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Interview with Marcel Wanders


Wanders (3)



Marcel Wander has his studio in Amsterdam’s old town district called Jordaan. It is housed in a large five-storey building known as Westerhuis, once a school. All the ground floor is used by a shop of Moooi company co-founded by Wanders, while upper floors are occupied by the Studio in which we do our every day design work. 


“(…) We are here to make our most exciting dreams come true” – is Marcel Wanders’ motto.


When I read it for the first time, I thought it was just a marketing trick. After a year of work in the Studio I can honestly say it really does express what Marcel Wanders earnestly believes in. His faith is strong enough to make others believe, too. While he is a dreamer, a sensitive kind of artist, he is a successful businessman at the same time. Li Edelkoort wrote that Dutch people have their legs firmly standing on the ground but have also their heads reaching up to the clouds. I find this metaphor describes Marcel Wanders quite aptly.


His studio’s logo called nose is a symbol inspired with a figure of jester on a royal court – one who had the right to laugh at the king’s awkward behaviours thanks to his unconditional faithfulness and in effect served the king with his wisdom. Marcel regards himself an artist unconditionally faithful to his customers, communicating significant and serious things in playful forms.


“I think humour is a beautiful way to open hearts, to connect to people and fill these open hearts with new and positive ideas”

In order to understand a designer’s work one has to consider his working methods. Wanders tells stories – he does it upon all stages of his work. His stories refer to cultural history, to fairy tales, to all sorts of universal values. They inspire projects, sometimes they appear in a form of a poem or as real stories written down. They also drive and channel the ideas of other designers working in Wanders’ studio, thus inspiring them to create things. In a way, each finished product has some story built-in, one that may be hidden and not obvious to casual onlookers but which nonetheless re-emerges as the product is launched into the market – either in photo sessions, advertising campaigns or press-kits. In the case of a project for M.A.C. company it was the work of Johannes Vermeer that inspired a series of products. In the designers’ imagination cosmetics turned into brushes and other painter’s tools so that a woman standing next to a mirror could become a painter creating a masterpiece – herself. Decoration of a plate originating from a series Royal Tichelaar Makkum Overleaf refers to Adolf Loos notorious essay “Ornament and Crime” from 1908 (in which the author completely dismisses ornament). A quotation from the essay, placed by the designer on a surface of a plate, becomes its decoration. In a series One Minute Delft Blue, instead, the designer refers to rich tradition of Delft as a town of pottery. However, he replaces fine, precise decoration covering the bowls and plates with quick strokes of the brush, turning the time-consuming, painstaking decorative work into a one-minute process of scribbling. This is accompanied by a brutal comment about all the rush in our days and no time left for patient execution of tiny details.






Małgorzata Mozolewska: What do you think about functionality, about modernism-based approach to design? You said in one of your interviews that design has nothing to do with functionality. How do you mean it?


Marcel Wanders: Of course, when we design a chair it must be possible to sit on it but this is too obvious to talk about. Rather than that, we should consider what sitting on a chair really means to people and why they choose to buy a new chair. Why, instead of an old chair inherited from their grandparents, they prefer a new one? I think this is quite an interesting question. Functionality is certainly important when we create some thing that existed never before – and that’ probably when functionality is most important. However, in my opinion, in most cases it only has secondary importance. After all our bodies, their parameters, haven’t changed that much and yet we still want new chairs. It’s not because we sit in a different way – it’s because we want to be different people. That’s what design is all about and that’s what we should talk about.


Technical functionality is a very restricting way of looking upon a product. Actually, it is technocratic rather than human-oriented. As I describe my girlfriend, I am not supposed to reach for a biology book to explain how her inner systems work. I am not going to say she has hands and legs. And it is in virtually all the areas I care for – and caring for makes the real essence of design – that I would feel quite silly behaving that way.


MM:What do we find, then, beyond or perhaps superior to functionality?


MW: We find the entirety of existence and it may be perceived in a lot of interesting ways. Functionality is like a foundations for a house – essential for the structure to be stable, but we are not going to live in foundations, are we? It is here that I’d like to add something I consider crucial: sometimes it really becomes possible to build a castle of dreams. A castle of dreams needs no foundations, it does without them quite well because we journey there without taking our weight with us. We might live there for a part of our lives and be perfectly happy with no foundations.


MM: What are all those stories you tell in your studio? Are they just a commercial tool or perhaps do they mean much more to you?


MW: The stories I tell do not actually make a single most important aspect of my design work but they absolutely do belong in my process of creation. While I look upon every object in physical terms, I consider a story that accompanies it in poetical terms. I would like to find a way in what I do to communicate some significant message to as many people as possible. Each of us has his own way of acquiring information about the world around. Some people have an excellent sense of hearing, others have great sight, still others have generous hearts. I want to be sure I create objects and interior designs in which people feel noticed, recognized; places with which they can sense some sort of relation, of a certain context. One may regard design as purely physical kind of activity, as operating on a specific matter and probably people who think that way regard the stories I tell as little more than commercial measures. However, myself I reckon design a psychological kind of activity. It is there to help us understand who we are.


MM: How, then, can design help us to better understand ourselves?


MW: Just go and find one hundred designers. Let them try to answer the question we do we need new chairs. Unless they can come up with a proper answer, tell them to quit designing because they know not what they do. Why do they do it while being unable to answer such a fundamental question? What for? For their own satisfaction? For fun?


MM: And you – why do you do it?


MW: For me the reason is quite obvious. My father was a splendid man, yet completely different than I am. When he was my age he had a different viewpoint upon crucial issues – such as those relating to one’s future, marriage, love, raising children. I think everybody should create one’s own identity, not the one modelled upon their parents’ one. The world keeps changing incessantly so a butcher is going to prepare a different sausage, a stylist to give a different haircut and a poet to write a poem about something new. One who designs a chair has to find a way to recognize who we are and who we’d like to be in this world. With all due respect to a chair my father made I will make my own one, thus creating the space and environment for the objective I set myself in my life, for my ideas about life and about all the things I find important. That’s why we need new chairs. We do not because our physical forms changed – it is because we change spiritually and chairs we sit on have to change accordingly.


MM: I see you really love all those stories you tell, you love every single one of them…


MW: When I tell them I don’t attempt to sound earnest. Instead, I try to create an interesting lie. In my opinion the stories modernists were telling were too frank, too serious and in effect they were also totally boring. Had Hans Christian Andersen told true stories, nobody would have listened. But I am not saying I am plainly lying; I just think that sometimes we tend to overestimate the truth. According to me, it is a role of designer to create some magic in people’s lives. Life can be masterpiece. I endeavour to make my life a masterpiece and with what I do I try to inspire others to try and make their lives masterpieces, as well.





MM: Your credo is: “We are here to create an environment of love with passion and make our most exciting dreams come true.” Let’s talk about your dreams.


MW: Dreams are very important to me. I understand the very was dream as day dreaming. This is a condition when you are after something and almost able to visualise the reality that comes true. It is the moment when you almost touch what you dream about. To me dreaming is future, a prettier sort of reality. I have plenty of dreams hopes and dreams about things to do in the future. I believe a day will come when I will be able to touch them, grasp them, even if I cannot do it yet.


As I speak about a prettier sort of reality, I speak about turning something casual into something spectacular. An example may be found in a table set “Dressed“ made for Alessi. As I worked on it it was my aim to focus on celebration of every day meals so that eating gets turned into a feast and walking into dancing. That’s when people’s daily lives may change into something extraordinary. There is always some way to give more articulation, more expression to ordinary things. Even when life goes on without any problem, there is always a level above, worth of achieving. In effect, existing beyond or for that matter above just function makes life very pleasurable. It allows better, prettier version of ordinary behaviours to emerge – one where eating is feasting, speaking is singing and just a casual day becomes the most beautiful day in one’s life.


MM: Is this the particular world you create? A beautiful world of every day life?


MW: I think it would be hard not to change the world. Even by doing nothing you make changes happen. It wasn’t I who devised a story about a butterfly whose wings with their soft moves cause changes on another hemisphere (known as butterfly effect). This is, of course, a rather mystical idea, but it is also very realistic when it comes to consider the value of human life. If you believe your life has no meaning it is either because you are too vain or too much focused upon yourself which makes you only measure great things. In fact, it is better to remain sensitive and modest so that we may measure small things as well.


MM: Do you make attempts to attract other people to this way of behaving?


MW: It is quite hard to change somebody and make him put his garbage in the right container unless that person first changes himself. This way, the biggest step one can make is make people think about themselves in serious terms – make them think about who they are and about the world that surrounds them. In effect they are likely to also come in some sort of contact with objects. I believe time and durability of things over time are more important and more essential than what we think about these things today. I would love it if my biggest contribution to the world was in disseminating the attitude of respect for time and for culture and therefore for long-lived nature of ideas and durability of things. I would like to create things which, despite being expected as brand new, are not entirely new at all. Things that form part of some continuous history; things that have their family members both in the past and in the future.


MM: Is this your answer to the problem of short-lived objects, built-in wear?

MW: Durability is not only lower consumption of energy used to manufacture new products. Sometimes it is worthwhile to take a look around and see what has already been created. And enjoy. Rather than exclaim: “Now we’re going to create durable world!” it might be better to appreciate the fact the the very world is durable. There are so many things that actually don’t need to be modified since they are good. We can reuse them and by doing so we can become aware that it is redundant to change things every day. Things calling for change, on the other hand, may retain some relation with the past, may evolve while stemming from the past.


MM: Is for this that you criticise modernism?


MW: In cutting the links tying it to the past, the key slogans of modernism deprived us of opportunities to refer and to link to the past. Modernists created things only directed toward the future which in fact meant creating children with no parents, making orphans by design. Unfortunately, in the Western part of the world we are all, in a sense, the children of modernism. Its dogmas are still extremely strong and they keep us off relating freely to the past. It is these dogmas that left us with the environment which, by definition, cannot be long-lived. In think what’s most to blame was the modernists’ firm belief in novelty, in creating things that were going to be important tomorrow but totally cut off from the past. Then again, there’s hardly anything that becomes obsolete sooner than new things because every day brings even newer things. As long as we design new things just for the sake of their novelty, we are going to remain prisoners of this way of thinking.


MM: Many times as designers ask you in the studio, during the creative process, about what they should do with a given project, your reply is just: “Make it beautiful“…


MW: I have recently written “if love is a State, beauty is its embassy”. To me beauty is love made visible. Love, as universally understood, is good. Goodness and love are very close to one another. An object which is well designed and well-made represents love, has all the attributes of beauty. Over the course of my studies my attitude to design was very conceptual, theoretic, even philosophic. Once I had to design a clock. When I brought it for corrections, my professor praised my work as well-made, well-thought-out, conceptually interesting. Then he made a couple of hems and added that it was also terribly ugly. I was shocked that he emphasised such a silly, negligible thing as beauty, considering how sophisticated and intellectual my project was!


It was only after several weeks that I started realising there was something relevant in what the professor said. It motivated me to make my own private investigations concerning beauty (studies on beauty is a very serious issue, philosophic treaties etc.). For about nine months I collected and composed various objects on a grey blanket on my room floor. Every day I spent three hours adding new things or taking them away again. I wanted to understand what is Beauty and where it is. The thing I understood at that time was that Beauty is a notion we easily connect with visual part of our world but in fact it connects with all other aspects of life. It is often understood as something very superficial while in its broad sense it defines how we live, how we treat and relate to people and objects.


There was a time when I thought beauty was for idiots. Of course, beauty only for the sake of beauty is not interesting. An object has to be functional but it also has to be beautiful so it can “live” in relation with higher-rank ideas that contribute to make our reality.