Ron GIlad INTERVIEWS Ingo Maurer

Hosted by the Cooper - Hewitt, National Design Museum 

Ingo Maurer:               My name is Ingo Maurer.

Ron Gilad:                  And I am Ron Gilad.

IM:                              I work with light.

RG:                             So do I. I’ve made a piece titled Dear Ingo.

IM:                              Yes, I know. It’s an homage to me?

RG:                             Yes, exactly. So, what is design?

IM:                              You know it yourself. It can be many things, and I think it’s a question which has been asked a thousand times over and it’s boring to us to add another thing, so I don’t want to answer this question.

RG:                             Very well. I am sure you have been asked by a thousand journalists about your work as a designer. I have tried to know and understand your process and what you do, and I’ve been very intrigued by it for many, many years.

IM:                              Thank you very much. Well, what I do is I follow my instinct, my intuition, and that’s all, and I have a big, great love of material light. That’s very important to me. Not the shape, but the light it makes.

RG:                             Have you ever tried investigating the nature of light?

IM:                              Yes, or course. I think my original inspiration comes from nature, my love of light. I grew up on an island in Lake Constance, on the border of Switzerland. My father was originally a fisherman, and then he became an inventor. I used to go with him on the lake, and daydream, looking at the light and all the waves, and things like this. It always put me in a state of delirium. When I started to make my first light, I was at first more intrigued by the shape, and not by the light itself; but very quickly I understood that I had to work on the quality of the light.

RG:                             The point of departure for you is Edison’s light bulb.

IM:                              Yes.

RG:                             You always try to develop new kinds of lighting and experiment with new technologies. Do you think that in, let’s say, a couple of years from now, you will start following quantum mechanics, for instance, in order to explore energy, or do you still feel comfortable with discovering the particle itself, and not necessarily the whole wave?

IM:                              I think that I really cannot say what I will do in a couple of years, but I’m for sure interested in technology, and I have to be; I want to dig even further. With OLED, for instance, we have been working that process for a while, and it will probably take quite a while longer, because it’s still very expensive to make.

I have no straight route to follow in working with light. I just want to explore it, and explore different aspects of it—the religious aspect, the technical, both together. And I have always cared more about the feeling of light itself, and I have certain technologies and techniques I can use to accomplish my work.

RG:                             For me, it feels like young designers today are either trying to duplicate past works in a way, or represent their egos in their designs. It doesn’t seem to be just about the understanding of fact, or function, or needs, but a big craving to become stars. I don’t see your ego in your designs.

I think that, each time, you approach an object or a concept from a different point of view, but your aesthetic sensibilities, your precision, and your attention to details—combined together, for me, this is the meaning of design. But more and more designers are leading with their own image and identity in their designs.

IM:                              Unfortunately, this is mainly the fault of the media, because everybody is interested in becoming a star. I know a guy living here in New York who thinks becoming famous is not so difficult. He thinks, I’ll make one or two things, and my work will be printed somewhere, and I’ll be famous. That’s not the way it goes. I’m now seventy-five years old, and I have worked for sixty years of my life, and I have spent more than forty years in the field of light. It’s a long path if you want to be serious about your craft. It’s wonderful if you can leave your ego behind, but we all have egos. For me, the question is more, How many more people can be within my ego?

That means, from a social point of view, working with people, giving them a good, interesting job, a good salary, and caring for them, not just treating them as if they were products. This is very important to me. And I care about the seventy people who work with me. We are really like a family. Of course, there is also a desire to create. You know this feeling yourself. You have an idea, and you develop it, practice with it, and it sometimes takes years to take it from your brain or wherever it came from and realize it. It’s a long process, and you have to have people help you. On your way to the final result, you meet a lot of people, and that, for me, is the joy in my work. I feel very blessed. And once a project is done, I am glad, but I’m already onto something else.

RG:                             What do you think about this marathon-like process of producing new pieces each year for the design fairs? I don’t find it logical. In fashion, it kind of makes sense that you have to produce the winter collection during the summer, but for design . . .

IM:                              I really dislike it very much when people come to our booth at a show and say, “What is new here?” You may have a product you introduced a year ago, but sometimes you have only just started to deliver it, or you had a lot of technical problems to solve. But sometimes it’s as if people don’t appreciate it, they don’t see how much effort you make. It’s, Mangia! Mangia! Mangia! It’s crazy.

RG:                             I think I do somehow blame America for it, for the extreme consumerism here, which has been exported to every major city in the world. People are losing sense of time and value, and they don’t give things a chance to exist. You launch a new piece that you have been working on for a least a year, and they see it once, and they’re saying, “Oh, this is nice,” and then they turn, see something else, and then come back and say, “Oh, we’ve seen that one. It’s not new.” The shelf life of an idea is becoming shorter and shorter, to the extent that whatever we sold last year is irrelevant.

IM:                                          This year, in Milan, two big lighting companies produced an enormous amount of new lamps. I don’t know how they’re ever gonna be able to produce all of these things, and it felt a bit trashy. It’s sad, because one of the companies I’m talking about is a high-end, classic company; the other one was already a bit more commercial, but both have done very good work in the past. I left with a sad heart. I don’t want to join that club. My team may say, “Let’s push it, and have more products,” and I say, “The products must be outstanding before we really take it to market, they must be special.”

RG:                             Have you ever thought about showing next year the exact same thing you showed this year?

IM:                              No, I never thought of it, but quite frankly, I have had the thought of not showing anything. Have a booth, but don’t show anything not already in production. Then we take the money we make at the show, and go to a country that has urgent needs and work on a project to help them.

RG:                             Do you think there is any difference between the appreciation you receive here in the United States and in Europe? Do you think that there is enough understanding of what you do here versus there?

IM:                              I do love America. America has something very positive about it. America appreciates the creative process. Europeans are more critical, but they’re getting more and more Americanized because consumers are becoming like here in America, and that’s really a pity.

                                                We participated in New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair two years ago, and it was interesting for us to see how much the ICFF has changed over the last five to ten years. It’s tremendous; however, it’s lost a bit of what I loved about it. It used to be crummy, but you saw a lot of wonderful individuals who did things which were not very good, but they had something. Nowadays, it has become more about mass production. You don’t feel the human being behind it anymore, and I think our success is in part because you still can feel the people behind the products.

RG:                             Do you think that American design exists?

IM:                              Definitely. I see many wonderful pieces, though some may not be very well executed. But you see the flame growing in design. Ten years ago, in New York, very few spoke about design; now, New York is about both art and design, which I think is a positive development.

RG:                             So you consider yourself a designer?

IM:                              I consider myself as nothing. Not as a designer. I make things, I invent things. In my catalog, I differentiate between different products. Sometimes it’s design, and sometimes it’s Gestalto. It means to give shape to something, so for me, I like that term better than design. I don’t have the truth. It’s just my feeling, my thinking, my philosophy.

RG:                             The truth is just like light: it is supposed to come in very small amounts, otherwise it will blind you.

IM:                              My favorite movie in the world is Rashomon byAkira Kurosawa. It’s about a murder, and three different people who were there when it happened relate it in three different ways, so at the end, there was no truth. It is the same for life.