INCONVERSATION

BLESS with Barry Schwabsky

On the occasion of the current exhibition Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund at the Art Institute of Chicago, Barry Schwabsky met with Bless, the design team of Desiree Heiss and Ines Kaag to discuss clothes, life, collaboration, and art. For the occasion he wore a sweatshirt of their design from his own wardrobe. When it turned out that Heiss (based in Paris) and Kaag (based in Berlin) had underestimated the time it would take to get from the Art Institute to O’Hare airport, they decided to do the interview on the move.

Portrait of Bless. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Barry Schwabsky (Rail): So, Bless, here we are in a taxi from the Art Institute to the O’Hare Airport. I’m happy that I caught you in time. Let’s start with the basics. You’ve been working together since 1997, is that right?

Ines Kaag: Unofficially we started a little bit earlier even, but officially we founded the company in January of ’97.

Rail: And the whole time you’ve been living in separate cities?

Kaag: Yes.

Rail: How does that work? And why does that work?

Desiree Heiss: Maybe the question is more if it——

Kaag: Would work if we both were in the same city? That is the question. We do not know.

Heiss: For us it’s really normal, it’s like a long-distance relationship. We’ve had it now for nearly 20 years. Before, during our studies, we were not really team workers, nor would either of us have ever believed that we would set up a company with somebody else, but then it just happened like this, and since then we never experienced working in a different way.

Rail: And so when you set out to make a piece, how does that actually happen?

Kaag: There is no rule whatsoever. It can be that we are together, like here, and speak about an idea and come together to a point where we say, “Okay, let’s do it like this.” But it can also be that one of us has something in mind, tries it out, shows it to the other person, and the person says, straightaway, “Great, fantastic, let’s do it,” or the other person says, “That’s rubbish,” but feels inspired and does it in a different way. There’s no rule whatsoever.

Rail: And so, does it ever happen that one of you has an idea that you would like to pursue and the other one vetoes the idea? Then what? The idea just gets put aside, or one of you does it anyway?

Kaag: Put aside, I would say. It could happen that 10 years later we would come back to that idea because we found the best material to work on it, or the context changed, or whatever.

Heiss: Or it could also happen that one person pursues perfecting the idea and then tries to make it better and better and re-presents it to the other person.

Kaag: It could also be some kind of a ping-pong game. As Desiree mentioned, there is no rule. It really depends. But also, very often we see each other, so it’s not necessarily that we need to be in Paris and in Berlin to draw up an idea. So it could also happen that now, for instance, we’re going back on this long-distance flight. That’s also a good moment to talk about ideas or business structure.

Rail: And how do the creative side of things and the business side intermesh, or do they mesh?

Kaag: This is all one. I mean, for us it does not feel like it’s about a creative part and a business part, since it’s us doing everything. Of course, the two of us work with other people, we have assistants, but it is really one thing. So Bless is also—it’s not only about the product, the outcome, the result; it is more about the structure or about the construction of some sort of a brand.

Rail: So would you say that the whole entity is more important than the particular products that you make?

Heiss: You cannot say it is more important, but Bless is much more than a fashion label, let’s put it that way. It’s actually like, the total aim of Bless is more to create a profession that does not exist yet, but we really try to create for ourselves a way of working and living that adapts permanently to our personal needs and that is not necessarily undergoing the usual law that a company has to grow indefinitely every year. For example, just half a year ago we decided also for personal reasons that we want to become smaller, temporarily, to have more time for our private lives, for example, because we have small children. So the aim is to create a profession that really adapts to our current situation permanently, and that’s a bit like the dream that we have in general.

Kaag: It’s even not only a profession. I mean, I don’t like so much the word “lifestyle,” but it’s more about that. It might not be a profession that would necessarily work for other people but we try to create this flexible structure.

Rail: It sounds like it is something that would work, in some way, for other people. The idea of having a work life that has a more fluid interaction with your personal life is almost a utopian idea.

Heiss: But it totally mixes up private life and work time and people. Our collaborators, most of them are friends anyway, they’re the ones modeling the shows, and it all fits together. Like you today, you’re interviewing us, but you are wearing our clothes, so it’s like everything is kind of mixed up and makes sense. At the end of the day we are trying just to design things that we believe in, that we feel a lack of, or that we are missing, so it’s like a permanent contribution to a full kind of life, a life that we feel, and in the ideal case somebody else also can relate to that: An addition to the variety of things around us. Sometimes people think that what we do is about criticizing the system, being anti- or whatever, but it’s not at all like that. It’s like everything is fine, we just want to contribute—

Workout-computer, N° 41 Retrospective Home, 2010.

Kaag: Well, maybe not everything is fine, but we try to, instead of complaining—and that’s how everything got started, actually—instead of saying, well, it’s so hard for unknown designers to become successful or to do their own line or whatever, we just gave it a try. We said, okay, what would happen if we could really decide how many products we would do instead of a collection? Or what would the ideal rhythm be for Bless to appear to the public? At that time we had no family, so it was just the two of us. That was, of course, much easier. But, on the other hand, it has not changed that much. Of course, the needs and the whole mood we would experience, I mean, the situation is changing, and therefore it’s so important to stay flexible, to realize that there is no ideal construction for the company. So for instance, at a certain point we looked into finding people who would finance us a little bit to make our lives easier. In the end it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened that we did not find anybody we could convince to invest in us as a brand. Now we feel this freedom is the best thing for our products and our work.

Rail: But in a way that implies that you probably can’t, and probably don’t want to expand beyond a certain scale, because otherwise you would have to have outside financing, you wouldn’t be able to have flexibility in terms of employees and so on.

Heiss: Exactly. But we can still team up for projects with bigger brands. When we, for instance, team up with a sunglasses company or a shoe company who have their own bigger circle, other people can discover what we do, but we don’t have to have that bigger structure ourselves, and it’s also the same idea with the lookbook collaborations that we started. Because it’s also the eternal dilemma: either you stay small but then only a limited public can follow your work because other people don’t have a chance to discover it, or you grow bigger, and you become more commercial, but the essence of your work is diluted. And so with our lookbooks, the idea was, instead of publishing them ourselves, to team up with magazines that share similar values, and the fact that they sell their magazines on the newsstand and we put our current collection on their website doubles the chances that people can discover our work. And then we give our lookbooks that are implemented in the magazines for free to our clients and so some shops discover these independent magazines that they would not have known before. And with these collaborations, the subjects of these magazines are totally varied. Some of them are about food, others about gardening, another one is about cars and music, lifestyle, art, whatever. And this fits very well with our general idea that fashion or design should not be totally in their own capsuled world of only people who are already interested. We are interested in so many more fields, and it feels quite well to be connected to these magazines.

Rail: How do you connect, for instance, to a magazine on food to find out that they would be interested in working with you? How does something like that come about?

Heiss: I don’t know. Sometimes we discover them, sometimes they come to us, and then we wait for the moment when it really fits.

Kaag: Most of the time they will come to us, maybe not with the intention to do a lookbook collaboration together, but to offer us an advertising page or something like that. Our idea, of course, is to team up with magazines we like, because we really respect them a lot for what they’ve already done, and it’s also nice somehow to spread them among our clients and press people, to make it more of a project. And I think it is a lot about exchange, in general. What Desiree tried to describe, it’s good for the magazine, it’s good for us, it’s good for the people because it can be inspiring on a different kind of level and not only as a fashion collection. And this is a little bit what is of general importance for us. Therefore sometimes it’s also to do an interview, so that it’s not so one-way, like only we tell you a lot about us and not the other way round.

Rail: Well, if you want to ask anything about me, you can. [Laughs.]

Bless Home Berlin, including N°28 Fur Hammock (2005), N°29 Wallscapes (2006), and N°42 Cheers (2011) on the hands of Mira, the shop’s host. Photo Mira Schröder.

Kaag: I have to think about that!

Rail: And what about the process of making things? Are there particular techniques that you’ve kind of returned to over and over again over the years, or is it that you try out different techniques and processes for specific projects?

Kaag: Again, no rule.

Heiss: Yeah, but you can in general say we work a lot with our hands. We make things rather than draw. So, often, when we have an idea, we generate a first prototype in a very poor way, you know, just put it together. Often as a readymade, with existing things, to be able to show it to the other person. And that’s also part of our design process, that it’s not so important to design an entirely new shape from scratch, but often we can use elements that exist already in a way that is convenient for us. We don’t mind integrating existing things.

Rail: That’s interested a lot of people in recent years, even in furniture design with Ron Arad and others, to repurpose existing objects—why do you think that idea has been of such broad interest? Is it an idea of recycling, is it an ecological idea, or is it something else?

Kaag: I mean, from our side it did not come so much from the ecological point of view. But let’s say you want to modify a pair of sneakers, for instance. It’s very difficult as a non-sneaker company to create a solid pair of sneakers in a small quantity, it’s almost impossible, you need to have big quantities. Like, for example, when we did the espadrille sneakers, which was a pair of sneakers with an espadrille sole, it would have been kind of difficult for us to sew the whole upper part in a new way. It was also more about the idea of combining this kind of sporty, technological item with something very natural. So it’s not necessary to redesign or redefine the whole upper part; it was better to put it together. The same for the espadrille sole, it was not necessary to redesign the sole.

Rail: That’s to make a kind of prototype, but then when you put it into production, how did you translate that into something that you could produce in some numbers?

Kaag: We produced it like that in a very artisanal way. We literally bought loads of sneakers and transformed them and did a kind of montage. But it could also end up as a collaboration, and we could ask the company to donate leftovers to participate in our project.

Rail: The exhibition here in Chicago seemed to highlight presentation more than particular things. I know that you have a whole kind of aesthetic of your own presentation, but can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Heiss: Well, in general it’s always difficult for us to exhibit what we do because our products are not meant to be primarily exhibited. They are meant to be worn and used in everyday life, and we also think they are the most interesting in that real context. So when we are invited to an exhibition, we are always ambivalent—we are never totally delighted. It’s not our aim to put it under a vitrine. So what you see on the walls in Fashioning the Object is a product called “Bless #29 Wallscape,” which is basically a wallpaper where we tried to photograph our products as already in an environment where somebody could potentially have this product, and to give the products a kind of frame, a kind of real-life frame. Here in this particular exhibition it’s a bit surreal because the pictures on the wallscape are from another exhibition, actually.

Rail: Makes sense [laughs]. For instance with this sweatshirt of yours that I’m wearing, it’s not in the first instance about a kind of picture, you know, a visual image, but the fact that when I saw this thing I didn’t actually understand how to wear it, and that’s how I got interested in it——

Kaag: Oh, really? Interesting. So they showed you at the shop how to wear it?

Rail: Well, they did show—or no, actually, they didn’t show me. I had to figure it out.

Kaag: So you got challenged by the fact that it’s difficult to wear.

Rail: Exactly. But then every time I put it on I feel like there’s a certain kind of ceremony about taking this long piece of extra fabric that hangs down and then putting it around myself. It’s doing something with it somehow that seems interesting.

Kaag: It’s interesting, you’re wearing it the wrong way around.

Rail: Oh, am I? [Laughs.] Okay, well this is how I’ve been wearing it the whole while. So I’m wearing it from back to front?

Heiss: Well, it could be easier if this would be the front and you would use, you know, there’s this big triangle, and the ends would go just like bows around the neck, like hang here, and then you’d look like you’re wearing a scarf.

Carcover, Nð 35 Automatica, 2008. Photo: Angela Moore.

Rail: Well, it’s interesting now that you say it, because in the store I had it that way, but it reminded me of a bib hanging down in front and then when I took it home it seemed more like Superman’s cape to be in the back, so I started to do it like that. So anyway, I guess that’s just to say that whatever I saw in the shop didn’t tell me the whole story, and I had to make up my own story.

Kaag: That’s exactly what we appreciate. It’s again about this kind of exchanging situation. And it’s so nice for us, still, to see people wearing pieces we designed, or using accessories in their totally own way. So, that’s very good.

Rail: I’m happy that among the things you do there are a few that men can wear because there aren’t that many clothes for men that have that quality of challenge.

Kaag: I think we are quite unisex, I mean, it’s not so important for us, and this might come from the fact that the collection for us is more products than fashion design. Also about the functional use of clothes. I mean, sometimes it’s the aesthetic as well, that’s not forbidden or something. But very often it’s really that we think, oh, that would be great in winter—to have some additional fabric you could wrap around your neck.

Rail: And a scarf is so easy to lose, but with this, I feel like I can’t lose it. Alright, now here’s a question that’s maybe very basic, maybe too basic, but you have to remember that I’m not coming from a background in fashion or design but from art. So, I never really understood, what is the distinction between fashion and clothes? You know, in other words, what does it mean to say you’re dealing with fashion versus saying you’re dealing with clothing?

Kaag: Well, maybe it’s not absolutely important if there is a difference and where exactly you can draw the line, but somehow we got used to this kind of question, we get asked if what we do is fashion, or if it’s more art, or if it’s—we just tend to say it’s more like product design because this is the most simple term we found to describe what we do. Because “products,” for us, mean basic stuff you might need for your everyday life, very unpretentious in the first place. If you find some pleasure in using the product or if your quality of life is better if you buy this product, then it’s great.

Heiss: Also I think it’s more, really, that we are definitely interested in clothes. I would say what we do is not so much fashion in the sense that it’s often defined. The term “fashion” can be very restrictive. It would be good to define it in a much larger sense, not only referring to clothes or clothing. For us, it’s also important whenever we present a collection that it can also contain articles such as a hammock, for instance. We define it always in a sense of what is important right now to us design-wise and what we wanted to show to the public. So, it’s more like a way of living, a contemporary way of living. But it’s also not so much about show-off clothes, and that’s also the problem that most of the time—people who are into fashion are interested also in that kind of show-effect of the clothes, the glamorous aspect of defining yourself through these very special clothes. Often, we are more interested in a kind of comfort aspect that you cannot really show. You have to wear it.

Rail: So, do you wear your own clothes most of the time?

Kaag: Well, there’s always personal need behind what we do. Therefore, it’s really that we design the clothes for us, and for our friends, and for our families. Not so much for commercial reasons.

Rail: You mentioned that you both have children now. Is that entering into what you’re designing?

Heiss: Not in a direct way. It could happen, of course. We’ve thought about games or something like that, but we haven’t done it.

Rail: What kind of games?

Carcover, N° 35 Automatica, 2008. Photo: Angela Moore.

Kaag: It was interesting, actually, a museum was doing an exhibition about children, and we were proposing things that finally they did not want to do, because for safety reasons they didn’t consider it child-friendly. We wanted to do something with old mobile phones.

Heiss: We had various ideas, but we couldn’t convince them.

Kaag: Why are you interested in Bless from an art point of view?

Rail: I don’t know if I’d say it’s exactly from an art point of view, but that my way of looking at things comes from there, yet more and more I’m interested in finding out about people who are doing work that interests me that isn’t necessarily art, but who I feel have ways of working that I can understand through what I understand about art. And maybe that does come back to art in the sense that a lot of artists are trying to find ways of working that enter adjacent fields but in ways that are different from how a designer would normally work, or how an architect, or whatever——

Kaag: Do you think—sorry to interrupt, it’s very interesting what you’re saying—do you think it’s also because, like in art, it’s so important to maybe find those new structures and new kinds of strategies, working through different channels?

Rail: It is important, because the whole structure of galleries and museums has become so overwhelming, and that structure enables a lot of things that are—you know, I’m not necessarily critical of it because it enables a lot of things that are very good and interesting, but it’s not the only place that art can happen, and I think there’s a tendency to forget that—to forget that art can find other channels, as you say.

Kaag: From the outside, the art world looks very rigid as a system, as a way of how it should work for the artist and the galleries and the collectors.

Rail: Which is ironic because, of course, everyone in the art world thinks they’re promoting untrammeled creative or critical thought and so on—but only within these channels, for the most part.

Kaag: What’s interesting in our case is that people often ask if it’s art, what we’re doing, and we are not interested in art as a definition of what you sell in galleries, or when you produce your work for museums. We are very happy to be designers. It’s not too exclusive and the price is not extraordinarily high because there’s only one of a kind. We would like it if we have the possibility to reproduce it for as many people as are potentially interested. And what I find personally very interesting is the moment you don’t follow the commercial rules—as people think, okay, a designer has to run a business like this, a professional person had to run a business like that—then immediately, if you get a little bit away from that, immediately people think you are an artist because you do it in a different way. But that’s, for us, quite strange because we don’t have that art kind of approach to things. For us, and above all again, our definition of fashion is as a contemporary way of living, to adapt or to redefine what it means to live nowadays and how to proceed workwise.

Rail: And so doesn’t that, at some point, also get into the design of spaces?

Kaag: Absolutely, yes.

Rail: And are you working on that as well?

Kaag: Somehow the wallpaper is also kind of a way to define the environment. And then the furniture pieces we’ve done, like Bless No. 22 Perpetual Home Motion Machines, the idea is instead of furnishing, for example, a room as you would usually do, like putting the covers on the bed, or things that you place around the walls to have some space around the middle, this is the other way around: It’s a piece of furniture that you hang in the room. Depending on which side you look at it from, depending on which angle you look at the piece of furniture, it could be either the kitchen corner or the living room—a sort of in-between situation where you change perception with pieces of wallpaper. So it was like a fragment.

Rail: But it was hanging, so it wasn’t actually touching the floor?

Kaag: No. And we had, for example, designed a piece of furniture which looked like a wall, but you could sit inside. This was part of a series of somehow invisible design, we called them design relativators because we did not want it to be defined, like as undefined as possible. We quite liked the idea but, unfortunately, nobody ever bought it and really used it as a living element. It was only shown in an exhibition of art design, but our dream would have always been that a big company buys it for their lobby, for instance, like in the entrance area where you have to wait for an appointment, it would have just been so nice that people lean against the wall and sit down, and when they get up it would be a wall again.

Rail: And how would they know if they leaned against it they would stay up?

Wall, N° 17 Design Relativators, 2002.

Kaag: Well, it’s difficult of course.

Rail: You could have an actor start to sit and then other people would imitate.

Heiss: We always like to bring our families, our parents to the openings—they are happy to demonstrate the product.

Kaag: No, but I mean, if you have a secretary in the entrance area who goes, like, please have a seat, people are confused because there’s only the table and the wall. That’s the moment that we like the best, that’s what gives us the kick when we design something. We like that moment when you cannot refer to any similar kind of experience. You just have to trust that if somebody tells you, just lean against this and sit down, that it works, and that you are astonished that it just works even though you did not think before that it could work. Do you sometimes come to Europe?

Rail: Yeah, yeah.

Kaag: Berlin?

Rail: Well, I hope to come to Berlin this summer on the way to the opening of the Documenta.

Kaag: Because maybe if you are interested, you can visit our place, Home, we call it, instead of a shop, Bless Home, and stay one or two nights.

Rail: Oh, that would be fantastic, I would love that.

Kaag: Let us know.

Rail: Okay, yeah, I definitely will. Well, that’s a nice note to end on.

Contributor

Barry Schwabsky

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