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AXOR turns 25 – a quarter of a century ahead of the future

When the AXOR design brand was first launched in 1993, the philosophy of producing well-designed products with the greatest possible customer benefits was already firmly anchored in the DNA of the manufacturer Hansgrohe. Founded by Hans Grohe in Schiltach in the Black Forest in 1901, the company set a new sanitary standard in the bathroom in 1953 with the world's first shower rod. Since then, the archetype of personal hygiene has long since been replaced by formally aesthetic, highly functional solutions. Today, the internationally oriented Hansgrohe Group with its two brands, AXOR and hansgrohe, is responsible for the further development of these solutions in bathrooms and kitchens.

From the spartan wet cell to the bathroom living space

In the decade in which plastic celebrated its rediscovery and reinterpretation, in which the ecology of design became the focus of designers and teaching, and in which design was discussed in an effective manner, the leading minds at Hansgrohe, above all Klaus Grohe, launched AXOR as their interpretation of a globally and visionary bathroom specialist. The ideas were no longer to be developed, discussed and produced solely in-house, but were to be thought about in the context of the future and constantly readjusted in cooperation with internationally renowned designers and architects.

What is self-evident today, 25 years later, was revolutionary two decades earlier: the occupation with the bathroom living space, which – moving away from the simple bathroom – is designed in an individual and aesthetically sophisticated way. The first AXOR Starck collection, presented in 1994, in cooperation with Philippe Starck, the enfant terrible of the scene at that time, became synonymous with the reorientation of the bathroom: in addition to the living room and bedroom, a further room was created in which sensuality, reflection and well-being played an essential role. The idea of sustainability, of handling a scarce resource with mindfulness, was and is just as much a part of this process as the pleasure of dealing with it.

Not only Philippe Starck, who caused a sensation with such subsequent projects as “AXOR Starck V”, the glass washbasin mixer, in 2014, has since then been one of the designers who transport their visions into real AXOR products. Jean-Marie Massaud, Antonio Citterio, Patricia Urquiola, Barber & Osgerby, Phoenix Design, Nendo and Front are also among the brand's permanent design partners. In addition, AXOR staged unique projects in the form of concept studies for futurology in the bathroom with other renowned design greats such as Werner Aisslinger, GamFratesi and David Adjaye.

Hansgrohe and Phoenix Design: Design partners for more than 30 years

Something very special connects Hansgrohe and Phoenix Design. When Tom Schönherr met Klaus Grohe at the beginning of the 1980s as a young designer and was commissioned by him, he poured the spirit of the times into what was then an unusual fitting with a bow handle and color: “Uno” began its triumphant entry into the market with a combination of user-friendliness and avant-garde aesthetics – both of which are still today two of the enduring, multifaceted components of success. For more than 30 years, Tom Schönherr and his Phoenix Design team have been passionately working on perfect design solutions for both Hansgrohe Group brands. Putting oneself in the customer's shoes requires a change in perspective, foresight and curiosity – and the shared shower experience at company headquarters in Schiltach.

Jan Heisterhagen, Vice President Product Management at Hansgrohe SE, and Andreas Diefenbach, Design Business Manager and member of the Management Board at Phoenix Design, talk in the iF interview not only about their recipe for success, sustainability, virtual reality and the perfect droplet in space.

“You get paid to take a shower, not a bath!”

Mr. Heisterhagen, Mr. Diefenbach: Hansgrohe and Phoenix Design have been an accomplished team for more than 30 years. How do you manage to keep this "success model" alive? What is your relationship recipe?

Andreas Diefenbach (AD): Hansgrohe is a partner at our side who thinks in an entrepreneurial context and makes many things possible. The Grohe family has gone on a journey with us, on which we were and are always in close contact. This proximity, but also trust, freedom and commitment are our formulas for success.

Jan Heisterhagen (JH): In the cooperation with Phoenix, the development of a project cannot be characterized as a briefing. On the contrary, it is a joint journey of discovery that makes us strong, in which we "knead" a lot and question things. This doesn't mean that everyone just does whatever they want. Curiosity and the critical reflection of all those involved drive us forward.

AD: We work almost like an in-house design department. Only in this way can we go into the depth and breadth that we want. At the same time, we see ourselves as a satellite that, in cooperation with other customers and in dealing with a wide range of topics, is constantly bringing new impulses to the company and challenging Hansgrohe. That's how we define the role of the designer at Phoenix.

The Inuit have many different words for snow – how many terms do you have at Hansgrohe for water?

JH: Let's start with fine pearly, full-bodied, spraying, needle-like, soft, microscopically fine... of course there are many more. In essence, it's always about the customer experience when taking a shower. We look closely at the drops, we add air to the water – and what hits the skin changes. This is a great challenge, because everyone perceives this feeling differently. What I would like best is put all the customers under one shower and find it out together with them. “Mr. Heisterhagen, you get paid for taking showers, not baths” was the first advice I received from Richard Grohe when I started as product manager here (laughs).

You even shower with your team to test new products and collect ideas...

JH: Yes, we shower as a team. Not only to test the prototypes for their suitability, but also to get further inspiration. We even shower with our designers! Regardless of whether it’s Philippe Starck or Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby – completely different discussions arise when you’re under the shower.

AD: The one constant factor influencing our success is our love for the element water. You can feel its aliveness while taking a shower, you can get involved with the facets and the culture of this material, from the actual cleansing process to the domestication of water in the house. This is what we use to derive the design and finally the form and function of a product.

When implementing technological innovations, one keyword is “electrical protection areas”, another, as you have just mentioned, is the development of the bathing culture: How much IT and cyberspace can design tolerate in the bathroom in the first place? Will augmented reality and relaxation on a tropical beach soon be a must for showering?

JH: The breakthrough from analogue to digital access to the world began 20, 30 years ago, even in the bathroom. Today, digitization is still looking for interpretation – and we, with AXOR and hansgrohe, for a logical way to approach it. From the manufacturer's point of view, we are in no way opposed to the digital control of functions, using a smartphone, for example. Together with AXOR design partners, Philippe Grohe was already thinking about what is known as a “digital window” in the bathroom 10 years ago.

Are you referring to bathrooms without windows, which are still prevalent in the houses or apartments of the 1960s and 1970s and which are now being renovated according to today's standards?

JH: Yes, if the structural conditions do not permit the planning of a “real window”, then a window into nature, which is created by means of VR, is certainly an additional comfort feature.

Shortage of living space, modular prefabricated housing and small apartments are further keywords – which solutions are available for the smallest of conceivable washrooms?

AD: The smaller the rooms, the more atmosphere they need and the larger they have to become. Resolution and integration are the central issues here. Many individual products are integrated into one product, i.e. combined. The hansgrohe ShowerTablet is a good example of this. You need a thermostat – which at the same time serves as a storage surface for such bathroom accessories as shower gel or a sponge. The sanitary area as a whole is developing in the direction of furniture, while always keeping the customer's sense of well-being in mind.

JH: Indeed, small baths do not get bigger, they have to be optimized and rethought. Questioning the bathtub, for example, is one such reorientation. An ideal solution for small rooms needs ideas and know-how. When we look to Asia, there is a water space with a central floor drain in the bathroom. For us, this bath variant means that the water must be directly targeted at the body in the shower, since it otherwise splashes and gets everything wet. With the new “PowderRain” jet type in the new Raindance Select S shower head, we have found a great solution for this – and for all bathrooms with central showers – thanks to fine microdrops.

Are microdroplets also the solution to the shortage of resources? What percentage of water would it have been possible to save over the last few years by taking a shower?

JH: Since 2004, we have been able to achieve an average water savings of 10 to a maximum of 60 percent with the new EcoSmart and AIR shower technologies – while at the same time increasing the pleasure of the showering experience. Here, too, we ask ourselves what we want to achieve and what the consequences are. In recent years, we have been able to reduce the water flow from 14 to 15 liters per minute to 9 liters. In the USA, for example, especially in California, regulations reduce the maximum flow rate to 6 liters per minute due to emergency water restrictions during times of drought. This is all about reducing water consumption in harmony with maintaining showering comfort. After all, you have to look at the shower cycle at the same time: At some point it doesn't make sense to regulate the flow to the point that you have to shower much longer to get the shampoo out of your hair. This not only takes environmental consciousness to the point of absurdity, it also makes the showering experience less pleasurable.   

With AXOR, you have always relied on individualization, among other things, through the use of a wide range of different materials. The “AXOR MyEdition” from Phoenix Design, available from October 2018 for the brand's 25th anniversary, can be fitted with metal, wood, marble or leather panels. 15 brilliant “AXOR FinishPlus” surfaces were also presented. How easy is it for your customers to make a decision when faced with so many choices?

AD: “AXOR MyEdition” is primarily aimed at architects, interior designers and project planners, who, thanks to the many different applications, are able to provide their customers with targeted advice and a selection of overall concepts in various styles. This applies not only to the new line, but to many hansgrohe products. The balance in the collection is very important – too many options just for the sake of options is not the best way to go.

JH: Individualization plays an important role, but must be well thought out. Because a bathroom is always a major individualization project. The “pain point” at which the customer without a competent partner is overwhelmed is reached quickly, because it is often necessary to design the smallest but most complex space. The real question should be “how do you live?”, so that the things you address, such as digitization or even versatile accessories, are perfectly tailored and fitted to the customer. To stay with the example of “AXOR MyEdition” and “AXOR FinishPlus”, this can be done by an interior designer, for example. This type of consulting is still a niche in Europe, but has already been standard in Asia and the USA for a long time. 

Mr. Heisterhagen, you have been involved in Hansgrohe's success in design since 2001: Winning 129 iF DESIGN AWARDS in this time alone speaks for itself. Is there a product whose design award you were particularly pleased about?

JH: That immediately makes me think of my early days. With the new shower head generation of 1999, Hansgrohe had brought new and larger shower head models with even more spray types and functions onto the market, but this no longer worked. And suddenly, right when I started, something happened on the market. This type of showerhead was suddenly everywhere, even in discount stores, made in China at incredibly low prices. Then in 2003 we introduced Raindance, whose proportions worked exactly the opposite way around to conventional showers: Raindance looked like a table tennis bat with a large plate and a short handle – a design innovation that we developed together with Phoenix Design and for which we received an iF DESIGN AWARD in 2004. This was the epitome of the new showering pleasure with plate shower heads, which became the trend.

And how about you, Mr. Diefenbach?

AD: For the third edition of AXOR Uno, we took minimalism to the extreme and showed that the Uno message was still working. The iF gold award was something special for me. Also because Tom Schönherr and Andreas Haug were responsible for the previous two product lines and this was one of the first projects in which I had personal contact with Klaus Grohe.

Away from Earth to life and work in orbit: There was no space shower installed on the International Space Station ISS this time, the astronauts use wet wipes. Would you be tempted by such a project in weightlessness?

JH: Hard to believe, but our developers have already worked together with the Fraunhofer Institute on a space shower. Weightlessness is an exciting field of research, especially to find out more about its effects on the behavior of the jet of water. When I think of seeing the perfect drop of water in space, which behaves like a ball and which I can look at from all sides, I can honestly say that I get goose bumps. This series of tests would certainly not be economically justifiable at present... (laughs).

When I think of the future, I think of the term Aquabeam. How does the water get into the shower head without a hose? Or what about the idea of cleaning yourself without water, i.e. by taking a quasi-dry shower?

How does your future together look?

AD: In the future, we will certainly be talking about a shift in the role of design. Diversity, multifacetedness, interdisciplinary teams are keywords here that are essential for successful, long-term cooperation. The designer has long been a generalist and has to deal with complex topics in a great many different areas. We meet this challenge with our location in Asia and contribute our experience to our cooperation.

JH: As far as we are concerned, the designer is there right from the start and knows the company and the markets. At Hansgrohe, it has always been important that the designer does not simply make the product “beautiful”, but thinks globally in strategic processes and approaches. Then we are very close to our core competence and what we call customer insight. This way we can move forward together – and become even better.

Mr. Heisterhagen, Mr. Diefenbach, thank you very much for talking with us!

Jan Heisterhagen is Vice President Product Management at Hansgrohe SE. The graduate industrial engineer began his professional career at Vitra GmbH, a furniture manufacturer where he held various positions in product management. He joined Hansgrohe AG in 2001 as Senior Product Manager for the shower head range of the hansgrohe brand and took over the brand's entire product management in 2008. Jan Heisterhagen has been Vice President Product Management for the AXOR and hansgrohe brands of the Hansgrohe Group since 2015. His passions include design, Asian cuisine, mountain biking, reading – and of course showers.

Andreas Diefenbach is Design Business Manager and a member of the Management Board at Phoenix Design GmbH + Co KG in Stuttgart. He studied design at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen and at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart and has been a member of the Phoenix design team for more than 10 years now. As a specialist for the sanitary and investment industry, he supports international brands in the design and innovation process. Andreas Diefenbach is an internal member of the Innovations & Academy Lab for radical innovations and design concepts and teaches at the State Academy of Fine Arts and the Hochschule für Gestaltung (College of Design) in Schwäbisch Gmünd.

Success story in the iF DESIGN AWARD

Hansgrohe has received a total of 150 “Design Excellence” awards since the iF DESIGN AWARD was first established. It all began in 1978 with three products: the TRI-BEL handheld shower head, the UnicaE shower bar and a mirror cabinet – all designed by Esslinger-Design. In the iF DESIGN AWARD 2018, 10 entries from Hansgrohe SE scored big points: the AXOR products Overhead Shower 350, Shower Heaven 1200, Showerpipe 800 and the thermostatic module Select, all designed by Phoenix Design. The hansgrohe brand also received awards for its C51 sink combination, Raindance E overhead shower, Showerpipe, Raindance E Unica Set, ShowerTablet, again all products designed by Phoenix, and The Rain Pack packaging designed by Kolle Rebbe.

Phoenix Design has won 250 iF DESIGN AWARDS since their first participation in 1990.

The questions were asked by Silke Gehrmann-Becker, freelance journalist, author and lecturer, Cologne, Germany.

Images: Hansgrohe