Mind over matter

Anne-Celine Jaeger meets Rolf Sachs, who cares more about design that provokes thought than creations that are fit for a function

From the moment you walk into Rolf Sachs’ London studio, a stunning space overlooking Earl’s Court, you know you’re dealing with a man who doesn’t take himself seriously. Whether it’s the 2m-long, horizontal, aluminium rods in the toilet that feature as mass toilet paper holders (finally, a solution to prevent you from ever running out) or the stack of fluffy yellow dusters, which Sachs is about to send out as invitations to his upcoming Duality show in the Louisa Guinness Gallery, everything implies a sense of humour.

Today’s dose of merriment for 49-year-old Sachs comes courtesy of his newly purchased Philippe Starck-designed Puma shoes, a sort of fusion between a clog and a Wellington. ‘I love Starck. He’s brilliant,’ enthuses Sachs, twisting his foot from left to right, admiring his new rubbery galoshes. ‘He is such a prolific and democratic designer.’ It’s ironic that someone like Sachs, whose work is so conceptual and at times difficult to grasp, should find someone like Starck so exceptional. Then again, perhaps it’s their diametrically opposed approach to design that inspires the Swiss-born designer so much.

Unlike Starck, Sachs’ work is extremely non-commercial. His designs are less straightforward and much more expensive to produce. The Wig lamp, which will form part of Duality – his first London show for ten years – is a case in point. This mysterious object – a blonde, £800 wig perched on top of a lamp – throws up a multitude of questions; unfortunately, its practical uses are limited. ‘I don’t compromise,’ Sachs explains. ‘If I had to do pieces that sell, I would do quite different stuff. My designs are very edgy. They are often difficult for people to understand, so they’re never going to be objects that fly off the shelf.’

His goal, he says, is to create authentic concepts that are closer to impressions you get from art, such as emotion and humour, than those you get from design. Inspired by conceptual artists such as Jannis Kounellis, Robert Morris and Bruce Nauman, Sachs says, ‘I normally come out of design shows depressed. I hardly ever see anything new. Often it’s shallow and doesn’t provoke me.’

By taking everyday objects, such as a deck chair or a sled and placing them in a new context, Sachs provokes, but also entertains. The deck chair, made from wood and thick felt, is intended for use in front of a fireplace rather than on the beach. Similarly, his sled, a 300 per cent augmentation of the real thing, is made from ash and is not created for use on snow, but rather as a chair. Norman Foster loved it so much he has already bought one of only 17 prototypes.

Not a bad outcome for someone who came to design almost by mistake in 1983, when looking for things to furnish his apartment with as a 28-year-old living in Munich. Bored with what was on offer, the business administration graduate thought he’d make his own furniture, using mostly stainless steel, which was considered ‘edgy’ at that time. These days Sachs, who is also an accomplished investor with a large family fortune to tend to, favours wood, paper and stone for his creations. He jokes, ‘I like to use materials with a soul. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase?’

Son of photographer and playboy Gunter Sachs and great-grandson of the industrialists who founded motor manufacturer Fichtel & Sachs, Sachs is keen to work on public projects in the future. As for his furniture, he believes it can still become a little crazier. He says, ‘I can see myself becoming more abstract. It’s all still fairly easy to grasp.’

On the way out, Sachs shows me a long yellow and black scarf that resembles a street sign . ‘Ladies buy clothes to be seen in, right?’ he says, and that cheeky smirk appears again. ‘I’m using the street sign as a fashion item. It just screams, look at me, here I am!’

Very funny coming from the man in the bright rubbery galoshes.

Duality runs until 12 November 2004 at the Louisa Guinness Gallery, 19 Elden House, 90 Sloane Avenue, London SW3

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