Platform Design and Research Blog

Interview Cora Gebauer of Mokkatanten

Cora Gebauer  and her partner Insa Doan creates objects. The former is housed in her native Berlin, is a trained modeller and works with porcelain and the latter lives in Amsterdam, and works with fabric. Their company Mokkatanten is their research lab, an they get to work on their individual projects, research the specificity of their materials,  play with certain aesthetic choices that give their pieces a puerile touch, and inform each others work. Some pieces are reminiscent of German(utilitarian) produkt designs but infused with details that transform their inherent manipulation, such as three-story cups with cubes as handles, horizontal egg holders. This is my conversation with Cora:

Alex: What brought you to your material:

Cora: I can say by accident, I go to school, I didn’t know what to do back then. One of my friends stopped school, learned porcelain painting, so I went to see what she was up to, finished school and then went straight to porcelain. Then i had the opportunity to work with Enzo Mari, he has a philosophy to be a designer, and not learn design in a school. He said: “go to the world, learn art, do not look into design shops to learn design”. That’s why I learned one more discipline and became a modeller, so I learned to do 3D…I can still make porcelain myself. In the porcelain industry, the modeller is the middle of the designer and the industry, so this was also a nice job to do, the funny thing was that I could also work in the car industry, so went to America and worked at General Motors for a short time, but it’s a hard business, the car industry, so i decided to come back to porcelain. I then started my freelance work for some German porcelain companies, got out after a couple of years…because pretty soon you know everybody in Germany. Yes but then I went back in the material, no chance to break up(laughing).

Alex: So you have experimented in many different fields. What’s interesting is that even if you say that for a modeller it’s not different work, the car industry and porcelain industry seem to me to be quite different, the car industry is more cost-oriented and America from Germany are worlds apart:

Cora: Absolutely, the car industry is really hard, I don’t have to tell too much details, but you have to have the passion for it other wise you can get swallowed up by the strong pressure set upon a designer. I was a modeller so i was between designer and engineer, it was okay.

Alex: How do you interact with your clients, for your day job you get the feedback from your bosses, where as with Mokkatanten you get a closer interaction, so what do you appreciate more:

Cora: I say all the time Mokktanten is our playing ground, but it’s an important field to have the contact with the consumers, it helps very much to inform my jobat Culture Form because in the end I need to know the demands of clients and consumer base to have the contact and know how they react to certain products. I learn a lot, when i have a new product(for Mokkatanten) and i go to the fair, I have the immediate contact with the retailer and they give me the feedback directly. Sometimes we sell the stuff directly during events in Berlin or Amsterdam, so we have the direct contact to the consumer. When i sit at Culture Form and I sit at the company and i know the product needs to be produced 50 000 times, i need to know what I do. I try to think ok this is the product which my clients or I would buy, of course it’s another field, our philosophy differs from the big business mentality, but yeah the consumers are the same, they are people like us, so that is our playground where we can interact and feel the clients.

Alex: What inspires you outside of porcelain and the business:

Cora: People need to see other things, I mean I need to get inspiration for new ideas, I am quite interested with some social behaviors, with Mokkatanten. The main scene is the social behavior, it’s a tradition, we try to break it and make something new, if you make the transportation from the tradition to the future, to the world in which we live now, the technique changes and an idea creates a new shape. One exercise I like to do is I take some magazines and i look in the magazine but not sharp i look drunken, and this is a really nice way to interpret shapes differently then they are on the picture. With my colleague, at Culture Form we do the cadavre exquis, and beautiful shapes come out of this, sometimes it comes by accident, you see something and think about it, make scribbles and suddenly you put two together and suddenly there is something new.

Alex: How were you when you were younger was there any precedent to what you are doing now:

Cora: Yeah people say: “ah when i was a kid i knew what i wanted to do…”, I think i was a normal child, doing a lot of stuff, playing around, painting, I can’t say I had a feel or the talent, no nothing special. The interest in porcelain started after school. I have always liked to go to artisan shops, i love these shops. I bought this thing once in America, they are really popular there,(shows me a leather tool holder) I love it, it’s looks like it’s for a cowboy

Alex: How do you see Berlin changing, and how do you see the trend of already existing materials, like they take furniture passed on from generation to generation, also people who are more aware of promoting German design instead of Ikea:

Cora: Like you see, you have to buy Ikea but it should not look like Ikea, appropriate it in your way. Sometimes I think should you buy Ikea or should you not. Of course, I like old furniture, I’m a bit mainstream in that, i like very much the mixture of both.

For me it’s not so easy to see Berlin, i have a difficult picture of Berlin, because I was born here and lived here for 25 years, then i was in Bavaria for 4 years and that was an interesting time. When i came here for weekends I had a completely different picture of Berlin, new development, but in the moment, I’m not sure what happened, the city is so big, so Berlin, in every area is completely different. Trendy people come here and they make it shift, I have different pictures of Berlin, but I don’t know which one is the right one. I love to live here(in her neighborhood) because I have the feeling this more authentic Berlin. I was born in the north west part, and for me it was usual to have a wall around, if we went for holidays, we had to pass the wall, which fortunately for us,was possible. It was like an island because a lot of money came here in the west, for example for youth, children activities and culture. It was paradise, it was really a wonderful time for these activities. It changed completely of course, if i want to see some old people, real Berlin, I go to my old area to the north, or here. Mitte, where i work all day, I don’t feel like it’s the real, it’s touristic and hectic.

Alex: Yeah…around Hakesher Markt I always feel likeit’s a film set:

Cora: It’s true nothing else happens there(other than coffee drinking and shopping). Also areas like Kreuzberg or Prenzlauer berg, there are too many people of one kind, it’s trendy for a moment and then they go to another part. It’s funny because they all get the same idea, it’s not something growing up slowly, everywhere the same bio shops, design shops, bio design shops, i don’t know where it will go in the future…


Alex: How do you see objects, is there a big differentiation between an art object as a sculpture, and sculpture as a utilitarian object:

Cora: I think it’s very similar in that way, when you can work as an author and have your own handwriting then it’s close to art. If you really make industrial design then it has in my opinion completely nothing to do with that because you make a product, it’s a service for your clients. Today, you can do nothing which is completely new, for example, in the porcelain business, a cup is a cup, a plate is a plate and you have to pay attention to what other companies are making. Then you have the production process, the marketing, all the production problems and so on, you have to think as a designer. If you have the chance to work like Zara Hadid, then a company knows exactly what they get because they get the handwriting of this designer, if they ask an unknown designer to work for them, they company demands certain need, so it’s more a service, that is the main difference.

Alex: What do you think of the big industry, in your work why is it important to have this feeling of handcrafted pieces:

Cora: It’s a passion to figure out which product works for a particular company, or how they can have the usp in the market, this is very nice to think about, develop a philosophy about the company or an image, that’s really a new field. To see how they feel satisfied with the product in a portfolio, and if you have a set product for one company, you see a multitude of ways of selling. Also how you can also find your style, you can see in our individual products(in a company) it’s our style, but it fits to the company not only us, the company has it’s style because of the product, the graphic design, the whole package, that’s the new things. It’s in the whole package that you can reinvent a product.

Alex: What are your feelings about working in a team or on your own:

Cora: Yeah, I have a problem when someone is like that. It’s not easy to work in a team because if you work and you have an idea, whether you think it is great or not, you have to compromise, on the other hand in the daily work, it’s the best option, not working on one idea but on many, to make a big project. It is genius to work in a team.You are always working with others up to a certain point.

Alex: Could you tell me about the whole process for your products:

Cora: You mean the porcelain process for Mokkatanten…usually it’s not a business to get money, we can play around, and we have the network of companies that can produce our items from one day to the other. That is a big freedom to have. I have scribbles, and when i have a new idea, I send pictures to Insa and ask her what she thinks, so I know exactly what she is thinking, sometimes she doesn’t have to say. Then she says ok do it. We leave each other the freedom to develop our product, we decide if it’s something that fits to Mokkatanten or not, then we decide to produce, we are two freelancers in one company, i spend the money for the porcelain, and she spends the money for textiles, and sometimes we work together. With the cups, the decoration is from Insa, the shape is from me.

Alex: How do you come in contact with others:

Cora: For 5 years we’ve been to Ambiante in Frankurt, the biggest fair in the world they say, and we have a little stand, and have come in contact with people, retailers, press, and so we have a network of shops around the world. It’s enough for us to experiment in giving a product to the market, we have the fun.

Alex: What is the sense you automatically think of when you think of your pieces:

Cora: I think in the philosophy of Mokkatanten, it’s more the technical side that is important. For the cup with the cubes it looks a bit technical, to break the traditional material, and to create a new pattern out of traditional stuff. We have the link to the traditional materials, the main way we work. This is what we do with Mokkatanten, but maybe in the future it would change completely

Alex: But you also have this dialogue with your clients:

Cora: Yeah when they pick up a piece, and they are trying to position it in their hands, that’s a thing that I like, to see how they react. You can test how it works, for example in that case that they don’t know how to touch, then it is funny to see, but you do have to think if it is a good product, we have fun but we don’t forget that if you’re a designer and you make really avant-garde design, you make it for a handful of people, it’s not the mainstream,  you have to know the border where they understand the product and at which point it goes over. Our process of working at Mokkatanten makes it possible to do that and create the contact with the people

Alex: What do you think of Design school:

Cora: Well, in the case of art I am not so sure, but for example my colleague told me he was trying to find a teacher to play guitar, the teacher told him to stop because he said: “you are so good, make it of your own, you will get closer to your talent than if you learn the usual guitar playing”. Of course you can learn how it works, how to develop a shape, but to be a genius, you shouldn’t stay too long in school or, not only concentrate on school, u need to change your field,  go to architecture, do something completely different. Also it is really important to know about a lot of materials, and in the schools there is not enough experimenting, and information on different materials.

Alex: It’s sort of interesting to see how the younger generation is realizing how important it is  to stand on your own, and not be a part of the masses:

Cora: I find it interesting that some people use old techniques and reappropriate. With this concern for ecology, I can tell you that porcelain is not a really nice material for the future, you need a lot of energy, heat, and then it’s unbreakable…that’s why archeologists write  history because they find a lot of pots.

Alex: What do you eat on Sunday mornings:

Cora: Oh(laughing) for a couple of years I’ve spent my weekends out of Berlin, and I have fresh eggs from the farmers, and yeah I spend my time on a farm, with fresh food from the animals, no intermediates, and bread from the bakery in that village, complete treat.


You can fin more information and images of Mokkatanten here

Photography by: Ottilie Maters



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