Dutch designer Marcel Wanders: 'We cannot only be about the surface'

A conversation with philosophical Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, keynote speaker at Dwell on Design

Over the last 25 years, the provocative and philosophical Dutch designer Marcel Wanders has created home furnishings for dozens of big-ticket European firms, plates and cutlery for Alessi and KLM airlines, compacts for MAC cosmetics and a Christmas collection for Target. Known for his playful shapes, intricate patterns and products that unite high-tech materials and handcraft, the co-founder and artistic director of Moooi (which recently opened its first U.S. store in New York City) has also completed fantastical hotel and retail interiors around the world. Wanders, currently running his Amsterdam-based design studio from a rental home in San Francisco, was in Los Angeles to give the keynote speech at the Dwell on Design show on Friday.

What brings you to California?

I recently earned a master's degree in business, turned 50 and thought I should find new surroundings. San Francisco is a lot like Amsterdam — free, open-minded and casual — though I expected better weather. The buildings have a rougher flavor of steel and wood, and there is this masculine boldness that is beautiful. The West Coast is super-influential to design, and I am trying to be part of the industry here. I have a lot of friends tell me, "You're in the wrong place. You have to come to L.A."

What are your impressions of Los Angeles?

Recently I went to the posh pink Beverly Hills Hotel and hung out at the pool, and then I went an exhibition of lowbrow art that was like a carnival. The need to express yourself in Los Angeles makes the city so vibrant. If I lived here, it would be lovely to be in a cool new high-rise looking out over a city that is exploding.

How would you furnish a Los Angeles home?

I'd really have to study the flavor of the city. When I make chairs, they have legs; they can go anywhere in the world. Interiors are a different responsibility. A house is a representation of where you are, and it has to be right for the place.

How do you define Modernism?

Modernism is an old philosophy, not right for the moment or for the world. The fundamental dogma of Modernism — that, if the past is irrelevant to the future, then today is irrelevant to tomorrow — has created a throwaway society of disposable objects. That is sick. It seems strange that there are those who still support the idea of a green lawn in the middle of a desert. Our culture has to move into being more holistic. We cannot only be about the surface.

Are we too obsessed with design?

Design is ubiquitous. I could talk about a beautiful knife that is so well made it makes me happy to cook a meal, or a 100-year-old chandelier that gives me a sense of appreciation for the past. Now design has become a more personal expression, and we can see that in how people decorate their homes. But we are all still fundamentalists. We fight because you painted the color of the room wrong or there is too much detail in the wallpaper. One big change is that 10 years ago your house was a secret hideout where privacy was valued. Now that technology lets us look into the lives of others, some of us will create our houses for the public as well as for ourselves.

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