Work and lifestyle on the cutting edge: In our conversations with leading contemporary thinkers, we examine the claims, clichés and ideals surrounding our workplaces. This time we spoke with designer and architect Kai Stania. In a talk with Désirée Schellerer and Angelika Molk he tells us about the office as a status symbol, the design of luxury objects and the beautiful life on top of the hill.
After studying architecture and industrial design in Vienna, Kai Stania assumed the role of project manager in Ron Arad’s studio in London. In 2002, he founded his own design company: kai stania I product design. When it comes to furniture, Stania is involved with TEAM 7 and Wittmann, and he has additionally designed accessories for Cerruti, Ungaro and Cacharel. Kai Stania designed the successful AL Management Series for Bene which, among other accomplishments, served as the workspace for M, the tough female head of MI6, in the James Bond film "Quantum of Solace". Stania lives with his family in Vienna in a house he designed himself, where he can seamlessly bring together aspects of home life and working. In this interview with Désirée Schellerer and Angelika Molk, the architect and designer talks about the office as a status symbol, the world of luxury objects and the good life to be found up on top of the hill.
My desk, my chair, my realm – even today the office is regarded as a status symbol. What are your thoughts about this?
An office of course has a particular value especially for managers. Your watch, your car, your desk – these are the symbols that have a value in the world of business. Status used to be indicated by the table top: the manager or CEO had the thickest table top and sat higher than everyone else, too. Today this type of status is conveyed in a more subtle way, through the use of especially high-quality materials or the elegance with which parts are joined. This partially has to do with the more level hierarchies of the modern office world – more level hierarchies mean that status symbols, whatever they may be, are not as ostentatious as they used to be. The emphasis is instead on understatement and restraint. I think that AL is predestined to symbolise this new style of status symbol.
How did you go about designing the AL line?
I took a look at the way management offices were at the time, conducted a good number of personal interviews and then tried to move in a new direction. Using only aluminium in the construction was a brave step to take – this was the first time this had been done. But I sensed that the future would be expressed not through swank, but through understatement, and that this must be reflected directly in the design – that status will be expressed by elegance and refinement. Status is, after all, an abstract feeling, one that defines a particular position and it also serves to mark your own territory. A fitting parallel for the workplace is actually the car industry, which we used quite clearly as a guide in designing AL. For example, Audi at that time – over ten years ago now – was using aluminium for a great number of elements. And naturally, technology as such is quite important, since it is through technology that progress and innovation are expressed. All of this contributes to the concept of status.
You design for Nina Ricci, Cerruti, Ungaro – would you characterise the design of such luxury objects as "sensual"?
Yes. The work offers a few additional parameters to make use of – I find that interesting. Metal, black, lustre: all play an enormous role in the world of fashion accessories, which is the context for these types of objects. What is funny is that these things are actually very conservative at heart. Real innovation is most often not a desired quality in designing and producing these status objects – values are passed on through tradition, not through innovation. For example, there is perhaps no branch more conservative than watches. Watches have a very conservative appearance, even if they have cutting-edge high-tech clock mechanisms inside. The affinity with technology and the state of the science are paired with a look from a bygone age.
Do you have a "main workplace", and – if yes – where is it?
Yes, my main workplace is in my dual-purpose office/house that I designed myself and which sits on the western edge of Vienna in the 14th district. It’s quite special actually, because even though it is very close to the city, it still feels like you are in the countryside. In the winter you need a four-wheel drive to even get to my house, and moreover, it stands directly on the edge of the forest, without any boundary or fence, some 300 metres above Vienna. Many find it hard to believe that such a place even exists in Vienna.
What significance do you assign to the office as a space?
The quality of the location has been and still is a deciding factor for me, as important as the question of how I want to live and work. In the case of my own office, I attached a somewhat absurd condition to the project: I wanted to live and work in a place where others would take their holiday. I am really quite pleased to have discovered exactly what I was looking for.
Do you get the sense that your office makes a statement about you?
I think it says quite a good deal about me. It convincingly conveys my beliefs about architecture and design. My office/house is also a marketing tool. People who express interest in my work most often do end up becoming clients after they visit me at my house. Most of the furniture I use consists of pieces that I have designed for various firms, including Bene, Team 7, and Rolf Benz. I strongly believe in using these items myself and living with them, which also has the benefit of prompting new ideas for developing products.
Are there any places or locations where you have particularly enjoyed working?
I am admittedly very much a "creature of habit". I need the calm peacefulness of a well-acquainted space in order to work effectively. But I also really love the prototype workshops operated by the firms for which I work – so much is decided, discussed and modified in those spaces.
Are there places where you would especially like to work?
Maybe in a place that had easy access to a body of water. That’s what I miss on the hill: a lake.
Are there places where you have to work but would rather avoid?
While it’s not a question of having to work in them, I’d say those places of transit that only really serve as a space for waiting – an airport gate, for example. Nevertheless, good ideas can originate even in those spaces, such as sketches in my notebook that I can then expand upon further in the peace and quiet of my office.
Do you prefer to work alone in your office or with others?
Balance is important to me. Basically, I need both.
Is your office a place of inspiration, of creativity?
Inspiration is like a bird – you never know where it will land. Creativity has a lot to do with grappling with something, whether with others or on your own. But it also has to do with work, and this happens primarily in an office.
Are there certain rituals that you consider important in your everyday office routine? Either routines that you have consciously set or ones that come to you now that you think about it?
Well, in as much as I can call it a ritual, I do like to sit down the evening before a new day and consider the most important points and tasks that need to get done and jot them down. Then I don’t have any trouble falling asleep.
When you look back over the entire period of your "office life", what changes would you describe as most decisive?
I belong to the analogue student generation, back when there was just aquafix, tracing paper, drawing ink and pencils. Even in the three years I spent with Ron Arad in his office in London, those were our only tools, aside from the construction of models. I resisted the digital world. The first few years of my professional life were difficult until software appeared that opened up an entirely new dimension. Then I began to warm to the digital world. It would otherwise hardly be possible these days to be able to design up to forty new products in one year for Cerruti, Ungaro or Nina Ricci.
Can you tell us about a "wow!" experience that you’ve had in an office?
That’s difficult to say. For me, it’s always a wow moment when a new product, one that has only existed as a concept up until then, is suddenly there in front of you as a real prototype for the first time. There’s something really quite superb about being able to touch an object instead of just looking at a drawing of it.
What is the most important object in the office?
The desk at which you work, communicate…
What object is most important for you in your office?
My 30" screen.
What's the most personal object in your office?
A fountain pen for Cerruti that I designed seven years ago. It doesn’t just fulfil the function of writing; in your hand, it feels like a worry stone.
What is the most important tool for your work?
What is your favourite activity in the context of work?
Going out for a good meal with a client.
How many hours do you spend in your office a day?
Many, but I am thankful that I’ve found an occupation with which I can feed my family and in which I don’t need to constantly keep my eye on the clock.
Thank you for the interview.