Throw out that coffee table book. In fact, throw out the whole coffee table. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei worked with German DIY store Hornbach to create Safety Jackets Zipped the Other Way, a cathedral-esque, modular and utterly non-functional art piece you can recreate at home, using materials available at your local hardware retailer.
In a short documentary, "Art belongs to everybody," Weiwei describes the project in his own words.
"I don't think art would necessarily make the world a better place. But I do think art can make a human being become a better human," Ai Weiwei says.
Safety Jackets Zipped the Other Way is composed of safety jackets joined by their zippers—a soft, shapeless sculpture that undermines their utility. A publication, available on Hornbach's online shop for 18€ (nearly $20), includes building instructions, a certificate of authenticity, an interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and a classification of how this work fits into Ai Weiwei's practice. Or you can download the instructions themselves for free.
The work was created by Neutral Zurich and Heimat Berlin, whose stuff for Hornbach has captivated us for years. For a while, Hornbach was hilarious burly naked men who enjoy struggle. This picture evolved: "Smashing the Clichés" showed Hornbach was for women, too, but that it also understood that women make and unmake under very different conditions than men do. Werkstück Edition showed us design savvy and a subversive streak: Build your own Scandi-style furniture, like Ikea but upscale. And "Place of Silence," its surreal public toilet installation, showed us poetry, an artistic bent, and that trademark dark humor, ever lingering under the surface.
So there's a pleasing coherence to this collab with Ai Weiwei, who isn't just an artist but an activist. Guido Heffels, Heimat's co-founder and chief creative officer, was nice enough to answer a few questions from us about it.
Muse: Guido, let's start with what seems like the most obvious question. Why?
Guido Heffels: Far more important—why not? The Ai Weiwei project is not one of these "contemporary" campaigns that are based on data analysis and ambitious market research. The outcome is therefore raw, fresh, unexpected—and puts Hornbach on a totally new level. It feels in retrospect worth us investing a little bit of time for this. Shouldn't this be the reason why agencies get hired and paid?
Was there a brief? If so, what was the ask? If not, how do you collaborate/conceive ideas with Hornbach these days?
Besides the usual briefs, such as the next spring or autumn campaign, there is something I call the permanent brief—aka, the Phantom Protocol. What else can we do to illustrate what Hornbach, together with their customers, is capable of? What can we do to make Hornbach stand out in a market that is highly competitive? Intuition, based on a deep, meaningful love for a brand, is the key.
We've seen Hornbach's quirky sense of humor, but we've also seen it flirt with art, high-end design, pop culture and activism—as in "Smashing the Clichés."
At the core of it all, carved in stone, there is our prayer, "Creating greatness with your own bare hands." Whatever adds to this can be the basis for an upcoming Hornbach campaign. This is what all work we created for Hornbach during the last 20 years has in common.
Is there a larger brand ethos at work?
The styles and executions may vary; it's better to say they have to vary. Otherwise it won't be a surprise. Do not forget the influence of the directors, artists we work with. They add a lot to the source code of our ideas. And we welcome it. These part time relationships make us learn—and always make us smarter.
We do not send storyboards with frame objectives out to directors, nor do we send prefabricated Photoshop orgies to photographers. Instead we usually start with a clear and precise definition of our goals. We do this for a pure, selfish end in itself, as we ourselves love to explore what constitutes someone else's vision.
While it's easy to make the connection between a DIY art project and a DIY store, it's not quite so natural to associate contemporary art, like Ai Weiwei's, with the target of a hardware store. Why this match?
They're both DIY, and I always considered all DIY enthusiasts as artists. An empty white room is their canvas, an attic is a space yet to be discovered: You can turn it into anything. A garden is a wasteland before you turn it into something that clearly says, "This is my way of doing it; this land belongs to me." Isn't this what art should be about?
Of course, you need the right tools, the right material, immediate availability, the best quality, fair prices. That's where Hornbach comes in. And by the way, artwork in most cases consists of simple materials, such as paint or metal or wood. Stuff you can find at every European Hornbach store.
What does the Ai Weiwei work for Hornbach say to you personally?
I don't want to bore anyone with my personal interpretation of the work itself. The most important and obvious aspect for me is democratic art. Ai Weiwei called it art that is no longer limited to museums or art collectors. For me, his soft sculpture can start a revolution, the disruption of how we perceive and consume art.
How do you hope this work will express itself to the people you're trying to reach?
There is always a certain expectation when it comes to Hornbach advertising. Whatever we do needs to surprise, entertain, inspire and, in equal measure, add new aspects and extensions to the Hornbach brand. "Really? Ai Weiwei for a DIY brand? Must be Hornbach, right?"
Any fun behind-the-scenes stories you can share?
All the projects we came up with over the last few years took us at least six months each, and for each piece of the Werkstück Edition series, even a year. This process includes the usual ups and downs, frustrations and near-death experiences, followed by exuberant happiness.
To be honest, this is why I love our job so much.
What don't we already know about this campaign that you think we should?
There is an endless list of people and collaborators involved in this project, not only us: NEUTRAL from Zürich who fixed the deal; LIESEL, our Heimat-owned film production company; DATA-ORBIT from St. Gallen, responsible for the book design; Hendrik Becker, Jessica Hartley, Fabian Greitemann, Florian Moser, Julian Stahl, MEDIAPLUS.
Campaign: Ai Weiwei & HORNBACH
Media: Digital (moving image, display, social media), TV, cinema, building instructions, poster
Period: From 13 February 2020 online in Germany, Switzerland and Austria
Agencies: Heimat Berlin and Neutral Zurich
Design (manual/publication): Data-Orbit