BREATHING LIFE INTO DESIGNS

A great deal needs to happen before a product like My Nature can win a prize.  There is a lead time of up to two years for a comprehensive new collection in the bathroom industry, a time filled with trend research, development and, finally, the production of the complete collection. A chance to look behind the scenes and catch a glimpse of the creative process leading to the development of a design like the My Nature collection is enticing. Where did the inspiration for the curved ceramics come from? Which barriers must be overcome before a sketch can be transformed into a model and finally into a ceramic? 

From trend research to creative ideas

“At the moment a new state of mind – perhaps even a longing – can be discerned: people are ever more interested in living in a good and sustainable way. We are becoming more considerate, more circumspect, more sensitive, and we all want to have an immediate sense of one thing: nature.” This is how Kai Steffan describes the current trend “Nature feeling”. Villeroy & Boch’s creative director knows what he is talking about. In cooperation with colleagues from Marketing and Product Management he identifies contemporary global trends and topics for the premium brand. Inspiration comes from diverse sources: from visits to international conventions and exhibitions, or, closer to home, from Villeroy & Boch’s own museum and company archive. Or, as in the case of My Nature, from the countryside directly outside the door. “There are certain themes that are a real part of our brand heritage. Our organisational headquarters is in the middle of the countryside: the river, the woods, the hills and parks are all around us. The abbey is surrounded by an old park that was planted generations ago. Nature is omni-present.” And the premium collection My Nature draws inspiration from precisely these features. The challenge – as always – was to bridge the gap between the current trend and a design that would still be appealing in 15 years. Not an easy task, but one that Villeroy & Boch is well able to master, as the Creative Director knows: “We interpret bad trends thus: our products reflect the trends but retain a timeless validity.”

 

Finding the right form

Once the theme for the new collection was found, the creative team from Villeroy & Boch started to search together with the designer Oliver Conrad, with whom Villeroy & Boch has worked for many years, for a corresponding design language, appropriate materials and the right colours. The designer brainstormed with moodboards – a type of poster on which visual impressions like drawings or images are gathered – and key elements of the design began to emerge: airiness, simplicity and naturalness, but also functionality and individuality. A filigree and organic design combined with the use of natural colours and materials like chestnut seemed to be perfect for the new collection.

The next step was to find the right form. “When you create ceramics as a product designer, you imagine shaping a piece of clay. Unlike what so many people assume, it doesn’t emerge on a computer. First of all I start to knead a piece of clay in my imagination and then I start to sketch. That’s how Pure Stone developed too. We couldn’t construct the washbasin on the computer because it was intended to look like a stone that had been hollowed out over 4,000 million years. In contrast, with My Nature we wanted something filigree, something thin,” explains Oliver Conrad. Together with the in-house creatives from Villeroy & Boch he worked on the modern Country Collection for more than a year. First, drawings and styrofoam models had been produced for the new bathroom ceramics. “First of all we developed these filigree curved ceramics. We wanted some other material to combine with them, not oak or walnut. We looked for local woods, renewable resources from our own country, and landed on chestnut wood. Everybody loves chestnut trees, even children easily recognise them because of their fruit.”

 

From model to ceramic

Shaping the design in styrofoam is one thing, transferring it to ceramic quite something else. “Ceramic is an amazing material – earth, water, air and fire all have their part in it. Creating the shapes is full of suspense because you don’t know what designs are possible. During the firing forms shrink and change, and you have to take that into account,” explains Kai Steffan. This major shrinkage of about 30 percent is caused by the enormous heat in the firing ovens, up to 1200°C. “The in-house technicians have unbelievable expertise in this craftsmanship, and in all aspects of production. That’s the advan-tage that comes from a long tradition of working with ceramics,” stresses Creative Director Kai Steffan. Even the filigree form of the My Nature washbasin posed no problems for the product developers from Villeroy & Boch.

A keen sense of trends, a sensitivity for design and a century-long accumulation of know-how about ceramic production are the success factors needed for good bathroom design, as shown once again by the red dot awards won by My Nature in 2011.

 

The people

Kai Steffan is Creative Director at Villeroy & Boch. He is responsible for the appearance of the brand and for the design and implementation of characteristic brand attributes in the areas of Product and Communication.  Kai Steffan studied at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada and at St. Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. He then worked for a number of design and marketing agencies, where he already dealt with Villeroy & Boch customers. Kai Steffan has been in-house Creative Director at the organisation’s headquarters in Mettlach since the beginning of 2009.

 

The designer Oliver Conrad founded his company in 1990. Today, it is located in the Düsseldorf media harbour. After studying architecture, he brougth out his first furniture collection. Since its founding, the agency by Oliver Conrad, serves customers with design consulting and product design. He has worked with Villeroy & Boch for many years, developing products for the segment Tableware, Kitchen and Bath & Wellness. For the Bathroom and Wellness division he most recently designed the new product line My Nature.