Building An Idea With Ai Weiwei

Heimat founder and CCO Guido Heffels talks to Mark Tungate about partnering with an art world star.

For German home improvement fans (DIY enthusiasts, as Brits like me might call them) Hornbach is THE address for all their needs. And in the world of German advertising, the name is synonymous with the agency Heimat, which has created a treasury of funny, pertinent and often thought-provoking campaigns for the brand.

The latest Hornbach campaign is the most remarkable yet. Heimat Berlin has teamed up with Neutral Zurich and the artist Ai Weiwei to create an artwork called “Safety Jackets Zipped the Other Way”. Nothing less than a genuine Ai Weiwei artwork that you can build yourself – using materials and instructions from Hornbach.

The materials aren’t complex: a bunch of high-visibility safety jackets zipped together to form a draped and somewhat haunting sculpture. While the assembly instructions can be downloaded for free, Hornbach also sells an 18 euro manual explaining how the piece equates with Ai Weiwei’s artistic vision. Purchasers get a certificate of authenticity and an interview between Ai and the art critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Ai Weiwei has often favoured the “readymade” – a mass produced object repurposed as an artwork, like Marcel Duchamp’s wine bottle rack and bicycle wheel – but here he’s taken the concept one step further by making his creative interpretation available to all.  

I got a chance to ask Heimat founder and chief creative officer Guido Heffels (above left) a few questions about the project.

How does this campaign fit in with the ongoing Hornbach saga, which has often been about humour and provocation?

Hornbach was never about humour or provocation for the sake of humour and provocation. From very early on Hornbach was about the truth of the DIY culture. It is less about individual products, but more about what you can achieve with materials, tools, creativity and your enthusiasm. “Creating greatness with your own bare hands” we call it. An update of your bathroom, a redesign of your garden and, hey, why not an exclusive artwork by Ai Weiwei?

I understand this is not the first time the brand has collaborated with an artist?

You are damn right. Over the last 20 years we collaborated with various artists. The very first was a series of TVCs we shot with Blixa Bargeld who is the lead singer, musician and head of German experimental music band “Einstürzende Neubauten” (Collapsing New Buildings). We made him read the product descriptions straight from the weekly Hornbach newspaper inserts. He turned the copies into poetry. Another project was the “House of Imagination” curated by German Artist Ralf Schmerberg. A complete empty house right in the middle of Berlin, transformed into a monument showcasing the power of imagination. With the help of a dozen other artists, such as Chiharu Shiota from Japan, and of course the necessary material and tools from Hornbach. That was 12 years ago. Since then the list of collaborators has grown longer and longer.

How did you get in touch with Ai Weiwei and what was his reaction to the project? Was he aware of Hornbach?

We were asking ourselves how to proceed with the Hornbach Werkstück Edition, a kind of Hornbach sub-label featuring exclusive interior design pieces by Danish Designer Sigurd Larsen, who introduced us to a beautiful lounge chair made entirely of Hornbach material. For the second release Japanese architect Yo Shimada added an exclusive foldable table designed to fit the lives of a target group that is faced with scarcity of living space. Both items were published in the form of a book. The key to Ai Weiwei was Zurich based agency Neutral. They made the project come alive and introduced Ai Weiwei to the weird and wonderful world of Hornbach.

How did the collaboration work in a practical sense? How much communication was there between the agency and the artist about the artwork?

In the beginning there were a total of four artworks that Ai Weiwei had exclusively designed for this Hornbach project, followed by workshops, discussions, presentations and decisions. Not that different from any other project.

Do the finished artworks by members of the public then become “Ai Weiwei” artworks? In which case, can we expect to see a few people getting rich?!

Of course, after finishing the construction process you own a real Ai Weiwei as each manual includes a certificate of authenticity. Give it a try and sell it on e-bay and let us know. The “Hornbach Hammer” a limited tool made entirely from the steel of a Russian tank sold for more than 500 euros. The original retail price was 25.

What is the message we should take away from the project? One about the democratisation of art, perhaps?

No matter what your idea is, with the right tools, the right material, immediate availability, best quality, fair prices, it can come alive. Just add your skills and your enthusiasm. This is what we call Hornbach.




Guido Heffels
Chief Creative Officer HEIMAT Berlin