Branded for life
Marcel Wanders is one of a handful of designers whose name has become iconic because of his signature fusion of humour, decoration and high-tech production methods.
Are there any designs from your past that you regret doing or wish you could redesign?
I was still in design school and created this thing – I won’t say what it was because it deserves to be lost in space – and this company went ahead and made it. I was super happy about this of course, but then I was still at design school and didn’t know anything. And there was another project a few years ago I shouldn’t have done but it was that or let eight people go.
How has your industry changed over time?
The design world was very different a few decades ago. It didn’t move. Then Memphis (the pioneering post-modern Italian design movement of the early 1980s) made people understand that design is a culture. It became less objective – meaning it wasn’t interesting to most people, only engineers – and more subjective. Design is now a personal activity. Whether you like an object or not, it’s more the product of an individual person making decisions about things.
Modernism is clearly the prevailing ethos in design. But you rebel against this notion. Why?
Modernism is an outmoded way of thinking about design. It doesn’t reflect the way we live now. It puts forward this idea that the past is irrelevant to tomorrow, and tomorrow is all that matters. But the past is part of who we are. When I was young, thinking about decoration was not something designers did. I went to Giulio Cappellini with this idea of new antiques and the company was subsequently excluded from a design fair because it was no longer seen as being modern. But why shouldn’t we make connections with old or traditional products? They’re beautiful and can be made relevant.
Your furniture designs often blur the line between utility and art. Is there too much emphasis on function in design?
Function is fundamental to design, of course. I get frustrated by things that aren’t functional. Design has to be visible when something functions because you only tend to notice it when it doesn’t. But there’s more to design than function. A house has to function but if that’s all it does you don’t love it. And that’s true for lots of things. You can buy a functional chair for €11 (S$17), but if you pay more than that you’re not paying for function anymore. People aren’t stupid. A €500 (S$758) chair obviously isn’t about function. Neither is a Christmas tree. Or high heels. These things are not (the same as) a vacuum cleaner. We only seek pure function from the things we don’t love.
Are there designs out there that you wish were yours?
Of course. Philippe Starck did a great toilet. That’s not the sort of thing you expect to find great design in. And Rietveld’s buffet (cabinet) is another one I wish were mine. It’s just the most baroque idea of a minimalist product you can think of. It’s grotesque really, completely over the top.
Does it bother you that people throw so much away in search of the new?
It does. I’ve always liked the idea of making things that last forever, but not necessarily in the sense of being unbreakable, more psychologically. Most people throw stuff away not because it’s broken but because their relationship with that object is broken. I remember a fellow design student created this textile and as it wore away with use it revealed a pattern underneath. It made me think about how bad we are at accepting things that get old. Nothing has a patina, nothing can have a crack. But nothing grows old faster than the new, so I like to make designs that are old to start with. They have the cracks already, so to speak, and the people who like them are connected to them for longer. That’s durability.