Designing a City's Tomorrow

Werner Aisslinger about the future way of work and live.

Werner Aisslinger’s résumé reads like a list of design VIPs. The product designer’s works have even been exhibited at the MoMA, and Vitra, BASF, and Mercedes Benz are among Studio Aisslinger’s customers. Rather than dwelling on his lengthy CV, Berlin-based Werner prefers to look to the future. In his current exhibition “House of Wonders” at  Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne, he examines the life and work of tomorrow. Fitting, then, that Werner is also carrying out forward-looking projects for 25hours Hotels: with the design of Bikini Berlin in 2013, Werner put many innovative and individual hotel ideas into practice. For the new 25hours Hotel Langstrasse Zurich, opening in spring 2017, he continued his visionary work. Werner talks to COMPANION about our future way of life and the hotel industry of tomorrow, as well as about the new 25hours Hotel.

COMPANION: Werner, you’re currently showing the exhibition “House of Wonders,” on display at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich until September 2017, which explores the future of life and work. What conclusions have you been able to draw?
Werner Aisslinger: First and foremost, I explore people’s awe of technology and the digital world. In my opinion, we can’t stop its progress, but we could integrate it into our everyday lives in a far more unpretentious way. The suggestions I have for achieving this more natural approach are intended to be playful. Among the objects on display are for instance a home drone, which is programmed to hang out your laundry, and a robot on wheels, which waters plants and wears a knitted dress.

Is dressing robots in clothes an attempt to reduce people’s awe of technology, then? 
That’s one way of putting it. People are analog beings, and current technology often doesn’t have a tangible form, which makes it seem foreign to us. Anthropomorphizing technology helps us form a relationship with it. We have to understand that there are technologies that are here to stay. Though criticism of technology can be valid — in the case of big data, for instance — it can also improve our daily lives. When the iPhone came out of left field, no one had any idea how it would completely revolutionize our daily lives. Nevertheless, I think that the world will return to being more analog in the future.

More analog?
Let’s take contemporary user interfaces, for example. More haptic interfaces would be so much easier for people to understand than these almost two-dimensional screens that people are tapping away at all day long. More organic forms are on their way, but they might take a while. New technologies don’t automatically mean a world that is less physical. In the future, I think we will turn towards nature and away from industrial production. We will grow products in the places where they’re needed at that moment, regardless of where in the world that is. In Munich, we’re exhibiting my utopian idea for “chair farming”: plants are grown in a metal corset, which is opened after a certain period of time, allowing you to “harvest” the finished chair.

A mobile cube for living and working is one of your most famous works and is also on display in Munich. How does it fit into the picture? 
People are becoming more mobile and changing where they live more often. At the same time, there is a shortage of living space everywhere, meaning that the living space the individual has is generally becoming smaller. This is something we need to get used to for the long term. One step in this direction is my Loftcube, which you can simply take with you when moving to another city. It’s designed to fit perfectly on a flat city roof. My original idea was to move from one rooftop to another and form rooftop communities in big cities. Indeed, in some places there are already people offering flat roofs as a kind of campsite, where you can turn up with your cube transported by crane or helicopter. From a logistical point of view, it’s not too expensive. Shipping a container to Shanghai from the port at Rotterdam costs 1,250 euro, for instance, and the cube fits inside two containers.

At Studio Aisslinger, you design furniture, objects, and entire interiors — for the hotel industry, among others. You designed Bikini Berlin for 25hours Hotels, and the 25hours Hotel Langstrasse Zurich will open this spring. Could your Loftcube be an alternative to the classic hotel? 
It’s true, you could also take your “snail’s house” along to a hotel. However, if everyone who would otherwise stay in a normal hotel were on the road with their own cubes, the rooftops would get pretty crowded. Up until now, this has also been a question of cost.

Still, hotels are far more than just indoor sleeping places — which is why they are vulnerable to the same change in demands as all other living spaces. What do hotels need to offer in the future? 
These days, more people are looking for a sense of connection to the city they’re visiting, as well as to its inhabitants. The location of the hotel and its atmosphere are important. The rapid growth of platforms like Airbnb is evidence of this trend. In the future, hotels need to offer what these other platforms can’t: coziness, security, and homeliness, as well as the excitement of new experiences and surprising areas that you might not necessarily expect in a hotel. Creating spaces where people can analogously meet one another and engage in social interaction is becoming increasingly important, as more and more people are both living and traveling alone.

How do you bring to bear all the design knowledge you’ve collected from your experience in furniture and object design when working on hotels?
Whether we’re working on a chair, a shelf, or a hotel, Studio Aisslinger always tries to work with as many visionary and conceptually new ideas as possible. We’re more than just interior designers who plan and decorate; we also care about the individual objects and their story. The story we’re telling in the new 25hours Hotel Langstrasse Zurich is called “Pocket Universe.” On the one hand it’s a play on the lyrics of the 80s song by the Swiss band Yello, but it’s also a reference to District 4, the city district where the hotel is being built, which is a kind of universe in miniature: whatever is happening in the larger world is also reflected in its microcosm. The hotel is on the corner where Langstrasse and Europaallee meet, which means the building unites two very different worlds. Langstrasse, in the same area as the train station, is home to Zurich’s drug scene and red-light district. Traditionally home to migrants, the neighborhood is regarded as up-and-coming by young Swiss people. Europaallee, on the other hand, is an entirely new area for living, working, and shopping, which is only just showing signs of life. On this basis, we want to bring the city into our hotel.

How do you achieve this in spatial terms? 
We began by wandering along Langstrasse to see what we found. We were fascinated by the pawnshops typical of such neighborhoods: if you’re low on cash, you can exchange something for money, and other people can stop by and look through the items. We wanted to transfer this concept to the 25hours Hotel and designed the reception desk as a kind of pawnshop, a so called  “Leihhaus.” Our idea is that our guests, primarily locals, can offer objects in exchange for a night’s stay in the hotel — at least every now and again. You never know,  someone might drop by with a cool stool, rug, or chair. This keeps the place exciting. Otherwise, it’s the same game as usual. It’s vital to make sure local, creative people get involved, and to create a space for them.  

How did you implement this in Zurich? 
For instance, we got Swiss artist Esther Eppstein to curate a residency program at 25hours Hotel Langstrasse Zurich, where we offer artists a chance to live and exhibit in the hotel building. Something like this naturally creates a kind of anchor. Moreover, we’re working together with de Sede, a Swiss manufacturer, to create furniture prototypes. We’re also organizing an exhibition of bags by Freitag. A hotel becomes a more exciting place only when the people who live in the city are also eager to stop by.

Why is it so important for you to be accepted by the locals? After all, hotels are primarily intended for travelers. 
Actually that’s exactly how hotels worked 100 years ago. The rich and the beautiful would have parties in the grand hotels of their city — guests were by no means separate to the locals. Sadly, the former grand hotels are dead these days. And while we’re talking about spaces for social interactions, the hotel needs to go back to being a place where tourists meet up with locals. It’s much more exciting for guests when they’re not only surrounded by other guests with their noses stuck in guidebooks at breakfast. Otherwise they feel like they’re somewhere that isn’t representative of the city. 

Only a few hotels seem to think like this. After all, most of them look more or less alike.
Obviously the big chain hotels are a stark contrast to our concept. I wake up in one of them and don’t really know if I’m in Hong Kong, Tokyo, or somewhere else, because there’s nothing local or personal to be found. Luckily, 25hours Hotels find this as stupid as I do, which is why their concept is always to create something new in exchange with the respective city. This is why I hope that creative people in Zurich don’t think of the new hotel in Langstrasse as a closed world by design, but instead drop by, settle down with their laptops, and drink their lattes. Wait, what do the Swiss call them again? “Schales.”

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