Material Guy

The simplicity of Jan von Borstel's products

Jan von Borstel's porcelain and felt teacup combines simple, elegant functionality with tactile pleasure. The idea of wrapping a teacup in felt, allowing you to keep your tea piping hot, seems so simple that it is a wonder it has never been done before. More than that, though, with von Borstel's cup the experience of handling the object becomes all of a piece with the warmth and comfort of drinking the tea.

Designed for mass production, von Borstel's cup comprises a cylindrical porcelain vessel with an overhanging rim which holds it snugly in its felt warmer. It displays the meticulous attention to detail and the exploration of the sensual potential of objects that are the hallmarks of all his work, which ranges from shoes designed for commercial manufacture to individually crafted bowls produced in traditional workshops.

Brought up to appreciate traditional craft techniques in his parents' metal workshop in Hamburg, von Borstel studied under Dieter Rams at the Hochschule für Bildenden Künste, Hamburg, and then completed an MA in Product Design at the Royal College of Art, London. The influence of Rams' maxim 'less design is more design' is clearly visible in his work, as is the principle of 'die gute Form' developed at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Ulm, and at Braun AG. Von Borstel's bowls, in particular, exhibit a pared-down beauty that shuns any extraneous or unnecessary detailing. Hand-finished, they are made in seven different materials - sand-cast bronze, cast iron, rubber, jelly, turned granite, oak and felt - so that the intrinsic expressive potential of each is laid bare.

All of von Borstel's products are marked by this concern for the inherent properties and design potential of each material; it is an approach described by the designer Michele Lucchi as the integration of 'technology and human talent, knowledge and sensitivity, know-how and skill'. But with this interest in material and in craft techniques and workmanship goes an extraordinary enthusiasm for design for mass production and hunting down appropriate manufacturers.

And von Borstel is also not afraid to play with Modernist form types, for example, by placing Chaiselongue in a public space (on London's South Bank) as opposed to in its traditional domestic setting. This reappraisal of Modernism - giving a subtle twist to an iconic object - is characteristic of many contemporary designers who borrow concepts and forms only to subvert and reinterpret them. Von Borstel's particular skill, in hand-crafting a bowl from edible jelly or making a hat from gingerbread for instance, is to inject a much-needed element of humour into the lugubrious worthiness of the Modernist movement.

Issue 66

First published in Issue 66

April 2002

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