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Why Minimalist Design? :: Ucon Acrobatics Interview
Minimalism is in the zeitgeist right now. A global movement pivoting away from the clutter of modern life and stripping things back to the essentials. As a result, minimalism in design is flourishing more than ever – and that’s where Berlin-based Ucon Acrobatics comes in. Founded in 2001, the German carry brand has honed a reputation for minimalistic bags that trim the excess and excel in everyday.
Keen to learn more, we asked Head of Design Martin Fussenegger to share his insights on the brand’s approach to minimalist design…
Define minimalist design? What is it to you?
Simplified, timeless aesthetic.
How did you discover it?
When growing up in Germany minimalistic design is never far away. In the 20th century Germany had made a great contribution to minimalist design through Bauhaus and the Ulm School of Design. It was eye-opening for me as a teenager to see works of the graphic designer Otl Aicher. His studio was nearby my hometown and he was a forerunner of corporate design as we know it today. Also his pictograms and directional signage are still the benchmark these days.
Talking about three-dimensional minimalism, the industrial designer Dieter Rams was an early role model for me. As head designer of the German company Braun he had a great impact on consumer products from the ’60s to the ’80s. Apple products from recent years are decisively influenced by the work and principles of Rams. Minimalist concepts don’t really change that much.
If you could break minimalist design down into a practical approach, what would it be?
Design as little as possible.
Ucon Acrobatics have built a brand on quality minimalist and contemporary design. Why the success? What’s the sweet spot when talking minimalism and carry goods?
Most carry goods nowadays are highly functional products with countless pockets, zippers, buckles, straps and other features. For me this is often too much to be really useful. I switch my backpacks frequently and then forget to unload little things. Zippers break and the whole product becomes worthless. If you have less of everything you can put more thought and money into that. This means less defects and the product becomes more long-lasting, which is good for the environment.
“Minimalism avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated.”
Another point is that minimalist design can be successful because the message is more clear and therefore can be understood by the consumer at once. If you see one of our backpacks on the streets of Berlin you will more likely connect them with our brand even if it is a new style we just launched. This effect makes the product more universal since the design is for everyone and not related to a specific cultural background.
As a design style trend, minimalism is continuing to rise. Why do you think it appeals to modern folks?
In the western world we are saturated. We do not really need more new products. We have too much of everything. Many people try to get rid of goods which have no meaning to them. Often they notice that the products they want to keep are the ones which have a minimalistic approach. It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Minimalism contributes to sustainability – and also saves money. In visual communication it appeals to us because of the abundance of information. Nowadays we consume much more information than decades before, and a minimalist representation makes this easier.
Do you have a particular minimalist artist who inspires you? Or a collection of influencers or brands you look to for inspiration?
My inspiration comes from product, graphic design and architecture, but it is not limited to minimalism only. Good minimalism is timeless and ages just by new technologies which arise. So talking about role models for me there are names such as Charles Eames, Dieter Rams, Hans Gugelot, Otl Aicher, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Mies van der Rohe and Tadao Ando. Luckily nowadays there are also very promising designers and brands out there who continue their work.
“In visual communication it appeals to us because of the abundance of information. Nowadays we consume much more information than decades before, and a minimalist representation makes this easier.”
When designing your bags, how do you decide what to get rid of or leave out? Is there a process?
The limits of abstraction are where the use of the product is made more difficult or where it can no longer be distinguished from another because of the reduction. Honestly this is not always easy and it is also a learning process.
Similar to the work of an architect I design the bag from the outside to the inside. Usually I start from the archetype – the most basic form of the bag style and define its key message. This brings me closer to which parts can be further reduced. Then there is the focus on the potential customer and how he or she will use this product. If there is any more innovative way I try to find out its workability by doing drawings or paper models. There is often an intense development process with our factories in China, where I notice that something might be technically not possible. Then we sew several dozen samples of each item which will be tested by numerous people. This might lead to changes for the final design which goes into bulk production. During this process you always need to keep the big picture in mind. Our early bags were sometimes too minimalistic, so we added functionality step by step after evaluating user feedback.
Tell us about your different product series, where you play with new and interesting fabrics – how does that complement or enrich your bag designs?
The different fabrics are an integral part of our design. We experiment a lot with them. Let’s say it like this – there is a good reason why most brands out there are using all the same fabrics and just change the color or add a print. It is just really hard work to bring interesting fabrics to the level of bulk production. Customers expect the bags they buy from us to have similar functionality as their plain Cordura bag they buy from another brand. They need to be water repellent or even waterproof, have perfect workmanship and be long-lasting.
Meanwhile there are so many fabrics in our collection and I can only name a few. One of the most interesting fabrics is one from the Paper Series. It is made from vegetable cultivated cellulose fibers and manufactured in Germany with a long tradition of over 100 years. The washable paper feels like leather, is biodegradable, flexible, highly water resistant and tearproof. For additional sturdiness we even laminated a rigid cotton canvas material to it.
Just about to get released is our Cork Series which is made of thin cork shavings from the bark of the cork oak tree. This process is handcrafted in Portugal only every ten years and the cork renews itself naturally, so the stripping doesn’t harm the tree at all. Cork is not only organic, but also naturally water resistant, sustainable and fire resistant. This material also includes a cotton canvas on the back side.
But it all started with a series of heavy 16oz cotton canvas bags. The fabric features an exterior silicon-based DWR treatment which also keeps dust away. A durable coating on the inside makes it even more weatherproof. This series is called the Original Series and it is still the most successful one.
Fabrics like Cordura are the most common fabrics in the bag industry. For our Stealth Series we use a fine 500D which is fully recycled from PET bottles. On the inside it has a durable TPE coating making it very long-lasting.
Considering all of the bags you’ve designed, what’s been your favorite so far and why?
My favorite is the Alan Backpack made from Paper Fabric. It follows the principles of Mies van der Rohe’s ‘less is more’ approach by far the most of all our bags. There are no visible seams distracting from its basic form. The roll-top is self-explanatory and closes automatically by strong magnets. Its simple shape allows a focus on the different fabrics such as paper, cork or reflective 3M. The difference in the material properties of all the series made it very challenging to bring this product to life.
If you could give any advice to an up-and-coming designer interested in minimalism, where would you point them to? A magazine? A certain book? An artist?
There are so many ways to find the beauty of minimalism. For some it is traditional Japanese design, for others it is a cleanly designed website or UI. Just start in a design field that you are most interested in. Ask yourself why this work is more appealing to you than others. At a certain point you will always come back to the roots of minimalism and to the predecessors who came up with the principles of it.
“The limits of abstraction are where the use of the product is made more difficult or where it can no longer be distinguished from another because of the reduction.”
And do you have one great piece of advice that you could pass on?
Keep on searching and exploring. Have fun doing it. Do work that challenges you and you can build up a relation to.
What’s in your pockets? Do you carry like a minimalist?
Currently I am in China for a couple of weeks to work on new products. To get a better feeling for the products I am switching to a different bag model almost every other day. For prototyping I carry lots of small tools such as pens, a measuring tape, ruler, triangle, cutter, and scissors. My MacBook Pro (from 2008) is with me all the time – an excellent example of product design which is minimalistic and long-lasting at the same time.
What’s next for Ucon Acrobatics?
Minimalism will still be key to our success; also we are trying to bring more functionality to our bags. Next year we will release a series of minimalistic waterproof backpacks. That is something I am really excited about since the welding production technique is completely different to our regular items and quite a challenge.