Interview: Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau

Jan Jacobsen, Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau

Katja Kleiss in conver­sa­tion with Jan Jacobsen, Managing Director of Deutschen Werk­stätten Hellerau.

Deutsche Werk­stätten Hellerau has existed since 1898. How have the ‘Werk­stätten’ managed to be so rele­vant to this day?

It was a great stroke of luck that Fritz Straub took over the Werk­stätten after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1992 and decided not to continue producing furni­ture here, but to focus on indi­vidual projects. The basis at that time was formed by the best carpen­ters of the GDR: the “special produc­tion depart­ment”. We started with public projects and became better and better. His slogan, his parable for life and success, was always the image of a ladder that you climb up and up. Suddenly the rungs break. One notices that one cannot go back. This is how we have devel­oped: from public projects to indi­vidual contracts for private customers. Deutsche Werk­stätten Hellerau brings crafts­man­ship and high-tech together.


Like what?

We are not a back­ward-facing show manu­fac­tury where men with white beards work. What can be done with machines in carpentry, we do with machines. Where digi­tal­iza­tion makes sense, we work digi­tally. Our average age in the company is 35 years. But we need both: expe­ri­enced carpen­ters and young program­mers. We have a very high percentage of masters who know how to handle wood, who can also guide colleagues who have been loyal to the company for many years. For this we need the younger colleagues who know how to build complex 3D construc­tions digi­tally. If you work on 6 to 8 highly complex projects simul­ta­ne­ously every year with a team of 300 employees, then you should know what you are doing.


Urushi Kabi­nettschrank

The Werk­stätten are known above all for indi­vidual projects: Boat inte­rior work, inte­rior fittings, trains...

This project busi­ness is indeed very demanding, not only tech­ni­cally, but also in terms of manpower and prof­itability. We have project dura­tions of two to three years in some cases. You have to keep the teams together — and at the same time react flex­ibly to the demands of busi­ness.

This could be espe­cially diffi­cult for younger employees, right?

It starts in the joinery, in produc­tion, with the jour­neymen. We also train 7 appren­tices every year up to the appren­tice­ship within three years. This gives us 21 appren­tices at any one time and a lot of exer­cise: Appren­tices in our company become jour­neymen, many make their masters and then go on their travels, on the rollers. Others want to look at the world or study — there are many colourful ways of life. We are glad that many people are coming back, because it is crucial for us to be able to manage such a team of 300 employees. And we will continue to grow as we do so.


Deutsche Werk­stätten, Organ­ische Möbel aus Massivholz, europäische Eiche

How do you manage that?

If we take engi­neering as an example: The grad­u­ates who come to us from univer­si­ties such as Hildesheim or Rosen­heim are not yet fully oper­a­tional for our needs. So they go through a company training program. We are currently plan­ning to estab­lish our own academy, where we can train our employees on our Deutsche Werk­stätten Campus. Inter­esting networks of compa­nies from the region that are inter­ested in sending their trainees to us are also currently being estab­lished here.

Let’s go a little beyond the horizon of the Deutsche Werk­stätten Hellerau: Do you think that manu­fac­to­ries can play a special role within our economic struc­ture? What can manu­fac­to­ries contribute “to a better world”?


Deutsche Werk­stätten Hellerau, Auße­nan­sicht

I am firmly convinced that manu­fac­to­ries can play a special role. For the following reason: I clearly see that our built envi­ron­ment and the entire mate­rial envi­ron­ment, every­thing we can see or touch, makes us better or worse people. An example: We once built a train, the Metro­pol­itan Express Train (MET) for Deutsche Bahn in coop­er­a­tion with gmp archi­tects Gerkan, Marg und Partner. The aim was to design a first-class busi­ness train to get busi­ness frequent flyers out of the plane and onto the rails. This project was stopped after the construc­tion of two trains, but the following was inter­esting: The two trains we have upgraded still run today and you can expe­ri­ence there how you can travel in really nice trains! The compart­ments are equipped with the finest pear wood, there are comfort­able leather seats... I tell you, in such cars people don’t yell into their mobile phones or crumble every­thing full, they sit straight and talk in a civi­lized manner. This may sound exag­ger­ated, but the envi­ron­ment also shapes our behav­iour.

Not every­thing can be consid­ered tech­ni­cally. Some­times it’s also about creating (not measur­able) atmos­pheres.

We also see our craft as a social respon­si­bility. To deal with the beauty of expe­ri­ence, be it busi­ness or private, the family is the first step to be able to face the world in a differ­en­ti­ated way. The big theme “Food and Nutri­tion”, which has been en vogue for some years now, illus­trates this very well: Grandmother’s food, with which memo­ries are connected, time or love cannot be compared to the 10 minutes of fast food on a plastic tray. There are worlds in between. The same applies to other areas of life. We have to sensi­tize for this.


What role does your own furni­ture produc­tion actu­ally play?

Our own furni­ture produc­tion is an old dream of ours, but we also realize that this is a completely different market. There are others who can do it better. We actu­ally develop furni­ture, also in series, e.g. for the Hambach Castle, but these remain small series. Repro­ducing this is not really a busi­ness for us.

Which projects from the past did you remember because of their complexity?

Our most chal­lenging projects indeed come from the yacht sector. Every­thing is possible here, and every­thing should be made possible. Designers and their clients are looking for unique, exotic mate­rials, things you have never seen before. When natural mate­rials are used, they are processed in a very special way. Veneers are bleached, dyed, salted, lacquered, etc. What happens if one of these panels breaks, can it be replaced in 5 years? These are tech­no­log­ical ques­tions that arise. Can sliding doors still move in heavy seas? Not without further ado, for this you have to develop and install motorised drives.


What about public contracts?

We started with public contracts. We see our craft as a social oblig­a­tion and it is there­fore impor­tant to us that we are also visible to the public. With regard to public clients, we natu­rally have the problem of having to take the cheapest bidder in public procure­ment law. Because of our working methods and struc­tures, we are often out of the woods from the very begin­ning. In the end, you also need people in the public sector who feel respon­sible for a project and who want to create a special envi­ron­ment. For example, a librarian who does not want a sterile library archi­tec­ture, but wants to create a contem­pla­tive place. Someone who says, “I know someone who can do that, let’s talk to them.” Saving is one side, dealing respon­sibly with projects and public funds is the other.


This interview is part of:
Handmade in Germany. Manufactory 4.0.
Editor: Pascal Johanssen
240 pages
Language: English, German
ISBN-10: 3897905418
ISBN-13: 978–3897905412