Inspired by conceptual functionality and practicality, Austrian designer Isabel Helf designs and produces accessories and stationery that sit between furniture, product and fashion design, using traditional wooden craftsmanship together with digital and self-developed methods. I met her to discuss her latest collection, her inspirations and passion for wood.
You studied in both London and Vienna, what influence have these two cities had on your work?
Vienna, as the hometown where my passion for design started, has influenced me since the very beginning. There, I have learned the basics of tailoring and the trade. My studies taught me to work conceptually and precisely. But above all, Vienna influenced me to work in a minimalist and very clear way. On the other hand, London influenced me with its openness, different cultures and rapid developments. I was encouraged to work in a more experimental and exceptional way, with different materials.
Can you tell me about Austrian designers? What differentiates them from the rest of the world? Is there a particular Austrian vision and approach towards fashion design?
Austrian designers are down-to-earth. They work in a very conceptual and clear way, with an emphasis on craftsmanship, functionality, wearability and a bit of Austrian tradition.
I discovered your work at Fashion Utopias in London last year. You were presenting your previous collection Portable Compulsion. How did it go?
It was a fantastic experience. I got to meet many interesting designers from different countries with different backgrounds, as well as talking to a lot of important people that were interested in my work.
Where have you been exhibiting your work since then?
Since last year, I have shown Portable Compulsion at a joinery’s showroom in Vienna for two months, as well as my new collection Framework at International Talent Support 2016 in Trieste, as part of the accessories award I have received last year. In September, Framework was showcased at the Robert Dodd Showroom during Paris Fashion Week.
With Portable Compulsion, you said you were exploring, “the possible cause of a kind of compulsive orderliness, where an inner urge creates a balance between the objects with the surrounding area,” as well as the behavioural patterns behind it, and the best way to counteract and decrease these through design. Is exploring other illnesses and soothing their symptoms with design, something you’d be interested in pursuing?
Yes, definitely. In the last couple of years I have developed a strong interest in the variety of human characteristics and their causes, and translated those into concepts. I find it really interesting to create collections that are related to my customers on a psychological level.
Most of your items from Portable Compulsion were designed to fit a very specific space. Would you ever consider working closely with the customer to create bespoke pieces for specific environments?
Yes, that would be really interesting. For the collection I researched storage possibilities and the habits of people in their houses, and figured out which places would be good for storing a handbag. That research was a permanent guide for the designs of this collection. But there are a lot of other places that products could be designed for and thus inspire the aesthetic of the bag. It would be exciting to work closely with the customer in order to create individual pieces for their own habits, and to document the direct outcome.
You just released Framework, your latest collection. How did you come up with these new pieces?
For the concept of this new collection, I went one step further from my previous collection. While with Portable Compulsion I was creating handbags that fit certain places at home, for my new collection, I designed already-integrated storage possibilities, so that the handbags can be stored anywhere, not just at their specified places at home. That was the starting point of the concept.
For Portable Compulsion you were very much in the accessory zone, but with Framework, we’re encountering objects that could either be accessories, decorative items or even small pieces of furniture. Do you feel like you’re getting closer to furniture and spatial design than fashion?
No, I always try to find a balance between furniture, product and fashion design, so that my products can be used in a multifunctional way. Most of the pieces of Framework can be separated from their wooden storage possibilities. In that way they can either be used as an accessory, a piece of furniture or both at the same time.
How is the thinking process different from your two previous womenswear collections?
The thinking process to my previous collections didn’t change that much in the last couple of years. I always took inspiration for the concepts from humans and their behavioural patterns. But for the last accessories collections I have very strongly integrated the people themselves into my thinking and finding process, by observing, talking and documenting.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to fashion, or is it a case of “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt?”
Occasionally I might go back to fashion for some individual pieces, but mainly I will stay in the field of accessories and product design, because of the feeling that I can explore and experiment more within these fields than within fashion, and because of my love for the materials.
Do you think you can solve more problems with wood than cotton?
Yes, for my purposes definitely. Wood is a fantastic building material that has been used for thousands of years. You can create anything out of wood because it is soft enough to work with but still hard. It is naturally beautiful, sustainable and we have enough of it in Austria.
You’ve worked on a special project for Samsung. How was it?
Thanks to the International Talent Support 2015, I had the chance to work with Samsung on a special project, creating a phone case and a bag for the Samsung Galaxy S6 phone, related to my collection Portable compulsion. Both pieces were exhibited during ITS2015 in Trieste, where I presented my work to the Samsung Team. It was a very special experience to work with such a big company.
Are you thinking about partnering with other brands? Which ones would you like to work with?
I’d like the idea of collaborating for some individual, unique pieces or collections with some other brands, such as Building Blocks, Hay or Noon Studio.
I heard your favourite designer is Hussein Chalayan (mine too). Have you ever met him? How does his work inspire yours?
I guess it is his ability to combine simplicity and commerce with an experimental and innovative design that inspires me the most. His pieces are simple but never basic. I also like his approach to fashion, from art to architecture, film and theatre.
Apart from him, who or what inspires you the most?
As already mentioned, I like to be inspired by other sources, not necessarily the fashion related ones, but rather by other people and friends, their habits, their ways of thinking or acting and their needs. Also architecture, woodwork, furniture and interior design have a big influence on me.
What’s the 2-year plan?
To have a bigger, shared studio in Vienna that can be used as a showroom, some stockists throughout Europe and an online shop.