A titan of international design, Marcel Wanders is revered for his prolific career spanning product and interior design, as well as being the founder of his own eponymous design studio and the co-owner and art director of of Dutch design house Moooi, where he has helped launch the careers of countless emergent designers since the label begun in 2000.
Credited with over 1900+ projects, Wanders’ work has cemented him as a ubiquitous figure in contemporary design, having collaborated with leading design manufacturers and design brands including B&B Italia, Alessi, Flos, Louis Vuitton and Poliform. So you can only imagine our excitement (and intimidation) and being able to sit down with the legendary designer on a recent jaunt to Australia for Space Furniture. As you might predict, our conversation with Wanders took all kinds of fascinating directions, from his desire to drive more humanistic design to why he loves working on both product and interior projects.
Photography courtesy of Space Furniture + Moooi
What are your first memories of design?
Marcel Wanders: I remember I had a bike, and I had this idea for going forward by pedalling backward. I thought that was a cool idea, so I kind of organised that system on my bike. I don’t know how I did it to be honest with you. I think that was maybe the first thing that I accomplished as a designer – to make my bike run in the other way than my pedals were going.
My father and mother also had a shop, and I would take things in the shop, humble, simple things and think “that’s amazing”. I would see the beauty of it and I remember I would take these types of things, wrap them, package them in a box and ribbons and whatever, write a little text about it and then give it to people. I would make gifts for people. I think that’s where my design career started, with making things for people. That got me such good feedback and people loved me for that; I got a kiss or a handshake and it was amazing. I think I got really connected with the idea that if you make something for someone you can do something important.
When you think back to those experiences, do you think that you had an idea in your head that that might be what a designer does or was it just making things?
Marcel Wanders: I had no idea what a designer was. I was like 17 or 18 when somebody explained to me design was something I could learn, before that I had no idea.
You’ve worked prolifically, but how do you continue to innovate? Does it come back to that sense of curiosity?
Marcel Wanders: People ask me, “Where does your inspiration come from?” It really comes from inside. It sits inside of you. There’s this urge, this need, you have this philosophy, you want to prove your point, you want to make that. I want to make a type of design that’s different as far as human design. More romantic, more subjective. It’s a question I want to answer every day and in thousands of ways because that question is so big and it’s what burns me.
I find answers on that question when I have an idea. I always want to answer the same questions that are really core to my existence and within the different context of that I look for to find new answers.
What are the kinds of questions you ask yourself in your process?
Marcel Wanders: It’s like how can I make a type of design that’s truly different than what we have? How can we get away from that moralistic, dogmatic and inhuman way to design? How can we get rid of that as soon as we can? How can we do something that’s more meaningful? That’s the big question.
How would you define more humanistic?
Marcel Wanders: We have, within the context of modernism, which is the prevalent philosophy of the last hundred years, we’ve decided that we are rational, that we have to be smart and we have understood by now that we are not the rational beings we think we are. We are not. We are spiritual beings. We are difficult to understand. We hardly understand ourselves and that’s the real thing. Our quality is our humanity and if it’s not then soon we have no passion to be any more interesting than one of our robots that we create.
I think that the only thing we have, we only chance we have is that we are human – so what is that humanity that we have? It’s our compassion, our irrationality, our spirituality. Those are the elements that I think have to flow into the work in a more unified way.
That’s what our culture demands from us. That’s what you can recognise. You look in art, you look in theatre, you look in poetry, you look in photography you will see that happens. If you talk to your friends, you see that happening. If you look at architecture you will not see that happening. If you look at design you will not see that happening. That’s where we are, but we have to allow ourselves the risk of being in a different place.
Let’s talk about Moooi. Tell us a bit about what drove you to co-found Moooi?
Marcel Wanders: I set up my company to make my own things, and then at some point myself and my friend – who together we set up Moooi – said, “Let’s do this for other people also.” That’s the reason that we did Moooi. We would’ve been happily in the same company where I do design and he does sales, but wanted to do this for other people.
All these wonderful companies are not willing to invest in someone that has no name, that has no proof, and so it’s one of the reasons that we always try to find new people who have never worked with anyone else in Moooi. We wanted to be the first one to trust in these designers, to put them on a pedestal so the world can enjoy their talents.
What’s changed since you founded Moooi?
Marcel Wanders: A lot has changed, but that reason is still there. I wouldn’t have had this company if it was not for that reason. The reason for this company was, then, to be able to work not only with my own design, but to work with other people that have great ideas, but cannot find a company to make it because nobody there wants to take a risk. That’s it. That’s the reason that we did it.
I think there’s no reason for us to change that approach, and again it’s a long list of people that made that first debut with us. Plenty of people, plenty of designers. A few of them are now super well known and have advanced.
We’re a design company, we show design. We don’t show styling, we don’t show the same things over and over and over again. We show design for different people who have their own things so they’re not the same as others. We have a different way to work with designers. We don’t tell them what to do.
How do the designers respond to that? How do you traditionally work with them?
Marcel Wanders: There’s always a bit of a conversation going between the designers and us as a company. There’s not a strict way to do it. Some designers send us stuff now and then and we react to it. We will see if we can do it, if we cannot do it. Some people just send us stuff. Other people we go there we have a conversation. There’s no real rules.
What about your architecture and interiors work – how did this become a part of your portfolio, have you always sought out those projects?
Marcel Wanders: That’s a good question because it’s very weird, I’m a product designer. I’m trained as product designer. That’s what my specialty is and even though I don’t know why I’m like “Hmm, maybe I want something bigger. Something more.”
Then suddenly I have three interior design projects. I start to investigate and see that it’s a very different thing than product design, and over time we got better at it and since 2001 we do interior design. It’s a totally different type of creativity. Super fun, super interesting.
Are there any differences or similarities that stand out between your architecture work and product design work?
Marcel Wanders: The differences are huge. I think a product design is like sculpting. You pick your stone, if there’s something inside, you take out what you don’t need. You cast it when you’re done. It’s one idea that’s pure and beautiful.
You do that to an interior it’s going to be boring, so instead it’s more like an opera with the flutes and the trombone and the sound and the music and the light and the costumes. It goes on like that. It’s like a thousand ideas. One idea, a thousand ideas. It’s a very different animal and it has to be addressed in a very different way, but that makes it also fun.
The architecture process is difficult, and really difficult to manage. It’s endlessly difficult to get it perfect. Interior design’s never so perfect as product design. Product design is like super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super, super perfect. Once it’s ready it’s like so fucking ready. It’s so pristine and so wonderful. Everything has to be perfect, while in interior design you don’t even know where the screws are sometimes. It’s more of the big picture, it doesn’t have to be so perfect. It’s a very different type of objective and activity and process, but I love both.
What’s something that you haven’t achieved yet?
Marcel Wanders: For the past five years I’ve been working in the Middle East quite a lot, and it’s such a wonderful crowd, beautiful people, such a sense of tradition and so much generosity. I see that we have trouble to live together in these different cultures, and so I think it’s super important that we find ways to live together. That we have to work together.
So I have I wanted to do that exchange, to work on a mosque. That’s beautiful, that’s interesting. I think that there is capacity in design to do things that are meaningful in a political way and this is one of the things I want to do. It’s really nice when we can use design to make connections.
This interview has been condensed and edited