As a high school student in Vienna, Thomas Traxler followed a course of study fairly typical for Austrian teens. Having had the choice to either study liberal arts — as his future partner Katharina Mischer was doing — or to specialize, he chose to immerse himself in the world of automation techniques. Typical school projects included constructing a kind of assembly-line handling system to transfer goods from one conveyor belt to the other. “It prepares you to work in an engineering office constructing machines that eliminate the need for people,” Traxler, now 29, explains. “It wasn’t creative at all; you had to make things the cheapest, fastest, most durable, and easiest way. After the third year, I knew I didn’t want to continue.” When he ended up at design school as an undergrad, where he met Mischer, the pair were pretty much coming from opposite worlds: She was interested in art, nature, and the unexpected, and he was still learning how to reconcile those things with his inclination for the mechanical. So in a way, their collaboration was both perfect and inevitable. “In technical school you’re trained as a technical idiot — you’re not meant to think out of the box,” he says. “So it’s important to have the perspective of someone who’s not in the box.”
By the time Mischer and Traxler were accepted into the Design Academy Eindhoven, they had already begun working as a team. Not only was Traxler’s graduation project — called The Idea of a Tree — executed with substantial input from Mischer, it served as a metaphor for the practice the couple had begun to build together. A fully automated contraption powered by solar energy, it spun resin-coated thread around a mold to create lampshades, cubbies, and benches, the thickness and color of the final objects modulated by the amount of sun available at any given time. The idea was to introduce into the industrial production process an element of the natural and the unexpected, so that an automated system could be made to produce something totally unique. They’ve built three other low-tech design machines in the three years since, drawing on Traxler’s engineering skills and their mutual sense of imagination.
Of course, not all of the pair’s projects are kinetic. Their quirky new Relumine lights connect two vintage lamps by way of a long fluorescent tube bulb, and for last year’s FoodMarketo pop-up shop in Milan, they cast fruits and vegetables into colorful textured bowls. But as Mischer sees it, there’s still a common thread: “We almost always have something that co-designs with us, that drives the design automatically,” she says. “We have rules, or machines, or a structure that’s already defined, or an element of surprise. For the Idea of a Tree, the sun decides on the pattern, and for FoodMarketo, the vegetables made the bowls, not us. There’s usually an excuse for why our designs look the way they do. I think it’s just how we are.”
Design movement you most identify with: “We really like the ’50s. It seems like it was a time when anything was perceived as possible, and designers tried out new techniques and materials. Interdisciplinary design gained importance and a broader way of thinking started to be applied, so problems were questioned and tackled from other perspectives. One would try a lot in various fields and ways. We identify with that constructiveness and how different disciplines can overlap.”
Favorite way to explore a new place: “A lot of walking. We usually forget to prepare and find ourselves walking around in a city without knowing the best places to go. We end up seeing a lot of other things and try not to miss small paths and backyards — we really like these hidden places. We try to remember to look up; some of the most interesting architectural elements are quite high, or underneath the roofs.”
Favorite everyday object: “Our step-stool. It’s really practical, useful, and durable. It’s always moving from one room to the other and has no fixed place. In that way it’s like a character living in our place — always hiding somewhere else.”
Thing you love most about Vienna: “Vienna is a slow city and you’re not stressed when walking around in it. It’s also not too fashionable or too trendy, so everything can take its time. There are still good craftsmen in the city, too, and we have really comfortable coffee shops where you can stay for hours and read, work, and discuss — and no waiter is annoyed if you only drink one coffee.”
Thing you hate most about it: “That it’s such a slow city. Sometimes it feels a bit too disconnected from the rest of the world. We have a real love-hate relationship with Vienna.”