Mr Schmidt, for half a century you have been designing such different things as Baumkuchen, beer bottles, vacuum cleaners, condoms, sanitary towels, incontinence nappies, books, magazines, company logos, concert halls, opera foyers, stage sets and costumes. Can good forms make us better people?
You can kill people with ugliness just as much as you can with an axe; or you can use the refinement of everyday objects to nurture their development into beings who are conscious of beauty. The things that surround us shape us to a similar degree as the language we speak. A well-proportioned room triggers feelings of joy in us. A branch of McDonald’s, on the other hand, makes us drown in loneliness and meaninglessness. Becoming accustomed to everyday horrors affects our character more deeply than you would think. Stendhal sees beauty as a promise of happiness. This longing must be kept alive. Perhaps the most important ability of man is to be astonished by beauty.
In your eyes, which practical object has the most perfect form?
The Odol bottle, designed around 1900, with the gooseneck, the bottle for Coco Chanel's first perfume, the Concorde and the Ferrari Dino. The most complete object that I have ever held in my hand is a tea caddy made by the last Japanese master lacquerer in 1906. I have learned something crucial from Japanese culture: Taking care in designing seemingly irrelevant everyday objects intensifies life. Things that were normal become special when treated with care and mindfulness. A second lesson was: Leaving things out. Taking care of how air moves in a room can be more important than the entire interior design. The third and most important lesson was: Aesthetics without ethics is cosmetic.
You grew up with three siblings in Bayreuth, where your parents ran a plant nursery. When everyone went to church on Sundays wearing blue suits, you wore a yellow jacket.
I was an eccentric, obsessed with the idea of being something special. Having been thrown out of four schools, at the age of 15, I had to do an apprenticeship as a lithographer. There, too, I remained a loner. Nobody understood why I had been reading haikus since the age of 12, and why I preferred drawing to cracking open a beer with the others.
When did you first become interested in form and design?
The yearning for beauty either arises in childhood or it never does. I suffered from the fact that the chief designer of the young Federal Republic was a certain Piefke. My eyes became sick of the imperialism of banality and vulgarity. I was only at home in my dreams and I had an endless wanderlust. I sat at the window for hours, and when clouds drew in, I imagined that they were the Alps. Standing in front of a closed railway gate, I dreamt of jumping onto the passing train. At the age of 14, I was allowed to attend a rehearsal of Wagner's «Götterdämmerung» in Bayreuth. Inside me, a switch was flipped. I understood: You have to invent the world that you are looking for yourself.
Order collapses in the very second in which it arises. Are aesthetes, addicted to beauty, unhappy by nature?
Flawless aesthetics only work when you are by yourself. There is something antisocial about the fact that only still life makes us happy. In that sense, there is little which separates perfectionism from melancholy. Those who can only tolerate themselves in the mask of perfection, cannot greet others with spontaneous warmth. That only works with children. Their presence renders aesthetics irrelevant. You feel free and light, because children do not know what taste is.
Do you sometimes end up getting annoyed with yourself for living in a galaxy of precious things?
Yes, you have to watch out that you don’t become a caricature and start to find natural people to be unnatural. Karl Kraus once opined that an aesthete is more interested in the brassiere than in the breasts within. You shouldn’t let it get that bad. But that does not mean that you have to consider printed underpants to be a step forward for civilisation.
What can be done to hurt your vanity?
If you want to break the heart of a product designer, give him a compliment that starts with the words, «Your work reminds me of...»
You live amongst hundreds of precious things. Do you sometimes wonder whether it might be nicer to look at empty white walls?
Of course, one could follow the example set by Balzac. At his house, he had a piece of cardboard hanging on the wall, on which were written the words: «A Rembrandt here, please!» Lack of possessions keeps the imagination awake, as everything one does not possess is desirable. On the other hand, for collectors like me, there is the incomparable happiness of searching and finding. But you have to be careful not to become a morbid fetishist of things, whose survival has become dependent on interior design advice. To some people I say, with a finger raised, «You do not own your things, the things own you!»
For more than forty years, you have been collecting 17th century Japanese screens, tapestries from Tibet, and ancient Buddha statues. Why has classical Asian culture affected you so deeply?
It’s because no other art better understands how to hide depth in the surface and how to condense thought. When a flower falls to the ground in a haiku, it is an ecstatic moment of passing and grief. As for us Western Europeans, we can only think of rubbish bins and dustpans.
You have sold your luxurious villa and donated the greater part of your collection to a museum. Do the cultures of Asia also teach us the futility of accumulating possessions?
In depths of our souls, each one of us knows that there are no shelves in a coffin. Parting with things can be nicer than acquiring them. You experience a feast of emptiness and you realise that possessions are «prana suckers», vampires of the breath of life.
If you could take one thing with you when leaving earth, what would it be?
My 30-year-old wristwatch by Jürgensen. You have to wind it up. That's why, for me, it symbolises the fact that my time is running out.
You are 81. Once, speaking of your future, you said: «My role models are in Asia. There you go to a monastery in your old age and try to come to terms with yourself through introspection and contemplation. The purpose of old age is to turn loneliness into insights.» What insights have you gained?
That our lives are decided by whether the people we love also love us. Everybody has that moment ahead of them, that moment when somebody comes and shuts their eyes for them on their deathbed. How will this person look at us? With love and warmth in their eyes? Or with visible satisfaction that we are finally gone?
What is the saddest torture that old age has in store for us?
The shrinking heart and the sinking level of curiosity. On average, teenagers laugh six times a day, those over 60, only twice. The 17 muscles needed for smiling atrophy. You turn to stone, become tired of people, and your head sits the wrong way round on your shoulders. You look back instead of forward and become a fossil that looks out upon the world as if through a slit which closes up a little more with every passing day. The older you get, the better you were before. That is the self-deception of old age. You romanticise your own past because you no longer have a present.
How do you counter gloom and melancholy?
One way is to keep the world at bay, make an island of yourself, become impassive and unshakeable. But then you are already dead whilst still alive. My therapy against the melancholy of old age is classical music, ballet and my work. As the saying goes: The devil makes work for idle hands.
Do you still have adventures?
What still surprises me is the discrepancy between how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. Even today, I still do not know how I affect people. Apart from that, the egocentricity of the old age leads to the fact that you initially become uninteresting to others and ultimately get bored of yourself. It is the number of open possibilities in life that contributes so much to making people feel young and free. In that sense, my prospects are constantly drying up.
Let's say you meet the 20-year-old that you once were: Would you have anything to say?
I would say to the 20-year-old, «Do not become a workaholic. Learn to understand downtime as progress.» It’s absurd: The richer people get, the more they work. Creative leisure has given way to demonstrative stress. If you want to come across as important nowadays, it is imperative that you appear to be busy. The true aristocrats of the future will be distinguished by their ability to make use of their time. If the 20-year-old Peter Schmidt were to show signs of having understood my lecture, I would add something else: «Do not go through a life wearing a poorly-fitting mask under which your true face rots.»
Shortly before his suicide, the journalist Fritz J. Raddatz said: «Growing old means being more sceptical towards people and more and more disappointed with life. You piss off the world that’s pissing you off.» Is this your experience too?
Anyone who dies in such a state of desperation ought to ask himself whether his life might have been in vain. The core of our existence is how we cope with our loneliness. Only in our manner of dying does it become clear who we are. One should live as if there were no such thing as death and die as if one had never lived. But who can manage such a thing? Most die with the thought that it would have been better to regret one’s sins than to spend one’s old age regretting how little one had sinned.
Are there any advantages to being old – apart from discounts for senior citizens?
You no longer desire the things that you were not able to afford in the past. And you know how inane most things are that you used to find so meaningful. Tragedies turn into comedies, and in the end there is nothing left to say because, as in the case of an old married couple, everything has been said. One is simply an honourable ruin, looking out upon the world.
Is happiness still possible at the age of 81?
Ecstatic happiness is now just a memory for me. But, on the other hand, I have learnt that there is happiness to be found in contemplation. Looking at a flower and abandoning yourself to time – that can be bliss. All of a sudden, it seems as if the world has been painted in fluorescent paint. The peace of the soul is the greatest treasure of life. The peaceful thing about old age is that you manage to drive hatred from your life, because you realise that it is the hater who suffers, not the object of the hatred.
Is there a particular sentence that has been with you for the past few years?
Yes. It reads: «One only understands life backwards, but one has to live it forwards.» This sentence explains the melancholy of old age.
Sven Michaelsen studied literature and history, was a reporter and author at Stern for twenty years and today writes mostly for the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine. His trademark is portrait conversations with the leading figures and idols of our time. In 2014 and 2018 he was awarded the Deutscher Reporterpreis (German Reporter Award). His published books include Starschnitte («Star cuts»), «Wendepunkte» («Turning points»), «Ist Glück Glücksache?» («Is happiness a matter of luck?»), «Das drucken Sie aber nicht!» («But you’re not printing that!»), and «Warum hat das Unglück mehr Phantasie als das Glück?» («Why does misfortune have more imagination than happiness?»).