Interview: The wonderful world of Marcel Wanders

Interview: The wonderful world of Marcel Wanders

Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic talks to Dutch Designer Marcel Wanders about his upcoming projects in the region and the importance of staying different.

Always give people more than they expect is a phrase that most appropriately sums up the 25-year-long design philosophy of the provocative Dutch designer Marcel Wanders. Unexpected and often surprising, Wanders is still considered by many as an anomaly in the design world. Yet, he has made it his mission to “create an environment of love and to live with passion” while still bringing a fun and humanistic touch to his design.

New York Times described him as the Lady Gaga of the design world and his out-of-the-box thinking got him expelled from the Design Academy in Eindhoven. Today, with more than 1,700 projects to his name for clients such as Morgans Hotel Group and well-known brands such as Droog Design, Magis, Flos, Alessi, KLM, Swarovski, Puma and MAC, among others, Wanders continues to provoke and delight.

CID met him during Design Days Dubai, where he was showcasing his collection of limited-edition pieces, which he describes as his personal playground “a place without restrictions”.

Marcel Wanders, photo: Rajesh Raghav, ITP Publishing

“With this collection, I wanted to include work that celebrates humankind and highlights durability, warmth and imperfection. Handcrafted techniques and a sense of ornamentation dominate this collection and offer more surprise for both myself and those who experience it,” says Wanders.

The Personal Editions collection combines traditional crafts and industrial processes, offering fantasy and creativity, but also durability, which seems to be one of the most important aspects of Wanders’ work.

“It is important for us designers to have that special place where we can design on our own, just making things that we want to make,” he says. “When you look at the history of design, before there was a carpenter that would make a chair and sell it to his neighbour. With industrialisation, he started making 1,000 chairs, which his next door neighbour didn’t need anymore, so now the chair had to be sold worldwide. The chair had to fit in a box and it had to fit in a thousand different houses. So, instead of having this one chair, which is wonderful and unique, this chair had to be mass produced. It is still a good chair, but it is not as exciting as the first one he made.

“With the internet as a mass medium, the world has changed and we are again in the time zone where we can design this one chair, but find buyers anywhere in the world,” says Wanders.

Wander personally created 124 different basins for each room of the Andaz hotel in Amsterdam. Photo: Marcel Wanders

The story about the carpenter, in a way, reflects his own journey with the Knotted Chair, which marked his international breakthrough in 1996. The Knotted Chair was produced by the Italian manufacturer Cappellini in a series of 1,000 pieces and since 2011 has been part of the Personal Editions collection, touring with Wanders around the world. The Knotted Chair also sits within the permanent collections of museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

Beyond functionality

Describing his work as a “fantasy”, Wanders explains why functionality doesn’t tick all the boxes when it comes to design.

“Don’t get me wrong, I find functionality to be the fundament of design,” he says. “But, if you have to qualify a good house, you don’t live in a good house because of its fundament, you live in it because it gives you more than that. The design industry can learn from other art forms, which are not about functionality at all. Functionality is not the reason why we possess things. It may be the reason that we need the chair, but it is not the reason why we need that particular chair.”

The school days

Wanders graduated from the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten (ArtEZ Institute of the Arts) in Arnhem in 1988 after being expelled from Eindhoven Design Academy.

“Eindhoven Design Academy has been a great school in the last 10 years, but in 1981, when I studied there, it was a bit old-fashioned, just like many other design schools of that time. Back then, I was more interested in experimenting and finding new ways of design. I didn’t want to discuss the corners of a white plastic block, I wanted to do something different. My teachers wanted to do nice and clean modernistic designs and I just didn’t want to do that.”

Largely self-taught, Wanders says that the most important advice he can give to those wanting to pursue their career in design is “to be true to yourself”.

“If you really want to do something important in design, you have to be super-honest with yourself and that is really tough because you will be alone. It is so much easier to make something which everyone likes, than something that you like. If you want to do something important, then you have to find a way to be distinct, to do something that hasn’t been done before and we need this kind of people in our culture. It is tough and they might call it an ‘anomaly in design’, but it is important to follow your own vision and to be honest about it,” he says.

Lobby area at Mondrian South Beach features large supporting spindle-like columns and floating staircase. Photo: Marcel Wanders

Modern fantasies

Apart from product and furniture design, interior projects, both commercial and residential, have become important in Wanders’ career, allowing him to work across various sensory experiences and on a larger scale.

Completed in 2008, the Mondrian South Beach hotel in Miami was his first hospitality project. Known as the Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Mondrian’s interior is furnished with Wanders’ original pieces, such as the carved chairs, milled tables, vine cabanas, the signature floating staircase, and oversized brass bell shaped lights. Morgans Hotel Group is now making its Middle East debut with the soon-to-open 270-room Mondrian Doha and has turned again to Marcel Wanders and his magic touch.

“We are now finalising the design in Doha. It is great to design another Mondrian hotel, to work with the same brand idea but to position it in a completely different environment. Miami and Doha are very different, so it was a really interesting process of linking the design to a specific context and creating that ‘at home’ feeling, but still within the brand quality,” says Wanders, giving nothing away ahead of the much-anticipated launch.

An impressive light sculpture hangs in the atrium of the Andaz Amsterdam hotel. Photo: Marcel Wanders

Creating destinations

Wanders’ other recent interior projects include the Kameha Grand hotel in Bonn, Quasar Istanbul Residences and his boldest interior project to date — the Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht Hotel, which is operated by the Hyatt Hotels Corporation. Housed in the city’s former public library, Andaz has been hailed as a fairy tale experience with Wanders building upon the adventures of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

“We are not trying to be interior designers, we are trying to create destinations. We are trying to create the reason people want to come and stay, not because of the bed, but because that bed is made by us. And that is a different mindset when it comes to designing hotels.

“Of course, if we draw people in by our design, the most important thing is the level of service, but that is beyond our responsibility. Our job is to make sure that our design is done right. If you don’t do it right, then you’re compromising the level of service,” he says.

The client’s brief is essential to that, says Wanders, explaining he only works with clients he respects and that adds to the overall creative process.

“This is the only way we can do our work. They’re going to say something about our design and we will learn from it, making the design better. There is a lot of communication involved, but most importantly we know how to listen. A lot of designers can talk really well, but there are only a few that can listen.

The Princess Suite at the Kameha Grand Zurich. Photo: Marcel Wanders

“Communication is essential. I don’t do my projects alone, there are always a lot of people around me. If I can make sure that all the people that come on board can understand that there is a bigger vision behind it and that we need to align, then we can create miracles.”

Although Wanders is involved in designing all hotel areas, from staircases to wash basins in the guest rooms, he says that the importance of entrance lobbies is growing and describes it as “the red carpet of every hotel”.

“The lobby area is super important,” he says. “In a way it is the least functional place, but also the most loveable one. As you are entering the space, you either immediately love the hotel or you don’t and you know whether it is going to be a great stay. That is why it is so important to make sure when people arrive they understand that the place is authentic and that they will be treated well.”

Design challenges

As he continues to strive for durability, “creating things that people will keep for a long time”, Wanders feels that “the design world hasn’t been able to give enough value”.

The Smoking Lounge at the Kameha Grand Zurich carries Wander’s stylistic signature.

“I hope that we can create more meaningful things,” he says “and give people enough value when they buy them.”

He recalls sitting on the stairs of the St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice’s most famous church, when it suddenly struck him why durability ultimately is not working in the design world.

“If we want to see something old, we end up going to the church or other religious buildings. We find durability in such places because the church or any other religious group has a message; it has a mission which they’re not going to change. As long as people change, the world of design won’t be ultimately durable. However, I believe that we as designers can be somewhere in between. Change is essential and good, but we can try making things that are, if not forever, at least, important for a long time.”

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