product, how broad, then, are the connections you think of?

KL: At the beginning of a design process everything is possible and I select a wild potpourri of inspirations like a hunter-gatherer. The hard work is to develop and formulate the main concept. During this process the concept is developed and tested further.

AŠ: Your work is more or less conceptual. What does that mean for you?

KL: I enjoy working conceptually very much. It is a great opportunity to ask questions and test your theses with research and investigation. It’s great to follow your curiosity and to come up with new solutions. Can a conceptual approach also be part of industrial processes or is it just art-design and gallery scene, which is involved? It depends on how you define »conceptual approach« in design. In my eyes – yes. A conceptual approach helps to create something new, new ideas, products and markets. It helps to rethink processes and to understand processes at the same time. For my works »Circle« and »Upper« I designed for the »BY HANDS« exhibition at Solitude I worked together with a pottery workshop and checked out their retracted ways of low tech production process inside the pottery. The results of the conceptual approach are clear in the minimal bowls and pots out of stoneware. Actually, I didn’t change so much in the production process, but the outcome astounded the pottery workers. In the openminded and fancy art-design and gallery scene, everything is possible, but pieces remain solitary for themselves. If products with a conceptual approach turn into mass production the viewer/user doesn’t feel/see the conceptual approach anymore because they linked it with a unique piece.

»Can a conceptual approach also be part of industrial processes or is it just art-design and gallery scene, which is involved? It depends on how you define »conceptual approach« in design. In my eyes – yes. A conceptual approach helps to create something new, new ideas, products and markets.«

AŠ: You are quite interested in hand-made manual work. What fascinates you about it?

KL: I like to work with my hands and to feel the material itself. It is a fantastic way to feel and form the material. When you work with your hands, you understand a material better and have a direct influence on it. You also have a better feeling for proportions and sizes.

AŠ: Which material you like to work most with and why?

KL: Wood, Stoneware, Glass and Paper. The way it feels working with wood and/or stoneware fascinates me. Working with glass is also very thrilling with all of its different states. I usually build a lot of paper models. I love the multifunctional options that you have working with paper.

AŠ: Would you tell us something about your long-term collection of sandblasted pieces?

Kai Linke, studio visit »Design by Hand«, 2017

KL: The sandblasting process got my attention by accident, but I was very interested in it from the start – especially when it comes to the outcome of the different surfaces. In the last years I did countless experiments with sandblasting techniques and built up profound experience.

AŠ: How has this technique developed in your work? Are you selling the pieces too? I saw that you did a object for Form magazine too…

KL: It’s fascinating how many application fields are possible with his surface refinement technique. I developed individual wall covering for a restaurant and hotel and offer a service for interior architects. I designed the limited editions for the form magazine and for example the »Sand Box« for Auerberg.

»I noticed that when you form something with your hands, nearly automatically you are starting to create something figural. I think it is very closely connected with human evolution.«

AŠ: Your latest project is just dedicated to manual work. What was the main purpose?

KL: In the last years, I’ve worked more and more on the computer and I noticed that I miss working with my hands and material a lot. Of course we live in the middle of digital revolution and that has a lot of benefits. But is it really satisfying to use a smartphone to turn a vase with a fingertip from digital to a clay object or have it blown in glass? Do you, this way, really experience something? Do you really learn something about the material? Contrary to the trend of digitized crafts, I established three works for the exhibition »By Hands« at Akademie Schloss Solitude. Each of them was produced by hand in a traditional way. The exhibition’s title »By Hands« underlines this. Different natural materials have been used within the works. The main focus was set on the manual interaction with the material. First step was exploring the surfaces and using a variety of experimental techniques. The result was a close cooperation with specialized craftsmen in Germany, and traditional, low-tech production processes were used. The choice fell on a pottery and an art foundry.

Kai Linke, studio visit »Design by Hand«, 2017

AŠ: Do you think that you would like to produce your own stuff? To establish some business connecting your design work with your hand-made skills and to create a real business out of it?

KL: No. My responsibility is design. It’s easier to speak about it than to build up a real business out of it. To build up the business, you will need a lot of money to invest, you are leaving the field of design and enter into new action fields like a selling and marketing man.

AŠ: Why did you choose topics like animals or tableware?

KL: At the beginning of the project it wasn’t clear what the result would be. After the first tests and different visits in the workshop the idea grows into »design a tableware series and animals.« The tableware series is connected with the history of pottery and the way to form stoneware on a turning table. At the fist visit at the pottery I noticed that most of the work they did was classic figural work. This irritated me a bit, but I decided this could be a nice challenge. I noticed that when you form something with your hands, nearly automatically you are starting to create something figural. I think it is very closely connected with human evolution.

AŠ: How is the Frankfurt design scene going? Is it a good place to be a designer?

KL: The design scene is small, but nice and cosy. For me it’s a good place; I like Frankfurt a lot. It’s a small international city. Some big fairs like the IAA, the Book fair, or the Ambiente take place every year. It’s in the center of Germany. Within 3.5h you are in Paris, Berlin, Zurich, Hamburg and Munich. A designer has to travel a lot. Your clients mostly work and live somewhere else. The German design council – with the biggest design library in Germany – and the European design headquarters of Honda, Opel, Kia and Mazda are based in Frankfurt. But, I could also imagine to live & work in another city.

Kai Linke, studio visit »Design by Hand«, 2017

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