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A wanders-full world

Playful and prodigious, Marcel Wanders has not allowed commercial imperatives to rein in his creativity. His new collection for Baccarat proves he is still every inch the maverick, says Lucia van der Post.

February 06 2010
Lucia van der Post

“I want to create the sort of things that if the house burns down you want to run and save.” This is as succinct a summary of the design philosophy of the internationally famous Dutch designer Marcel Wanders as it is possible to find.

And doesn’t it make you warm to the man? He doesn’t just want to make things you need. He wants you, for heaven’s sake, to love them. It resonates so much more charmingly than all those coldly rational mantras of modernist designers with their “the house is a machine for living in” and “form follows function” dicta. Others, he seems to say, may want to come up with toasters and vacuum cleaners, the utilitarian objects that society needs, but he has his eye on a more poetic, more lyrical world, rooted in history and culture, filled with meaning and emotional content. Or, as he put it in an earlier interview with internet design portal Designboom, “I’m not the kind of guy to work on lil’ inventions to save the world. I work with products worth bonding with for a lifetime.”

This says most of what you need to know about his work and explains why he is probably the most famous designer from The Netherlands, a country stuffed to the gills with world-renowned designers. It helps to explain why people such as Karl Lagerfeld, Beyoncé, Brad Pitt and a host of other international collectors too numerous to name rush to buy up examples of almost everything he makes. It is why so many well-known companies in the world of design tread a path to his door. From Moroso and Cappellini to B&B Italia, Flos, Bisazza and, most recently, the venerable French crystal company of Baccarat, they come wanting him to sprinkle some of his magic gold dust over their wares.

And yet back in the 1980s he was thrown out of The Netherlands’ most prestigious design school, the Design Academy Eindhoven. “Of course, it was very different then,” he says. “I think the problem was that they had a very clear idea of what design was. They were training designers to come up with nice simple objects and I wanted to explore the creativity line, not just the technical aspects. I wasn’t just going to do a white box and call it design.”

Even as a child he was always taking things apart. He was born in Boxtel, a small town south of Amsterdam, and from a very young age knew that he wanted to be involved in making things, though he’d “never heard of the word design”. His first thoughts were to look at landscaping, “but I didn’t want to spend my life in green wellies,” he says. When he discovered for the first time that there was such a thing as “design”, he took himself off to Eindhoven. After that debacle he eventually graduated in 1988, cum laude, from the School of the Arts Arnhem.

However, it wasn’t until he came up with his now famous knotted chair for the Dutch design collective Droog in 1996 that he burst upon the international scene. He’d met Renny Ramakers, who founded Droog with Gijs Bakker, in the late 1980s. “She was doing a magazine and I was this young kid with these brilliant, stupid, crazy ideas, so we discussed design, philosophy, ideas, intentions. At some point she wanted to do an exhibition and it was clear that she took to this way of thinking, which was fun.”

Though he’d come up with some earlier products, such as his lighting design Set Up Shades (now produced by Moooi, from £360), the knotted chair was the piece that caught every design writer’s eye and made his name. Hugely photogenic and highly original, it was inspired by macramé (“I liked macramé even when it was so out of fashion that I had to hide my macramé books under my porn magazines”). These days it is made by Cappellini and is one of his most sought-after pieces (£2,216). It is a perfect embodiment of his approach to design, being inspired by something unfashionably domestic and old-fashioned yet using highly advanced technology (it is woven from braided aramide rope that has a carbon core and it is further strengthened by epoxy resin) to create something new and fresh. In the same way, crochet work inspired some highly original and very beautiful personal edition pouffes, tables and chairs (price on request from his studio), the crochet motif recreated in rope soaked in epoxy resin. Lyrically pretty, they seem to float.

Today he sits at the head of his own studio, works on a vast number of projects, ranging from hotels (he’s best known for doing the Mondrian in Miami but he’s busy working on a hotel of his own in Amsterdam) and shopping centres (such as Sheikh Majed al-Sabah’s Villa Moda in Bahrain) to carpets, wallpapers, lighting and furniture. He also heads up Moooi (the name comes from mooi, the Dutch word for beautiful but he added the extra “o” to signify extra beauty), now 50 per cent owned by B&B Italia but with a distinct design personality of its own – the lifesize horse with a lamp on its head is probably its most emblematic piece (designed by Front, not Wanders).

Track him down in his Amsterdam studio, a vast and airy erstwhile school, and even if you had never seen anything he’d designed you’d know immediately that here was no follower of the “less is more” school of thought. First off there’s the entrance hall, laid with Bisazza tiles in a lyrically pretty and decorative floral pattern (you can buy mosaic wall panels for Bisazza from £400 per square metre). That “pretty” and “decorative” were until recently terms of approbation in the world of design matters not a jot to him, saying much about his confidence and his inner sense of who and what he is. Indeed, he provocatively produced a plate for Royal Tichelaar Makkum, the distinguished Dutch porcelain company, bearing Adolf Loos’s famous rant against ornamentation in which he declared it to be “degenerative, immoral and even criminal” (from £92).

Walk up through the vast, light-filled floors and everywhere there is evidence of his wit, his humour and, above all, his willingness to design without being bound by any of the old rules. There is, for instance, an immense highly decorated bell (one of his personal editions) hanging above a table which would, I imagine, make Le Corbusier and the old austere Scandinavian school shudder at the kitschness of it all. Somehow here it does nothing so much as make one wish one had the space to own one. It’s brilliantly theatrical and brings a smile to the face.

Wanders passionately believes that the only way to do things is the utterly personal way. “If it is not personal,” he says, “you do not need a designer, you need a group. If you want the Phillips team to design it for you, then fine, but a designer takes a personal stand. So while it may not always be the best solution, it is a personal solution. I design my things. I want them this way. It may not be the best way but it is mine. If you take out the person behind it, what do you have left over? I think it is very important to understand that there is a person there, making a choice. There is a connection to this person and the person is the connection between the things. And I think that’s cool.”

He never wanted to be the sort of designer who “makes a stupid lamp that looks like a monster race car”, he goes on to explain. “Some designers have become superficial, dressing technology. I hate it. We have to design the soul. We don’t have to make it original, we don’t have to make something new, we have to make something right. There is nothing that grows old faster than the new.”

Which bring us to his connection with history. “Our modernist friends from the past decided that there is no history, there is only the future, which I think is really sad, because if you want to be part of history in the future you cannot cut it away today. And so, for more than one reason, I decided that history is very important and I wanted to make things which are in between my modern time and my past.”

Whereas many a designer signs off his wares with initials or names (“A very boring way to do it,” thinks Wanders), you can always tell a Marcel Wanders design because somewhere, often so subtly it takes time to find it, will be a little outline of the famous portrait of him sporting a gold blob for a nose and bright pink lips. It’s there hidden in the tracery of the carpets that line his studio floors, it’s there in the gold and cream upholstery and, most wittily and beautifully, look carefully at his new line of wine glasses for Baccarat’s oenology range and you’ll find a subtle outline right at the stem of the glass. Not enough to intrude, just enough to turn something that would be merely beautifully simple into a piece that also has personality, wit and charm. For him design must always tell a story, it must make one feel something, it must always be absorbing. “Every vase, every brush stroke, each interior narrates a tiny tale.”

He also believes – again passionately – that while technology is important and he admires the honesty and the truth of the Bauhaus approach to design, great design should offer something more. So while the story some designers tell will, of course, be honest and truthful, it usually will be dull. And to be dull and boring, one gets the feeling, is for him a design catastrophe, for it would leave out the essence of the matter, the “soul” if you like.

“I decided that everything I designed would be based on a relationship with the past.” To see this ethos in action one need look no further than his New Antiques, a series of (mostly) tables (from £2,850) and chairs (from £748) he designed for Cappellini, which are in effect updated versions of archetypal notions of tables and chairs. They were first designed for the Thor restaurant in New York City’s Hotel on Rivington and perfectly exemplify the way old, traditional forms can be refreshed.

The other thing about Wanders is that he clearly doesn’t think that design should be a solemn affair. Humour and wit are as vital a part of his armoury as his highly honed aesthetic sense. Look through the body of his work – which is staggeringly large and wide ranging given that he only graduated in 1988 – and you’ll see that it is bound together by a freshness, a certain lyricism, a lightness of heart and the aforementioned wit.

Take Villa Moda in Bahrain. Sheikh Majed specifically wanted Wanders as he’d never created a fashion environment before, and it is a riot of decorative delight; overscaled chandeliers and lamps, curving archways, patterned floors. “The souk,” Wanders writes, “is the ultimate marketplace, a concentration of innovation and tradition, diversity and intimacy. Lose yourself in labyrinthine passages as a way to find yourself anew.” Here he shows his great respect for the history and culture of the Middle Eastern souk but recreates it in a fresh and modern form. And he approached his latest collaboration with Baccarat in the same way.

He’s very choosy about the companies he works with. “You get better babies if the father and mother are both really interesting people, and they both give their best qualities to the child. And so I am very picky about choosing the fathers for my children. It’s nice to work with brands that are able to give something to the project. Companies such as Baccarat are able to give so much quality, technology and power to the things we are doing together that it is a pleasure, and really great fun, to work with them. After my first visit to the factory I was completely inspired to make pieces for them. What is really cool about Baccarat is that they understand that the point of crystal is not so much the crystal itself as the light it generates, which is ethereal and beautiful.”

What he has come up with is quite a large range. There are candlesticks, votives and vases, all of which can be played about with – candles can be stuck in the vases, glasses put into the candlestick bases. The holders are small bases of heavy cut crystal, designed to generate light and spark. His most playful line of all is probably the one he calls Deer (officially Les Esprits des Bois), with geometric metal bases aping the shape of a deer and crystal holders instead of antlers, into which candles or flowers may be put. They come in a variety of sizes: Baby Deer (£3,280), Mother Deer (£4,930) and Father Deer (£6,160). There are also some magnificent heavily cut limited edition crystal vases called Les Rois de la Forêt. Some 50cm tall, they’re serious statement pieces, costing £4,930. La Forêt des Songes consists of smaller vases and candlesticks, single, double or quintuple (£250 to £990).

However, to those who believe, like Wanders, that “design should elevate our daily habits”, perhaps of most interest is the oenology line (or, to give it its official name, L’Ivresse des Bois). As Wanders himself puts it, “The market of oenology is very traditional, with a low level of creation and an almost scientific approach to design shapes.” He has done away with all of that with an enchanting line of wine glasses and decanters. There are three wine glasses – for bordeaux, riesling and burgundy – and a champagne flute. Each (£135) has a fairly simple bowl but the delight and the surprise come in the stem, which is seriously curvaceous and has embedded in it the aforementioned little shape of Wanders’ head. They are utterly beguiling.

The three decanters, too, come with all their traditional function well in place, and some added Wanders flourishes. One is described by Wanders as “classic” (£355): less of a departure from the norm, it has a generous curving shape perched upon a small decorative stem. The imaginative one (£455) has far more curves and a beautiful crystal stopper in the shape of the silhouette of Wanders’ face. Then there is a limited edition (£535), identical to the “imaginative” one except that the stopper is scarlet. All exemplify his belief that quality, humour and history each have a role to play when it comes to meaningful design.

Playful though it all looks, it is clear that in his work he is deadly serious, in the sense that it matters deeply to him. And judging by how sought-after he is by international companies, and the size of his studio (four vast floors in a charming part of Amsterdam), he certainly appears to be something of a whizz at business too. No wonder he seems a happy man. But he does have a mission. And it’s a mission that is very appealing to those of us who like to be surrounded by things that inspire us, make us happy, make us feel good, who want more from our daily surroundings than mere efficiency. I cannot put it better than to use his own words. “Our audience expects more from us. We cannot be engineers. We cannot only be smart; we have to be life poets, we have to dream wonders, we have to be majestic magicians.”