Spotted at Ambiente 2014

March 24, 2014
Frankfurt’s Ambiente show celebrates intelligent design and smart materials.

Billed as the world’s largest consumer-goods fair, Ambiente is actually much more than that. It’s an annual mecca for product design innovation and recognition, luring more than 130,000 visitors to the massive Frankfurt Fair Grounds each February.

Professor Hansjerg Maier-Aichen is one of those who make the yearly pilgrimage to Ambiente. A teacher at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, Germany, Maier-Aichen has built a global brand as a guest lecturer and design expert with an emphasis on materials, but he may be best known for launching the design label “Authentics,” which set a new standard for everyday items with high design values.

For the last few years, the professor has been giving guided tours of the Ambiente floor, interviewing designers and producers and sharing his opinion. Maier-Aichen prides himself on being opinionated, as well as controversial. To wit:

  • “Overproduction is still a big problem. We need fewer products, made better ... we need more recessions.”
  • “Bad designers work with addition. Good designers work with subtraction.”
  • “Marketing and salespeople are very dangerous to the design process.”
  • “Ugliness is becoming its own aesthetic, due to upcycling.”

The professor has dueling obsessions: Moving producers toward the smarter use of materials and seeing more of the beauty in practical design. Progress with plastics is a recurring theme in his talks. Citing the newfound availability of compostable bioplastics, and increased strength in thinner plastics, he’s not afraid to take on an Alessi piece, the sleek-but-simple Birillo bathroom organizer being shown in Ambiente’s Design Plus exhibit.

Ambiente at a Glance

In addition to the Young Talents showcase, several specialized exhibits either celebrated or deconstructed the philosophy and practice of design:

  • “Solutions,” curated by the London-based product designer Sebastian Bergne, brought together everyday items in which functionality trumps form.
  • The German Design Awards, hosted by Ambiente for the last 30 years, featured everything from automobiles to furniture to personal electronics.
  • “Trends” showcased the latest ideas and predictions from global trend watchers, including exhibits, lectures, tours, and a publication from Messe Frankfurt, the organizers of Ambiente.
  • The Plagarius Awards shamed the producers of knock-offs, counterfeit products, and brand hijackers.
  • Partner Country Exhibits, which celebrate a particular country with product displays and presentations, put the spotlight on Japan. The United States has been selected for 2015.

“I think this is a wonderful design, but it’s all ABS plastic, so really this technology is 20 years old. I know that the material’s thickness in this instance is part of it its appeal, but I’m sure they could find a way to make it thinner and just as beautiful. You could have probably used half of the materials, a big savings.”

“The way we’ve been using plastics has created a horror scenario,” he added. “There is a carpet of plastic floating in the Pacific that is literally the size of Western Europe. It will be there for the next 200,000 years, killing fish, birds, even plankton. There are better materials, bioplastics, but the plastics lobby and the large producers aren’t interested in changing yet.”

Maier-Aichen acknowledged that some companies have introduced “semi-bioplastics,” but noted that these materials still cannot be composted. “It’s purely a marketing creation, not a real solution,” he said, adding, “When we say, ‘Let’s do less, but better,’ do we mean it? Are we as consumers prepared to pay a little bit more if a product is produced for the long-term? This goes beyond thinking about our waste. We also have to be concerned about our resources. We’re not just running out of oil—we’re also running out of wood, we’re running out of earth!”

Much of Maier-Aichen’s Ambiente tour was spent in the Young Talents area, a showcase designed to serve as a launching pad for up-and-coming designers.

“[The Talents program] promotes matchmaking between the young avant-garde and manufacturers, and enables them to present their concepts and product ideas to an audience of experts at the fair,” said Nicolette Naumann, vice president of Ambiente/Tendence.

The works on display ranged from production-ready designs to conceptual projects that were more akin to works of art. Some objects on display brought together the latest in bio-friendly materials and innovations in production, like laser cutting and 3-D printing, while others used traditional crafting techniques to transform discarded materials into upcycled products.

“Upcycling is in some ways a response to our super-consumption,” said Maier-Aichen. “People have trouble with empty spaces—they feel exposed, so they fill them up with cheap products. Until we move more toward buying fewer but better products, we’re going to have this situation.”

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