Marcel Wanders, 52, calls himself a “new-age designer”. “I have that printed on my visiting cards”, he says over the phone from New York. Wanders was born in the Boxtel region of southern Netherlands in 1963. After graduating from the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten (ArtEZ Institute of the Arts) in Arnhem in 1988, he opened his own studio in Amsterdam in 1995. He gained world attention in 1996 with the iconic Knotted Chair, made with carbon fibres and aramid cord that is knotted into the shape of a chair.
Regarded by many as an anomaly in the design world for his mixing of innovative materials and techniques, Wanders has designed more than 1,700 products—from scarves to furniture to homes.
One of the key speakers at the Mint Luxury Conference to be held in Mumbai, Wanders spoke about his alternative point of view and design inspirations. Edited excerpts:
Your first solo gallery exhibition—Portraits—opened in New York in February. Why did it take so long, considering you have been working for more than 20 years?
I have been a designer all my life and design for me is to share love and trust, and show the future in a beautiful way. I have worked on this principle all my life. But there is a lot of energy inside me that I cannot share in the context of design...there is anger, sadness, disappointment...
So over the last eight years, I have been working on things that can express those feelings in all honesty. Slowly, it developed into something that had the strength and the importance to find an audience.
And last month, I think the work was ready and so was I to present it.
You have previously said that beauty is not the most important thing. Then what is?
I think beauty is something we try for but, in all honesty, you will see that power is as important. Power and beauty need each other. They are two opposite forces on one line. Our work as designers is to find the right place between them. Some creators are nearer to beauty, some to power.
There is always a reason behind things that are made, and if there isn’t, there will be one when they travel through the world. The objects of beauty are used to impress, seduce, overwhelm, make money, support identities and show power or style, among other things.
What is design to you? What are its most important components?
I think design is the expression of its time and culture. Today, we live in a time of post-modernism. I think we have understood that we are not rational beings…we are creating a more holistic environment around us… I think it is the task of design to shape that culture, to support that opportunity.
In design, I think, everything around and inside the object is an important component that communicates the message.
If I am making a chair, it will only appeal to you if it is important to you. So, all these components of communication are essential. At the end, the physical object is just a part of the whole, and that is what we need to keep in mind as designers.
What is your inspiration?
Inspiration has become this word that people tend to talk about as something from the outside. The truth is that...it is inside, like a burning fire, it is the feeling of certainty that your life has a meaning and you’ll do something important. For me, it is the desire to design a world that is less technocratic and minimal, while being more contemporary, more holistic, more humanistic, more durable, and romantic.
What was the inspiration behind the ‘Knotted Chair’?
Back in the time, I was working with some friends at a design studio. And slowly, I felt that I needed my own studio… I moved to Amsterdam (in 1995).
I started writing a book on design. I had read up on a lot on alternative medicine because my girlfriend was very sick. So I was basically in a very alternative atmosphere. The book I wrote explained the 10 most important insights behind my thinking and the first thing I worked on after publishing that book was the Knotted Chair. Sometimes when I read that book even now, I think it is very close to my thinking today.
It also makes me feel at times that maybe I haven’t learnt anything in the last 25 years.
To go back to that period again, my girlfriend was very sick. For several years, we experienced all kinds of alternative medicines and learnt different philosophies. It is just the opposite of how the design world thinks: the rationality. But there is so much more to life than rationality.
Love is not rational, but it is the driving force. And so I have been working with that context in my life. I wrote this some years ago that if art is about love, if poetry and paintings are about love, why do we think design is about functionality? It is not. It is about love. That is the alternative point of view. This is what I am.
Is there anything that you want to design and haven’t yet?
We live in a world that’s more culturally open and connected than ever before. So we are more exposed to each other’s points of view. And, at the same time, we are very different. What design can do is pay respect to the differences. So it would be wonderful for a Westerner to design a mosque, for example. To get trust from people from a different part of the world and give back the respect, that is something I would love to do.
Marcel Wanders, a Dutch product and interior designer, and art director, will speak on New Frontiers of Design at the forthcoming Mint Luxury Conference.