The 11.50am with KLM to Amsterdam has just been cancelled. As this is announced a group of travellers let out a sigh and start looking for an answer to what to do next – how to get to that meeting on time, how to make the connection to New York. It doesn’t look bright in Heathrow’s Terminal 4 this morning at the transfer desk that god forgot. The cancellation means I’m now late for the unveiling of Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ collection of tableware for KLM’s world business class, due to take place in his Amsterdam showroom this afternoon. It illustrates a big problem with the whole concept – why put the focus on tableware design when the whole experience of flying is so outmoded in the first place? The airport now personifies the sterilised, impersonal and transient spaces of the late 20th century that Marc Augé wrote about in his 1992 book Non-Places. The optimism of flying is long gone, replaced instead by feelings of anxiety and guilt.
Five hours later I arrive in Wanders’ Jordaan-based studio. The old school where it’s located is called Westerhuis, and is a joint project between Marcel Wanders and Aedes Real Estate to set up a creative hub in this part of Amsterdam. Wanders has been here since 2008 and the whole building carries his trademark filigree patterned walls and floors and oversized light fittings. The space is incredibly suave for a design studio and it looks more like a “design hotel” that is the antithesis of an Augé non-place. The designer’s other venture Moooi is spreading out on the ground floor, while the Marcel Wanders studio takes up the top two floors. As the lift doors open to the studio I catch the end of his presentation. There is a hushed silence, then Wanders says: “Let’s unveil the collection.” Ambient music plays and smoke trails out from behind a curtain that is pulled away slowly to reveal four table settings on pedestals. It’s drama at an almost comical level.
“Classically, designers have been trying to see whether they could make systems of things which are the same,” says Wanders when we talk later. “Instead, we’ve been looking at each of the items as if they were unique. Like what you would expect from a good restaurant: you don’t want to eat from some kind of hospital plates.”
The result is like a Dutch still-life in 3D. The black plastic tray resembles a frame with its turned edges. The tray liner only covers the middle of the tray, leaving a generous border around the crockery in porcelain and plastic. Nothing is uniform – the round porcelain dish for hot meals has a frilly edge and sits on a plastic serving tray with a frilly handle. “The porcelain dish is always very hot as it goes straight in the oven and air stewardesses serve them using big ugly oven gloves, but this plastic serving tray means that gloves are no longer needed and it also doubles as a breakfast plate for a croissant with jam and butter on the side,” says Wanders, who spent three years on the project. The salad bowl in see-through polystyrene looks like a mini dog bowl and has Wanders’ trademark filigree pattern etched around the side. This is part of the service that isn’t reusable, but Wanders guarantees that all the environmental aspects have been taken into consideration when making this decision. KLM wasn’t convinced that plastic was a material they wanted to feature in their business-class cabin, but they were swayed by Wanders’ argument about reduced dead weight and sealed freshness. The stainless-steel cutlery stamped with the same pattern as the salad bowls is of particular pride to Wanders. “It’s so beautiful that it’s an object you could use at home as well, and we are going to sell the same pieces online, a heavier version though, as these are a bit light.” The set is completed with three elegant glasses and paper boxes, which holds salad dressing, butter and salt and pepper. The boxes are decorated with a Delft blue pattern bringing that most Dutch of touches to the collection.
It’s the small details that are the most appealing, such as the poker-shaped fruit fork in turned plastic – it’s 1.08g of pure art. The rest is impressively grand, but it feels backward-looking and doesn’t breathe the kind of optimism that for example Arne Jacobsen’s service did for Scandinavian Airlines in 1958. But Wanders is adamant that his project is as cutting-edge as his eminent predecessor’s. “Sure, it looks a bit old-fashioned, but it’s very innovative. It has the intention to do something that works in a new way but doesn’t make people uncomfortable. And there is no reason for simplicity any more: the machines are now able to do so much more. If I see a machine, I want to see it sweat. I want to see it working hard. I want to see it give the best results,” says Wanders. “If the whole world was about simplicity and keeping it minimal then we just have lazy designers. It’s way more work to do something with a lot of detail. But designers’ vision has become dogmatic. It looks like we’re married to this style of simplicity.”
The whole piece is signed Marcel Wanders at the top and bottom of the tray. But will the average business-class traveller know who he is? “It’s personal and I think that’s a good thing,” Wanders says. “We love music better from a musician than from a machine. And so I think it’s the right thing to put your name on your work. It’s what you have to do. Whether they know my name or not it doesn’t matter.” When I later speak to a KLM representative, by one of the drinks trolleys dotted around the room, I ask why Wanders was chosen. He tells me it’s part of a redesign of the KLM brand that includes the cabin crew outfits launched earlier this year by Dutch couturier Mart Visser and the look of the cabin interior. Dutch identity is of course part of it, but the designers they have in mind for the interior design aren’t only Dutch. “It’s more about updating our offer and continuing to feel contemporary. A few years down the line we will be able to say ‘we worked with Marcel Wanders’ and be proud that we did even if he isn’t the most famous designer right now,” says executive vice president of KLM Erik Varwijk.
But one wonders if these token gestures, not only by KLM but a whole host of airline carriers that use designers as saviours (Marc Newson for Qantas Airways and Pearson Lloyd for Virgin Atlantic), will make any significant difference to the experience of flying. Flying can be utterly uncomfortable and guilt-filled – some of it even seems undignified what with forcing your toiletries into a plastic bag, removing jackets, belts and shoes, and having the contents of your suitcase scrutinised in public. It is an uneasy process full of broken boundaries at the best of times.
What Wanders has managed with this project is to bring some sort of identity and character to a space that is ultimately devoid of it – the airplane cabin – or at least the business-class section of it. The framed meal is soulful and communicates the care and attention to detail the business-class passenger will receive. “I think the airline should make people feel that they are guests, not only travellers, and they need to feel welcome,” says Wanders. And what about economy class? “If they want to roll this out for economy class I will keep them from doing it because this is designed for a very specific logic and function, and economy class has a different logic.”
The flight back to London beckons and this time it’s not cancelled. In fact, everything runs as smoothly as you would expect in 2010. But it is only when things are this streamlined that you have the mental space to take in a thing of beauty such as Wanders’ collection of tableware. But only in business class, for now.
Johanna Agerman Ross