Marcel Wanders Q&A: Reflections on a Life in Design

A portrait of designer Marcel Wanders

Marcel Wanders is one of a handful of designers whose name has come to transcend his products and interiors – largely because these works have a distinctive signature marrying decoration, humour and high-tech production methods. From his Knotty Chair to Snotty Vase, many of Wanders’ 1700-plus pieces have also become highly collectible.

Wanders has recently opened his first London showroom for Mooi (23 Great Titchfield Street, W1), the design and retail company he co-founded to promote and sell the work of other rising design talents.

ML: Are there any designs you look back on and regret?

MW: I was in still in design school and did this thing – I won’t say what it was because it really 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.

Marcel Wanders is a Dutch designer, and art director in the Powerhouse studio in Amsterdam.
The iconic Knotty Chair Designed by Marcel Wanders

And there was another project a few years ago I shouldn’t have done but it was do it or let go of eight people. It was was a shitty project but, you know, what the fuck… But that’s it – it’s not bad for 25 years on the job. It could be worse, right?

Modernism is Outmoded

ML: Modernism is clearly the prevailing ethos in design. But you’re considered a renegade against that. Why?

MW: I think modernism is an outmoded way of thinking about design. It doesn’t reflect the way we live now. It always 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.

Nut Lounge Chair designed by Marcel Wanders
Nut Lounge Chair designed by Marcel Wanders

When I was young, even to think about decoration was so not what designers did. I went to Giulio Cappellini with this idea of ‘new antiques’, which is what I wanted to make, and the company was subsequently excluded from a design fair because it was no longer seen as being ‘modern’.

It was crazy. But why shouldn’t we make connections with old or traditional products? They’re beautiful and can be made relevant.

ML: Your furniture designs often blur the line between utility and art. Is there too much emphasis on function in design?

MW: Well function is fundamental to design of course. If something doesn’t function it’s a shitty product. I certainly 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 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 but if you pay more than that you’re not paying for function anymore. People aren’t stupid. Obviously a €500 chair isn’t about function. Nor a Christmas tree. Or high heels. Such things are not a vacuum cleaner. We only want just function from the things we don’t love.

Disposable Society?

ML: Does it bother you that people throw so much away in search of the new?

MW: 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.

And I just loved that. It made me think about how poor we are at accepting things that get old, especially since design is fixated on the shiny, clean and new. 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. It makes for pieces that the people who like them are connected to for longer. That’s durability. ML

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