“A totally crazy story”

Interviewed: Jürgen Werner Braun on his collaboration with Otl Aicher

Otl Aicher in conversation with FSB Managing Director Jürgen Werner Braun (right) at Rotis. © FSB

Jürgen Werner Braun, longstanding managing director of door and window hardware manufacturer FSB, shares a fruitful, not always easy collaboration with Otl Aicher that has shaped the company to this day. In an interview, Braun recalls special encounters with Aicher – and reveals the coincidence that led him to meet the great designer.

Mr Braun, you belong to a small circle of entrepreneurs who can look back on years of intensive collaboration with Aicher. But as we know, Aicher liked to build up hurdles before accepting a design assignment. It was the same for you. That a manager and CEO would travel long distances to come to a designer and face days of discussions about his company seems almost unthinkable today.

You are right about that. But I simply needed him as a dialogue partner. He had my back. I was soon called “Professor Türklinke” (professor door handle) in the industry because I never used the customary word “Türdrücker” (door knob). As someone born in Berlin, I grew up with the term “Türklinke”. With Aicher you had someone with whom you could discuss such trifles. And the more you came under criticism in your professional environment, the better he thought it was. But I was kicked out of his house at least twice because he was angry with me. He didn’t want to talk to me for a while.

One could quickly fall out of favour with him?

Right. Of course he respected you. But I got a letter from him in such cases saying: “I don’t want to see you here in Rotis for a longer period of time.” Reason enough to do some soul-searching and think about how to open the door again. If one had found the Philosopher’s Stone with an unusual request or with a particular question, then the answer was: “Yes, come to Rotis sometime in a fortnight on Thursday and Friday.” Then I travelled to him, but not without first filling my car with Steinwein in Randersacker. Mr Aicher had already noticed during my first visit that there was a suspicious rattling in my car. When I then opened the boot and he saw what I had loaded, he said: “I confiscate half of it in the name of the free Republic of Rotis!” That was meant in a comradely way – and also had something of a little dictator about it, so to speak. (laughs) When I visited him in Rotis, I always took one or two people from my company with me. So after a few years, more and more colleagues felt that they too were friends with Otl Aicher. He treated us all equally.

How did you learn about Aicher in the first place?

That’s a totally crazy story. On a flight from Lyon to Frankfurt. In a small plane – there was only one row of seats on each side – there was a gentleman sitting to my right who saw that I had an A5, Bible-sized catalogue with me. He asked me if he could have a look at it. I handed him the catalogue and continued working. As we approached Frankfurt, he asked me why there was a kind of mist on the pages. It turned out that the print quality had suffered because we had simply reduced the size of the existing DIN A4 lithographs and the pattern overlay had created a moiré pattern. All Greek to me. My fellow traveller commented laconically, “I notice: you clearly don’t know how to make decent catalogues. You need an advisor.”

"Aicher also had something of a little dictator, so to speak".

This wise advice came from Klaus Jürgen Maack, the managing director of ERCO, who happened to own a print shop as well. We then had some time to have a cup of coffee after the flight and I asked him whom he had in mind as an advisor. Maack told me about Aicher and said that he would be going back to Rotis in a few weeks and offered to show Aicher the catalogue. After the meeting with Aicher, Maack called me and encouraged me: “Aicher has shown some interest. Think about what you want to discuss with him and try your luck.” I went to Rotis four weeks later and was questioned by Aicher for four hours. At the end he told me, “Now go back to Weserbergland and think about what you actually want. I’m not a brand stylist! You seem to have taken over a dormant company and first have to comb through the product portfolio. When you have a concrete concept, we’ll make the next appointment.”

After such a statement, one is irritated.

I was indeed. I called Mr Maack and he immediately said: “I could have predicted it. Aicher is like that. This did not only happen to you! All that matters is: you are allowed to come back!”. (laughs) Another coincidence gave me an idea a few weeks later. In the Düsseldorf branch of the Walther König bookshop, I was looking for a birthday present for an architect friend. At the checkout was a booklet on palmistry – something I really don’t take seriously. But I realised at that moment: In Brakel, we make products for the hand! That’s when I asked for more books about things you take into your hand: Hand axes, canes, tobacco pipes, handles on sports equipment. I left König with 20 books, put together a slide show from the picture material and made an appointment with Aicher. I then went to Rotis with my treasure trove of books and showed him everything. He skimmed through the books and then said, “Yes, that’s a mouse hole. Let’s crawl in there and see what we can do with it.” He took out a sheet of paper, drew up a concrete work plan from 1986 to 1990 and announced, “We’ll do a book every year from now on.” I said, “But we need a new catalogue.” To which Aicher replied, “Yes, a little patience, that will come along; along the way. First we’ll do a book on grasps and handles. Now you go home and draft the first book.” It was only many years later that I understood that Otl Aicher and his philosophy of making allowed no other path. At least this way I got rid of my nickname, “Professor Türklinke” now became “a publishing house with an attached production of door handles.” (laughs)

FSB publications designed by Aicher and his team as well as the word mark and the logo of the Brakel-based company. © FSB

Aicher did not simply want to stage your products, but to reflect the door handle as a historico-cultural artefact – with the millennia-old history of things that man has designed to grasp and hold. Considering the handle as a tool – with its very own ergonomics and aesthetics.

Yes. He then wrote an essay for us in which he explained the interplay of hand and word in the course of evolution. To this day, we think in the language of the hands, so to speak, when we “expound” something, “posit” a theory, “grasp” something. When you read something like this, you are naturally thrilled because it opens up a new perspective on your own actions.

I can imagine that Aicher did not agree with all your decisions during the years you worked together. For example, you had invited Alessandro Mendini to draw up designs for FSB. Mendini’s ironic approach to a historical model – a deliberately plain Gropius handle – became postmodern fun. He used terrazzo with colourful sprinkles for the handle, reference to pointillism that is as clever as it is ironic, as in his Proust Chair. At the same time, Mendini was making fun of functionalism…

Well, at least Aicher got the unique chance to publish his essay “Der nicht mehr brauchbare Gebrauchsgegenstand” (“The no longer usable commodity”) with us. Of course, Aicher was down on Mendini. As a reaction, Aicher drew Mendini and decorated him with coloured dots. He gave me the picture with the words, “Here you have your new saint: Mr. Terrazzorini!”. (laughs) When Mendini turned 60, I enlarged the motif, redrew the lines, freshened up the coloured dots and gave him the picture as a present. He was very happy about it.

Another famous designer you were able to win over for FSB is unlikely to have generated any opposition from Aicher: Dieter Rams.

True, the two knew each other from their time at Braun, when the company, then based in the Frankfurt area, cooperated with the HfG Ulm. Aicher and Rams must not have seen each other for 20 or 30 years when I suggested that Rams could visit Rotis – which he was planning to do anyway. Aicher immediately had a request: “But he should come with the Porsche!” When the date was set, I asked a member of staff to set up presentation boards with handles, texts and photos from our workshop in Rotis on that day.

Otl Aicher (left) and long-time Braun chief designer Dieter Rams (centre) in conversation at Rotis. What they spoke about was written down by an Aicher employee. © FSB

So FSB became the focus of the meeting between Aicher and Rams. Was that your underlying intention?

Exactly. Aicher had prepared his written critique of the objects that were no longer usable without any real knowledge of the results of our workshop in Brakel. I was not allowed to take part in the discussion round by Aicher and Rams. But Sepp Landsbek, one of Aicher’s co-workers, joined them and transcribed what they talked about.

I know the door handles Rams designed for FSB from his house in Kronberg. That house is one of the few places in Germany that is as legendary in the design world as Rotis. For his FSB handle, Rams cited the material and colour combination of metal/plastic and silver/black respectively, which was typical of Braun for a long time.

True. Now I have to tell you another story that took me completely by surprise: I was parking my car in Rotis one morning, arranging my things to go over to the Aichers’ home – suddenly, a car with Swiss licence plates stops right next to me with two men in it. The younger one gets out, holds out his hand to me and says, “Hello, Jürgen Braun.” My reaction: “Hello, how do you know my name?” – “My father Erwin chose it for me.” (laughs) Aicher had come along and witnessed the whole scene. His comment: “Well, there’s a big family reunion in Rotis today!” Thanks to this coincidence, at Otl Aicher’s suggestion we received a copy of a letter in which Dieter Rams describes memories of his first years at Braun to his boss Erwin Braun. This document later found its way into our book about our industrial designer, Johannes Potente.

Jürgen Werner Braun, born in Berlin in 1938, studied law in Bonn and Paris. A fully qualified lawyer, he opted for a career in free enterprise and, after holding various positions, became managing director of the door and window hardware manufacturer Franz Schneider Brakel in 1977. Braun built up FSB as a design brand. He left the company in 2001. Subsequently, Braun worked as a business lawyer on advisory boards of family businesses and universities.

The book publication “Die Sprache der Hände” compiles the best contributions from FSB editions and is available here.