True Talents: Messe Frankfurt's Nicolette Naumann

nicolette naumann messe frankfurt From the moment I met Nicolette Naumann last spring at a lovely design event, “Dialogues in Design:  A New York Preview on Ambiente 2013”, hosted by Martha Stewart, I knew that she was a powerful advocate for discovering and nurturing young design talent. My subsequent meeting with Nicolette, in late summer, in Frankfurt simply confirmed my feelings and more importantly gave me an intimate insider’s view of Messe Frankfurt’s Talents program that Nicolette, the Vice President of Ambiente and Tendence, is credited for its extraordinary success and its exemplary track record of discovering and launching some of today’s most famous and influential designers.

Prior to my scheduled chat with Nicolette, I happened to run into her at the ‘10+1 Talents – Young Design in Progress’ exhibit booth. She was busy coordinating details with some of the young designers and I could tell that she truly loved being in that environment – working with the young designers and ensuring that every detail was just right.

I invite you to grab a cup of coffee and come journey with me as I take you behind the scenes at Messe Frankfurt’s famous Talents program.

image Messe Frankfurt Tourhaus.

DD: Could you please share how the concept for Talents was developed?

Nicolette Naumann: Messe Frankfurt has always been very design oriented. This is already expressed in our architecture and in our involvement in the Design Council and also in our design prizes Design Plus and FORM. The Design Plus prize was launched back in 1983 and has since established itself as one of the leading design awards. Prizes are awarded to contemporary consumer goods products which persuasively combine aesthetic qualities with functionality. The competition is organized by Messe Frankfurt, the Design Council and the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce. With the FORM competition we have been building bridges in cooperation with the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts between arts and crafts and industrial design since the 1970s. It is a platform for presenting important developments and innovations in the field of high-tech industrial and manufactured products.

As early as the 1990s, Design Plus had an edition for budding young designers for a while. Since the 1980s we have been developing special show concepts in collaboration with designers. For instance, Konstantin Grcic and Constantin Boy each had their own exhibition back in the early 1990s (I was already responsible for the shows at that time.) at a really early stage of their careers. Around the turn of the century, the first partners from those cooperations were made by professors at universities that started recommending students themselves. That was when the idea of systematically supporting young designers was born.

P1150616Messe Frankfurt Inner Courtyard View and City Skyline.

DD: What did it feel like to see the first Talents exhibit come to fruition?

Nicolette Naumann: You must imagine that the first Talents exhibit was much smaller than it now is. Then, 13 young designers took part in a Talents special show and not the 40 international newcomers in three different areas per fair we have today. The Talents area in the Carat jewelry section was introduced in a second phase before, in 2010, we introduced a Talents area in the Dining section for the table and kitchen.

At first, most of the Talents came from Germany because it took time for this promotional program for young designers to become known internationally. An important factor in this process was our working relationship with universities, as mentioned before. In China and Japan, our Interior Lifestyle Tokyo and Interior Lifestyle China shows and Interior Lifestyle Living in Tokyo have also drawn attention to the Talents promotional program in Asia. We also receive numerous applications from young East European designers because the program has received widespread publicity there via the media. Today, more than two thirds of the young designers who make presentations within the framework of Talents come from outside Germany. For the future, our aim is to attract more young designers and university graduates from Africa, South America and other Asia countries with the Talents program.

P1150568Entry to Talents exhibit hall at Tendence 2012.

DD: What is the selection process for Talents?

Nicolette Naumann: I think like any process of this kind, first, and maybe above everything else, one has to admit that there is a lot of gut feeling – of emotional decision in it. So you have to like the product or whatever is proposed at first sight.  Sometimes if it is not attractive at first sight, I start to read a few more pages [from the Talents’ application], and I then decide – oh, it may be more interesting than what it looks like.

I also have somebody on our team who reads all the applications and sometimes will say, “Maybe you should do some reading on this. I have the feeling that maybe this is more interesting than it looks like.” But, in most of the cases there has to be a first sight attraction. Then, of course, there are many more that you think at first sight are interesting, but will not be chosen in the end.

So there are different approaches that I try to follow, and they may differ from year to year. But it also depends on the material that gets sent in. You never know. There are stronger years and less stronger years. And sometimes you don’t know why.

Of course, the best chance [for selection to Talents] is for anybody who has a really special product idea; something I think could go into production and something I think I haven’t seen before. Then again, I am very attracted to conceptual work. In that sense, I would say that many of today’s influential designers, whether it’s Konstantin Grcic, Mark Braun or others, come from a very intellectual process. They didn’t apply at Talents the first time thinking “this prototype is going to be a product and sell well”, but they applied with a product that reflected sitting, reflected how we eat, or reflected time.  In these cases, it was three meaningful sentences that translate these reflections which  lead to something that might be too avante garde, and you know that it will never be a selling product, but you know that there is a bright mind behind it. All these influential designers when they were young started with the concept.

Maria Volokhova at Tendence 2012Sometimes it’s just somebody doing a very beautiful arts and crafts product. For instance, Maria Volokhova whose design product is very much arts and crafts. Just her idea to have a teapot that looks pretty anthropomorphic, and still functions as a teapot. It’s totally an object, but it’s an object with a function. Again, this may be something that will never be part of a design school, it is a very individual approach, but it’s so unique and there’s so much quality in it that you say this is a product of a bright mind. And, maybe this will stay arts and crafts forever, but it is unique.

Then there is something completely different and this can only happen during the application review process.  One year we had somebody, it was like three or four years ago, applying with mini-golf. We had another applying with ping pong and we had somebody else applying with table soccer.   Suddenly, in one year we had three young people from different universities,and different countries reflecting on something that was pretty bourgeoisie – sports in the 50s and 60s. I had the feeling this means something. Then you would choose all three of them – and say okay lets have all three of them show alongside each other – to say, let’s make clear there is something happening here [with regards to design directions].

Another method of meta-reflection is, if I think that there is a trend in society like re-using material or using recycling processes. For example, an  artist who creates cute, yet at the same time old-fashion and modern jewelry. She creates something very traditional like a medallion, but from porcelain that she finds at flea markets. She then takes the porcelain pieces and turns it into modern jewelry. Now besides the fact that I think it is very charming – in of itself, if you know jewelry design, is not the most innovative process. It is not the most innovative idea to create a medallion; it’s as classic as it can get. Yet, somebody going to a flea market and looking to reuse old porcelain is an approach that I think at the moment reflects a powerful meta-trend. So this would be why we choose her for Talents.

Sometimes we also choose products that are more political. Twice we had products that reflected the situation of homeless persons. Obviously, this would never be a product that would go into production or use. Just the fact that somebody would sit down and say, “What does it mean to be homeless? What would be a product that would be useful to a homeless person.” It appealed to me a lot.

tendence_talents_carat_ps_056 Talents Carat’s Section at Tendence 2012.

DD: When I spoke with you in New York, what really impressed me was the manner in which you and Messe Frankfurt nurture and sponsor the Talents. We discussed that there is so much talent out there, but that it is so hard for young designers to exhibit because they do have to pay to go to these shows. And a lot of these designers don’t have the financial resources, but the talent is there.

Nicolette Naumann: Yes, they get the exhibit space, the booth design, the catalog, press assistance (And in some cases if they are from a poor country, and unable to pay for travel –  we will pay for the travel expenses.) and other related show support for free, but we do confront them with the economic realities. We don’t put them in a hot house, in an extra hall on their own. We put them in the marketplace alongside well established design companies. They have contact with potential producers, they have contact with potential buyers, and they have contact with the press.

We guide them through the entire exhibition process: We tell them that there will be press, and that they should have a press kit prepared. We tell them if they are able to sell in small quantities that they should have pricing ready, and to keep in mind how it translates into international shipping. We tell them if they have prototypes that they should be prepared for people asking to buy them and that they have to think about what it that would mean and how could they imagine getting into a contract. And one should not underestimate this aspect – we know that half of the Talents actually do direct business during the shows. Either selling in small quantities (for example jewelry), selling designs and making vital contacts like Sebastian Herkner who went on to work with Moroso or selling product prototypes like Mark Braun – he sold a prototype to Authentics who then put it into production within a year and then nominated the design for Design Plus Awards (Ambiente’s prestigious design award program.)

DD: You mentioned Konstantin Grcic earlier as one of the first Talents, and of course he has gone on to become a designer of great influence. Two year ago at Design Miami/ he was recognized with the coveted “Designer of the Year” award and designed a special installation ‘Netscape” for that design fair. Giving these young designers the support that the Talents program at Messe Frankfurt offers is quite pivotal to their careers.

Nicolette Naumann: Yes, but I have to say that in many ways, after so many years working with young designers, we get so much back from them. For example, with Konstantin –  he visited Messe Frankfurt’s Shanghai show last year. He gave lots of speeches, press conferences and so on. He did it because he feels that we were there for him when he was young. Same with Mark Braun, he went to Shanghai too. Sebastian Herkner will go this year. All of them invest time, they invest energy. We also try to stay in a long term relationship with the ex-Talents. Some ex-Talents will design restaurants, food booths or other special things for Messe Frankfurt shows – some of them support part of our marketing and get paid for it of course, and we do hire many of them for projects.

ref_4439207bb919eb804188093096c72b16 2012 Tendence “Talents 10 +1”  exhibit designed by Petra Strickstrock.

DD: Earlier we discussed the ‘Talents 10 +1’ booth. It is beautiful. Please tell me more about the designer behind the exhibition booth.

Nicolette Naumann: It was designed by,  Petra Strickstock , one of our ex-Talents. She was still in design university when she exhibited at Talents. Later she started curating shows with other designers to help them with special presentations on the trend show. I could see that all the designers that worked with her reacted very nicely. They’d comment, “ Oh, she is very good at what she does, she is really thinking.’ Then she invited me to the final design exhibition at her university in Mainz. I went, and I was part of the small jury. We had to vote for the best student work in this final exhibition, but anonymously. And I also didn’t know which design was hers. In the end, her design won and since then she has been my favorite as well. I said to her, ‘Maybe it’s time you do your own first small project.”  Petra would start with small things.  Over the last ten years she has done special exhibitions, and lots of beautiful cafes for Messe Frankfurt shows. And this year at Tendence she designed the ‘Talents 10 +1’ exhibition.

P1150440Cafe and rest oasis in Messe Frankfurt Hall 9 designed by floral designer, Phung Thai.

Nicolette Naumann:: Did you also see in Hall 9-0, the café that my florist did? It was all blue.

DD: Yes! I loved it, loved it. I tweeted about it the other day.

Nicolette Naumann: The floral design is actually by my florist, Phung Thai. One year, I said to her, “You know what?  I have a last minute cancellation in a very important place. I need you to do something – make a rest area with some flowers.” She came up with something so beautiful. I said, “ You know what? Maybe we should do a café with you.” And now she’s still my florist, but now she also always does a café for us.

Talents 10+1 Messe Frankfurt Booth by Petra StrickstockFront of 2012 Tendence “Talents 10 +1” exhibit designed by Petra Strickstrock.

DD: Over the last 11 years  there have been many extraordinary emerging designers highlighted at Talents. Could you please share with us 11 of your favorite Talents designers?

Nicolette Naumann: Of course. This year, the Talents program celebrated its eleventh anniversary and, to mark this occasion, we organized a special show at Tendence – our international trend platform for lifestyle, living and giving in August. It was called ‘10+1 Talents – Young Design in Progress’, and brought together eleven former Talents for whom the promotional program represented a genuine career boost. Besides Ding3000, Speziell, Mark Braun, Sebastian Herkner, Studio Laura Strasser and Maria Volokhova from Germany, presentations were made by Polka Design Studio and Walking Chair from Austria, Studio Minale-Maeda from The Netherlands, Tal GuR design from Israel and H.C. Wang Design from the USA. The choice of the eleven designers was made by Hansjerg Maier-Aichen, Professor for Product Design at the University of Design in Karlsruhe, and me. From our point of view, these eleven designers were the highlights of the last eleven years of the Talents promotional program.

For me personally, there is an even larger number of really very good designers who could not be included in last August’s special show. The challenge we faced in making this selection was that not only the products shown in the past should be interesting, but also the current ideas – because the special show presented past and present products of the ‘10+1 Talents’ vis-à-vis. In my opinion, the designers chosen clearly illustrated the spectrum covered by the program from industrial product design, as in the case of Ding3000 and Speziell, via designers who work in high-end product design, such as Mark Braun and Polka, to Walking Chair, a designer duo who focus on experimental projects, such as events and installations, and not on designing products as such.

The success of the promotional program and the associated curatorial work can be seen from the 29 products of Talents participants that have been honored with the Design Plus Award – all were first shown as prototypes at Talents since 2001, when the program was launched. I am, personally, always very pleased for every young designer we help to launch a successful career with our promotional program.

Nicolette will once again be curating the Talents section, this time for Messe Frankfurt’s celebrated winter show Ambiente 2013.

Photo Credit for Nicolette Naumann headshot: © Messe Frankfurt Exhibition GmbH / Peitro Suter.