In Conversation with Hannes Peer

In 2009, Hannes Peer established his eponymous architectural studio — Hannes Peer Architecture in Milan, Italy. After working under the likes of Rem Koolhaas at OMA and inspired by such design visionaries as Peter Zumthor and Aldo Rossi, Hannes has since forged a formidable place within the global design landscape. Writer, Tiffany Jade, spoke with him about his cross-disciplinary work, his dedication to resurrecting forgotten artisanal techniques and his much-anticipated collaboration with Minotti to be released imminently at Salone del Mobile 2024.

Open Journal (OJ): How did your journey as a designer begin?

Hannes Peer (HP): I studied architecture at the Politecnico Milano and then at the Technical University in Berlin which was a bit of a milestone for me. It opened my eyes and my heart to architecture in terms of material. At the same time, I don’t know where I got the energy from, I was doing an internship with Zvi Hecker who’s known as the last expressionist architect, and this time made me realise that architecture deals primarily with materials.

So I started welding and fell in love with architecture and the materials that shape it. Wood, metals and whatnot. What I tell my students now is that they should always eventually learn a craft, not just deep dive into the rendering process which has almost become too fast, especially now with AI. Once you start prompting the computer to ‘do something Le Corbusier like,’ architecture is already a little bit over with. So being more critical is key, thinking about what you are going to do and the responsibility you have as an architect.

For Salone 2024, we are presenting with two major brands - Minotti and Baxter. I gotta say, both of them are working very hard to be more green. The systems they have both built around them shape highly sustainable closed loop, local, zero km policies. They have created this incredibly efficient system. Every Monday morning (Mondays are my Minotti days) we talk about prototypes and whether or not something is off. By the afternoon, a counter-prototype has already been built and you can already look at it. It’s an extremely well-organised system.

OJ: Do you find that, with Minotti and with your own studio processes, it’s often as much about what we are doing as what we are undoing? When you think about craft, those age-old artisanal techniques that produced designs of such integrity, and what that leads to when fused with today’s leaps in innovation…

HP: Exactly! That’s super important.

Every year, during Salone, I always present one or two ancient techniques that are at risk of being forgotten. There is a heritage, especially in Italy where we are very lucky to have the Brianza Province around Milan which both Minotti and Baxter are a part of. Milan is the ideas hub, the concept hub. The Brianza, which is really all the northern part of Milan, is an incredible network of artisans, small and large. So if you have a small brand, you can work with a smaller maker, whereas if you are a big brand like Minotti, with big production numbers, you can work with a bigger company. It’s a real luxury as an architect or designer. It’s not by chance that brands like Hermes are producing here in Italy.

I’ve been producing some pieces with 6:am, a young glass start-up in Murano where, unlike Anglo-Saxon countries where young start-ups are common, the bureaucracy and artisanal hierarchy that exists here in Italy usually means makers are in their 40s before they start producing on a significant level.

OJ: I understand that, only two generations back, an Italian furniture maker would first have to learn how to make his own tools before even attempting a piece of furniture so it’s incredible that, in such a relatively short space of time, you’ve got 21-year-olds setting up start-ups. It must take a precise mediation between the two — the undiluted enthusiasm of youth and an openness to innovation alongside comprehensive banks of generational knowledge and skill — to retain the integrity of the craft while embracing change.

HP: Yes. For the Sole Table, for example, you need three artisans to build it. You have the carpenter because the understructure is wood, you need a highly skilled metal worker and then there is the artistry of the hand-cut marble mosaic.

OJ: And then bringing it all together…

HP: And then bringing it together, exactly. That’s the thing that we then do. We bring one piece by hand to the other artisan and then figure out how to do the next step even more properly so there is this evolution to the artistry.

OJ: Do you sometimes come up against difficulties when approaching an artisan about an idea? Do you have to talk them around to the vision if it’s a slight departure from tradition?

HP: Oh yeah, definitely. We don’t always have the numbers and that is tricky. If you have numbers like Minotti, you have real power. If you work with galleries, it's much more pricey which is why collectible design has a much higher price-point. One of the wonderful things is that, in every form of design I think there is something very very interesting. How is it to think about, for instance, using such tiny pieces of marble? It’s so sustainable. The artisan for the Sole Table would buy scrapes of marble and then turn them into something incredibly beautiful. How wonderful is that?!

Every year, I try to bring certain older techniques back.

OJ: Can you give me another example?

HP: Yes, I just finished a beautiful apartment here in Milan where we used the Seminato technique. It’s something that only two or three places in Italy are capable of doing, which means probably nowhere else in the world could. When we talk about techniques getting lost, I try very hard to show the world what is still possible which means also convincing a client to dive very deeply into their pockets. It's a Venetian technique using marble powder, scattered in a similar way to the agricultural practice of broadcasting seed by hand. To create complexity, I combined the Seminato technique with mosaic and then the whole thing was polished to a super high gloss. It was very fashionable around 400 BC.

In this instance, the client and his children became involved in the technique. The daughter painted a flower for example, and what has happened is that they have become inherently involved in the design of their home.

Another technique is the one I’m working on with 6:am.

When I was 4 -5 years old, my mother brought me to Milan. I hated it. It was so hot and dirty and everyone was sweating and I wondered why on earth anyone would want to be there. And then one day some glass blowers asked me if I wanted to blow and form glass. It was like an adventure and many years later, when the guys from 6:am knocked on my door asking me if I had an idea for something they were working on, I knew that this glass technique I had in mind was perfect.

We are now producing Paysage chandeliers that adorn every single Christian Dior store. The modular design is made up of hand-cast glass petals made in Murano by maestro Armando Bottero.

OJ: That’s amazing. Resurrecting these ancient techniques is one thing but giving them the platform for others to see and admire them is crucial.

HP: Yes. We are so not used to producing architectural pieces like this here anymore. The making process has been taken over by all the tourist pieces that, although they use some old techniques, are always the same and there is no artistic growth.

We had to work with the youngest glass master of all time. He’s 32. Usually, you become a master at 40 - 45. Ironically, he studied physics at MIT and then, during a summer period when he didn’t know what to do he came to Murano and fell head-over-heels in love with the glass techniques. He’s been standing next to an oven every day since.

It is so hard today to find large-scale chandeliers. Even a relatively small chandelier on First Dibs will cost around €100k. It’s a lot of money!!!! I’d rather design something more architectural. That’s what 6:am and I did together. We created a chandelier design that is made up of individually shaped glass petals, precisely hand-formed in the 15 seconds you have after the partially cooled molten glass comes out of a rectangular mould. It’s a semi-liquid state so it settles and is then pinched into its final form. We made one piece in 2021 that had 1000 glass petals. It’s 5m x 5m x 6.5m and hangs down to reaching height from the ground. We are producing one now that will go to Dubai and has 1,600 glass pieces. It’s been since Carlo Scarpa’s 1958 chandelier design for Venini that anything of this exaggerated architectural design was achieved. That one had over 6000 pieces. It’s being reproduced at a smaller scale at the moment and Venini reached out to the guys at 6:am about production. Can you imagine!? These guys are 28-29 years old and being contacted by their idols for advice!

I admire the 6:am guys so much for starting so small, and so custom. It’s something I could really relate to.

OJ: In a world that’s moving further and further away from that too.

HP: Yeah! My mother was an artist and she taught me about the importance of materials and the ups and downs of being creative. You might work on the Biennale and then not do anything for 10 years. You become very aware of how precious things are when they do happen and how much you have to work for them.

OJ: Yes. And the notion that possibility isn’t only a concept. When you're doing things for yourself, you are achieving something that is often very elusive.

HP: It's so nice having a chat like this! We would never have been able to have this in a written interview.

OJ: Well, thank you for being open to it!

HP: It’s crazy that you are on the other side of the planet yet we could almost be in the same room. The colour on the walls behind us is even the same colour [laughs]!

I’m very thankful. I could never do a project in New York or Australia without modern technologies.

OJ: And your work has such a presence here. I love that that’s what technology has done. Making the world a little bit smaller yet so much broader.

HP: It helps so much with our responsibility to create awareness for all these small artisans. I don’t need them to all be here. I’ll never do Tik Tok. I won’t dance for architecture. But I’ve found so many amazing people through Instagram. I do get concerned though that it’s becoming too easy to produce things with semi-integrity. Through AI and CNC, there is less willingness for young people to study, to research, to get deeper into things and it becomes this mainstream, superficial production of architecture. Everything has to be likeable immediately.

OJ: Do you feel like it’s shifting back a little though? Maybe I’m just being overly optimistic.

HP: Oh, I’m fighting back! As you can see. And I’m happy to take on the responsibility. To create awareness. You have to be a good listener too. This is the first year in the last five I’m not teaching. So what I have to do now is make sure I build awareness in other ways. If young people have one eye constantly on a screen, then maybe I need to make more videos. Ultimately though you need attention, a certain kind of concentration. I want to wake people up.

OJ: Are there any artisanal techniques that you are waiting for the opportunity to bring to the world?

HP: I’ve been dreaming for a long time of working with bronze and using the lost wax technique. I look at the work of Henry Moore though and it makes me realise that you need to have your shit together. You need to be so focused.

OJ: How would you balance that with all your other commitments?

HP: I would acknowledge the responsibility. You think of Brancusi and Henry Moore and think, no no I can’t do that. I’m waiting for an idea that’s so genius, that’s so different that it will be a game changer on how to use the lost-wax technique. I’m dreaming at night about it but I’m not there yet.

I’m waiting for my research to show me what I really have to say, rather than for a gallerist to tell me simply that a bronze piece would sell well. I’m less Mr Castelli / Andy Warhol and more Ms Guggenheim / Mr Pollock style where she had the utmost respect for the artist and he had smashed his first painting on the entrance wall to her apartment. Maybe I should just start but measuring up against heavyweights like Jean Arp is daunting. I want to have something to say.

OJ: There’s also that age-old thing we know of as artistic procrastination…

HP: I know but right now I have so much going on in the more serially produced style like with Minotti. I can’t talk too much about it but it's many many pieces. An entire collection. Almost like an entire interior. We started with a modular system and that’s as much as I can say before Salone.

OJ: Well, I wish you all the very best for Salone. Thank you so much for chatting with me. I’ll be watching closely to see both the Minotti collection as well as the small exhibition I understand you are holding in your studio with Van Den Weghe.

HP: Thank you! On the 13th April we are going to present almost every single marble technique, shown on travertine. CDC, 3D, robotic-arms, hand polished…we have 16-18 sculptures arriving on the 8th and it’s going to be a really fun Salon for sure.

A very special thanks to Hannes Peer. Find out more via his website or Instagram. Interview by Tiffany Jade.