In conversation with designers and twin brothers Ismaël and Nathan Studer
Born in 1984, they completed their studies in industrial design at Lausanne Cantonal Art School (ECAL) in 2010 and 2011. In 2011, they set up their own studio, Atelier I+N in Neuchâtel (Switzerland), and devoted themselves primarily to furniture design. Working together with Girsberger, they created the solid wood “Barra” tables for dining areas and “Barra Work” tables for use in offices or conference rooms.
You are twin brothers: how did you end up choosing the same main course of study and now running a design studio together?
Although our parents did all they could to ensure that we each charted our own course as we developed, our paths kept crossing. Our father is an architect and had a formative influence on us. We both wanted to take up a profession with artistic aspects to it – but not to study architecture. I initially chose French art history.
I, on other hand, had already been studying industrial design for a year at ECAL in Lausanne. When my brother then saw what I was doing, he said, “Oh, I’d like to do that too” and also started studying there.
So we both ended up studying design, as my preference was also to do something more concrete. When I completed my studies a year after Ismaël, I worked as a designer in La Chaux-de-Fonds and additionally on small projects for my father, who has his office here. Ismaël and I very soon joined forces and set up our own studio. To us, it seemed the natural thing to do: we have the same background and were in the same city. It’s a justified question, though... our good relationship plays a major role. We know each other well and have different views and opinions, but are very good at giving honest criticism and direct feedback without having to be mindful of sensitivities. We tolerate confrontation and challenge ourselves. This enables us to work smoothly and be very quick.
Do you have any characteristics, preferences or a specific division of work?
We are different. I am less structured than my brother, perhaps. He’s always aware of all the details and knows how things can be done realistically. I’m slightly chaotic and less willing to compromise. More often than my brother, I care very much about the relationship with the customers – I like meeting and talking to them. I’m more extroverted and he is more reserved, but more diplomatic. This very much depends on the context, though. In a nutshell, I bring in the orders and he draws up the invoices. But we very much play an equal part in the work process.
When designing, do you have a different approach?
Nathan is more of a minimalist and tries to find functional solutions. I love the mix of art and design. I’m fascinated by handcrafted and unique items that are only produced in small quantities rather than on an industrial scale.
Yes it’s true, you prefer aesthetics and I prefer functionality. That’s also our respective focus. All our work relates directly to both of us, however. Sometimes it’s also difficult when our views are too different – ultimately, though, we mostly agree with the outcome. Often, I tend to be working on architecture projects or on the architecture-related aspects of projects and Ismaël on the items.
We have just completed the office space at a hotel in Neuchâtel with Girsberger Customized Furniture. The challenge was to implement the necessary workstations with the required soundproofing over a very small area. Although the solution looks simple and is minimalist, it was complicated.
Why do you have your studio in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Neuchâtel, of all places? Isn’t it a bit out of the way?
We work mainly in French-speaking Switzerland, primarily where the watchmaking industry is based. Initially, we cooperated with our father a lot and being active in this region proved worthwhile. We like this industry.
The fact that there aren’t as many other designers and therefore competitors as there are in Basel or Zurich is another benefit. We also have a home advantage: we were born in Neuchâtel and grew up in Lausanne. Besides that, to work, we mainly need a computer, some workspace and good craftspeople. All of which we have here. We don’t yet know what the future holds for us.
But I also like being a designer and at the same time enjoying this quiet and peaceful environment. Here, we’re not always talking to everyone about design. Our friends work in completely different professions, and I love my lake, of course.
I wouldn’t want to live in Paris or New York. I prefer to live here and visit different cities from time to time. What we mainly need is to have good craftspeople on hand nearby to implement our ideas.
Our father often asks us to work with him on a particular project. We have more 3D expertise and are good at visualizing organic designs, which architects find more difficult. At the Hotel Beaulac in Neuchâtel, for example, we implemented a huge organic surface on the top floor. If I had another opportunity in life to study architecture, however, I would do it, as I really love working on the architectural concept design phase. In this case, it was very odd because the scope of the project kept evolving during the course of the work, from the pool area to the bar, from the restaurant open in the summer months to the restaurant open all year round.
Ultimately, the customer sensed the potential in the project.
How did you end up designing the “Barra” and “Barra Work” tables?
When we were on the hotel project, Girsberger contacted us and a colleague from Customized Furniture came by. We talked, got on well, and subsequently carried out a project with Girsberger. It was the TSM Insurance project very close to here.
During his visit, he discovered a meeting table that we had designed and thought it might be something for the Girsberger collection. So he suggested the table to the company and the development of what is now “Barra” took its course.
»A table like "Barra" is a purchase with a clear statement and, as already noted above, it will take on a life of its own and offer the user precisely what he or she is looking for in a table.«
What fascinated you in particular about the “table” design assignment, and what considerations were front and centre?
Simplicity, and a minimalist and optimally priced approach were important to us. All the details should be very simple. Our first prototypes were produced by craftspeople. The tabletop was initially made of ceramic material, then when Girsberger took up this project, solid wood was used. It has a much warmer look. We also like the fact that our table was initially a meeting table which was then further developed at Girsberger to become the “Barra” dining table, and subsequently the “Barra Work” meeting table system. We are won over by its versatility of use: an entire family can sit at it and it can function as a meeting table.
Tables are something we very much like to work on. From a design perspective, a table is ultimately a form of architecture. It’s an important and large item in every home or building. “Barra” is archetypal and archaic in form. There are no decorative features.
I’m sure that this is the most important aspect of this design project. As an item, “Barra” is overtly radical and typical – it doesn’t want to be anything more than a table.
Once we’ve finished our work, it is no longer our item. People see it through their eyes and use it in whatever way is useful to them. We don’t forget that – we’re designing not for ourselves, but for others. It is a mix of aesthetics, function and ergonomics. The users absorb the items and often tell us later on how they are using them. Sometimes we’re amazed. In the case of a table, we are simply opening a stage and the users take to that stage. The item works by itself. When we design an exhibition stand too, we are often amazed at what goes on there. When we step onto it, we are no longer playing a role – it is performing by itself. Everyone there interacts and we watch what is going on and how the space is used.
Which design assignments fascinate you most?
As a designer, it’s very difficult to bring furniture to market. There are a number of small companies where products have only a short lifespan. At larger companies, it’s difficult to get a foot in the door – particularly for young designers like us. Switzerland has a large supply of good designers, and even if the feedback we receive is gratifyingly good, I generally think that the future for our profession lies in leveraging synergies with architects. You have to offer good architecture and also have suggestions on how to use it and more detailed solutions for the space. This produces more integrated results than when others design the interiors.
For our part, we also like working on a defined budget and trying to manage on it and find solutions.
Just now, for example, we’re working with a watchmaker in the completely virtual realm, more specifically on a VR experience for use in boutiques. This is a challenge for us and also for the industry. We need to place ourselves in an artificial world that provides a multimedia reproduction of the maker’s brand with an emotive quality and aims to give the user a true brand experience and an overview of the product portfolio. We’re developing these special headsets and are in constant contact with the virtual reality designer. But it’s also dangerous to engage with this world. We’re more interested in real life and tangible products such as a table. We need to remain truly functional here.
»It was only when we worked with Girsberger that we discovered the whole range of possibilities – they are almost mesmerising and the savoir-faire also opens up new avenues.«
There are several projects in your portfolio that were implemented in wood. Does this material appeal to you in a particular way and why?
Wood is a wonderful material that can be worked easily and in a variety of different ways. It has a nice, warm feel. It is a natural material that we are all very familiar with. Environmental and sustainability aspects are also very important, of course – especially here in Switzerland. We can find a number of solutions in the details or screwless joints.
We also spend a lot of time in discussions with the craftspeople and they tell us exactly what’s doable and what’s not. So we are constantly learning and discovering new things, too.
And every piece of wood always looks different. This unique character adds value.
There is an entire universe behind this material – from construction timber to fine wood for use in furniture-making to types of wood that are suited to very specific applications such as instruments, weapons or equipment. There’s a lot to discover. We like to use it whenever we can. We are also proud to be Swiss and there is a long tradition of woodworking here. Not until we were working together with Girsberger did we discover the full range of possibilities – these are really quite hypnotizing and the savoir faire also opens up new avenues.
»“Barra Work” is the logical progression of the idea that work is becoming more and more homelike, and that living room furniture is also increasingly used for media and mobile devices…«
For me, having space available is the ultimate luxury. If you have space, you can use it differently. I like to do that both in the home and in the office.
Nowadays, many people are very keen to show what they have. A house is like a digestive system and the things that have been bought go through different stages of appreciation and placement within the household before they then end up in the rubbish.
For me, quality is much more important. I prefer to have a few, high-quality things. I also find traditional Japanese use of living space to be exemplary. Although there is not a lot there, there is a large amount of multifunctional space. This is constantly put to new uses throughout the day. I like that.
A table like “Barra” is a purchase with a clear message and, as we said above, it will develop a life of its own and offer users exactly what they seek in a table.
… and a suitable building block in the new world of work?
We generally like open office space designs because everyone gets a lot out of them. “Barra Work” definitely has a place here. But there should also be enough private space and soundproofing, and we believe that everyone needs their own workstation – their home in the office.
Thank you for talking to us!
Interview: Dorothea Scheidl-Nennemann
Photos: André Bolliger