Culture, Purpose & Life

  • Interview By Korantemaa Larbi

  • May 31, 2015
  • |Design 54
Kurt Merki Jr.
Kurt Merki Jr.

Just Do It“, a phrase coined/ trademarked by Nike – this is the ideal by which Kurt Merki Jr. lives by. Unafraid, bold, creative, hungry and persistent still despite all his success and fame, from designing products and spaces for corporate giants like Duravit, to creating the concept design for stores like Laederach, and Koch Optik store to name a few, this Swiss-Ghanaian designer is blazing a trail in Europe that makes us proud.

Kurt, based in Zurich, Switzerland, is not afraid of a challenge. He is a true designer who does not wait to be commissioned but designs on inspiration and makes bold pitches to companies. It was such a bold move that earned him a place in Duravit’s line of designers. Born in Ghana to a Swiss master carpenter and a Ghanaian fashion designer, Kurt Merki had a unique upbringing. At an early age, he was exposed to the world of design and trade, accompanying his father to Europe to market products from Kurt Merki Sr.’s wood work factory, which was based in Ghana.

In the early 70s, Kurt Sr. designed and built interiors for banks, shops and residences. Additionally, he produced a wide range of home-based goods solely for export. By the age of 10, Kurt Jr. had designed his first product, a double-sided wooden cutting board which became one of the factory’s main export products. With his practice, Studio KMJ, Kurt Merki Jr. has set a standard among his peers.  His clean and contemporary approach remains consistent throughout his designs and signifies discipline and a rigorous attention to detail. However, each project is unique. A perfect example is his concept design, IPro, where he re-imagines an Apple desktop for professionals. It’s streamlined body and versatility is a combination of the Mac Pro and the iMac, an idea not yet pitched to Apple Inc. but with massive appeal and great potential.  Design233 was privileged to have caught up with Kurt Merki Jr. and honored for the opportunity he gave us in interviewing him. 

“…My three guiding principles are Culture, Purpose and Life itself. To break it down, I would say the culture is how something works and the purpose is why the project should exist and life in general is the thing you cannot calculate, the thing you cannot put on paper…The more purpose it has, the longer your project or product will exist and fulfill its purpose.” 

Kurt Merki Jr. (March, 2015)

Design233: What was it like growing up with parents who were designers?

Kurt Merki Jr.: My father was a huge factor in my going into carpentry. He did two things – furniture and interior design, for banks, offices and also for residential buildings. He, however, preferred to do commercial projects. I would travel with him to Germany, Austria and Switzerland to go look for buyers for his furniture. I did the first two years of my training in carpentry with my father and with the Swiss School in Accra and did the final two in Switzerland. So, I would say design was an everyday activity for me. I designed a cutting board for my dad’s line, which became one of the factory’s exports. There was a real interaction because he allowed me to design things.

D233: How old were you?

 KMJ: I was about 10 or 11.

D233: What was the name of the factory?

KMJ: Merki Wood Works. We manufactured everything in wood. My mother joined later on after picking up on one of my school assignments and deciding to develop it further for the factory. It was a paper towel rack. She followed up with other products – towel rails, bathroom mirrors and finally opened up a shop across from the factory called Shaddai Natural Products. This became the backbone of the family because after a while, the wood industry in Ghana went down because the international market didn’t want to buy African wood.

D233: Where was the factory located?

 KMJ: In Tema, opposite Nestle.

D233: I have never heard of this factory before. There is all this relevant history we are missing out on. Is it still there?

KMJ: No, My dad gave it up 5 or 6 years before he passed away because none of us went back to take over the company. After 40 years, he sold it to a company. I know very little about it because I wasn’t there.

D233: Your formative years were spent between Ghana and Switzerland until 1997. How did this shape you as a designer?

KMJ: Ghana has always been home to me. That is where I grew up. However, once a year, we came to Switzerland for holidays. It was totally natural for me to put Switzerland and Ghana together. In general, there was a huge difference between Switzerland and Ghana for me. To answer the question, I live like a Ghanaian and work like a Swiss. I can’t tolerate lateness – I finish my projects on time, deliver on time and and document everything. But when it’s the weekend, it’s all about family and friends. (Laughter).

D233: So would you say the work your dad did and what you are doing now have more Swiss references than Ghanaian?

KMJ: It’s difficult to say why I choose to design in a certain way. I cannot tell where the influence comes from because whenever I do a project, it’s not about me. I care more about the culture of the project, the company, where they come from, where they live. In the end, people make different inferences from the end product. Let me put it this way, You design something new in Ghana, they say it’s Swiss style, when you design something new in Switzerland, they say it’s African. I would say, it’s left to the people that enjoy them to decide.

D233: Tell us about your education and work experiences. What did you study prior to your Masters in Carpentry?

KMJ: After carpentry, I enrolled in a 2-year interior design program. A year into the program, I stopped because I found it boring. (Laughter). I wasn’t learning anything new so I stopped and began working as an interior architect because I knew I could do it. I worked for a company that designed offices for Price Water Cooper and IBM. Then I moved on to another firm that designed shops for Bulgari and Armani. I hadn’t had formal training in interior architecture then. For me, I think about the culture and purpose of the project and life in general, that is how people live, how they react to things. These are the three words that have always followed me: Culture, Purpose and Life. They are written on my website.

Back to the questions, after working for about 9 years, I wanted to go to New York to study design. Then I met my wife, an Italian who said to me, “Italy is the best design capital of the world”. I’m so happy I went to Italy. There, I finally studied Interior Design. Following that, I worked for 6 months for Antonio Citterio. Working in Italy and with Antonio Citterio was part of my desire to see how a renowned professional architectural office worked. It was not to copy the process, but to develop my own. After 6 months, I came back to Switzerland and opened my studio.

D233: Wow, Smart guy!(Laughter) From Carpentry to Interior and Industrial design, your educational background and work experiences have been multidisciplinary. How have these experiences influenced your work, particularly studying and working in Milan, the world’s design capital?

KMJ: Once again, it boils down to mentality. In Switzerland, once you are carpenter you will always remain a carpenter. Everything is drawn in hard lines. That is the mentality of Central Europe. An architect who designs a chair is seen as weird. But Italy is totally different. The lines are blurred and I found that fascinating. I wanted to understand how an Italian design company thinks. In Italy design is an art and you have to read in between the lines to understand a product. Let’s just say for the Italians, design comes naturally, it is part of their culture and beauty for them does not just come from being beautiful. 

D233: Which designers inspire you?

KMJ: I don’t really have any designers in mind. I am not really concerned about big names. It’s really my dad I look up to, to continue his legacy. What interests me about designers is how they thought about the world, how they approached their projects. It’s the same for me. It’s about trying to find out why things are the way they are and why people did the things they did. So really, everything inspires me. It doesn’t matter what.

D233: With your studio in its 5th year, what milestones are you celebrating?

KMJ: I celebrate nothing. Everybody always tells me we have to open a bottle of champagne but I say we haven’t achieved anything yet. When my work is in the history books then I will open a champagne bottle but I don’t feel I have achieved anything yet. When regular people, and not an award-winning company, are making a lot of money because of something I have done something for them, that is success. If somebody told me “I have your furniture at home we love it and I am going to pass it on to my children” then I would feel like I have achieved something. Other than that I cannot measure my success by how much I was liked, or how many project bids I turn over. Really making a difference in somebody’s life, somebody appreciating something without knowing who I am gives me satisfaction. Right now, I’m just keeping on.

D233: What was it like building your own studio, Studio KMJ?

KMJ: It was tough, I started by working 30% for an architectural company I now share an office building with and 70% just churning out my own ideas and pitching them to companies. It was the 30% that paid my bills.

I was designing, writing to companies and pitching ideas to them until I got my first official contract. By then, I had done 250 projects that went to nothing, fully documented, each one about 30 pages, with renderings, annotations and sketches.

After one and half years, I got my first contract with Laederach, a Swiss chocolate company, designing their stores. I did the corporate design for all their shops in Switzerland and in Germany and that is how I started my studio.

Laederach chocolates are really incredible! Regular chocolates you get in shops are already 2-3 months old but their chocolates are fresh, a maximum of 2 weeks from production time. The stores are kept  at 22 degrees celsius in temperature so the chocolate aroma is maintained at an optimal level.

D233: These concept stores have been built, right?

KMJ: Yes, there are 33 shops and I designed all 33. But what I did was the general concept, sent it to them and they rolled out the production. 

D233: So that was your first big commission?

KMJ: Yes.

D233: Have you visited all 33?

KMJ: No, maybe 5. Most of them are in Switzerland with about 5 in Germany. I‘ve visited 1 in Germany.

D233: Did they come looking for you?

KMJ: It’s a funny story. It was a pitch to them after reading an article about branding in Switzerland. I called up all the companies I thought needed help and Laederach was one of them. I was pooled into a competition with 5 designers. On my wedding day, I got an email saying I had been awarded the project to rebrand their stores.

D233: Wow! The perfect wedding present! (Laughter)…How is your studio structured? Tell us about your design principles and production process.

KMJ: Currently, there are 4 of us. Depending on the project, we bring in freelancers. I also collaborate with the architectural office upstairs. They have a graphic studio, so we work there together on some projects. I like to work efficiently, that is why I keep the studio small. This way, I am directly involved in every project and not kept in the dark of what the next person is doing.

For process, I would say that my three guiding principles are Culture, Purpose and Life itself. To break it down, I would say the culture is how something works and the purpose is why the project should exist and life in general is the thing you cannot calculate, the thing you cannot put on paper, whether it is experience, whether it is a thought or something you cannot grasp. So you need that element to infuse into a project. That is why every project is different depending on what it is.

Thinking of Culture, think  about a company, how it started, for a product where did they it, why did they produce it? So from the production to the end user, you have to think of the whole process. You cannot please everybody. You cannot produce something that people would say it’s so great, so easy to sell, so beautiful and so easy to market. You would never get that. You would have to really understand it and put your knowledge and experience to something to make it come to life and make it have a purpose. The more purpose it has the longer your project or product will exist and fulfill its purpose. That is why you cannot do anything based solely on how much nicer it looks compared to the next project. And that is why it’s important to understand all the elements of the process.

D233: Let’s talk about your production process, for the things you have designed on your own and the ones you are commissioned. How do you get them produced? Do you build them yourself or you get manufacturers?

KMJ: It is different for every project. Some companies have the setup to produce from the sketch idea. From planning to prototype, they handle everything. Then, you have smaller companies where you have to manage the entire process right down to marketing. I’m very particular about how my projects are presented, so I am very much involved in them so they are not misunderstood. However, in the end, it’s left to the people who use them on how they perceive them.

D233: That comes from being a good designer because you think about every detail and how they all comes together.

KMJ: Yes, it’s very important.

D233: I think it’s difficult to stop at that conceptual stage and leave things hanging.

KMJ: Nobody buys a concept. They need to know the cost of the materials and how they are going to be used. They need to know you know what you are talking about. That is why you cannot bring a concept of a hovering board, which just looks good. They would ask you how you are going to make it fly. (Laughter).

D233: Which aspect of Studio KMJ takes the forefront – retail, interior, architecture or industrial design?

KMJ: It all depends on what I am involved in. Right now, it’s industrial design, then interior design, then architecture is the last. Architecture is made up of a lot of elements and sometimes I don’t have the time to do those things. Whether you are doing a competition or it’s a commission, you have to meet so many requirements and that is nerve-wracking for me. That is why I like to use the architectural office close to me. I give them the ideas and concepts and somebody does the work. What my specialty really is, is thinking about something new, thinking about the process, thinking about aesthetics, function and it doesn’t matter who builds it, they just have to fulfill the criteria.

D233:How did you get involved with Duravit? What was the experience like designing the Vero Line?

KMJ: Another funny story, and I have to make it really short. I was working for the architecture office upstairs then and we were working on a residential project. The client described the bathroom as their favorite part of the project. So I thought maybe I did something special there. So on my own, I continued to develop the concept and then pitched it to Duravit. They got back to me saying they had something similar but would wait for my next design. That told me that they had looked at my design! For most big companies, if you are not a big name, they will not look at your work, so this was a big step! I sent in a subsequent design, which they liked. Then I got an invitation to visit their corporate office where I met the CEO. I was given the Vero line to design furniture for as a competition. The condition was that if I was able to do a great job, they would maintain the working relationship.

D233: So was the concept from scratch?

KMJ: Yes, it was from scratch. The Vero ceramic sink and bathtub existed already and they needed furniture to go with it. The ceramic had been in existence for 14 years and was one of their best sellers if not their best seller. So a company tells me “This is our best seller and now design furniture to go with it”, at that point I think “Ooh now I am not allowed to mess it up! (Laughter)

D233: Wow, that is a lot of pressure, right?

KMJ: Yes! Now we are working on some new projects.

D233: That is amazing! So it looks like it’s becoming a long-term working relationship with them.

KMJ: Yeah, hopefully.

 D233: When did this happen?

KMJ: About two years ago, in 2013. It took us about one year at the development stage and then we came out with the line in 2014.

D233: What has been your most fun and challenging project?

KMJ: Really every project. I try to take every project really seriously. I doesn’t matter the size. My mentality is always to take the smallest projects and change the world with it. I consider the potential of the project, because you can have the smallest project and have such a huge impact from it. And that is why for me I love challenging projects – the more challenging it is, the happier I am.

D233: I’m waiting for Apple to build your IPro.

KMJ: Apple is a military operation, extremely hard to get in. A lot of journalists have asked me whether Apple has called me and I tell them, “Apple will never call me, I can guarantee you that!”. It’s not that someone designs a great Iphone 6, then they call you. They want to see much more from you and the way you think. iPro was just really a fun thing for me to do.

D233: Any upcoming projects, prototypes, or any projects in Ghana?

KMJ: I cannot talk about it right now? The companies are very secretive about the new things they are bringing out. There’s a lot in the pipeline and they always take a lot of time to develop. So we are working on a couple of things. As for Ghana, I don’t have anything there yet.

 D233: Are you thinking of going to do anything there?

 KMJ: Absolutely! I think for me, it’s really to find somebody who is motivated with the thinking of what they want to do. I really want to do something that can be measured worldwide and not something that would be described as good by Ghanaian standards. I really want to do something that would make Ghanaians proud, that translates the culture of Ghana in a new way. That is what I am looking for. All my projects have been huge coincidences. Huge, huge coincidences so it should come naturally.

D233: What are you looking forward to in the next 10 years?

KMJ: Kids. I have a boy, 1 ½ years old and another one on the way.

D233: Nice! Congratulations!

KMJ: So I am thinking about my kids in the next 10 years, not really about my company. I am just going to do what I have to do, but I would be that guy who would never work for another company. Never! I have to be free in designing and in everything.

D233: What is the place of design in the development of Africa?

KMJ: Design is inappropriate for Africa in the way it is thought of as “nice stuff”. Now there is something called design-thinking, and I think that is more of the issue, to see how pioneers started things. Africans must gain confidence in themselves and not wait for somebody to come and help them. The problem in Africa is that we live in paradise. Here in Switzerland, when it turns to winter, you have to think about how to store food because you cannot plant anything, so it forces them to develop. When it comes to us, because we always have nice weather (just throw some seeds on the ground and they grow), we are comfortable. We have to get uncomfortable with what has happened for generations. We as Africans do not care about what is happening in our neighboring countries. We just care about what is happening in Ghana. When we learn our history and understand why things are the way they are, we wouldn’t need design. We need a new kind of mentality to push forward in what we have and develop and that is design-thinking, I would say. So I think the first step for us is not political, not getting more equipment, but it’s all about the mentality. We have to broaden our views in understanding that we need ourselves to further develop things and do not need to wait for a computer to fall from the sky. That is my long answer.

D233: What is your advice to the new generation of designers, particularly African designers?

KMJ: I would tell them what Nike says “Just Do It”. It took me about 250 projects to get to where I am today and I have had more failures than successes. Still,  I write to companies that do not even look at my stuff. Young designers write to me saying they are having difficulties getting their break. From all the designers that write to me, I would say 99% of them are not going to continue after 5 projects; they will give up. But when you are doing projects on your own, you are also learning. The way I presented myself 5 years ago is not the same way I present myself today. The earlier you start, the better because you have to understand why you fell down, you have to understand why it didn’t work. And as you do it, you find the right approach. You might have to rethink things but you always have to look at the big picture and not get lost in silly details.

So for young designers and entrepreneurs, Just Do It. Don’t wait for anybody. Get your resources that you have available.

TED featured a boy in a remote village in Uganda, who visited an internet café outside his village and spent half an hour learning how windmills are built. This is someone who had had little education so could read a bit. Using parts of a car and pieces of wood and he built himself a windmill in the middle of nowhere and made a business out of it, providing power for travelers going through his village who need to charge their phones.

This guy created a project and product out of nothing. He didn’t go asking for a grant to build a windmill that would require imported spare parts went it broke down. And that attitude must continue. He must make his windmill better. He must improve it. He must see how he can teach other people to build it and sell it and not get complacent. We need more people like him and he’s the perfect example of “Just Do It”. You don’t have to be sitting on Facebook getting depressed about what big architects are doing in the world. (Laughter).

Design233 thanks Kurt Merki Jr and Giovanna Gonnella for their time, for such an insightful interview and for the images they provided for this feature. We wish Kurt, Giovanna and Studio KMJ the very best in the future and look forward to more innovative designs from their outfit.


Introduction By Korantemaa Larbi & James Grant Monney Jr.

All images are copyright of Kurt Merki Jr. and Studio KMJ


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