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A visit to ...

Jürgen W. Braun, born in Berlin in 1938, studied jurisprudence in Bonn and Paris before taking his finals in Düsseldorf. He subsequently spent five years in Business Management at Daimler Benz in Stuttgart. As the next stage of his career, he chose the management of a ball-bearing distribution agency with products from the Far East. Since July 1981, Braun has been managing director of door handle manufacturers FSB in Brakel, a family business that was founded in 1881. In the past 20 years he has reshaped FSB into a successful medium-sized firm with a high level of design competence. The initial impetus behind this development was his collaboration with the renowned graphic designer Otl Aicher, which started in the 80s. Braun brought many internationally famous designers to Brakel and asked them to design handles and door knobs. In numerous books of high calibre, Braun has communicated the corporate issues such as handles, gripping, design, functionalism or home. In November this year Braun, who is also a member of the German Design Council and the IDZ Berlin, will retire from the active management of the company.


How can anyone stand working with door handles for almost 20 years?
My father was shattered when I told him I wanted to go to Brakel to become manager of a door handle factory. We put the boy through grammar school, sent him to university, he made it to Daimler and now he wants to roam the country like a travelling salesman knocking on doors...
Have you ever regretted your decision?
In the first three years I did sometimes wonder if long-term happiness was to be found with door handles, roses and plates. But there comes a point when you fall in love with these things.
What makes one fall so madly in love?
Everybody has to earn a living somehow. And you can only enjoy it if you feel the relevant affection for your work. Only then do you become a happy person.
Suddenly I was no longer a lawyer or a controller, I was an enamoured door handle or design manager.
You're being evasive by saying: "Only then do you become..." But how do you become that? What was your development like? You have after all achieved a certain role-model function, not only in your own field, but in the entire German small-business sector.
In the 70s I asked the management consultant Mr. Kienbaum to find me a family enterprise in the countryside that was having problems finding a successor. One day it finally happened and I found myself sitting at a table opposite my predecessors with all their catalogues. By chance they happened to be illustrated with door handles, plates and pull handles. Everything was right except the product.
But we set about tackling the issues. Initially, the problems I had to solve were purely to do with management, for example the high percentage of older people on the staff. I gathered young people about me. Then we did a new catalogue. We showed the market all the things we could manufacture. And in the middle of this period of change, I got to know Otl Aicher.
That was in the mid 80s...
In June 1985 Otl Aicher came to see us here in Brakel to see if everything was being done properly. All I wanted from him was a graphic design for the new catalogue.
Stop! How did you come to be acquainted with Otl Aicher? It's a bit unusual for a qualified lawyer in East Westphalia to suddenly approach Otl Aicher. There must be some background to that.
Chance had a hand in it. I was sitting on a plane next to a man who asked to borrow my catalogue. When he saw the graphic design, he said "you can't possibly do it like that!"

The man gave me his business card, and it turned out he was Klaus-Jürgen Maack from Erco. Then he gave me a lengthy lecture on graphic design. It was all Greek to me, and I asked who advised him. He said it was Otl Aicher. "I'll have to look him up," I said innocently, and asked Maack for the address. "It's not as easy as that," said Maack meaningfully, "but I'll have a word with him."
Herr Maack called me later and I went to Rotis. Naive as I was, I said to Otl Aicher: "Herr Maack recommended me and you're the right man for our new catalogue." Four hours later Aicher threw me out and said: "You don't even know what you want. You can come back when you've got an idea. I'm not a sign painter." What a terrible man, I thought at the time.
But I couldn't put his challenge out of my mind. I found a book about the art of palmistry, and the scales fell from my eyes: we make products for the hand, that's it! Then, in a small slide show, I presented all kinds of products for the hand - pipes, sporting equipment, knives and pistol butts. And Aicher said: "See, now we can see this through together."
That was the start of a wonderful collaboration that lasted from 1985 until 1991, the year he died. Aicher challenged me. He suggested doing books: about our designer Johannes Potente, about our design workshop, about Brakel, we incorporated it all in our literature. But we were not allowed to come to him with a new product catalogue for five years. He wanted the inner attitude and the products to be right first, he wanted everything to follow a clear line. After five years he permitted us to approach the outside world with our corporate identity - and then a miracle happened. We were immediately awarded design prizes. That was the cunning of the fox from Rotis - first software, then hardware.
How did the company - and by that I mean both the owners and the employees - help support this process at the time? Did you have to do a lot of missionary work?
It would be fair to say that it was missionary work in the beginning. Initially, against the wishes of Otl Aicher, I organised an international design workshop in 1986. Alessandro Mendini had advised me to do something similar to what he had prepared for Alessi. Our down-to-earth shareholders began to wonder whether I was suffering from delusions of grandeur, how could anyone invite such famous people to Brakel, of all places. But we just went for it and, what's more, it worked.
One day we were sitting in Johannes Potente's old studio - it must have been June 1985 - and Aicher asked: "What makes the products of Johannes Potente different from other door handles?"
We all looked at one another. Somebody said: "They feel good in the hand." We started to describe what "feeling good in the hand" might be. I said something like, "the thumb finds its stop, the index finger its indentation, the roundness, the volume..." and after quarter of an hour we had defined the four laws of grip. Otl Aicher wrote them down immediately: 1. thumb stop, 2. index finger indentation, 3. roundness, 4. grip volume - and did a drawing to go with them. That led to a poster. Although here in the company, people were initially embarrassed.
A leap in time: on 13th March this year, Harald Schmidt was on stage at 11.15 p.m. and jokingly explained the secrets of grip to his audience.
This was not without reason. Harald Schmidt's show is always topical. On the same day, the FAZ newspaper had published a major article titled "A journey of discovery with the hand". The Handelsblatt trade journal had also written about me on the same day. That's how we came to get free air time on the Harald Schmidt Show.
If you look back on all this, you could say that FSB has advanced from a workshop to a cultural vehicle or, as some people say, become a publishing house with an affiliated door handle production. That means high demands will be made of your successor.
It's always a bad idea to copy something that has already succeeded. It's better if you dare to try something new, if you come up with new ideas. The team that follows me will have to find its own way. We sought differentiation in the literary and cultural superstructure. We succeeded in telling stories about a banal and commonplace product, in making design something people could grasp. There are other possibilities for differentiation: via prices, bulk business, tiny niches, via many other things, but each generation has to define that for itself.
Let's stick with the stories for a moment: I have a lasting memory of one of your first books about "St. Anne's Day in Brakel", which was so wonderfully photographed by Timm Rautert. Sometimes your activities, such as the symposium on the "virtual house", have been extremely challenging - if not over-challenging - for your audience.
This range covers my own personal interest. The book on St. Anne's Day was a gift to our community, which is home to our employees. Even the Neue Züricher Zeitung wrote about it.
The "virtual house" was an attempt to reach the sources of creativity. All my life I have wondered where the ideas come from.
Not all that long ago you brought out a book about functionalism. What advice do you offer young designers? How should they handle design and creativity?
First of all every product has to function. In this respect we are good functionalists. But symbolism and aesthetics are equally important. Not to mention the material. There is a time for plastic, for aluminium, for stainless steel. It is wrong to ignore the symbolism of the materials. Nor can aesthetics be entirely separated from the zeitgeist. So what I would say to a young designer is this: take a material that is in line with the times, design a functioning product and rely on your own taste, which should differ distinctly from that of your grandfather.
You have hired an entire regiment of contemporary designers, from Alessandro Mendini to Jasper Morrison. How many of them have there actually been?
We have collaborated with about 24 author designers. There is a targeted strategy behind that: each year we visited a different European country in order to learn from the designers and the design of our neighbours. It was a laborious way to go, but one that paid off.
So what's next for doorknob design? Will the future become a never-ending story of design variations?
If you visit the Ironmongery Fair in Cologne, it will give you a headache. There are countless other manufacturers as well as FSB. This spring no less than three Chinese concerns were competing with us. One of them had copied 60 items from us, another 30 and the third manufacturer half the catalogue. A temporary injunction was issued against the first two companies. We sent the third a formal letter of caution. As long as you remain a model for the plagiarists of this world, there's no reason to hang your head, you should keep on designing.
The plagiarisms are certainly one side of the future. But won't the doorknob disappear one day, when people start talking to the door, when computer-controlled open-sesame mechanisms become established?
For 20 years I've been living with the fear that one day the lock, cylinder and handle will disappear. But in the meantime, I've become very calm about it. Think of the automatic doors. They don't open according to the same rhythm in which a person approaches the door. Human motor activity differs fundamentally from digital technology. That's a point in our favour.
On top of that there are basic needs, such as the need for security. I want to lock the door manually, I don't want to rely on digital technology. And then I put a chair behind the door so that I'll hear if a burglar tries to get in.
The third point is a question of decor. When it comes down to it, what is a hole in the wall with a board in it? If the handle is missing, you have no idea what it's meant to be.
The semantic effect...
The semantic effect is fundamental. The language of our products is unambiguous: here's the exit, here's the entrance, take hold of it, shut the door... There is nothing that can replace these semantics.
The corporate identity developed by Otl Aicher still characterises FSB. Aicher has been dead for 10 years, but his pupil Sepp Landsbek continues to look after you. Is your CI still up-to-date?
I asked myself the same question for a while. The Mac and Tomato sauces have meanwhile poured across the country and contributed to multi-culti uniformisation. In this blurred wishy-washy environment, we monks of graphic design continue to attract incredible attention. Even if we only know one colour, situated somewhere between white and black, and hold fast to our dislike of grating fonts...
You've been in charge of FSB for 20 years and achieved a great deal. Was it also a financial success for the company?
In 1981 I took on the responsibility for a turnover of 40 million marks and a largely debt-free enterprise. Times haven't always been easy. The market was stagnating. The construction industry was experiencing a crisis. Profits were minimal. We were forced to budget very carefully. But we were soon able to increase the company's earnings performance. The market reimbursed us for the added value we had created, which we had established gradually by telling design stories. After 20 tough and wonderful years, our balance sheet shows that turnover has quadrupled and the start-up money has increased ten-fold. I can pass on a company that is still debt-free and thoroughly efficient to my successors. In the midst of another construction crisis, incidentally.
In the meantime there are plenty of companies devoted to the issue of design, both in your industry and other sectors. But many of them are only enjoying moderate success. What are these firms doing wrong?
For us design is "disegno", a term from the Renaissance, the artistic will to create. That is what distinguishes the handle manufacturer FSB from others, just as you can tell the difference between a Braque and a Picasso in his cubist phase. Even if both of them took a guitar to pieces.
I believe that companies that get design from management consultants in the form of fast food don't take the trouble to distinguish design from design. There is a lack of the creative will that has to be expressed in the company's entire expression of life. That takes time, it takes years, it takes patience.
But isn't it also a question of culture?
To put it cautiously: if you don't have it, you have to acquire it. We in our company see ourselves as apprentices. 20 years ago I would have had to look up lots of things in a dictionary. Culture is something you have to work at.
There are not all that many outstanding entrepreneurs that have become very successful with design. Names such as Maack (Erco), Fehlbaum (Vitra), Lamy (Lamy) and Hahne (Wilkhahn) stand for design-orientated medium and small-scale enterprises. Why are there so few of them?
Because a lot of people shy away from giving their all. The colleagues you mentioned are people that identify 100 percent with their products. You have to give up a great deal to achieve that. Anyone that gets too bogged down with his life as a manager, or devotes too much of his energy to clubs and associations, lacks the time for his own products, his own team and above all for his clientele.
Have you already found a successor for when you retire in November?
Three, actually. Initially we were just looking for one. That didn't work out. Together with my young business and technical colleagues, we are currently looking for a marketing guru as the third man. All three positions will be filled within the next three months.
What do you hope the future will bring?
I hope the team that succeeds me will continue to lead the enterprise self-confidently and with its own style. After all, they've got my pension to earn now on top of everything else. Personally, I'm preparing myself to alternate between a month of work - on company advisory committees, for instance, as I will be doing at FSB - and a month of vacation. On average, the 35-hour-week will finally apply to me too.

Interview: W. O. Geberzahn
Photos: Lars Philipps



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