“good design identifies and uses SCOPE”

Ulrich Merkle designs dental equipment, as well as wheel rims for cars or special components for guard door locking devices – and combines emotionality with objectivity. Ulrich Merkle is both a product designer and a mechanical engineer.
An interview with Ulrich Merkle by Armin Scharf.

Photo: Klaus Wolter  
Ulrich Merkle

When Ulrich Merkle points to the compact device, you understand what he means by “logicality of use” straight away. Encased in a smooth, white housing, the device features a slot that runs the length of its front and widens diagonally on the left-hand side, where there is a black control panel above it. The device goes by the name of Hygopac Plus and is produced by Dürr Dental, a company based in Swabia (southwest Germany) that specialises in dental technology and is a regular client of Merkle’s Stuttgart-based design firm Formstudio. The slot in the Hygopac Plus serves a clear function: behind it there is a sealing unit for packaging sterilised instruments in dental practices – all the user has to do is slide the special plastic bags through the slot. But as simple and intuitive as it is to use, the design is anything but a banal white box: the surfaces of the complex form are bevelled multiple times.

Wouldn’t a cuboid housing have been just as good?

Of course not, because it’s all about visualising qualities, differentiation and conveying value. At emotional level, a banal box is totally uninteresting and doesn’t signify that this is a premium device made in Germany. What’s more, it indicates how it’s used immediately. You insert the bag on the left and the sealed package comes out on the right.

And what does the financial controller think of it?

He’s happy because the design doesn’t result in any relevant cost increase. The housing is made of painted sheet metal that’s laser-cut and shaped in a digital bending machine. If you look closely, you can see that there are different bend radii in it. That’s very easy to do with this method. You could say we’ve taken maximum advantage of the production possibilities. Although the black, three-dimensional side caps are injection moulded, they’re also used to hold certain components in place. So the housing serves a purpose inside the device too.

That’s a principle you’ve used several times before.

That’s right. We already functionalised housings successfully when we were working on compactly structured dental suction systems. Those appliances, which are sometimes located in the actual treatment room, consist of an EPS foam housing that all the cable ducts and the space for the components have already been moulded into. That really speeds up assembly because most of the parts just have to be inserted. The top covers are made of deep-drawn plastic. This method isn’t just less expensive than injection moulding, it also muffles the noises and vibrations of the integrated radial fan as well.

Dürr Dental, Tyscor Radial Suction Unit
Photos: Formstudio Merkle Park

That’s obviously only feasible if you’re involved with development early on.

Ideally, I like to get on board when things are at the basic technical layout stage. If you come in later on, something like a foam housing would no longer be feasible. It’s a matter of fundamental engineering issues, but you need to know what you’re doing in terms of the technology involved too. The overall product package influences the design options and the form you eventually settle on. The two things are closely connected. As a designer, I have to deliver ideas that the client can produce without additional costs.

But that means having the necessary expertise. Does your mechanical engineering degree come in useful in that respect?

Definitely. I think in terms of both the engineering and the design. My mechanical engineering course at RWTH Aachen University was actually my first step towards product design, but it only covered the engineering side of things. That’s why I went on to do a second degree at Stuttgart Academy of Art and Design – to have the contrast, so to speak. And under Klaus Lehmann and Richard Sapper, the course was a great environment for experimenting.

You and your wife founded your firm, Formstudio Merkle Park, in 2007.

Before that, I worked for Karim Rashid in New York and as a salaried designer.

Did Rashid influence you?

As a young designer with an objective and functional approach, it was a fantastic time with lots of new experiences. The emotional side of design was very high on the agenda there. In fact, I do always try to find solutions with more complex forms and take an organic approach, even when I’m working on technical products. That’s a vital factor, especially in the medical field.

And what exactly is it that makes you different from other design firms?

Because of my very scientific background, I try to figure out authentic solutions with a connection to nature or physics. That’s my basis for function-friendly products that stand out from the crowd because of their compelling appearance. And of course I’m always immersing myself in new trend and product worlds, especially when I’m travelling.

Your portfolio also contains wheel rims for cars. In terms of the design approach, that must be pretty much the exact opposite of medical products.

Car rims are a typical example of a product where intuition is uppermost. The most important thing is to pick up on the latest trends from the vehicle sector and come up with suitable responses. You can do great things with the right CAD tools and a few clever lines. With medical products, the design is a lot more technology-based, there are a lot more guidelines to consider.

Formstudio, wheel styling, SAV Wheel 1004

Talking of the design process – do you still sketch?

I collect my initial ideas in the form of hand-drawn sketches, but then I quickly move on to freeform modelling in Rhino. It’s ideal for effective presentations and provides interfaces for the engineering details.

Who do you partner with on the client’s side?

It’s almost always the development departments. But I always try to listen to other departments too, because it’s important to be aware of the different perspectives within the company.

Nowadays products increasingly consist of interfaces. What does that mean for you?

The interface, including the graphical user interface, has to form a unified whole with the rest of the product design. That’s another context where competent reduction plays an important aesthetic and functional role.

Is there any particular kind of product that you dream of designing?

We often design products for which there are no comparable concepts yet. So we often find ourselves treading new ground, which is very exciting. In future, I’d like to work more on topics that have a closer connection with the human environment or have to do with visionary mobility solutions.


Founded in 2007 by Ulrich Merkle and his wife Mun-Jung Park, the Stuttgart firm mainly focuses on the design of technical innovations. Since 2020, Formstudio has been working for Dürr Dental on a regular basis. The company was the first to launch digital intraoral cameras in HD quality – with an organic design by Ulrich Merkle. Formstudio Merkle Park is the recipient of several Baden-Württemberg International Design Awards (Focus Open).