Faucets of His Story
With Axor, Philippe Grohe has taken Hansgrohe to greater heights. Maria Louis finds out what sets this bathroom fixture manufacturer apart.
Though still in his early 40s, the heir to the Hansgrohe legacy spouts the wisdom of ages. But then, Philippe Grohe comes from the historic family of Hans Grohe – who set up Hansgrohe in Schiltack, within the Black Forest of Germany, in 1901.
After completing school, training and a spell of work as a photographer, this grandson of the founder studied international marketing. In 1998, he took over as the MD of the Hansgrohe sales organisation in Paris.
Back in the company’s headquarters since 2000, he has been developing the corporate marketing division. Since 2001, Philippe Grohe has been responsible for Hansgrohe’s exclusive Axor brand.
Could you tell us the difference between Hansgrohe and Grohe?
To put it briefly, Hansgrohe is the original company that my grandfather Hans Grohe founded in 1901. He got married thrice, and he had three sons (the last one was my father) at very different ages.
When my father started to take responsibility of Hansgrohe in the ‘60s, the company already had a culture of innovation. He started to introduce cooperation with designers, and turned the company into a shower specialist. In 30 years, he turned Hansgrohe into a design-oriented bathroom fixture manufacturer. That is the main difference.
What brings you to India?
I have a long history with India, not only because I have come here often. It was my first trip outside Europe, a cultural trip. I came as a photographer – but the funny thing is, I did not take a lot of pictures the first time I came.
Where did you travel in India then?
I started with a week in Rishikesh, then ten days in Kashmir, then Puri, Madras, Kerala, and I finished in Jaipur.
What was the duration of that visit?
And you went backpacking?
Yes, it was a backpacking trip.
How old were you at the time?
I think I was about 18.
That’s the age to come.
That’s the age to come! For me it was a photographic trip. But India was so stunning, so different from what I knew from Europe, that I didn’t use more than one quarter of my film rolls.
I did not feel comfortable to take pictures of rituals, temples, because I couldn’t understand them. So I spent most of my travel time listening, talking, absorbing. I visited a second time with an AIDS organisation and went through five different hospitals in India.
So, that was two trips, 25 years ago. I loved it. I see probably only the good sides of India. I was very happy that, after starting to work in the family company 15 years ago, three years ago I had the opportunity to come back to India, to rediscover India.
What brought you here the third time?
Well, I came for business. Then, I started a discussion with Patricia Urquiola, the woman designer of my latest collection. She likes these cultural impulses.
So, I asked her, why don’t we go to India together? She agreed – but she had health problems recently, so we decided to start this with Jean-Marie Massaud. He is a bit like Patricia, very open to culture. It was not difficult to get him interested.
Are you here to launch Massaud’s collection for Hansgrohe?
We have come to India not to launch a collection, but to talk about an interesting topic. I think everybody who is doing his best in his field can change something. I am not saying that we are going to tell India what India needs. It’s a dialogue. I want to learn, and eventually I would be able to give something also. We will see.
But you are also presenting the Axor Massaud range?
Yes, we will have it on display.
What would you say is most exciting about Massaud’s work for Axor?
One product we made with him is a tap which is not a tap. It is a tap that is actually like a shelf, with water flowing out. So, he transforms the product.
With a lot of other designers, when they say we don’t want products, we want emotion, they try to make it smaller and smaller or make it disappear. With Jean-Marie, it becomes something different.
It is a shelf where you can display your objects, and it is also a shelf from which a transparent, natural waterfall flows out. We had to do a lot of work on the technology side in order to come out with that waterfall.
The Axor Massaud shelf tap is used both in the wash basin as well as in the bathtub?
Yes, but I think it is most important in the wash basin, because that is where water from the tap touches your skin directly. In the bathtub, water flows into water.
With improvement in technology, we could do a lot more with the design of the product. We try to go back to the natural look and feel of water.
What else are you doing to make your presence felt in India, besides this forum?
What I like very much about this event is that we talk and exchange our opinions with the architects – not only at the forum, but also ahead of it. It is something I appreciate a lot.
I have been organising cultural workshops with architects over the past eight years. We took five architects from Europe and brought them to meet five architects from Beirut. We went to Beijing, and to Japan. And because of the different cultures around water, immediately you can find the differences — which leads to interesting questions.
My product is a component, and I need the architect/interior designer to put it in place. Obviously, I would like the customer to have the best solution – technically, functionally and environmentally.
How does Hansgrohe compare with other products available in the Indian market?
We are one of the few companies worldwide that put two things together at the highest level – the best technology and the best design.
I know many companies that have good technology but no feeling for design; and others that do fantastic design but don’t have the technology. So, that would be our biggest strength. I know my products will never be the cheapest, but they have the right price for what they offer. We have to make people understand what is behind the pricing. That is the challenge we face in India.
You are completely responsible for the Axor brand?
Yes, I am 100% responsible. I choose the designers, and make the products with the designers. I also handle the communication about the products. So you can say it’s my baby.
And I am a very lucky and proud father. Thankfully, the company gave me lot of liberty to act, as what I am doing would be impossible without liberty – because I have to talk to people like Philip Starck and Patricia Urquiola. That’s not easy, as they want somebody who can decide.
The moment I don’t have the freedom to take risks, I will not be able to see projects like this through.
What do you think helps you in fulfilling your task as a ‘father’?
My experience directly comes from the fact that I started as a photographer, though I nearly became a geologist. It was the only way to go to university and continue with Maths, Physics and Chemistry. I did not want to specialise.
Then I worked as a photographer for four years before my father, in a three-day discussion, convinced me to have a good look at the company. Today, I believe that photography gave me the understanding of how to work with creative people and how to respect creative ideas.
There are lots of companies that work with one designer, but there is only one company in the bathroom fixtures segment which works with five, six, seven designers – because it’s complicated.
High Technology meets Haute Design
With internationally-renowned designers such as Philippe Starck, Antonio Citterio, Jean-Marie Massaud and Phoenix Design working on them, the Axor collections have become icons in bathroom design. Recently, Patricia Urquiola – among the most prominent of contemporary designers today – has joined hands with Axor.
Thanks to these exclusive designers and architects, Axor boasts a wide range of more than 60 products per collection that offer solutions and combinations – from washbasin, tub and shower to matching bathroom fittings and other accessories.
Transcending just excellent design, Axor develops solutions to meet the changing needs of the bathroom. “We keep asking ourselves in which direction will the bathroom develop in the future – beyond its functional purpose,” discloses brand manager Philippe Grohe, explaining the raison d’etre behind Axor.
Axor collections can be found in the Burj Dubai, in the Yoo Apartments in Manhattan, in the Bulgari Hotels of Milan and Bali, as well as on the Queen Mary II, in the Grand Hyatt in Shanghai and in the Else Club in Moscow.