Up and Coming
Mischer Traxler, Designers

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.”

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Design or art hero: “Olafur Eliasson, especially his works with light and color and sometimes fog. He manages to make light tangible and even create space with it. He seems really curious about natural phenomena and inspired by nature in general; that could be the link to our work.” Pictured: Eliasson’s “Your Atmospheric Colour Atlas,” 2009

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What inspired your Idea of a Tree project? “On the one hand, it was trees — mainly how they’re able to react and develop according to their surrounding influences. You can see this in the way they grow: Dendrochronology lets you read from their rings all the details about their lives. They’re like living records.” Pictured: The solar-powered machine makes furniture by wrapping resin-coated thread around a mold; its thickness and color depends on the amount of sunshine present.

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“The second main inspiration was machines and why we disconnect them from all surrounding influences to make them work perfectly. We wanted to combine the two — trees and machines — in order to make objects like those above that could grow naturally by way of a machine, yet have the recording qualities of a tree.”

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The pair have actually gained something of a reputation for their ingenious design machines; this past fall, Vienna’s MAK museum commissioned one for a group show revisiting the ideas behind Adolf Loos’s Ornament and Crime. The result was this cake-decorating contraption, which allowed visitors to — at the push of a button — pipe icing onto a cake in a Spirograph-like pattern, in effect asking them to decide at what point too much embellishment was enough.

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Last amazing thing you bought on eBay: “Actually we’ve never bought anything on eBay, but the last really interesting thing we bought at a flea market was this completely ‘high-tech’ cake server with a cake-removal system. When you serve the cake, you press the server down on the plate and pull it back, then the small metal part is supposed to push the cake onto the plate. It really doesn’t work, though.”

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What do you collect? “Katharina has a few collections: cheap plastic pearl necklaces, old suitcases and boxes, ugly postcards. But probably the most-used is our collection of coffee- and teacups. They were all bought very cheap at flea markets and they’re nothing special, but when we have guests for coffee, each person gets the cup we think suits his or her character best.”

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“We also started to collect all the dead insects we find in our studio. Obviously we find more insects in summer than in winter, but we’re always quite surprised by the biodiversity.”

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Biodiversity has been the subject of several of the duo’s works, starting with Mischer’s graduation project at Eindhoven, which took nature’s own limited editions — endangered species — as the starting point for a series of limited-edition design objects. Her Limited Fungi shelves reproduced in tin the rare Austrian kuehneromyces lignicola mushroom, one for every specimen known to be in existence. The mushrooms were divided among 12 shelves produced by Droog Design.

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Also related: Bowls cast from five different types of fruits and vegetables, produced for Apartamento magazine’s FoodMarketo event in Milan last April.

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Best gift you ever received: “It’s hard to say, but one of our favorites is a recent painting by Katharina’s 8-year-old niece, of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s painted with a very thick layer of color, but quite precisely. We liked it, and she didn’t mind giving it away.”

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Snapshot you've taken and are inspired by: “Last December, on a really frosty morning, we saw these leaves covered with spikes of ice. They looked really dangerous and at the same time really fragile. The ice transformed the whole appearance of the bush.”

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Favorite packaging: “Glass jam jars. They’re such classics and can have a great afterlife storing materials, pigments, chemicals, experiments, buttons…”

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What’s an object you made just for yourself? “We built our printer cabinet from an old white bedside table and a standard wheel board from the hardware store. It’s really simple, but it’s flexible and practical for our use, as we often have to move things in our studio. It helps us use the space better.”

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Design object you wish you'd made: “The typical Anglepoise lamp. Actually we prefer the rip-offs rather than the original one, which is probably a shame, but that’s why we wish we’d made it. It’s a real icon of a lamp and found in any color on nearly any desk. It’s technically nearly perfect, and at the same time, mechanically quite simple.” Pictured: Mischer Traxler’s new Relumine lamps, for which they retrofit two vintage lights with modern fittings, then connect them with a fluorescent tube bulb inside a glass casing.

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Last great exhibition you saw: “It was Kawaguchi Tatsuo exhibiting at the MOMAT in Tokyo, in the fall of 2009 — really inspiring, poetic, and thoughtful. Since we bought the book, we often look back at it, and he’s now one of our favorite artists.”

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“He has strong concepts and works with themes like nature, time, conservation, material, and perception of time — all themes which we’re also really interested in.”

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One might imagine a more obvious influence on the couple is the turn-of-the-century inventor Rube Goldberg, who made overly complex kinetic machines like Mischer Traxler's Rumkugelbahn. Built for last fall's Vienna Design Week, the installation runs small chocolate balls through an obstacle course beset with the work of local designers. Click here to watch a video of it in action.

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What do you keep around your studio for inspiration? “Many books and magazines. We often flip through a kind of simple encyclopedia from the early 1990s called Vom Faustkeil zum Laserstrahl — ‘from the hand axe to the laser-beam’ — which describes all kinds of human inventions, such as that the first mirrors were polished copper and invented in Egypt around 2800 B.C. Another inspirational book is Home-Made by Vladimir Arkhipov, which showcases his collection of Russian homemade objects and the stories behind them, like self-made boot hangers or a thread spooler fashioned out of a plastic bottle.”

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Right now, Mischer Traxler is: “Trying to find the right solution for our next project.”