«Longevity puts the concept of ‹expensive› into perspective»

Raphael Rossel • 10.02.2017

The name stems from their grandfather while the craftsmanship originates from the Ore Mountains: Florian and Tobias Hilbert talk about their brand Arno Wolf.

The Basel brand Arno Wolf embodies the traditions of craftsmanship from the Ore Mountains. These values are evident in its products. Their appeal lies in their gracefulness and expression of deceleration, peace and practicality. The two founders explain how they approach and capture these qualities.

The duo behind «Arno Wolf» comprises the brothers Florian and Tobias Hilbert. They founded their label for home accessories and furniture in Basel in 2010. Arno Wolf was also the name of their grandfather, who died in 1968. Together with his wife – a master dressmaker – he had established a textile business in the Ore Mountains region. It is not just his formative role that inspired them to use his name; they also envision Arno Wolf becoming a synonym for that which handicraft businesses in the southern parts of former East Germany on the border with the Czech Republic are known for: unique handcraft techniques, workshops and top-quality products.

From the very beginning, the brothers have built and expanded their collection carefully on a foundation of expertise, history and manufacturing sites. Florian studied interior design and scenography at the Basel School of Design (HGK). He and his brother Tobias, who completed parts of his architecture degree at the ZHAW (Zurich University of Applied Sciences) in Winterthur, design the products themselves. This enables them to take an innovative approach to the technological possibilities of craft businesses and the skills of their employees and, at the same time, to get involved with the materials being processed in the factories. Their hope is that, one day, they might even succeed in bringing back a new design vocabulary to the Ore Mountains region.

What drives you to transfer the traditions of the Ore Mountains onto Arno Wolf products?

Arno Wolf: Our label is based on in-depth knowledge of handcraft culture. Thanks to its specific historical evolution in the Ore Mountains region, this led to unique techniques and capabilities being developed in tandem with the craft. We are spurred on by the desire to preserve and promote awareness of this expertise and the handcraft skills while producing new designs.


People usually consider themselves either designers or manufacturers. You fuse both roles. How do you cope with this dichotomy?

AW: Combining design and production might constrain us in certain ways, but it also gives us the opportunity to control and manage the whole operational flow. Our design process is determined very directly by the production options and techniques that we find locally.

How should we envision your design process?

AW: It is a team effort. It works a little like in a university: one person develops a concept, outlines it briefly and presents it, then other people ask questions and engage in a constructive review process. We then decide together if we should pursue the concept further or not. As part of this process we also include designers and architects whom we are friends with and ask their opinion, too. We are currently developing a product in collaboration with architects from London.


What are the greatest challenges you face as designers?

AW: On the one hand, the greatest challenges are selecting the ‘correct’ and most interesting ideas and projects from the huge variety of options. On the other hand, we aim to develop very ‘understated’ designs, yet by doing this one always runs the risk of tipping over into the mundane and banal.


You both studied in Switzerland and have remained there. What tipped the scales so that you chose not to return?

AW: The reasons for remaining in Switzerland are many and varied – and, of course, love also played a role. We were impressed to see the high value people place on design here.


Switzerland is a byword for precision and quality, so a particularly fertile ground for a label like yours?

AW: Yes – because, as we said before, our design style is ‘understated’. This is something that Switzerland is known for and has influenced us too. Time and again we find certain parallels between many regions in Switzerland and the Ore Mountains. We have been inspired, for instance, by the collection of materials in the Gewerbemuseum (Museum of Applied Arts and Design) in Winterthur. There are similar objects in the Ore Mountains. These are, however, much harder to find and are waiting to be discovered. Interestingly though, over the past few months we have had increasing numbers of enquiries from outside Switzerland.

Selection of Arno Wolf

Your brand makes reference to the Ore Mountains and its handicraft traditions. How important is the origin of the products to the customer?

AW: We believe that it is not about the products telling a story from the Ore Mountains as such, it is much more about the history per se: it is important to us to establish a connection between the customer and the genesis of the product. Who manufactured it? Where was it produced? How was it made?


You established your brand in 2010 – which was shortly after the financial crisis. How hard was it to launch comparatively expensive products onto the market in this environment?

AW: Our aim is to design products that will be extremely durable in terms of both function and style. This puts the concept of ‘expensive’ into perspective. We believe that our customers share this view.


In May 2014 you opened a shop: was this a worthwhile step for such a young label?

AW: Florian currently works predominantly for Arno Wolf and is working as the interior designer on the renovation of a holiday home in the Ore Mountains. Tobias meanwhile primarily works as an architect at the firm he set up in 2014. The two worlds coincide through the spatial connection of workshop, architect’s office and shop, providing us with a number of synergistic effects and enabling us to reach a wide public. The parallelism is intensive, but it has never really exposed us to financial pressure. It has allowed the brand to grow organically and at a manageable level of risk.


Having their own shop is what other brands dream of. Is this an expedient investment in an age when online shops will soon outrank physical ones?

AW: Online shops cannot offer experiences such as touching and being able to feel the weight of a candlestick for yourself. These aspects play a key role, especially when it comes to our designs.


Designers are often accused of creating beautiful but expensive things that no-one really needs …?

AW: We live in a world of superfluity and consumerism. Lots of people just want to own a few things that they have consciously chosen. Our aim is to design exactly such showpieces.

Purchasing: All products can be found in the Arno Wolf online shop at http://www.arnowolf.ch/arnowolf.php#produkte

Photograph: Arno Wolf GmbH