An Interview with Karin Haase-Sehr: Consciously Cutting Edge Design Today

Posted on 07. Nov, 2009 by in Business & Policy, Design & Culture, Entrepreneurship, Events, Interviews

Karin Haase-Sehr

Karin Haase-Sehr is an Austrian-born designer who works both here in the United States and in Europe. On her website she says, “After 14 years of production design, I still love my job.” As a designer and as a person, she is kind to the environment, astonishingly creative, spontaneous and resourceful. A strong believer in environmental and social responsibility, she recently launched her own design firm, 2121events, and has dedicated herself to such projects as Red Carpet, and Stitch LA, where she teaches homeless women to create simple yet cool handbags that they can sell to support themselves at a shelter in downtown LA . You can learn more about these and other projects here. Karin has worked on film and commercial sets the world over, has won awards for her music video designs, and is now turning her attention to designing the event space for Opportunity Green. Read on to discover her inspirations and insights on sustainability in the design world.

OG: I want to hear about your experience working in the film industry, because people say that this is one of the least sustainable industries around.

Karin: I think that’s absolutely correct. People are now starting to change the way they do things, but because it’s such a complex industry with so many interconnecting pieces, it’s very difficult to change some things. There’s pre-production, shooting, and post-production, and just within those three phases there are so many different aspects–it’s not just one company or one office where people go every day–and so many different people getting involved all the time, that it’s hard to coordinate changes in the way things get done. Also, whatever is constructed for the purpose of a shoot is by definition going to be temporary. If you do a series like a TV show, it might last a little longer, but in commercials and music videos, which is what I did mostly, you have 2-3 weeks where you set everything up, shoot it for 2 or 3 days, and then this incredible work of art that people put so much time into becomes just so much trash. There’s no space to store these big set walls.

OG: And you don’t want to use the same things over and over, because it always has to be new and different.

Karin: Exactly. It’s just something that our generation is used to. I understand it, I wouldn’t want to wear the same dress every day. But now people are starting to ask how it can be done differently. Personally, I was always very bothered by the waste that I created with these productions. In the 90′s budgets were big and it was about making big fat sets, it was all about looks. I tried to work with recycled materials but it was very hard to do. They were hard to find, and they were more expensive. You just don’t have the time to do it, even now, when you’re doing a commercial and you have to get everything from your fastest available resource, which is usually Home Depot, or whatever it is. You can’t research materials, get one piece of wood here and another piece of wood there, you have to get it all at in one place, now. And that always bothered me.

OG: Is that why you launched your own company?

Yes. For three or four years now I’ve had the idea to do 2121, but I started last year because I thought it was the right time, and I was ready. It’s a little bit easier now because I’m not by myself, I know there are other people trying to participate in recycling and everything, so the resources have grown. But at the same time, we still want cool things, and we want them to be a little different every time, and I understand that too. So what I’m trying to do is offer consciously cutting edge design. That’s the shortest description of what I’m trying to do.

I think it’s very important to have events where people can see things and touch things. Online media is amazing and it’s really strong, but you have to have a space where you can experience it, touch it, smell it, feel it, with other people—it’s very important. That’s why I think events are going to survive. They’re not going to go away, and that’s why I think 2121 makes sense, because there’s a need for someone who designs the space and the environment where you can go to experience new products, new ideas, new technologies, in the right environment.

And in terms of making it sustainable, I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s not just a phase. It has to become the norm. I don’t want it to just be hip now to make products out of recycled things, I want to inspire people to do this, incorporate it into their lives, and start thinking about it in a different way.

OG: I’ve often thought the same thing about recycling, organic, and sustainably-produced products needing to be the norm rather than the “elitist” exception. We should be moving forward from just “sustaining” to thriving, and that means we need a much higher baseline in the future.

Karin: Absolutely, I agree. With 2121 I always try to look to the future. I’m still very much in the moment, but I’m always trying to anticipate what’s next.

OG: How do you perceive the difference in the culture of sustainability between here and Europe?

Karin: Growing up in Austria was very different. I grew up with a grandmother that lived through the war, and my parents were end-war generation, so there were a lot of natural behaviors where they dealt with things as if there was a limited supply. It was the world before globalization. It wasn’t easy to travel, there was no such thing as shipping food around the world. So I was the first generation that experienced exotic fruit in the market. I remember as a child, it was special if we got a watermelon. So it was a given for me that I would deal with things differently, but honestly I was fascinated by the culture when I first came to the United States. I was 20 or 21 when I first came to New York, and I just took in everything around me. But I still didn’t buy into it completely, I wouldn’t buy the latest thing just because everyone else had it. Why would I buy a kitchen appliance if I’ve never used it until now just because everyone else is buying it? My grandmother was also very careful not to waste. She wouldn’t throw away an apple or a potato just because it wasn’t pretty, or if half it went bad she would use the other half. So I think there are certain things that are imprinted in you from the time you grow up. You can forget about them for a little while when you’re young and just want to have a good time, but they’re always there. It just gives me a bad feeling to throw away food.

So it’s easier for me to adjust to the sustainable mindset because I’ve experienced it. Other people who never experienced that might find it harder to adjust, and have to shift their whole mindset. They go to Whole Foods with their canvas tote bags because everyone does that now, but then they go to CVS and come out with double layer plastic bags. It takes time to adjust, and I’m not blaming anyone, I just hope to inspire people to be mindful.

OG: You’ve said you’re interested in the way environments influence people. What’s the process for planning an environment and an atmosphere?

Karin: It’s different depending on what you’re doing, if it’s an event, or a music video, or what have you, but the basic approach is to look at the client and try to understand what they are trying to say, what they want to express visually express with their brand or company. Parallel to that, I’m always looking at what physical objects they have. If the event were to be held in their environment, which rarely happens, what would it be like, who are they, what objects and images would be included? And I try to incorporate those things into the design, to ground it and connect it to the identity of the client.  Also using what’s available is really important because it helps to avoid generating unnecessary trash, and keeps it local.

OG: So, do you see the process as similar to fashion design? You dress up the space to express certain things? I feel like you are the kind of person who expresses things better in a visual language, and the effect is immediate because the viewer processes images without having to go through the medium of words. They understand it instantly.

Karin: Yes, I have always been a very visual person. I think you said that well. I have also always been very sensitive to energy and that helps me to create environments that have an effect on people, and like you said it’s a visualization rather than words.

OG: What are you working on for Opportunity Green?

Karin: Today I was going through linen colors and generally tying together all the components and colors of the design. This is the first time we are bringing design to the event, and we’re basically pimping out the conference.

OG: That’s awesome!

Karin: The concept I designed is very focused on functional ideas that can be added to the setting to make it a more visual experience. I wanted everything to be not only sustainable but also interactive and have a functionality; nothing is meant to be unnecessary “decor,” which I hate. I’m not into that. It has to have a story that makes sense within the context of the event.

OG: Do you see that as the old paradigm of event design versus the new paradigm?

Karin: Yes, I do. At least that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s my agenda. I don’t want to just make something loud and useless. Like my work in film, I want to tell a story with the design, that can express a certain feeling. In the 80′s it was all about more, more, more and so people were using more and more—wanting bigger things and more of them—and the story was sort of in the background.

OG: It was about designing something that tries to capture someone’s attention, even just for 5 seconds, at any cost, almost creating a kind of ADD.

Karin: Absolutely. And I personally don’t want that. It has to have a story, it has to make sense, and it has to come full circle. I take a holistic approach, I would say.

OG: Give me an example of how you would accomplish that.

Karin: Take the TreePeople event that I did recently [photos available at]. It was amazing to see how we created and realized some of the concepts I had planned. By going to the company, seeing what they had available, we made everything all about TreePeople, and at the end of the event we had almost zero waste. We had a little pile of wire and a little pile of hemp rope, that was our trash. I thought, this is less trash than I have after 2 days at my house. So that was really cool.

I wanted to incorporate their tools because they tell a story about their work. They had all these shovels available, and I wanted people to really think about TreePeople going out and planting trees. People were kind of unconsciously forced to think about the story behind TreePeople, but because it was presented in an unconventional way, and in a visual language, it was a pleasant experience.

OG: That reminds me of the way photographer Chris Jordan expresses his ideas [see our article here]. He has, for instance, a photo of 28,000 42-gallon oil barrels. Even now, the words are just sort of blah, but the photo incorporates this incredible design, and when you first look at it you can’t really tell what it’s a picture of, but because it’s a beautiful design you’re drawn in and you want to look closer. Because it doesn’t look like oil barrels at first, it just looks like a kind of mandala. And then you read the sign and it says “This is the amount of oil that the US uses every 5 minutes,” and so now you’ve gotten this information and you’ve processed it visually in a way that your senses can understand. So Chris has gotten the viewer to understand this fact that otherwise you might just completely skim over.

Karin: You know, I really love his work. It makes me so proud to be a part of Opportunity Green, especially because I was a participant there last year, and I was just blown away. I really loved it. It was so educational and inspirational, and I’m happy to be able to be part of it, and to be supporting something that someone like is Chris Jordan is supporting as well, because I agree, he is amazing. And that’s something that important about what I’m trying to do too, I don’t want to be preachy, I want people to experience the sustainability message in a positive way. Like the lanterns we made for TreePeole that came out so gorgeous, which we made out of seedling tubes that they use to protect the seedling as it grows into a tree. We wired them together and made these gorgeous lamps out of them, and people may not always have realized it, but there was a message in them about TreePeople.

OG: They were probably thinking, “I want one of those!”

Karin: Yeah, it created an interest. So I really believe in positive inspiration. I personally can handle watching really blunt films and documentaries that show something really negative, but that might be hard to watch for a lot of people. So I believe in inspiring through design and beautiful things, which I love.

OG: You have said that branding is really important. This may be an obvious question these days, but what do you see as the connection between branding and design?

Karin: There’s a huge connection. It’s more important than most people think. Just think of Coca Cola or McDonald’s, and we all have an immediate image that comes to our minds. That’s powerful. It’s right there, we see the logo, we think of the bottle design, the color palette, maybe a taste. I’m sure this is true even of people who aren’t visual picture these things, and behind all these visuals is a designer. McDonald’s wouldn’t exist the way they do today if all they did was make good burgers. Even in science and technology, there is a designer that designs every component of a new product. Often, the product that looks naturally appealing is going to be more successful. And that’s also one of the things that I really appreciate about Karen [Solomon], is that even though Opportunity Green is a business conference, she’s bringing design into the fold.

OG: That story reminds me of one of Karen’s favorite people, Gaylon White [see our article here], who works for the chemical company Eastman, which is a raw materials company, so they don’t need to be involved in design at all. They make tiny plastic pellets, some out of wood, some are BPA-free, so they are participating in sustainability, and then these things go on to become pieces of shoes, or syringes, or what have you. But Gaylon started realizing that design is a hugely valuable way to tell stories that can create value. He has spearheaded a series of very non-traditional collaborations with designers, and it’s has been an incredible tool, because designers learn about all the capabilities of the material and Eastman learns what it can do better. They have a much more direct link to consumers. It creates tremendous value. So there’s this seed, even in the corporate world, that recognizes the importance of design.

Karin: I think design was always important, but people didn’t always know that. I think–I hope–that what you said is true, because if we want to keep this world healthy, we all have to take part in it and work closely together. Designers, more than anyone else, have to be conscious. We can’t just design something because it’s loud and new, we have to consider the effects of what we design. We have to consider the material—if you’re designing a chair, you want it to last forever, and you also want it to support the customer in helping him or her to sit properly. There are so many aspects that you have to keep in mind. But if we all take a little step it has a huge effect on the world. I think it really has to do with us needing to work together, and I love Obama’s campaign for that, because he told us that he can’t do it for us, we all have to do it, together.

OG: Do you find that as you get used to thinking in this complex way about all the inputs and how they’re going to affect the product design and ultimately the world—do you find that it becomes like second nature?

Karin: You do get used to it, but things change so fast. We’re learning so much, and I think just by being conscious you can improve so much in your daily life. For example, the company To Go Ware, which will be at the conference, makes re-usable utensils You just have to remember to put them in your purse and you never have to use plastic silverware again, because you have your own bamboo pair. Even biodegradable utensils, I think, should be avoided if possible, because there’s so much water that goes into growing whatever they are made out of. The time, effort and energy that went into making that fork, versus the five minutes you use it, it’s not a good ratio.

OG: What are some of your favorite materials to work with right now?

Karin: I love every material, but right now I’m really into reclaimed metals. What inspires me and what I would love for everyone to have an opportunity to do once in their lives is to go to a junkyard. It’s like a treasure hunt, there’s so much stuff. I love going there because you can get so inspired from things that you never expected. I would love to do junkyard trips with people, and really show them that what people throw away can be some really amazing things. There will be piles and piles of absolutely functional, beautiful pieces.

OG: Karin, thank you so much for talking with me today. I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve created at the Opportunity Green conference!

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