Designer, Droog collaborator and Moooi founder Marcel Wanders, resplendent in suit jacket, baggy trousers and graphic-print trainers, pulls up a chair to discuss modernism’s great lie, career-defining footwear and why less is never, ever more
Marcel, how do you do what you do? There are so many designers who make way more than me, ten times more than me, twenty times more. And much of that is lost. But I make one thing, and you will see it, because I focus all my energy on it. We’re continuously surrounded by things people have designed, and yet we don’t give the items a second thought. I don’t want that for my work, I want it to be seen and enjoyed, so I make less.
What’s the Moooi studio like? We have a huge space, really big, and about 30 people. It’s a very energetic group. A lot of the team come from other countries, and are strangers to Amsterdam, so we become their Dutch family and friends. I feel it’s my responsibility to give them that. We love to have parties, and even have a Moooi studio boat, which the team can use any time they like. We also have the ‘English Alert’, which must be called if there’s Dutch being spoken around people who can’t understand it – everyone must speak English.
When did you become aware of design? I was always making stuff in the attic of my parent’s home when I was a child. If something got broken round the house I would take it up to my workshop and fix it. And I would take things apart to put them back together, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. When I was 14 I started growing lots of plants in our greenhouse and thought, ‘maybe I could be a landscape architect’, so a few years later I went to study it at school. Then I found out I would have to wear these awful, ugly boots –Moi?! Suddenly there was no way I was going to be a landscape architect. I had heard a bit about studying design, but bear in mind this was 1975, ‘design’ wasn’t a normal career. But after a year, I knew ‘this is my job forever’. I studied night and day, seven days a week to get it right.
What makes you happy about your work? As a designer, you have a box with a million jigsaw pieces inside but no picture, and if you can solve that puzzle, find a solution, then that’s magic. Sometimes it’s a little easier than other times. The box might be smaller because of certain constraints or you might have a client looking to add their pieces into your box. Good design is like giving someone a good gift, because two things that the recipient will feel are the same – ‘wow, I never would have imagined this, it’s perfect for me.’ And, ‘of course, this could only have come from him, it’s what he does.’ Good design celebrates the relationship between the maker and the audience. I have to be recognisable in the piece, or someone else should have done it. I love being part of that relationship.
How did the collaboration with centuries-old French silverware company Christofle happen? The process began two and a half years ago when Christofle approached us to design something for them, but it took us some time to work out what kind of product would be right. We tried a few things, but nothing seemed to be the correct style or there were technical issues. But I think cutlery is the right thing. And using embossed engraving really shows the character of the material. I wanted the Garden of Eden collection to be an experience to use, yet completely timeless.
How did you find common ground with such an historic company? When I design, I design for longevity. I think about this a lot. We live in such a throwaway society, because, generally, we have a disrespect for the past. Design wants to talk about tomorrow, the future, and yet because products are designed today, by tomorrow they are irrelevant. If you continually strive to be ‘contemporary’, your work will be redundant very quickly. So in my work, in everything I have designed, I place a reference to the past. That is essential to me, and obviously heritage and tradition is also essential to a company such as Christofle.
Form follows function. Discuss. The philosophy of modernism is a lie – that function should be at the fore. You could buy a very basic item, use it, and so it has completed its role. But it’s actually the job of the designer to give more; to give emotion. You buy a functional spoon because you want to eat soup. You buy a beautiful spoon because you want more than that. It becomes an experience. Of course good functionality is essential, but I never want to talk about it, because if I can’t do it as a designer then I am terrible designer. My inventiveness begins at the point where functionality is taken for granted.
For me, this idea of function being so celebrated goes back to the Industrial Revolution, when it was decided that machines would make things. But the machines were really clumsy. So, naturally, the items that were mass-produced were basic. However that shouldn’t have been the blueprint for the 20th century – this idea of ‘basic’ being good enough, and that people should be content and grateful for it. I don’t know who came up with the idea that less is more, but let me tell you, look in the dictionary, it is not right! It’s a fucking lie!
Moooi is a derivative of the Dutch word for beauty (with an extra ‘o’, for extra beauty), so Marcel, what is beautiful? When I design a piece, I’ll know whether it’s good by looking into your eyes and your heart. And if there’s nothing there, then it’s a failure. It doesn’t mean anything. Design should change people’s thoughts and it should say something to them about who they are. It’s certainly not something I can put into a few words, I’ve been any good at one-liners, and don’t need them.
Do your family and friends fill their homes with your designs? I am friends with so many different types of people, and most of them have something of mine, yes. I love to see how they use it and experience it, or perhaps they just pull it out of a cupboard when I’m going over to see them! It’s about seeing how your design works in reality.
What else do you love doing, other than designing? I never, ever switch off. I find it impossible. My brain is always working something out for some project or other. People say, ‘Marcel, you should relax.’ But only people who get stressed need to learn to relax, and I never get stressed.
Okay, even if your brain is still working, where does your body go for fun? I go to the theatre and the opera. I recently saw The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček, which was incredible, and I love Tanhausen and Wagner.
Ah, the trickier end of the market… I also love the pop! Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, for example, is just beautiful.
When are you happiest? I’m not a bookkeeper, I find it impossible to quantify. I’m a happy person. Sometimes just sitting on the toilet! Let me tell you what I’m aiming for, though. When my daughter was six years old, we were singing a song together and when we had finished, she said ‘daddy, that was the best song I have ever heard!’ Then we sang another, and she shouted, ‘daddy, that was also the best song I have ever heard!’ It wasn’t a textual mistake, that’s how she felt, and I think that’s wonderful.
Find Marcel Wanders’ Jardin d’Eden flatware collection for Christofle in the Silver Room on the second floor of Harrods, starting from £48.