Interview: Marcel Wanders
Marcel Wanders, the dogma -defying designer, was born in the Netherlands, in 1963. Graduating cum laude from the Institute of the Arts, Arnhem, in 1988, he first gained attention with his Knotted Chair, which paired high tech materials with “low tech” production. Wanders opened his studio in Amsterdam in 200 0 and a year later co-founded the design label Moooi, of which he is co- owner, art director and product designer. His own studio is credited with more than 1,900 iconic projects, several of which appear in international art museums. Designing for premium brands (Alessi, Baccarat, Bisazza, Christofle, Kosé Corporation, Flos, KLM, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Louis Vuitton, Morgans Hotel Group, Puma and Swarovski), Wanders develops his own language that he calls the “Contemporary Renaissance of Humanism”.
From starting off as a rebel, expelled from Design Academy Eindhoven, you ended up an internationally acclaimed, awarded designer. What changed and what remains from your initial attitude towards design?
Looking back on it, I think that school was basically one of many typical, modernistic oriented design schools, while I was interested in change, innovation, and experimentation. Reading between the lines, the reason I was expelled was that I didn’t want to go through with it, I wanted to ensure that I am against this establishment. And I am still fighting modernism, so basically nothing changed! I’m still experimenting and I’m still trying to push hard, just like I did in the first days.
You are renown for redefining old traditional techniques, like the Dutch Delft blue ceramics, in a quite unexpected manner, like in One Minute Mickey. By redrawing the materiality of the past, are you keen to make an impact on the time of this world?
I do this for a reason. At design school, I was taught that “design has no past, we are in a modernistic world where the past is irrelevant to the future”. This is what modernism says. It is the most important part of it, and it sounds like it makes sense, but if that is true, what does it mean for the things we do today? That they will be irrelevant to our future. This fundamental side of modernism shows no respect for the past, whereas we -as designers- ought to show our respect for it, so as not to create a world that throws away everything every day. About 25-30 years ago I started implementing everything, through technology, material, and cause, finding thousands of ways and I will find more, to show in my work my respect for the past and the future. See, the whole point is I want to make things that, once new, they’re already a little bit old. I want to make objects that sit between my grandmother and my daughter. I want to make objects that have more time in them.
A penchant for playing with people’s mindset is evident in your objects. What is the importance of subtle provocation to good design?
If you look at the various objects of the world, publicised or not, you will note that it is not the object per se that will reach your brain or your heart, but everything that it represents, everything it reminds you of, when you hear about it or read about it. Everything surrounding that object is relevant. So, the point is not just to make a physical object; the point is to change something inside you, to move you. The point of design is not to sculpt this piece of wood: it is to sculpt something in your brain or your heart. Otherwise it makes no sense.
In your projects, like the Mondrian Doha hotel, we encounter flowing –often monochromatic- landscapes interspersed with islands of bold hues, motifs, and relief patterns. Are such combinations part of your design philosophy?
I love contrasts. I don’t like to make objects or spaces that dissolve into nothingness, just as I don’t like spaces that are continuously full on. When making a space, or a sculpture, I don’t think about colour. When I use colour, I use the brightest colours I can find! I don’t do soft colours. I like my creations to be loud, bold, powerful, with a lot of contrasts. But there cannot be the same power everywhere, so we create balance. In our projects, every space is like a theatre set. There, a few items correspond to the important players, then there are supporting actors and lastly, the light. Upon entering a space, you immediately see who the main players are because they will automatically catch your eye. So, the secondary players have to be smaller, less bright or at a distance and different position, to make the space readable.
What are the criteria for selecting collaborating designers and what are the characteristics that an object should have, apart from being beautiful* of course, in order to be welcomed in the Moooi design family? (*Moooi translates as very beautiful, in Dutch)
In Moooi we are very open; there is a lot of wonderful design around and obviously we cannot do everything ourselves. A lot of people send us designs and we observe which ones we like and can make. I prefer to work with people who can do a series of great things, that have a mentality of their own, a design concept that they work on, a bold statement; they are their own designers. And that is basically why we set up Moooi: to show the works of people that make a first entrance to the world of design.
You create dream worlds that can also be a bit sinister and dark, like certain video art landscapes you have produced. What is their importance and how do you balance them with commercial ones?
These landscapes-virtual interiors are not at all commercial. There’s something wrong and dark there, you feel that someone in that space did something wrong. They’re a warning to myself these works. You see, we constantly have to score something wonderful, something beautiful. But why would someone want so much beauty? What is he trying to achieve? Who is he trying to impress, right? What’s he selling? And that is something we have to be aware of, I think. With my projects, addressed to people with love, I proclaim beauty. I think my art, my task is to give the audience a fantastic experience, invite them in a place without doubts. But to the professionals surrounding me I say: “Doubt yourselves sometimes. You think this is for the greater good? Or is there a hidden agenda here? Is it valid? Is it something we can accept and live with? Or is it too much power, too much darkness?” So, I doubt and then go on.