Verena Formanek, born in Innsbruck, studied at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, has been active as a freelance artist, and is the co-founder with Veronika Schwarzinger of the V&V gallery in Vienna. In 1989, she joined the MAK in Vienna, where she was curator for communication, design and exhibits, responsible for the permanent collection with international artists (Donald Judd, Jenny Holzer, and others); in 1993, she became the deputy director under Peter Noever. The next stop in her career was the renowned Fondation Beyeler art collection in Basel, Switzerland (the new museum building by Renzo Piano opened in 1997), where she was in charge of artistic direction from 1996 to 2004. She has cooperated internationally with the most important museums around the world, such as the MoMA and the Guggenheim in New York, the Centre Pompidou and the Musée Picasso in Paris, the Tate Modern in London, and the KHM in Vienna. After this, Verena Formanek went back to Zurich to become Head of the Collections at the Museum of Design (2006-2009). Research and teaching positions in Basel, Zurich and Linz. Numerous publications, most recently Every Thing Design (Hatje Cantz Verlag). Currently in preparation: documentation of the works of Swiss designer Hannes Wettstein (Lars Müller Verlag). Since 2010, Verena Formanek has been the Senior Project Manager for the new Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, designed by architect Frank Gehry and scheduled to open in 2014. Verena Formanek lives in Zurich, Vienna and Abu Dhabi.
When someone is always commuting, not just between cities but also between continents, is there such a thing as a "main workplace"? And if so, where?
Actually, my main workplace is in my head, or to put it more precisely, in my computer. I’m constantly underway, but almost always online. Somehow that’s already become a mania, an addiction. From a design perspective, I tend to be a flexible workplace type of person. Now I’ve finally managed to wean myself off of waking up with my Blackberry and immediately responding to my American colleagues’ emails at night. That has to do with the time difference and somehow with the tempo that seems to rule the day... Rule is a good word for that! I most prefer to have my office at home, which is to say everywhere – whether Vienna, Basel, Zurich or Paris; it’s my private retreat, my oasis. Wherever I am, I furnish it in a similar way. Very simply and with lots of books.
When you are in the office, do you tend to stick to the same place, or do you like a change of "scenery"?
I work with lots of concentration at one place: my desk, of course with my computer on my desk. And I work according to a precise schedule. I like to arrive early and I (really like to) leave late.
If I have to concentrate a lot, I go into one of the meeting rooms; there haven’t been many individual offices around for several years. I often have conference calls in Abu Dhabi where all of the participants – from LA, NY, and wherever else – join in. This happens regularly and is necessary because of the many different places where we all work. And then we have videoconferences. It didn’t really occur to me until now, but I guess I do change my "location" quite often when I’m in the office.
What significance do you assign to your office? What functions do you ascribe to it?
It is the "other" space. I like to concentrate in my office. I have a preconceived goal there. In a private area, I’ll let myself go sometimes; I’m not as disciplined. My office has to be quiet and light and higher up. I have to be able to put a lot of books in it, and it has to have wireless. Definitely contemporary furnishings, but not always the same boring office furniture. I need flexible work surfaces. In Zurich, I had tables by Häberli/Marchand (note: Alfredo Häberli and Christophe Marchand, designers with a studio in Zurich), and they were brilliant. I could always adjust them to the project I was working on at the time. Meetings, laying out print plans, designing arrangements with analogue paper materials, etc. I also have to have space on the walls where I can write my goals and erase them when I get them done.
What do you like about your office? What do you dislike about your office?
I hate those attached meeting-module tables. Booths that are too narrow and not adaptable, and really all these open plan offices. Too loud, too irritating, too gossipy... I like to have space, light, and a pleasant atmosphere. But who doesn’t?
Do you think that your office says something about you?
Yes, I do. It expresses creativity. It’s always very "atmospheric". Whenever I’m down or the office is too dark, I buy a big bouquet of flowers. And to be really honest, I like decoration. I often put up little keepsakes. Very special things – an admission ticket, a plastic cup, something that fascinates me with its form or function. And I’m just as quick to throw it all away.
Are there any places or locations where you have particularly enjoyed working?
I really liked working in Hannes Wettstein’s studio (note: H. Wettstein, Zurich designer, died in 2008; his studio is still working). The atmosphere was so creative. Prototypes and plans everywhere. I love archives and collections, like in the Museum of Design in Zurich. I could wander through the space there and study the objects.
These days, I think technology is really exciting: videoconferences, teleconferencing, where people from all over are all connected. In Basel, at the Fondation Beyeler, I often just went into the museum in the mornings. When there weren’t any visitors, it was almost meditative. I really like to go to restoration workshops or photo workshops.
A museum is certainly a special kind of workplace. Today in Abu Dhabi, there's nothing comparable for me. I drive to Saadiyat Island and watch an entire island of culture emerge. Something new comes up out of the sand every day.
Are there places where you would especially like to work?
Actually no. I'm happy with the places where I work.
Are there places that you have to work but would rather avoid?
At airports, in hotel rooms. That's not really my thing.
Do you prefer to work alone in your office or with others?
It varies. I like to work alone in the morning and then with colleagues later. Often, though, I have to communicate so much that I don’t feel like talking any more in the evening. At the end of a day at the office, I like to be alone again to get everything ready for the next day and to recapitulate.
You already said before that the office is a place of creativity, of inspiration for you.
Absolutely. It’s a place where things are developed.
Are there rituals that are important to your everyday office routine?
As a Viennese, of course I enjoy my coffee break (although I drink tea) and a short chat with colleagues. I’m pretty flexible, though, because lots of unexpected things surface in my job.
I really like to have lunch. I don’t like to eat alone. That’s almost a ritual.
Here in Abu Dhabi, I have a funny ritual in the summer. It’s so cold in the office because of the air conditioning that I sometimes go out into the 48-degree heat and walk around the building once to warm up. That really amuses everyone here.
Although – come to think of it, I do have a ritual, before a difficult project: I clean up!
When you look back over the entire period of your "office life", what changes would you describe as most decisive?
The transition from a single office to an open office to a technology office. To the office on the screen, so to speak. To be able to see, in one office and at one time, colleagues in LA, NY and Paris who are separated physically and in time.
Can you tell us about a "wow!" experience that you’ve had in or with an office?
Ernst Beyeler’s (note: gallery owner, art collector, founder of the Fondation Beyeler; died in 2010) office in Basel in the Bäumleingasse, where the gallery is located . Small, with a wood-fired stove and full of artworks of unbelievable quality. Once there was a van Gogh on the easel, then a Matisse and then a Mondrian. I can’t even count how many wow experiences I had there. Peter Noever’s office in the MAK was also special; very opinionated, but also excitingly creative. I was always afraid of that really long table, though.
What is the most important object in the office?
What object is most important for you in your office?
The laptop or the tea cup? I don’t know.
What's the most personal object in your office?
The book that I’m reading at the time. Or the small figure from Vietnam, made of pearls, that watches me like a good spirit, with a little bell inside.
What is the most important tool for your work?
What is your favourite activity in the context of work?
Thinking and drinking tea.
The thing you most wish for in an office?
Bright, sunny, friendly, communicative, easy to reach, big spaces, flexible, not too sterile, good design, strong bookshelves, drawers where I can store everything so the office always looks empty and organised.
Does your office in Abu Dhabi come up to that ideal?
Completely – there's even a view of the ocean from some of the windows.
How many hours do you spend in your office?
About 10 hours a day.
Thank you for the interview.