Partners for 33 years

Enduring partnerships pay off – including when it comes to design. That, at least, is what the collaboration between Hansgrohe and Phoenix Design seems to suggest: it began in 1987 and continues to yield major successes to this very day. But how do you stay creative, innovative and driven by new ideas for such a long time? It’s possible – as Andreas Diefenbach, Managing Partner at Phoenix Design, and Jan Heisterhagen, Vice President Product Management at Hansgrohe SE in Schiltach, explain.
Interview: Armin Scharf
Mr Diefenbach, the collaboration between Hansgrohe and Phoenix must be one of the longest-standing partnerships in the German design sector. How did it start out all those years ago?
Andreas Diefenbach: I’ll have to go back a bit to answer that. In the early 1970s Andreas Haug, one of our two founders, launched Frog Design together with Hartmut Esslinger. Long before Steve Jobs knocked on their door in search of an Apple design language in the early 1980s, Frog Design had already developed the Tri-Bel hand shower for Hansgrohe. That was in 1972! At the time, Klaus Grohe wanted to bring colour to the bathroom and this totally new product landed Hansgrohe its first design award. And that was the beginning of a successful partnership that has endured until today. So when Tom Schönherr and Andreas Haug founded Phoenix Design in 1987, Klaus Grohe decided to go with them and became the young design studio’s first client.

Phoenix Design (1998): Tom Schönherr (founder, left) Andreas Haug (founder, right)

In the fast-paced times we’re living in today, a long-standing collaboration like that seems like a huge exception.
Andreas Diefenbach: Successful design studios almost always have one or two long-term partners. That produces special results – not just in terms of quantity but quality too. However, as a designer, you can only achieve that in combination with the kind of farsighted and courageous entrepreneurship that Hansgrohe cultivates. But the path you tread together is never linear; it’s always a transformative loop. That’s because visionary companies aren’t about working in stages, regardless of whether it’s a question of content, time or monetary aspects. Instead, they pursue an overarching goal based on a perpetual cycle. It’s this mindset that distinguishes companies who embrace long-term thinking from those who practise short-term thinking.

Mr Heisterhagen, what do you say to that as a Hansgrohe man? Is continuity in a company’s design a success factor?
Jan Heisterhagen: As with so many things in life, I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Within the Hansgrohe Group, we work very successfully with both models. Our premium hansgrohe brand cultivates continuity through its partnership with Phoenix Design, whereas in the case of our Axor brand, which launched in 1993, we deliberately team up with world-famous design greats like Philippe Starck or Jean-Marie Massaud.
Left: Axor Arco, photo: Hans Hansen (1989)
Right: Axor Uno Select Chrome (2020)

How do you manage to keep a partnership fresh and inspiring for so many years?
Jan Heisterhagen: I would say there are two things. First, our passion for tinkering away at things is forever posing new challenges for our design partners, and second, they come to us with new ideas too. There’s a good reason why we don’t have an in-house design team: we want to benefit from the inspiration, experiences and ideas that our designers have gathered and bring with them from other sectors. That helps keep our collaboration fresh and lively too – and I think you can see that from our products.

Andreas Diefenbach: As in any partnership or relationship, everything is based on reciprocity. Anthropologically speaking, a person can only individuate by interacting with others. We need interaction and feedback in order to develop our own self independently, based on respect and appreciation as well as clarity and honesty. And it’s precisely that kind of shared mentality and reciprocity, that kind of mental kneading, that we practise with Hansgrohe. The bond between the members of an action group or interest group is formed as a result of their shared goals. It’s not just a question of “what we do,” but “why we do it”. Permanent evolution and transformation is the basis both of our joint legacy and of the design and innovation leadership that results from it.

Is that what makes your collaboration with Phoenix Design so special?
Jan Heisterhagen: The creation of a product isn’t based on a briefing – it’s more like a joint voyage of discovery. We do a lot of kneading, as Andreas Diefenbach put it, we question and scrutinise things. It’s the curiosity and critical reflection of everyone involved that drive us on.
Phoenix Design knows Hansgrohe very well: all the technical parameters, the architecture of the product portfolio, the market specifics, our competitors, our current strategic orientation. Phoenix Design is more like a family member and colleague than an external design agency.

Jan Heisterhagen
Vice President Product Management at Hansgrohe SE

In industry there are key account managers who only take care of certain customers. How do you handle that?
Andreas Diefenbach: We actually do have a team that devotes most of its time to Hansgrohe. That consistency, which exists on Hansgrohe’s side as well, is very important when it comes to reproducing the appropriate quality and productivity. Even so, every one of the designers from the core Hansgrohe team deals with other topics and clients as well so as to avoid creative fatigue. On the one hand we’re part of Hansgrohe, on the other we’re an independent, owner-managed creative company. Whereas a lot of competitors in the bathroom sector rely on internal design teams, we operate as a kind of satellite.

Is there a specific Hansgrohe design language?
Jan Heisterhagen: Yes, definitely. You can tell that from the fact that our products don’t look like typical bathroom products; that’s because we want to make them part of the living space in terms of their appearance too. Take Rainfinity, for instance: it doesn’t look anything like a typical shower head; bathrooms are becoming increasingly cosy, and this product has the right look for that kind of setting. The colours are part of that too: we wanted to avoid hard chrome and introduce much softer-looking surfaces. That’s why we specified white in combination with a dark, aesthetic, upmarket colour. We also attach great importance to the design of the spray plate and the arrangement of the apertures, which is very decorative and appealing.

Andreas Diefenbach: We’re guided by the context. And the context is defined by the human user, by their needs and expectations. The second element is the space and the multifaceted nature of the interior worlds we live in. And water, which is both an element and a resource, is the third crucial factor. That means our design language equates to shaping the relationship between an individual and water in their individual feel-good space.

The Rainfinity ambience (Phoenix, Hansgrohe)

Every product category has its own specific challenges – does that go for taps and fittings too?
Andreas Diefenbach: A fitting is a challenge in and of itself. I think the paradigm and its meaning need to be revisited per se. On the way to that goal, we’ll need to improve functionality and the practical value associated with it incrementally. It’s the same thing with bicycles: e-bikes and pedelecs are new product categories that are evolving incrementally. Hansgrohe has always been good at creating new product categories and new meanings. And we’ll keep doing that.

Besides Hansgrohe, are there any other clients that you’ve been collaborating with for a similar length of time?
Andreas Diefenbach: For the reasons I mentioned earlier, we’ve always attached a great deal of importance to challenging and long-term journeys. In the past, we’ve teamed up with companies like Viessmann, Kaldewei, Gira, Loewe, Laufen. Nowadays it’s companies like Audi, Trumpf, Stiebel-Eltron, Haier Group, Huawei. And a growing number of startups too. But through all the changes and developments, it’s Hansgrohe that has remained the constant for more than 30 years.

Andreas Diefenbach, 
Managing Partner at Phoenix Design


Phoenix Design was founded in Stuttgart in 1987 by Tom Schönherr and Andreas Haug. Today the firm employs a workforce of approx. 80 people and has locations in Munich and Shanghai as well. Its clientele includes prestigious companies from both the consumer goods and capital goods sectors.


Founded in the Black Forest as a three-man firm in 1901, Hansgrohe is still based in the same area. The most notable innovations launched by Hansgrohe include the hand shower (1928) and shower column (1953). The company owns more than 16,000 patents. Today the Hansgrohe Group comprises 33 companies, operates all over the world and employs approx. 4,700 people.