When Peter Fiell talks about design, he speaks on a first-name basis: Karim (Rashid), Ross (Lovegrove ) and Zaha (Hadid). It’s like name-dropping Marty, Woody and Quentin while discussing the future of film. He and his wife and business partner, Charlotte Fiell, recently ended their 15-year tenure as heads of the design branch of Taschen, an illustrated book publisher, in order to start their own publishing house, called Fiell. To hear them tell it, they are paving the way for their own publishing revolution—bringing innovative, democratic design books to the people—and doing it all under a modernist flag.
This August will see the release of their magnum opus, "Tools For Living: A Sourcebook of Iconic Designs for the Home", a 760+ page book about excellence in domestic design. More Intelligent Life met with the husband-wife team in their London home office to find out why they chose to cut ties with the publishing establishment.
More Intelligent Life: One of Fiell’s self-proclaimed goals is to have “broad appeal”. But for many, design books are quite niche. How do you reconcile that?
Peter Fiell: Think about it. What is design? It’s the forethought that goes into the making of man-made things. It’s films, pharmaceuticals, airplanes, chairs, tape recorders … it’s the world of stuff. It’s huge, so everybody should have a big interest. It’s not some avant-garde, highly expensive niche. We want to make money by publishing books that sell, but we’re in the business of promoting ideas, culture, taste, connoisseurship. If you want to make a difference you want to get into as many people’s heads as you can and change their opinion. The secret is to strike this balance between making your books appealing to learned type readers, while at the same time, making them useful and interesting to novice readers. Our aim is to make books as appealing to teenagers in Tokyo as architects in Amsterdam. We’re a start-up and we’re global from day one. Why would you not attempt to project your brand globally if you’ve got a product that can be sold globally? If you can’t make a print book work globally then you’ve got a bad idea.
MIL: You’ve spoken before about how it doesn’t matter how people come to good design so long as they do. Is there an example of bad design that you’d most like to see people move away from?
Charlotte Fiell: I hate seeing dross. I have a thing with McDonald’s Happy Meals: When you see children get the free toy, it’s like, what’s that really saying about stuff? Nothing is free, really: It all has a cost—it might not be monetary, but it’s an environmental cost and that’s not being shown at all. I think it’s really sad that children are having this sort of idea inculcated that it’s okay to have stuff that lasts five seconds and then gets thrown away.
PF: It’s what Dieter Rams said: Less but better. If you buy a product that’s well designed it’s going to last longer, function better. And because it lasts a lifetime it’s the responsible way to consume. We want to get into the heads of the Chinese: There’s more money in designing and manufacturing and exporting products of high value. We’re already doing co-editions with the Chinese and that is a dream come true for us, because what are they doing? One power station being built every week burning liganite is not the way forward for the Chinese or for the rest of the world.
CF: The flipside is, time was that ‘Made in Japan’ was a derogatory term, and now they’ve raised their game in design and manufacturing. I could see the same in China. The idea for "Tools for Living" was to change people’s ideas of designed products: It could be any tool in the kitchen, a potato peeler that will last a lifetime—a chair that will last a lifetime.
MIL: Is there a design tool that you find overrated?
PF: Even Philippe Starck himself now acknowledges that his Juicy Salif lemon squeezer is redolent of the somewhat narcissistic “over-design” of the late 1980s and early 1990s—driven by novelty and fashion—not real-world problem solving, which is what design should really be about. The problem with much Dutch design today is that, like the Juicy Salif, it suffers from style-over-substance syndrome. Often, this kind of design is predicated on humour and/or self-knowing bad taste—kitsch. The joke may be funny the first time, and raise a chuckle the second, but by the third exposure the joke is wearing thin to the point where eventually it becomes tiresome and downright embarrassing. Consider the Moooi Horse Lamp—a life-sized horse constructed of fibreglass with a lamp shade on its head. It’s a floor light. What kind of message is this sending to impressionable minds about design and the sustainable deployment of resources?
If you really want to make a difference in design you create products that are necessary and accessible. That means products that are aimed at the majority, and not an elitist minority. And to achieve this means coming up with a design that is suited to the industrial process and can be manufactured in large numbers efficiently and cost-effectively.
MIL: You’re planning to launch your digital strategy in parallel with your print books and via the iPad. Do you subscribe to the idea that the iPad could be the salvation of the publishing industry?
PF: I would say it’s a paradigm shift. But for a book to be viable, it’s got to be viable in print first, then it will work with the iPad. We still stand for print. The iPad is the only game in town and it will be for a long time.
MIL: On the subject of “new games in town”, how did Taschen react when you said that you were leaving?
PF: We basically divorced.
MIL: Was it amicable?
MIL: Is there a fundamental difference between your philosophy and Taschen’s?
CF: For us, Taschen was a really good opportunity. For 15 years we knew that they’d put our books out into the world, and that was really why we stuck with Taschen. Because what’s the point in doing books unless they go out to a large population? Over the years, we were increasingly feeling that the emphasis was going more and more towards porn and bibles, and that didn’t fit. When we first got there, they did sexy books but they had some sort of aesthetic merit. There has been a pornographisation of culture and I don’t think it’s a good thing. The more extreme the image, the more you get anesthetised to it, and I don’t think that’s a good thing either. We have two daughters: What are we really saying about the role of women?
PF: It boils down to a matter of taste. We think differently. We come from this world of design, and the birth of the modernist movement was really about moral philosophy. We’re trying to add to the sum of human knowledge here: What is a monograph on a porn star adding to the sum of human knowledge? If you can’t make a meaningful and relevant contribution then do something else.
MIL: Did you ever have that conversation during your time there?
PF: No. Because we would be commenting directly on the publisher’s taste. This is the thing: Publishing is a really personal business. What you see is what I stand for. You lay yourself open: Look at this programme of books: This is what we live and die for, and if you don’t feel that passion, you’re probably not going to make a good publisher. You’ve got to have a point. What do you stand for? And we’ve got no problem at all saying we stand for this. We’re not relativists, there is a right way and we feel confident enough to be able to say it and to publish books about it.
MIL: It’s interesting that you mention porn, because the phrase “design porn” is frequently applied to your own titles. How do you feel about that characterisation?
PF: Not good. I find it extremely derogatory. It implies a lack of knowledge. We’re not showing things gratuitously, we’re showing ultimate examples. We’re not only concerned with having the most aesthetically pleasing image, we want what we depict to be The One. Everything else is derivative, so we go to huge trouble to acquire The One to have it photographed to include. People use our books as benchmark books, as bibles—if we can’t produce the best book on the subject we’re not interested. I wish more people appreciated how much trouble we go to to show that.
MIL: Can you point to an example of The One?
PF: Way back when we started, we were selling super high-end post-war furniture. We were pioneers, and our USP then was: We’ll take furniture from the '40s and '50s and treat it like it’s 18th-century furniture and deal it as if it’s Chippendale. One of the pieces was an early piece of furniture by Joseph Hoffman, the famous Sitzmaschine. It came to us and unbelievably retained its original horsehair filled cushions. And even more astonishing was that the cushions retained their original, Josef Hoffmann designed textile covers, which were manufactured by Backhausen. It was a miracle just dropped from heaven into our laps. And so we sent it to Christies where it set a record. But before we sent in to New York we had it photographed. This is always the example of the Sitzmaschine that we feature in our books; this miraculous unique world-record setting example. And a rival publisher has featured the Sitzmaschine in one of their books and do you know what they use? The Vitra miniature. Why? Because they cheap out on the images and they can get the image from Vitra because they sell the miniature for free. That’s the example that the rivals use. We use Caesar’s Wife.
"Plastic Dreams: Synthetic Visions in Design" is out now. "Tools for Living: A Sourcebook of Iconic Designs for the Home" will be released on August 2nd.