When another journalist likened Marcel Wanders to being the Lady Gaga of the design world, he wasn’t displeased. Like her he wants to be seen to be doing something different, showing a lot of energy, never boring, he tells Jamie Mitchell
With a flamboyant design style - and a personal style to match - designer Marcel Wanders was nicknamed the Lady Gaga of the design world by New York Times journalist Julie Scelfo... How does he feel about being compared to one of the world's most outlandish pop stars?
'Of all the people I could be likened to, I think it's not too bad,' says the Dutchman, 49. 'At least she's doing something different - she's doing her own thing with all her heart and with a lot of energy and she's never boring. All of these things,' Wanders accepts, 'resonate with me and my style of design.'
Like Lady Gaga, Wanders has a wandering eye when it comes to style. In the design of his furniture, lighting, tableware, hotel interiors and architecture he looks to other times and places for inspiration, cherry-picking influences - from fairy stories by the Brothers Grimm, to the architecture and design of the baroque period.
Wanders' work is known for being highly decorative, but he says that's no reason to assume that it isn't also functional. 'I think my work is often overlooked in this sense,' says Wanders when we meet to talk about his one of his latest projects, the fantastical interior of a new hotel in Amsterdam for the Hyatt Hotel group's Andaz brand. 'I'm totally serious about my work and I feel that I have something important to say.'
In typical Wanders style, the interior of the Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht is an eclectic mix of design styles and period influences. There is video art in dark corridors, clogs with yawning mouths on the guest room walls, illustrations telling the story of Sleeping Beauty (an influence Wanders first plundered for his design for the Mondrian South Beach in Miami) and a crystal chandelier with integrated video screens that display the news on various channels. Throughout the hotel, furniture designed by Wanders sits alongside antiques and other bespoke pieces.
But lurking beneath the humour and theatricality in this and all of Wanders' work is a sold design philosophy; even, he'd argue, a political attitude. 'I think that within the world of design I'm trying to do something that's really different,' he says. 'I want to create a world that is more romantic, more humanistic, to take a step forward from modernism and realise that maybe modernism is done and we need a world that is more free-spirited and less technocratic; more respectful to the past and therefore more respectful to an environmental future, because with the modernist tradition we have we will never create a sustainable environment.'
Wanders says that design provides 'a fantastic opportunity for change and ideas and communication': 'Design is the international language. It's what binds cultures and it's the most subtle way to create change in cultures. It's a political act. If you don't have a political agenda you aren't doing anything.'
So what is Wanders' political agenda? 'I think we need more respect for the past, so that we create a world that doesn't change so fast,' he says. 'Modernism throws away the past, which means that tomorrow you throw away today - that's a world that is completely unsustainable. We create children without parents. Modernism: in the world I hardly see it; in design I always see it. So in this way I think design is a bit old-fashioned.'
Born and raised in Boxtel in the Netherlands, Wanders graduated from the Institute of the Arts, Arnhem in 1988. He first wowed the design world in 1996 with his Knotted Chair, produced by Cappellini and made entirely of rope wound around a carbon core and hardened with epoxy.
In 1995 he opened his own studio in Amsterdam and six years later co-founded design label Moooi, of which he is the art director. Since then he has designed for global brands and high-end furniture companies including B&B Italia,Cappellini, Christofle, Bisazza, Poliform, KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines, Flos, Magis, Target, Baccarat, and more recently Alessi and Marks & Spencer. His architectural and interior design projects include the Kameha Grand hotel in Bonn, the Mondrian South Beach hotel in Miami, the Villa Moda Flagship store in Bahrain and private residences in Amsterdam, Mallorca and Jakarta.
Wanders likens designing products and interiors to giving gifts - something he says has enjoyed doing since childhood. 'I love to make things. As a child I loved to make gifts for people and I learned a few interesting things, namely that a good gift has two main qualities: if it's good you open it and you go "Wow! This is so me. How did you know I would like this? Why didn't I know I liked this so much?" So with a good gift, you feel that I have seen you and that I spend time thinking about you.
'At the same time you think: "This is so Marcel; I could get this from no one but him!" I try to give who I am - the best I have to give, but also to show that I know and respect my audience. I did the same thing when I was 12.'
Although he has, on occasion, created one-off products and interiors for private clients, Wanders says that for him the real joy of design is that an interior product he has created will be enjoyed by many people. 'If I design a glass, for example, I spend way too much time on designing it, but I don't care. Ultimately, I'm designing it once and then we make thousands; maybe 10,000 people are going to use it. I'm multiplying my time. If I did a glass for one person, I wouldn't feel that excited about doing it because I would want lots of people to use it.'
This is why Wanders gets much more excited about designing hotels than he does about designing private homes. 'I love designing rooms, but I love to design rooms that hundreds of people will enjoy and have fun in.
'I'm just a bit egocentric I suppose: I want people to love me!' he exclaims, playing up, just a little, to his image as the design world's most outrageous pop-star.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.