Letting the Natural Qualities of the Material Lead the Way: Studio visit with Katharina Ruhm.
Berlin-born product designer Katharina Ruhm was kind enough to host us for a cup of tea last week at her lovely Schöneberg studio. It was a delight to learn the story behind her Mirror Pommes I pieces, how collaborations allow her to explore her identity as a designer, and why she places such importance in the natural quality of the material.
Although Katharina’s work has an undeniably compelling aesthetic, she is firm in her identity as a designer and not an artist.
“I would say that I'm in between collectible design, critical design, and also going in the direction of sculpture - even though I'm very clear that I'm not doing art pieces... I'm more interested in making objects for people to use on a daily basis, not art pieces to be admired."
“I try to remain within the spectrum of design and not go too much into contemporary art, because I think it’s really two different approaches with how you create and treat objects, and I consciously develop everyday objects. Everyday objects with a very specific or unusual use.”
Whilst Katharina completed her bachelors in Product Design here in Berlin, she also studied for a year in Copenhagen working both in ceramics and furniture design.
“I actually made that bench there [pointing to the bench beside the window], as I was considering doing a masters in furniture design — but, it’s not my way of working.”
“I love furniture design, but it’s quite an architectural way of thinking. I’m always impressed by those who do it, but it’s not my way of working... I completed an internship in Milan at Patricia Urquiola’s Studio in furniture design, but after that I decided that I’m more interested in materials. So what I do now is focused on studying the behaviour of different materials.”
Katharina expressed her affinity for traditional craftsmanship in glassmaking and ceramics, and consequently her aim to “develop products which are somehow contemporary and connected to our time, whilst at the same time, remain rooted in traditional craftmanship”.
But rather than envision a precise shape first, and mold a material to it second, she holds great importance in allowing the material to take the lead in the process.
“I always try to not think about how I want to do this or that form, but I like starting with the quality of the materials. I look at how it develops naturally, and then see what I can do with the natural quality within, to extend that in a way.”
One of the materials that she’s come to love is porcelain — the base material in her Mirror Pommes I pieces.
“One of the amazing things about porcelain is that you can get very precise forms. However, if you want to have that very specific form, there are always a lot of pieces which end up ‘false’... The suitability about my process, is that I’m basically working from these mistakes so that I highly minimise any ‘Fehlproduktionen’ (misproductions).”
And so instead of using a mold — as are commonly used with porcelain to create precise forms — Katharina simply pours the porcelain onto plaster surfaces.
“Of course at first it was just like weird puddles, but even these puddles had something interesting about them. I started to turn the porcelain pieces over as soon as they crystalised – otherwise the tension in between the layers of material caused cracks. In that crystallised state, porcelain is very unforgiving. Every movement, every jiggle of my hands during that step will show in the form of bumps, wrinkles and dales.”
“Years ago a friend of mine posted a photo of a bear shaped crisp. In that photo he was holding the crisp in front of his face with a certain distance so the crisp became exactly the size of his face. This very simple collage of a human with a crisp face stayed on the surface of my brain for years, I could not explain to myself why... You could still see his mouth through the crisp and so I thought about this very rudimentary trope of a smiley. That memory of unexplainable importance to me just happened to appear again when I worked with the porcelain. That uncertain feeling connected to the memory of that photo was basically the foundation of the series Pommes I.”
“First, I just did it for myself. I thought it’s super funny to have a mirror in my bathroom at home where I can have a face looking back at me... So then I just continued working with these faces.”
I was surprised to discover just how far back this fascination with mirrors dates.
“I have a very vivid childhood memory of standing in front of the mirror in our corridor a lot — like a lot. My Mum was always telling people that I’m super vain. But I wasn’t actually looking at myself, I was looking at the reflection of the room behind me. It was an uncanny but fascinating feeling like I had eyes on the back of my head. Back then it was just that feeling, but when I think about it now... what interested me was the mirror as an expansion of perspective.”
“In general I dislike to explain too many things about the thoughts behind my objects. It limits the space of associations for the people I am designing for. The users of the objects. So I decided not to explain the concept behind the objects too much, but just give directions by using these little anecdotes – they build the more interesting part of my projects, the intuitive core...”
Katharina wouldn’t necessarily characterise her work as sustainable design, but she does have a mindful approach to thinking about and caring for objects.
“The silver surface of the mirrors is very sensitive. Silver is highly reactive – it reacts as soon as you put a finger on it. The more you use the mirror the more the silver surface will start to change. First it turns gold, then a ghostly grey, before it dissolves completely one day. So, to sustain the silver you need to treat these mirrors in a certain way, otherwise they will just become porcelain plates.”
“I was therefore thinking about packaging, and of course right now, plastic is seen as THE evil material, but then I thought about developing a PET plastic packaging that is part of the product. Like you know those action figures that people collect and leave them inside packaging? Based on that idea, I developed together with Max Winter, a packaging which allows you to leave the mirror inside.”
Collaboration has also become a profoundly important element to Katharina’s process, as it allows her to more deeply explore other fields of design.
“I’d say most of the explorations that I'm doing are about understanding the material and craftsmanship, as well as understanding different approaches of the people I’m working with. That’s why collaborations are a most important part of my design process.”
“The next vase series I am doing is curated by Anna Liset. She has a great sense for colours, so even though I did a similar project before, these glass objects turned out completely different. Somehow, they were aesthetically translated and transformed, during these revisions with her.”
“The most important part of my working process is definitely collaborations – even though the foundation of my designs are silent observations of natural peculiarities of materials. But sharing what I observe is equally as important, in order to design out of your own comfort zone. The last three years I ́observed ́and worked with glass and ceramic. Let’s see what comes next!”
Thank you to Katharina. You can find links to her work below.
Words and photos by Ewan Waddell.