Interview with Michael Hilgers: It’s logical to work in epicenter of plywood history

Maris Vahter from Radis Furniture (MV): When Luther established a subsidiary in London, Venesta. Soon, Isokon, a furniture company founded in 1931 in cooperation with Venesta, has entered the history of modern design, which has been involved in product development for plywood furniture, producing plywood products in Estonia (Luterma factory in Tallinn) collaboration with world-renowned Bauhaus names such as
Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. In Isokon, a series of pieces in classical furniture, made of plywood, was born. Venesta became the undisputed leader in plywood over Europe, commissioning the Le Corbusier bureau designs in the 1930ies. Now, more than 80 years later, also German designer Michael Hilgers does new products with Radis Furniture launching them from Tallinn. Michael, can you see the positive fertile ground here for plywood renaissance?

Michael Hilgers (MH): Absolutely: I have designed a lot of plywood furniture before, mainly for german manufacturers- and always the material had to be imported from Scandinavia or the Baltic States. So it feels absolutely logical, to team up with a company which is situated in the epicenter of the plywood history, near to the origin of this beautiful material. I really liked the idea to see the plywood items I developed for Radis as a homage to the „form follows function“ idea- but maybe we should translate the „three f“ into a more contemporary „form fun function“: Today like in the 30ies we again need helpful items- but nowadays our products are also allowed to have an own identity, a unique shape which is emotionally charged.


Michael sketching (courtesy of the designer).

MV: For starters, can you share a little of your background and the path to the founding of your label studio in Berlin?

MH: In the 90ies I started with a traditional apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. Then I studied architecture- but soon after my diploma and 2 years of building experience I decided to go back to the interior space: After another year of working in a big interior design studio on several retail projects I missed the immediate contact to the design process and to the materials itself: So I decided to set up my own studio and do what I
can do best and like most: Being creative and checking out the results almost immediately.

MV: Can you give away any slow guides to your product development?

MH: As an Architect, I’m focussed on the space that surrounds and influences us: I’m more inspired by everyday life than from glossy design magazines or coffee table-books. I’m always prepared to discover (product)niches- and nothing can be compared to the Adrenaline kick caused by the „light bulb“ moment, when (you think) you have sketched
the ultimate solution for a problem nobody else was aware before….

Some of my best ideas came up when I was brushing my teeth or taking a shower: I mostly have an idea, when I’m not thinking about design. Then after taking the first sketches, I build a 3D model on my computer to check if the idea could work in reality; sometimes I build a mock-up. As a summary, I could say, that although my designs sometimes look rather rational the development process at least at the beginning is quite spontaneous and intuitive.

MV: What are you most proud of about your input to furniture design and in a new collab with Radis Furniture?

MH: I’m very happy that in Radis I have met a manufacturer which is really open-minded: most traditional companies are generally aware, that they always have to develop innovative products to keep their place on the market- but if you offer them something really new, they often say „new is fine- but not THAT new…“: They are afraid to be the first on the market with something really unique- and so they are doing the same stuff everybody else does or they repeat themselves. Radis however from the beginning was very open to my ideas and saw the potential. In the end I only can be proud of my ideas, if they become reality: Only then they might help to solve everyday living problems a little bit. That’s the beautiful thing behind a collaboration with a fresh and unbiased manufacturer like Radis.

MV: Tell us about the hottest world furniture issues & agendas. Is it like a life cycle thing for nordic customers and more pragmatic solutions for middle Europeans and Venice… waterproof plywood perhaps?

MH: I think „hot“ might be the wrong description: What now is hot might cool down very soon again. Like in the 30ies furniture design should be more than trends or fashion: I think to develop unagitated, helpful and ecological things is a big thing not only for Europe. For me there is still too much styling and BlingBling on the furniture market. I think the renaissance of the so called Scandinavian design is a positive countermovement: Fortunately we now see simple human scaled shapes, minimalist forms in beautiful colors on the market: Those simple products are hopefully not only sustainable for our planet but also for our eyes and bodies. I think, those looks-and-feels will be completed with some more functions to solve everyday’s living problems like small space living, single households etc. more often – and yes- why not developing floating waterproof plywood houses to save the Dutch from the rising ocean levels.


First sketch of cornerbed for Radis (courtesy of the designer).

MV: I couldn’t imagine life without the nice cotton rug but can you let go of all tangible belongings or any deep-seated desire?

MH: I’m old enough to have experienced the sensual benefits of the analog world- but I, even more, love the amenities of today’s digital life: In the past I learned to fall in love with music, TV series and books- but today I discovered the pleasure of enjoying all that stuff without owning it. For me today it is more important to have access to those things than to have them on my shelves. For sure there are a lot of belongings I need and love- but there are many more things which I and my family throw- or gave away in the past few years. We always ask ourselves: Do we really need it? What suits ourselves best? And if we really need an object, in most of the cases we finally love this useful thing. It is quite easy…

MV: Have you decided, what is essential in our lives, instead of determining how little we can live with, can it be way around, that simply can’t we live without?

MH: It’s not a contest of how less can we have- it’s more about what makes sense, what is authentic, what fits our personalities: Just take the SUV phenomenon as an example: In more than 70% of the rides the driver is sitting alone inside of this huge typology of car. Most of the guys which are using those gigantic „Sports Utility Vehicles“ at most are just watching soccer from their couch- and the questionable useful aspect of those 200 horsepower vehicles is to drive to the supermarket on the weekend. Or would you throw your dirty mountain bikes (which don’t even fit inside…) into a 50.000 Euro car? This all makes no sense- but more than 30% of all newly registered cars are SUVs. Those people have decided on this kind of „mobility“- and I’m afraid, that inside the homes of the same 30% we will find the same amount of unnecessary stuff… I for myself have decided, what is essential for my little life- and maybe some of my designs are options or inspirations for other people to think about more contemporary pragmatic solutions to optimize our homes instead of living bigger than we really are.


Cornerbed designed for Radis by Michael Hilgers (Radis Furniture).

MV: When speaking in the term essentialism, what brings to mind in the field of furniture?

MH: When it comes to furniture, essential for me are the products we really need- and the products we really love. To live representative is soo 90ies: The stuff that surrounds you is not thought for your friends or neighbors- it should be a part of yourself. Especially in eras when it’s getting rough outside, we need an authentic protection shell that keeps us safe and comfortable. Living essential means to own minimalist but unique things, which keep our interior elementary simple in complicated times. To have less but essential things of good quality makes our life less complex in complicated times.

MV: If you could reinvent any plywood furniture piece from 20 century, what would get your focusing attention and why?

MH: I really like the ESU, the Eames storage unit: It was really ahead of its time and has a nice simple almost architectural impression.

MV: And a few more prying questions. The German writer Friedrich Schiller could only work with rotten apples piled in his desk drawer, what works best for you, a morning cup of coffee or piece of lactose-free milk chocolate?

MH: How did you know about my addiction to chocolate and my lactose intolerance? Chocolate indeed is fuel for my creativity- So I have switched to dark chocolate which contains less milk. But the most important accessories I need is my Pilot G-Tec C-4 pen and my sketchbook. Without these tools I’m totally helpless and can’t produce ideas.

Radius wall desk

Walldesk RING designed for Radis by Michael Hilgers (Radis Furniture).

MV: Are you listening to any practical podcasts or reading anything particularly good right now?

MH: I’m not good at listening to podcasts because I’m a very visual person. And I’m not reading too many design publications. I love good T.C. Boyle or John Irving.

MV: Recommendations for bars, restaurants, cafes where you’re based or just where you grab a bite?

MH: The Burgeramt in Friedrichshain is great: Some HipHop devotional objects on the walls, a Guacamole-Bacon-Burger with fries with peanut sauce. I like that! Quite close to my studio in Kreuzberg is Gasthaus Figl (you should try their South-Tyrolean Pizza!). Apart from this I enjoy going to club concerts: Berlin has a list of really nice smaller venues like Columbia Halle, Gretchen or Lido to see your favorite artists live on stage.


Cornerbed got at once great response (courtesy of the designer).

MV: Do you sometimes have any seasonal restlessness termed in German as ‘zugunruhe’ and what you do about it?

MH: To be honest: I have to google the word „Zugunruhe“ first – because I’ve never heard it before. And yes – indeed sometimes I’m suffering from this indication: For this diagnose I have developed and built my own simple environment on wheels: My VANJOY camper van brings my design methodology on the point: This minimalist, multifunctional and affordable vehicle is for me and my wife is the perfect rolling retreat to pallinate our Zugunruhe.

MV: Now, I will ask this at the end of our interview. We have seen the wall table RING and corner bed in collaboration with Radis Furniture, all this has happened for our readers in short notice but when your first connections started with Radis Furniture?

MH: I met Mauri Abner, one of the owners of Radis, the first time on the IMM Cologne fair some years ago: Last January I saw on the fair, how his booth and collection has developed- and the I contacted Mauri again with some new designs. The rest is history.

MV: Vielen Dank for this interview, Michael!

MH: Pole tänu väärt, Maris!


Michael Hilgers (courtesy of the designer).