Sharon McHugh meets Philippe Grohe
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Yet for more than 100 years now, it is consistency together with a love of craft and a penchant for great design that has put Hansgrohe at the top of the list of bathroom products among luxury brand consumers and the architects who specify them. WAN’s US Correspondent Sharon McHugh sat down with Philippe Grohe, grandson of Hansgrohe founder and Brand Manager of Axor, on the occasion of the company’s 111th anniversary, to discuss the company’s history, its enviable track record, and the future.
Sharon: Hi Philippe. It was nice to meet you in New York. I went to ICFF this year with the purpose of reviewing the show. And I came away an Axor client. I was really impressed with the new Bouroullec collection, which not surprisingly won an ICFF Editor’s award as well as being my pick for best in show. It must be hard to keep the design bar high with each and every product launch. Can you tell us how you do it? How this company continues to deliver such exceptional bathroom products year after year after year.
Philippe: Today the company is celebrating its 111th anniversary. We’re having a party in the little village today. And I will go from house to house (and cellar to cellar which are interconnected explains Philippe) to celebrate with the villagers and our staff who are coming in from all parts of the world. I have the advantage of having grown up away from the company. My parents divorced when I was very young. I went to Switzerland with my mother where I received a public education and was exposed to many different things; a new city, a new language and a new culture. I was trained as photographer in Paris and in my early 20s my father asked me if I had any interest in joining the company. He told me that if soon I didn’t make a decision, the company would no longer be interested in me. I made a deal for three years and educated myself in every aspect of the company. I did marketing education and learned about business. And I worked in the US for Delta faucets to acquire technical skills and experience on the safe side. What I discovered was a company with a fantastic tradition of craft and a strong design culture. My father took a lot of care. We became the European leader in the shower business and then faucets. This was a fantastic turf and base to start from.
When did you come on board?
I joined Hansgrohe in 1992. My first 10 years were devoted to education. I took responsibility for Axor in 2001. It was then that I moved from communications to brand responsibility.
As Brand Manager, how do you maintain consistency?
The brand manager is consistent. It’s out of my view. I see brand as family. It’s defined by its history and not its future. Brands are about confidence. You need a direction. I say no a lot.
How do you manage to stay on top of your game?
You have to persuade people. You have to win by content. You have to impose your ideas. The bigger the company becomes the more difficult this is to do. And, you have to give your designers freedom to create.
Can you elaborate on that?
We started with Philippe Starck in 1992. It took a couple of years but I learned that designers think differently. Architects and interior designers think a little differently about product design then product designers. One of the first moves I made was to establish a strong foothold in Milan, the design capital. In Milan we had lots of architects visiting us. We started to work with different personalities that had different philosophies. This resulted in a diverse range of bathroom products that reflected thinking from different regions of the world, different cultures, and at different scales. In 2000, we initiated a project called Water Dreams to look at issues of water in different cultures. It resulted in eighteen months of discussion around the meaning of water. It was an exercise in abstraction where the designers who participated were free to imagine and create without the limitations and restrictions of the marketplace.
How do you choose designers?
They visit us. We show them what we are doing. For new designers we are looking stronger to New York and to Asia. But Milan is still the foothold and all designers eventually gravitate there. I go there once a month and I have a partner there who is my eyes and ears.
Do you have any news to break with us Philippe? What can we expect from Axor next?
This September in Berlin and perhaps next year at ICFF, we will launch a special new collection with Philippe Starck. It will be a revolutionary way to use a mixer. It will be very ergonomic with lots of functional advantages. And it will use less than half the amount of water than traditional products. It will have great design and will be a little unusual. We will track its development on our website and our Facebook page. The theme for the new collection is 'Follow your head and your heart'. To get 3.5 liters is a rational thing.
Lastly, Philippe…what other brands do you admire?
The same one you do: Apple. It is an incredible company with great people and great at making something special. My philosophy and something that guides that development of all our products here is ‘Simplicity, yes! Mediocrity, no!’
Thank you Philippe. It’s been a real pleasure.