words Alex Wiltshire
“I can do anything. I could have been a dentist and I would have been the best dentist ever. I could have been a farmer. I really feel I could have done a lot of different things and I’m pretty sure that whatever I’d have done I’d have done it with so much passion and love that I’d do a great job.”
Marcel Wanders is one of the most famous faces of contemporary Dutch design. Now 40, he was among the generation of designers and artists that during the 1990s formed the Droog collective of Dutch conceptual designers that included Richard Hutten, Hella Jongerius and Jurgen Bey. Skipping along a tightrope between art and design, their work brought together notions of traditional identities, social and environmental responsibility, functionalism, meaning and humour in a fresh, new way. He’s now art director for Moooi, a two-year-old design company based upstairs from his studio, which originated from Wanders’ old independent company, Wanders Wonders.
Wanders is six foot four, with a slim and fit frame that’s coupled with a playful, histrionic braggadocio that fills the room. Sitting with Wanders and his studio for lunch after the interview it’s striking how the conversation, if not focused on him, certainly orbits him. His predominantly young team speak English (the common language among the mixture of Dutch, German and Italian designers) about a range of subjects, from people so overweight they can’t fit through the door to leave their own room to the correct way of serving Parmesan cheese – never grated but torn off in good-sized chunks. Wanders joins in amiably, a contrast to the table-banging and swearing he was exhibiting an hour earlier about the state of Dutch design.
The studio’s Tardis-like offices, on the ground floor of a canalside terrace to the north-west of the centre of Amsterdam, are slightly scruffy and make-do. The reception area combines a kitchen, where the communal lunches are prepared each day, and two Knotted Chairs for visitors. Perhaps Wanders’ signature design, the chairs are made of woven rope injected with epoxy resin. They’re uncomfortable to sit in but their baroque-modern look fits strangely well into the studio. The boardroom, where we talk, is a mixture of exposed wires, technical lighting rigs, silver wallpaper and yellow paint, brown carpet, mismatched chairs and large windows overlooking the grey water of the canal. Covering the back wall, irregularly shaped plywood shelving houses a whole mishmash of Wanders’ designs, and, rather randomly, a toaster. Near the top are two toddlers’ cars with bodies made from melted teddy bears that Wanders made for an art show. Below them are several boxes of miniature Knotted Chair models from the Vitra Design Museum and further boxes of the BLO Light for Flos. Wanders himself lives next door.
So what characterises Wanders’ work? “I’d like to say something about this,” he says urgently in a typical Dutch-American drawl. It’s obviously a question he’s used to encountering as he enters into well-rehearsed speech, weaving his hands in the air and punctuating particularly heartfelt sentences by slamming them down on the table.
“I remember something like 10 years ago Renny Ramakers [one of the founders of Droog] said something like, ‘You’re not consistent – sometimes you speak and then you say something else.’ She was saying it as negative, as a problem, and I said to her, ‘No, no, no; it’s not a problem because I’m able to doubt myself, because I’m not dead, I’m alive. Today I thought this way, tomorrow or the day after I think of a new thing.’ And it’s not a problem, because it’s the world.” He explains that with every new project he starts all over again with a new set of rules born of careful contemplation of the context of the object that he’s designing. “If we want to design we have to make new, so it’s impossible to play with the same rules everyday and to still change the world.”
For Wanders, the idea of the amateur is crucial to the process of design. Amateurs aren’t so sure about things so they investigate and find a solution, bringing new ideas to it that experts might overlook. “If I feel I’m challenged I’m pretty sure that if I listen I can come up with good solutions. I made air conditioning [for Stork Refac]. I knew nothing about flow of air, the dynamics of it, nothing about how sound is created by air. Still we were able to make the most silent and the most economic air conditioner ever with this size and capacity.”
When Wanders was younger, his lack of obvious consistency was a concern and he found it hard to find himself in the products: “For years I thought, if the rules changed, where am I? If the object is only context, if it’s only a reflection of the world, where am I?” He says he regularly hears about people being surprised that familiar designs are in fact his. But he can now look back and see a definite mentality and line running through his work, much as it is blurred around the edges. He sees this, however, as a kind of failure: “If an object really is respected and becomes itself, it is because you are not in the product anymore. If you listened – really – to the surroundings.” His point is that this “smart” design, design that’s decided democratically by committee to be the perfect solution, cannot reflect the designer. Wanders is at pains to stress that he doesn’t work like that. “We’re not the best studio. We don’t make the best designs but we make our designs. We make a personal solution. And this is what we bring, we bring something personal, something off-side. It’s the way we get to a special result and I hope that’s valuable. I think it’s valuable.”
In the past few years Wanders has worked on several interior design and architecture projects. Wanders is still very proud of his second project, a VIP lounge for MVRDV’s Dutch pavilion at Hanover Expo 2000. In order to maximise the small space as much as possible, he covered the domed roof in silvery sticks and especially designed the wheeled VIP chair – still in production – as a way of providing both versatility and the sense of quality befitting a VIP area. In 2000 he designed a building in Mexico that is due to start on site in 2008. This long lead times bothers him. “Sometimes I’m very jealous of graphic designers or photographers. At the end of the day the process is finished. I can work on a furniture project for three years and it’s cancelled. It’s like fuck! I abhor it. For architects it’s the same but longer. But if you’re a graphic designer and you see that your magazine is in the dustbin after two weeks that would be terrible too. It’s one or the other. You just have to accept where you are. If I made a magazine – which I could do tomorrow – I would have to accept this.” While he says it was great to do a building, architecture per se isn’t an area he has special interest in pursuing. Wanders is more concerned in how exciting the project – whatever it might be – is. “If I have to spend all day working out the stalls in the toilet and where the tubing should be – I don’t like that at all! I’m interested in doing something really great, whatever it is. To do a building, I don’t really care.”
Wanders is on the surface a showman, which is echoed in the theatricality of his design. It’s apparent when he declares himself as potentially the best dentist ever, and in the quick grin when he lists his generation of Dutch conceptual designers: “And perhaps I did a little thing…” It’s also in the way he explains the “passion and the love” with which he approaches his work. And also he has the showman’s unease with his image. He’s very uncomfortable at the prospect of the photo shoot after the interview. “I’ve looked shitty on photos so many times,” he says. “I really hate that, I’m too vain for that. I have a photo here now, in Axis. You don’t want to see that photo – you’ll understand why; it’s terrible. It happens, but then, fuck man! I can have a bad hair day.” While it’s not the greatest portrait, it’s certainly not awful. And once icon’s photographer starts taking pictures he quickly relaxes back into the showman; speaking animatedly, his arms dancing expressively in front of him. Wanders’ favourite image of himself is a cover of an issue of Intramuros magazine, a highly stylised picture of him wearing a golden clown nose with slicked-back hair which conveys little of his personality.
Under the showman lies a very pragmatic approach to the business of design. He says that he might act the artist but he brings to it the knowledge of the businessman, and this is defined by his relationship to Moooi. Wanders sees Moooi, a corruption of the Dutch word for beautiful by adding an extra “o” for “extra beautiful”, as an extension of his design job in which he designs a company: the marketing strategy, products, communications, showrooms and so on.
Moooi is a symbol of Wanders’ beliefs about design: “I want Moooi to be a business. I think so many designers who run their companies like artistic, free places I think in the end it won’t grow, it won’t reach a lot of people because it’s an academic enterprise where it’s more done for the designers than the people. I don’t like that.” For Wanders the attraction of design is that it’s able to reach a lot of people.
This realistic approach to business is something that Wanders feels is crucially lacking in many sectors of Dutch design. He claims: “Moooi is the only company that realises products from Holland. Just give me another name – there’s nothing.” All too commonly, he says, Dutch designers and companies don’t make any money, and this is a very real problem. “Two years ago when I did a lecture and I said Dutch design is in a deep crisis, people were laughing at me because they thought I was making a joke. But now it’s the big issue because there’s a fucking real – I feel – crisis going on.”
He says that with a high level of government support and an education system that emphasises free thought, the Netherlands is an “island of creativity” in which people are becoming lazy. “I see the strength of Dutch culture but we’ve created a virtual world. The magazines love it and people like to read about it but at the end we only create a virtual world and it’s difficult because we get nothing back. We’re respected but from respect we have to earn money.” And this isn’t happening. Wanders argues that his generation of conceptual designers created an interest in Dutch design that is still being capitalised upon years later: “People that have no sense of meaning in Dutch design will use the same old work. I’ve seen a Dutch design exhibition in New York, supported by the embassy, which is boring, stupid old stuff done by stupid old French designers. Companies that didn’t support any young designers over the last thirty years supported by the Dutch government to present Dutch design in New York. Fuck!” He bangs the table furiously. “So if I support Dutch design who do I support? I have a bunch of shitholes in my pocket. I don’t want that.”
At Moooi, Wanders is tackling this problem by working on a coaching programme for young designers that have graduated between three and ten years previously. They get to spend two hours talking with a experienced professional four times a year, not necessarily about the principles of design, but about the practical things: how to market products, how to present drawings, how to fix the door to their studio: “You know, the stupid stuff. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life, and I’ve been thinking a long time about them. No one expects Moooi to do something like this. We don’t just want to be a company selling sofas.” At the heart of this attitude is a strong sense of responsibility, a word that crops up many times during our conversation. As a successful designer, he believes that he has a duty to help out younger designers: “These guys come up to me and tell me they’re designers and they have no idea what they’re talking about. And I understand it doesn’t work for them so it has to be solved.”
Wanders feels responsibility to a lot of things: to find and nurture new designers, to pass on his values to his children and others in order to inspire the forwarding of his culture, to “do things that are important”: he places an enormous value on the power of design to communicate to people and believes strongly in doing nothing by half measures. “If everyone supports each other and does the best they can give, then we can make a culture which is beautiful, which is more interesting.” There’s also a sense of social responsibility in his Can of Gold project (featured in icon 006), where 100 cans of soup were bought and their contents given to the homeless. The cans were then cleaned, gold-plated and sold, the money going towards buying more soup for the homeless. Wanders doesn’t feel this is particularly special, however. “I don’t want to be thanked or anything, it’s just a normal thing to do which makes me feel good. I guess many don’t find the time and the opportunity, but anyway, it’s not just me behind these projects but other people as well.”
Marcel Wanders is an inventive and highly original designer, but at the same time a theatrical marketing man and a practical businessman with a conscience. He doesn’t think that his design will change the world; rather, he believes that if he strives to be as good as he can be his efforts might rub off on other people. “I’m not going to be the only one making a difference, but I want to make a difference together with the people around me, in my culture. People that are interested in my work will see that I do it with a lot of passion, and that I love it and get the best out of it. I’m sure they will see it. That’s the core of the core.”