Design, aesthetics, innovation… A life that is hand in hand with innovation and design between İstanbul, Milan and Chicago. Defne Koz is here, with an approach influenced by Ettore Sottsass, continuously curious and never repetitive..

What are the latest developments and areas in the design world that have grabbed your attention lately?

I think it’s a very good period for design and creativity in general, because innovation is recognized as a driving force for almost all industries, and aesthetic quality, and quality of life in general, are more and more important to consumers. We’re engaged in very different projects, from traditional design oriented products like furniture and lamps, to larger experience-driven projects, like building entire brands in mass-market fields like food or mobility.

I’m also very interested in new materials and technologies. My “Solid Air” lamp collection, for example, was designed with two major transformations in mind: I designed a light atmosphere more than physical lamps, using LED sources to create light textures that were not possible with conventional light bulbs.

You’ve worked with the most important brands of the sector from Turkey and internationally such as Foscarini, Gaia & Gaia and Vitra. What do you think is the secret behind successful collaborations with brands that appeal to different masses with different needs?

Within a certain design-sensitive target market, I don’t think there are major differences in global markets. I don’t think the desires of consumers are so different. What interest me the most is the difference in the stage of industrial development, the size of companies, or the way products are distributed. Let me try to explain better with a comparison between Italy and Turkey.

Typically, an Italian company has a very established brand, with a very sophisticated manufacturing capability and a great global distribution. This means we can easily design products that are aesthetically sophisticated, with a strong identity, and we can be sure they’ll be realized and distributed easily. In Turkey, in the past years, we found companies that developed a very good manufacturing quality, a great desire to reach global markets, but didn’t yet have a great brand, or didn’t have a very clear product portfolio. So, in that market we developed a way of doing design that included a strategic component of branding, distribution, and product positioning. In other words, when we do design in Italy, we’re 100% focused on product and aesthetic innovation, while in Turkey we’re building brands, and we design products and strategies simultaneously. And it’s nice to be in both places, because both experiences are extremely interesting and challenging.

Can you talk about the period you spent at Ettore Sottsass’ studio?

Unfortunately it is not common nowadays to get educated at a designer’s studio who has had a huge impact on the era…

Recently, on September 14th, Ettore would have had his 99th birthday, and next year it’ll be 100 years from his birth. It’s time for a celebration, but I imagine that if he were still alive next year, he would have hated a celebration. I imagine he would have said “…are we ready for the NEXT 100 years?”.

If you look at his designs across his career, a couple of things are more and more clear: he basically shaped an entire century of design, and he always worked in the future. I have wonderful memories about working with him, but the most important thing I have learnt from him is to look ahead, not at the past: always explore, always be curious, and never repeat yourself. The best celebration we could give for his almost-100 years is to build the future on his behalf. If we could do it with at least a little bit of his vision, his aesthetic sensibility, and his way of thinking, the world will be a much better place.

What about Marco Susani? In a time when most designers work to become a brand of their own, you preferred having a company on the way…

Our partnership doesn’t have much to do with a brand or a signature. We’re actually quite flexible with using our names as signature: sometimes I sign some products, he signs others, and we use the brand of our studio on other times. Building the studio together is about combining two ways of thinking that have many things in common, like our roots in Italian design, but also very different experiences. It’s like the best of two worlds, and doing it together is more than the sum of the two parts. And it’s also fun, because we can do lots of different projects.

There is an unexpected modernity in your products, especially with your designs for Vitra. The relationship you form with the past is using it as a starting point, as oppose to being nostalgic…

I make a big, important distinction between respecting my roots and having ‘nostalgia’ of the past. I am aware of my roots; actually I am very intrigued by having both the Turkish – because I was born and grew up there, and Italian – because I learned design there, roots. But I don’t want anything nostalgic or vernacular in my designs.

Our job is to envision the future, to build what people will need and desire in the next years, not to repeat the past forever. That’s why I loved working on some cultural icons, like the Turkish tea glass I designed for Lipton. I was of course inspired by the tradition of drinking tea. I had a very distinct definition of the expressions, gestures and rituals of people drinking it; in a tea house, at home, or on the street, at the entrance of a parking lot. Why not create a new, contemporary aesthetic for that ritual? Why not taking that icon in the next century?

You’ve produced in many different areas as a designer. Since professional specialization is so significant, what was the reaction to your project, which you did together with Xerox? How was the experience of designing for a digital setting?

In our studio we have many projects, like the one for Xerox, that deal with what is called “technology disruption.” It’s something larger than designing one product; it’s about understanding how some technologies will change our life.

In the case of Xerox, it was about how ‘smart’ cities will manage the future of urban mobility. It seems very different from what we do when we design ‘physical’ products, but it actually requires a very similar way of thinking. We believe that design is about shaping the environment around humans, and this is valid for both the physical environment – objects and spaces – and the digital environment – experiences and services. Specialization comes at a secondary level: it’s like learning to use different ‘materials’ to build that environment, and today, in many cases, these materials are not metal and wood and plastics, but pixels and menus and databases.

One of your most talked about designs is the one you’ve done for Istanbul Design Week, justaddwater. Other than being a design idea, it also provides future-users a different way of living. How much do designers influence users based on that?

justaddwater was one piece of a series of explorations about ‘the future of…’ We created a vision about food and nutrition. Recently we also had the same exploration for ‘the future of transportation’ and the ‘future of work.’ We believe these are today’s equivalent to design explorations that, in the past, were called ‘avant-garde.’ We were lucky enough to meet the creators of Radical Design of the 60s, people like Andrea Branzi and his ‘Non-Stop-City’, Ettore Sottsass and his ‘Pianeta come festival’. Their experiments were utopic drawings, installations, provocations, but at their root was the exploration of a better future. These projects had the double role of provoking the audience by showing future visions they could not have imagined, and refreshing the designers’ minds, by exploring new aesthetics and new spaces to apply design to.

Today we need to reinvent that type of exploration. We need these type of projects even more than we did in the past, but we shouldn’t repeat them exactly as they were. Today’s visions of the future could be much more concrete, because companies are extremely interested in concrete innovation, and because technologies can make these visions real. Still, it’s important that this future should be driven by humans, not by technologies. And this is why we need designers and their critical thinking to envision it.