Interview – Joerg Rohwer-Kahlmann of VOR

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Industrial/Footwear Designer and Co-founder of VORJoerg Rohwer-Kahlmann. A true designer though and through, Joerg has been designing not only footwear, but transporation & products for over a decade. Check out what Joerg has to say about how he got started in design, why he started his own shoe brand, his advice to young designer and more, below.

[highlight] Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you first got into design? [/highlight]

Hey! My name is Joerg Rohwer-Kahlmann, I’m Industrial and Footwear Designer, Co-founder of VOR, son, husband, dad and friend. I’m working now as a professional Industrial Designer for almost 12 years from Product to Transportation to Footwear Design.

It may sound stereotyped, but I started to design things as a kid with all sort of materials, constructing crazy Lego starships, building cool things with my Dad, even my very first skateboard was “crafted” together with a friend from a wooden board and some old roller-skates…

I guess since I can remember I was drawing, painting and building objects and when I realized at secondary school that there is something like Industrial Design studies at university I knew that I had to do it!

Sneakers in particular always had a magical attraction to me! When I was a teenager I’ve already repainted my Chucks to have a new colorway that nobody else had, changing the formstripe color of my Puma Suedes or the 3 stripes of my Adi Superstars… I’ve once even cut some high tops to have the same style also as a low cut (closing the open edges with glue and some stitching) and stuff like that. Andi (my VOR business partner & friend since almost 25 years) and I also had many discussions and ideas about shoes ever since I can remember, I guess that was a first sign already.

I’ve worked as a Product and Transportation Designer for a few years before I began my professional Footwear Design career designing for PUMA early 2003. It was an amazing time, a lot of work indeed, but I could create great projects, learn and experience really a lot, expanding and developing my skills and collect a lot of good memories. But some day you have to move on so I started my design consultancy end of 2009 designing for several new clients. Shortly after that we also came up again with the idea of working on our own shoes and founding our own brand…if not now, when!? It was just the right time. So we started VOR in 2010 which we have successfully built up since then and will continue at full throttle!

[highlight] What made you want to start your own brand? [/highlight]

Well, as mentioned before it must have been fate, because Andi and I have been talking about that since our boyhood. Sure it was more of a “if I could change something on that shoe I would do this or that” when we were young, but when I started to work for PUMA, learning all about Footwear Design, development and also the business side of things it suddenly became quite realistic. Since we have been talking about how the perfect shoe would have to look for us we decided to sort things out and start the journey. We always loved sneakers and we both had countless shoes, but there was always something that we would have made differently, in our own way, clean and authentic, very well crafted from great materials, with very subtle branding, simply the best shoes we could imagine…all of that is channelized and unified into the brand – this is VOR.

[highlight] What are your most favorite pair of shoes ever designed? [/highlight]

Difficult question! There are simply too many great products out there that all deserve to be mentioned… But I think if it comes to my personal all-time favourite (not designed by me) that had the most impact on me and still bringing back memories as if it was yesterday it’s definitely the Adidas Ewing Conductor Hi from the late 80s. It was a sneaker phenomenon for me, it was magical (of course also influenced by Hip Hop artists on my vinyl covers of that time) and I needed that shoe so much! So I’ve worked during summer holidays saving all my money and finally making this dream come true. Great memories!

If I would have to answer this question regarding sneakers that I’ve designed, I have to name the PUMA Future Cat, because it was my very first footwear project back in early 2003 and it became such an important style for the company. The pro-boot was used by almost every driver whose team was sponsored by PUMA for quite a long time, first of all Michael Schumacher in 2005 when the boot was released. And the low cut lifestyle version became a million seller that pushed the Motorsport category so much and can probably be called a “modern classic” for PUMA.

From a technical and challenging point of view there are two shoes that stand out for me, the Levitation (designed in 2004) and the En Route Ducati (designed in 2007). The Levitation, because there were quite a few people saying that this could never work and that PUMA wouldn’t be able to develop that. But I pushed it as much as I could, I had some great development guys next to me and I was lucky enough having few but influential supporters of that project (thanks guys!). So we could finally realize it even though we had to live with a few compromises.

The En Route simply because it was one of the most complicated shoes construction-wise with a crazy outsole mold and some very elaborate detailing which influenced PUMAs Moto category quite a lot. I also loved that the final product was almost like 100% conform to my ideas and design drawings which usually isn’t the case. Fortunately the highly talented Developer of that project (Hey, Philipp!) also pulled out all the stops during the development phase to bring that shoe to life.

And of course our VOR 1-A and 1-B take a very special pride of place, hey, these are our own shoes from our own brand, need I say more!?

[highlight] What do you think makes a good shoe? [/highlight]

Like any other product it has to fulfill its purpose! A performance product has to perform in the best possible way and look interesting, convincing, reliable etc., a lifestyle/ fashion shoe has to be wearable and should simply make its owner feel and look good. Remember also, design-wise it doesn’t matter what you or me like the best: beauty is in the eye of the beholder! And a “good” product offers a reasonable balance between value (materials, finishes, quality, quantity) and its price.

[highlight] Can you describe VOR in three words? [/highlight]

Passion | Authenticity | Perfection

[highlight] What do you know now that you wished you’d have known when you first started? [/highlight]

The lottery numbers of the following week… No, seriously, this is all one great journey, it can be a long and difficult road sometimes, you have to make positive and negative experiences as well, but what counts is what you make out of it. Therefore you have to find out all of that by yourself.



[highlight] How do you balance the design side and the business side of having a shoe brand? [/highlight]

Good question! Well, when you start your own Footwear brand (I guess you know that) you are suddenly so much more than “just” a Designer…you are also developer, business man, marketing guy, salesman… even distributor! So you have to arrange your available time very wisely, you have to prioritize and you will tighten your whole workflow like doing your design process without huge, time-consuming presentation PS renderings or the like. And of course we are two, so Andi is taking care of other things as well. Overall the design part is always the beginning, the very important base of a great product, but it’s only one piece of a complex system where each part has to work at its best!

[highlight] Do you have any advice to young designers looking to follow in your footsteps? [/highlight]

Learn, learn more and don’t stop learning (we never stop learning), don’t believe that you know everything already, ask questions whomever (the seniors, your boss, the guys at the factories, your grandpa) wherever it might help you. Be curious and interested in many other areas as well (it won’t help you to go beyond familiar terrain if you just always look at existing shoes that somebody else designed already), just absorb whatever you can. But next to that be self confident, show and use the skills that you have. You don’t need to be a sketching “wunderkind”, 3D rendering genius and king of tech packs at the same time. Hey, you’re creative, that’s a very valuable gift so use and do whatever you can to transport your ideas and to convince the decision-makers. And very important use the chance when getting a seemingly “boring” project and do the best out of it, surprise the deciders, show them your motivation and dedication and you’ll probably work already next season on one of the “more exciting” projects. Take some risks, be realistic and stay true to yourself!

A big shout out and thanks to Joerg for the interview, also don’t forget to check out VOR on facebook, here.