The world through Peter Schmidt’s eyes


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2016)

Precisely because everything about Peter Schmidt rests on a principle of disciplined passion the Bayreuth-born lithographer has always been enormously productive. Single-minded since 1937, he has made quite a name for himself, adorning what was once merely one of the more common entries in a German telephone book with the bells of international acclaim. He designed the stark logo for Jil Sander, aka the Queen of Less, then no less than sculpted her a perfume bottle. Schmidt continued to chisel sheer pieces of art for the scents of Davidoff, Estée Lauder and Hugo Boss. With the same devotion Schmidt, who has been working from Hamburg for longer than he cares to remember, designed several magazines, in-house titles for IBM and Siemens, which thus also became true works of art. A rather solitary-working yet playful éminence grise sheds some light from his halo on his constant search for aesthetics.  

Mr Schmidt, some say your creative dealings set free beauty and expose its virtue. Tell us about the magic of design. What to you is so fascinating about it?

Peter Schmidt: I am originally from a nursery in Bayreuth. The work there demands a special kind of creation. And my work can be seen as such. For me as a designer, every object I take on must have a meaning explained by its use. This process is insanely exciting and interesting. For this reason I could never be a free artist, painting a picture or creating art out of a protest.

Why did you seek to develop into a different direction from your parents and not take over their literally flourishing operation? When did you first feel that design was really want you wanted?

P. S.: At school I was a disaster, but I could draw very well. One day all I had been doing was drawing caricatures in my mother’s hymnbook as she used to drag us children to all church ceremonies. We dreaded those. When my mother and her friend could no longer read from the hymnbook for bursts of laughter she had no other option than to leave the ceremony prematurely. I felt my first work was a large success.

Where does your creativity stem from?

P. S.: To direct ideas in such a way that they can be transformed is the most important prerequisite for creativity. My parents gave me a lot of freedom to be doing whatever I wanted. Although they were furious over my school results, they always gave in upon seeing my drawings. My uncle was also very interested in my talent; he had kept himself afloat during the war with painting. Where my talent as such stems from, I do not know. The lucky circumstances may also have been that my parents sent me to a lithography school which lasted four years. There I was made to understand the seriousness of life: getting my first taste of discipline. Lithography back then still meant working from stone that you had to work on meticulously before being able to apply the ink. If you made a mistake the stone needed to be re-sanded. This has impressed me deeply. 

Part of your final examinations of your design studies in the late 50’s was a task to design a perfume bottle. A twist of fate would have it that hundreds were to follow. Was your love for package design triggered here?

P. S.: Designing a perfume bottle was a very unusual task at this time. Throughout my studies I was never asked to even design a single bottle. Somehow the school’s directors may have recognised my passion for sheer beauty, as for a business school with a strict Bauhaus doctrine this was completely atypical. Whatever the reason, I got this job and had an incredible amount of pleasure creating this piece, which incidentally I made out of wood and was awarded a high grade.

Many of your bottles are considered classics and are still in production
20 years on. Your 1980’s Jil Sander bottle known as Woman Pure has been exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. How do you feel when your work is honoured in this way?

P. S.: This bottle Jil Sander and I did for two consecutive years won a gold and a silver medal awarded by the Art Directors Club, which really was very unusual for such an item. Of course back then, this was a great boost to my self-confidence.

How does one achieve a great shape?

P. S.: I believe that you have to work structurally and that you need to focus meticulously. A few weeks ago, for example, we had a long talk with our employees during which we discussed the reinterpretation of a large holiday island. Before this I had read a crazy amount on the subject. Knowledge helps compressing one’s thoughts. When you do not inform yourself enough about a project it won’t succeed well either.

What mechanism ticks behind the invention of something completely new? When do you realise what is good?

P. S.: You have to know that to acknowledge such consciously is not all there is. One has to transfer this feeling or actual realisation also to employees and customers – and ultimately to the public. These are three hurdles you have to take again and again. And they are quite high. One can often feel very insecure in life, but one has to learn to balance on this rope and in the end how to firmly stand upon it as well. One succeeds either by sheer talent or with people who are willing to help and provide such an amount of acceptance that one can ultimately even dance on this rope. Influences caused by developments over the last thirty years have also led me to a huge rethinking. I used to sketch by hand. Designs were partially glued, presentations stored in heavy suitcases which I had to trudge around the world. Today you have an iPad. As a result this has changed the aesthetics of the operation. You have to participate in order not to fall behind. Therefore I am surrounded with only young people.

How do you define aesthetics and to what extent can it be associated with style? 

P. S.: Style is somehow a word from the old days of the Bauhaus or perhaps dating even farther back. That it may somehow be considered stylish nowadays holds little value. Nevertheless, it is an incredible struggle to adequately implement things. It is vital to have them differentiate, to assign them autonomy and to make them meet aesthetic standards. The latter, for example, also applies to readability. Or consider the theme of internationality: what I am doing ought to be understood just as well in Sydney and in Shanghai as it has to be here in Hamburg. What works in Germany does not automatically function in Japan.

How much empathy is required in order to develop a logo or lettering to perfection?

P. S.: That cannot be measured directly, or it has to be in the inevitable sleepless nights. I may over the years have become very self-assured, but the fear – and allow me in this context to deliberately use the world fear – to present something flawed of course never goes away completely. On the other hand, I know exactly how to convince customers. Mostly I know them very well and we have spent a lot of time together, talking about things which often have nothing to do with the logos or the design. You have to know the company you work for and be there on the very spot. Another important aspect is to involve all employees with the subject. You cannot only consider the big bosses as interlocutors. You literally have to be on the work floor in order to understand what is being produced and how these people tick. From then on, to reformulate and bring exactly across what is needed, remains a challenging process requiring a certain playfulness as well as regards to dealing with the customer. This may mean that you sit together at a table and discuss sketches so that the customer slowly gets accustomed to the subject. To say at the very first start “Here, that’s your new logo” does not work.

What thoughts precede new projects? How can we imagine Peter Schmidt at work?

P. S.: I am incredibly fast and often very well prepared. As I by the way work a lot on theatre production – staging and making sceneries – I have learned how important it is to get impulses from outside. Especially talks in theatre are extremely interesting as the deliberation needed for a play, creates for something truly fascinating. The curtain goes up and you have to play through something from beginning to end. Everything has to work, every lamp, every spotlight, each actor. It is a special kind of concentration which has got me far.

What creative power do you draw from this very specific world?

P. S.: I have learned a lot from choreographer John Neumaier, from his genius art creations, to play on these and such with a murderous discipline, as well as the accuracy of a few conductors I got to know, friends like Kent Nagano and Christoph Eschenbach. They taught me a lot, particularly because sometimes I am inclined to be rather playful, which is indeed not always possible. A property which so to say should be handled more like a spice than ever served as a main course. Full concentration on the essentials is crucial.

Poetry in everyday life, how important is it for you and when comes this inspiration?

P. S.: For a long time I used to say my work is the poetry of everyday life. These days however, another important factor has been added: the issue of ecological destruction. We need to become sensible at this point very urgently. No longer, as we have done before, can we take the use of materials lightly. This is also part of the responsibility of being a designer and it is interesting to observe that it has already caused a huge change in thinking among many managers. They have begun to develop insights demonstrating respect for the world and how to cater for future generations. It is extremely interesting to participate in and shape this process.

You have as you have claimed before always worked very solitary and been occupied with your own things. How important is authenticity in order to achieve what one longs for? 

P. S.: I am very happy that I am a loner. I am not a party type. I prefer to be alone together or with close friends and artists. I think that among young people in recent years a lot of concentration has been lost and to lead them back there will be a difficult path to follow, because things are not being taught as thoroughly as they used to be in our old strict schools.

In the preface to your book ‘Inszenierte Welten’ the famous conductor Kent Nagano argues that your presence is somehow specific and solid yet also light and airy. Connected with nature and being down to earth may both apply. How do you see yourself?

P. S.: Kent has recognised this very well. Retaining lightness is very important and also dependent on the people with whom one has to deal with as well as the extent to which one is willing to be influenced. When it comes to taking important decisions I can however also switch very quickly. This mix, I think, is right.

Picture credits © Anne Timmer

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