Hartmut Esslinger, Los Gatos, Silicon ValleyWork and lifestyle on the cutting edge: In our conversations with contemporaries, we examine the claims, clichés and ideals that circulate about our workplaces. This time we ask how and where a person works who claims to make a living from “change”. Design icon Hartmut Esslinger exchanged mails with Désirée Schellerer between California and Vienna, where he was recently seen at the opening of the exhibition “Made 4 you – Design for Change”. Esslinger is guest curator of the exhibition on show at the MAK – Museum of Applied Arts until 7 October 2012.
Hartmut Esslinger is one of the most influential design thinkers worldwide and founder of the design and strategy consultancy frog design, which is headquartered in San Francisco and has offices on all continents. He has worked with companies such as Sony, Apple, Louis Vuitton, SAP, Siemens and Lufthansa for more than 40 years. Following his professorship for Industrial Design (ID2) at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, in 2011 he was appointed DeTao Master of Strategic Design at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art.
Do you have a "main workplace", and – if yes – where is it?
Right now I am working in my home office, which is totally connected, in true Silicon Valley style. In Shanghai I share a glass office with my team assistants, with a direct view of the students. I have always worked in the midst of my team as co-CEO of frog design, by the way. You can see what is going on and are always able to respond when needed.
What significance do you assign to the office as a space?
I consider the office to be an interactive space. My workplace has lots of books, magazines, sketches and gadgets – not to mention Macs, iPads and iPhones. I love smart technology. I just like it – and because I am out and about a lot, I almost always clear up the office very well. I also like very good, ergonomic, white furniture, white walls and space because this allows your thoughts to run freely.
Do you think that your office says something about you?
As a nomad, you collect and leave traces. When I come back from a trip away, things are chaotic for a few days. My workplaces show that I love doing things – at least I hope they do.
Are there any places or locations where you have particularly enjoyed working?
For me, it has always been most important to have an interesting and important activity. My first "office" was only a garage. Although the machinery there was amazing. When I was at Sony I started off just with a tiny table between mountains of boxes, and my US studio next to Apple had borrowed furniture that was downright ugly. Not that that affected the results, though.
Are there places where you would especially like to work?
With Los Gatos, San Francisco, Shanghai etc. to choose from, I can’t really complain. Al-though I can’t have anything that is too beautiful – I’m too much of a Puritan for that. I tried Hawaii, but then I was off surfing all the time.
Are there places where you have to work but would rather avoid?
Meeting rooms where sophisticated instinct is obliterated by tasteless prestige. America is unfortunately full of it. Oh yes, and I find meetings in Silicon Valley hotels an aesthetic nightmare.
Do you prefer to work alone in your office or with others?
I sometimes work alone, but it’s more fun to work with somebody else or several others. We are sociable people first and foremost, even at the office.
Do you find your office to be a place of inspiration, of creativity? If yes, why?
I love teamwork, and I consider the "ping-pong" of creative exchange to be almost sacred. Then again, I also have ideas at the beach, when I’m driving my car, in planes, or wherever.
Are there rituals that are important to your everyday working routine?
First of all I read my emails in bed while drinking my coffee, then my writing equipment has to be made fit and ready for the day: Lamy Ballpoint, Palomino Blackwing (formerly Faber) and Tombow Mono 100 pencils.
What far-reaching changes could you describe when you look back over the entire pe-riod of your "office life"?
My motto is "Change is Fun" – and I have made it my living. At home I love having my Bösendorfer around – that would be difficult in a professional office…
Can you tell us about a "wow!" experience that you’ve had in or with an office?
Whenever my children teach me a new feature in a software program.
What is the most important object in the office?
In my opinion, it’s the office chair and a good table.
What is the most important object for you in your office?
My computer and my roll-on case, which has flown countless times around the world.
And what is the most personal one?
That would be telling…
What is the most important tool for your work?
My head and my hands.
What is your favourite activity in the context of work?
Is it possible to do two things well if you do them at the same time? I can only do one.
The thing you most wish for in an office?
Generically speaking, that people enjoy their work and see a purpose in it. This also means there should be a minimum number of desks and more interaction zones. I also think wide, open hallways are important. People are far more creative when they break free from their "territory" and are able to stop staring at the computer in front of them.
How many hours per day do you spend in your office?
It varies and depends on my work. Email is hugely effective, but it takes time. And I’m not so good with numbers: I always work until I have reached a goal or a benchmark for the day.
Thank you for the interview.