“There aren’t many products like woodchip.”
Axel Kufus is Professor of Design and Development in Design at the University of the Arts in Berlin and recently headed up a workshop in which participants tried to get to the bottom of the sensual quality of woodchip, Rauhfaser. So what is his personal opinion about the product? He reveals all in an interview.
Mr Kufus, what is your link to Erfurt Rauhfaser woodchip?
There is something ubiquitous about woodchip wallcoverings. They are one of the standards that have been part of our built environment for what feels like forever – albeit more specifically for well over 150 years. There are not many products that have really remained true to their essence and lasted for such a long period of time with apparently very few changes. Does it really have to be manufactured? Has it not always existed? As a designer, I can only doff my cap to a product like this, which belongs to our world as a matter of course, is hard to image being without and yet does not need to shout about it from the rooftops. But woodchip wallcoverings weren’t actually invented as such. Pharmacist Hugo Erfurt simply needed decoration for his window display back in 1864. But there must be ingenious DNA in its core to have gone from there to conquering our four walls.
So is woodchip not rather like Coca-Cola, which was originally invented as cough syrup and then went on to become a soft drink?
No, I wouldn’t compare it to Coca-Cola. Rather mineral water. Mineral water is much more neutral, unassuming and healthier. Woodchip is such a simple, universal product that it has been able to weather all the trends of the last 150 years more of less effortlessly – even if there have undoubtedly been a couple of troughs upon which the heights of wallcovering fashion have looked down.
Do you think that you can plan that kind of success?
Definitely not in this manner. You can confidently call woodchip a standard. However, standards evolve. They are formed from a consensus of many developments, experiences and also habits. It takes time to evolve. We designers don’t just sit down one day and say: “Now I’m going to design a standard product” – that’s doomed to failure. Standards become established at some point – they are recognised as such and then also defended. That’s part of our culture. Particularly German culture. We strive to create them because we gain security through them. Perhaps it’s maybe even a sense of orientation and direction that they help us find. There are many people who do not want to deviate from the norm, who would rather adapt to creative as well as social standards, who don’t question things. They express their personality in other ways.
The advertising agency Jung von Matt developed a living room, which reflects the taste of average Germans. Do you mean this kind of standard?
Standards create normality. Standards alone don’t have to be “stuffy”. The living room presents average clichés and it’s easy to laugh at them – especially for people who wish to rise above the crowd. The “avant-garde” are then happy to return to normality because all the trends are trying to outdo it and each other. And so we go round in circles – while woodchip looks on rather serenely.
Incidentally, it also features in Jung von Matts’ living room,
but, unlike the furniture, it doesn’t stand out. It doesn’t need to perform, it doesn’t make a big statement and then disappear again. It’s just there.
What’s the phenomenon behind it?
It’s the chaos of the grain – there’s no decoration, no pattern repeat, no meaning. It leaves that to others. It is the interplay of blurring. Woodchip wallcoverings are perfect camouflage for walls. Woodchip covers up their peculiarities, their materiality, their unevenness and forms a base for colour, paintings and furniture. It is a strong base on which I can build.