Co.Design

Exclusive Interview: Marcel Wanders on Design at 30,000 Feet

This week, Marcel Wanders, the peacock-like prince of Dutch design, unveiled his latest and most challenging project: tableware for the first-class cabin of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. The collection, which includes porcelain, glassware, cutlery, linen, and a tray done up in Wanders's signature ornate style, was more than two decades in the making. Wanders shares the story with us in an interview that touches on everything from the difficulties of designing for airlines to why it's smart to steal from other designers (not that he does).

Co.Design: Is this the first time you've done design work for an airplane cabin?
Marcel Wanders: The first time I was asked to do the in-flight service for KLM was in 1989. It was before I was born almost. And I never gave up wanting to do this project. It's like fulfilling a prophesy.


What happened back in '89?

I just was not ready for it. I wasn't a good enough designer. They approached me. It was a project with four designers. It was a competition. And I didn't win the competition. Then the two companies that won the competition asked if I wanted to work with them, so I said, "Only if I get that project." So I got the project. And I worked for two or three years on it, then they canceled it. So then, many years later, [KLM] asked me on my personal title to do it. And it was put in the fridge again. Now, finally it's coming out. That's 22 years later. In that time, so many things have happened to get me ready for this project. Which I could tell you about but it's a long story.

Go for it.
This type of project has always been an interest for me. People think I just design sofas. But we did biodegradable sets a long time ago — the first for the airline industry. And some time ago, I made the lightest and best stackable cup in the world. It's this kind of thing no one knows about. It's invisible work. I don't even have an image of this cup because it's just a cup. But these ideas have been near to me all the time.

I?m guessing that designing for an airline is intense: Everything has to be streamlined and meet strict FAA requirements.
It's very difficult. It's a very technical project. But you have to make it so it doesn't look technical, so it just feels like, ?Wow, we're in a nice restaurant.' What we designed for them is something which is beautifully calm. It's not screaming. But in detail, it's design aggressive. I?m super, super excited about the end result.

What other new projects are you working on?
We recently did a collection for MAC Cosmetics and a cell phone for KDDI. We just finished a new silver cutlery project. We worked on a skincare collection for a Japanese company. In January, we're presenting a big, big collection for Alessi. So there's a lot of product design. Then of course we always work on interior projects. We're also working on a big project in Cairo, kind of a real estate project.

Sounds like you've covered pretty much everything. Is there anything left?
If I look at my own growth, I started in product design. And we grew and created new products, and we were also able to change the idea of design a few times. We brought to design a level of conceptuality — while we were at Droog — which was really different. We were part of the start of the movement of the art-design field. Then we were able to set up Moooi, which was really new. There are many design companies, but there are few designers who organize their own business and open it up to other designers. Then we stepped into interior design. And the first project we did was really different. So our next step is to bring all these things together to be more holistic in our design mentality. That's something I?m studying.


How do you go about doing that?

I don't know. But I feel there is a logical next step. Because I?m not going to keep doing what I?m doing for the next 20 years. It doesn't make sense. I?m not only interested in the product, but in changing the field.

How do you convince your clients — the business men — to invest in fresh design?
A lot of companies are able to do without design. A few companies are able to do without creativity. A very few. Creativity is crucial to your business. One of the ways you can use creativity is through design. I can explain it with a lot of blah blah. But I?m not going to convince financial people with a lot of blah blah. Financial people you convince with financial figures.

Can you give an example from your own experience of when it has worked really well?
Last year, we did a project for Target. We were working with them to make something I would like but also of course something that resonates with American people. At some point, I felt that we were a little bit too much starting to listen to what would sell better in the States. So I talked to the people at Target and I said, ?Look guys, you have about 120 SKUs in your shop. I?m going to do 45 new ones. You shouldn't care a bit whether these are going to sell.' And it ended up being fantastic for Target. People thought Target is so alive, they do such great cultural projects. Besides that, everything was sold out far before Christmas. They did fantastic business, which was an extra. More than the product, we sold Target to a super large audience.

How about an example of something that didn't work well?
I got a project from this one venture. They wanted to have a gift for people who came to their presentations. A lot of artists were coming. So there was this injection-molded ceramic. Very high-tech. And I thought: I'll make a pencil sharpener with it. Perfect for artists. So I made a fantastic design. Then we made a mold. Then we started injecting it. We tried to use the sharpener. We couldn't. We tried everything, but we couldn't get it to sharpen. This happens. Shit happens. You have to be prepared to take a risk now and again. That's why people copy. They're waiting until someone else does all the investigation and take the risk. Then when it's a big success, they copy it. So everything before copying is design, and it's risky. And it's not smart. Often I?m sitting opposite a client and I?m thinking how do I convince him not copy the best-selling product out there? And sometimes I don't know. Really it's smarter to be a thief.

For more coverage of Marcel Wanders, go here.

[Images courtesy of Marcel Wanders Studio]

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