Almost like alchemists in their laboratory, Katharina Mischer and Thomas Traxler, demonstrate extremely precisely how their products function within their studio. After having met during their product and furniture design studies, the two designers have worked together very successfully to produce some fascinating creations over the last ten years. During that time the two Austrians have received several national and international awards. One of particular note was the ‘designer of the future’ award presented at Design Miami/Basel. Their work can also be found in the permanent collections of the Art Institute, Chicago, and the MAK, Vienna.
The mischer’traxler studio is located in Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, in the 15th district of Vienna, which had its heydey during the second half of the 19th century with the opening of the Western train station. Later, the area experienced further development with a range of hotels emerging along with the establishment of the centre of the Austrian capital’s textile industry. As the rent in this multicultural neighborhood has remained comparatively quite low, many creative agencies and artistic studios have migrated here: a typical gentrification scenario. Katharina and Thomas who moved to Vienna in 2009, feel very comfortable in this locale and appreciate its special charm. Over coffee and croissants, this design duo discuss how they come up with their innovative ideas, concepts and systems.
This portrait has been produced in partnership with departure – the creative agency of the city of Vienna – and is the second episode of an ongoing collaboration.
Who are you and what do you do?
Thomas: Since 2009 we have run our studio mischer’traxler in Vienna. We work broadly across a range of fields that reach from product design, to installations to media arts projects.
Can you remember why you wanted to become a designer?
Katharina: I was a senior in the artistic department and I have always wanted to do something with art. Then I thought that you do not really earn money with art and decided to go for design.
Thomas: First I went to a technical academy for automation technology, but realized that everything was far too strict for me and everything had to be simple, fast and cheap. Therefore my interests went more in the direction of furniture and interior design. Doing so, I realized that I have a far bigger fascination for details then for a total approach. Through this detour I ended up in the design field.
Where did you guys meet?
Katharina: We met during our studies, which we both started in 2003, and during which we worked together more and more. In 2006, we applied for a masters course in The Netherlands and were both accepted at Design Academy in Eindhoven. After that, we decided to keep on working together and moved to Vienna.
Can you explain your working process?
Thomas: We work together on everything and discuss a lot. We need each other in order to develop a project.
Katharina: We complement each other. Thomas has more of a technical background and I have a more overall background. With collective discussions and dialogues it is much easier to get extensive results. So, as soon as we know what are working on, we do everything together. But I am more in charge of color, text and graphics, whereas Thomas controls more of the technical and materialistic implementations.
What influences you the most when you are developing something?
Thomas: Nature as a closed system, where everything is connected to everything in some way and everything just makes sense. Another influence is the technical part of productions, the method of machines and their process. Here we pose questions on how to change machines, we question to what extent they are useful to us, and also how we can adapt new processes.
And who builds the machines?
Katharina: We try to build as much as possible ourselves. But that obviously depends on the size of the project. I tend to have a naive view and have ideas on the possibilities of doing things. Thomas knows how it should be done due to his technical background. Thanks to this combination we often find extraordinary solutions for small mechanical problems.
Thomas: Yes and generally we build all the mechanical parts in the workshop or at friends place who possess welding equipment. We only need help with electro technical executions, and for this we work with a programmer. When you build a lot yourself, you are able to adjust, change small things and react flexibly.
How important is the topic of sustainability in your projects?
Katharina: Sustainability is a reoccurring topic here. But we don’t automatically close off every other option. We always think about whether it is a product you will throw away, or if better materials can be chosen. But sustainability is not our most important criteria.
Thomas: Sustainability has many facets and can also be connected to social systems. It is also about what direction the production is aiming for.
Which part of your working process do you find most exciting?
Thomas: The beginning, when concepts are being developed.
Katharina: Yes, but that is also such as love-hate relationship as it is a painful process, which can extend itself over days. Of course, this is exhausting just like it is exciting. There are questions like: Where do we go or how can we get the best out of this project? It is also really exciting to have the final product and for it to be exactly how you wanted it.
Do you always work on one single project or many simultaneously?
Thomas: We normally work on two to four projects at the same time, which are always in very different stages. When a project is within the concept phase, other ones will be at its completion or test phase. The good thing about that is that you can change from one project when you are stuck on another one. That way you feel like you are always making progress.
Katharina: But we also have to follow guidelines externally that determine our work rhythm. For instance, openings of exhibitions, or clients who are waiting for a specific part in order to produce something.
Who are your clients?
Thomas: Our clients come from all sorts of fields. Partially they are companies for whom we develop products together, as well as institutions like museums and galleries or curators. We also have private customers who want very specific objects.
What is important to you when you are working on a design concept for a client?
Katharina: Definitely the dialogue between the client and ourselves. Then we think: What is the object for? What are the parameters? Why do these clients want this? And what makes sense in regards to the context.
What is more important to you, to make a useful object or a piece of art?
Katharina: For us it is important that the objects are functional, as we strongly stem from a product and furniture background. We don’t want to make something that will only look good on a shelf.
Thomas: The advantage of making a project intended for a gallery context is, that you have more freedom. You can develop projects that are more elaborate and thus, not suitable for mass production. The objects can also be presented in another format. One can take more time for the object’s explanation for instance, as someone going to a gallery usually has more time, is more open and wants to hear the story of the object. It is very exciting for sure.
Is there a project that you are particularly proud of?
Katharina: We don’t have an absolute favorite piece. But a noteworthy project would be: ‘the idea of a tree’ – a machine that produces an object from dusk till dawn while reacting in regards to the different intensity of the sun. Another project, which means a lot to us, is ‘RealLimited‘ which concentrates on animal species that are dying off in Austria.
What makes you so special in your field?
Katharina: I think it’s our approach. We get involved with clients, the environment, and the theme, and very often we are not sure what the result will be. It can sometimes result in a film, a picture, or an object.
Thomas: In addition, we move around in several fields that we feel comfortable in. We can’t be placed into one particular box.
What does success mean to you?
Thomas: When both ourselves and the clients are satisfied with the project. Or when our work gets a positive response at an exhibitions and stimulates discussions with interesting people.
You have received many awards for your work so far, how important is that to you?
Thomas: Receiving an award is always a very pleasant experience and it is wonderful to get recognition for what you do. But one cannot say that one particular award opened all the doors for us.
What do you know now that you would have liked to have known earlier?
Katharina: It is important to listen to your gut feeling and intuition. For the most part it is right. That is something learnt through experience. Every new project initiates a relationship with another person, you soon known whether the relationship fits and when it doesn’t.
To what extent has departure supported you with your projects?
Katharina: It provoked us to start actively thinking about founding the company, seeking advice from experts, and making thoughtful decisions. As all these economic things are not really fun, it was really great to receive help in that particular department. Obviously we also received a lot more attention through the funding – especially in Austria. The money was used mainly for tests and material trials for ‘the idea of a tree’ and the first prototypes of our ‘reversed volumes’ bowls.
Where in Vienna can you find good design items?
Thomas: We buy our things at flea markets or at Caritas Lager. If one likes vintage furniture Bananas is great. Das Möbel has also a pretty good range of design, which sells local and regional products. In addition to that, Himbeer und Soda just opened and also stock products of ours also.
Katharina: MAK Design Shop is perfect for small presents and beautiful objects.
What do you like to do besides designing?
Katharina: Sleeping! (laughs)
Thomas: We love going for a walk and visiting exhibitions. MAK and tba21 are particularly perfect for these occasions. Other than that one can meet us at Quartier 21, a part of Museumsquartier.
Where do you take your guests in Vienna?
Katharina: Lainzer Tiergarten or we drive to Leopoldsberg where one gets a fantastic view of the whole city. Ólafur Elíasson’s installation ‘Yellow Fog‘ at Verbund headquarters is especially nice to look at during nightfall.
Is there a designer in Vienna that is absolutely necessary to check out?
Thank you Katharina and Thomas for sharing the story of your professional journey in this interview. To find out more about mischer’traxler, check out the website here.
Photography: Lukas Gansterer
Video: Jan Schöttler
Interview & Text: Nathalie Halgand