Raised in a creative home environment it was a given that Tord Boontje would go into design. Now teaching at the RCA as well as creating products for all levels of customer, he talks to Jamie Mitchell
For Tord Boontje, design has always been more a way of life than a career choice. ‘I grew up in a very creative household,’ explains the Dutch-born product designer and head of design products at the RCA in London. ‘In my family, if we needed a table we would make one – we wouldn’t just go out and buy it. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I realised that you could actually study design as a subject.’
After this realisation Boontje studied industrial design at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, before doing his MA at the RCA, both helping him, he says, to become more structured in his approach to design. After finishing his MA in 1996 he stayed on in London, founding Studio Tord Boontje in Peckham, south London.
In 2005 he moved his studio to Bourg-Argental in France, but returned to London in 2009 to begin his tenure at the RCA. ‘When I look back at my own career I realize I’m where I am today because I had fantastic tutors.’ he says. ‘Even though I didn’t always listen to them, I know I owe them a lot. I feel that now I’ve learned something and I have something to share; it’s my turn now to give something back.’
Boontje has always embraced London, loving its vibrancy and diversity, but his approach to design also owes much to the modernist tradition prevalent in his homeland. ‘In Holland there’s a strong tradition of design in daily life, from the money and the stamps to the trains and the stations,’ he explains, ‘and it’s all very much within the modernist tradition.’
But where modernism often prescribes a single solution to the problems of living, Boontje’s own work is far more personal and heartfelt. With his furniture, lighting and textiles he aims to create ‘a delicate marriage of design with emotion that is as broadly accessible as it is enticing’. Modernism, he says, does not have to mean minimalism; contemporary design does not need to forsake tradition, and decoration does not preclude function.
An early furniture collection called Rough and Ready drew on the make-do-and-mend attitude of Boontje’s upbringing and used salvaged materials to create one-off pieces. It was, he explains, a reaction to urban setting of his studio – not to mention a cheap way to make furniture.
The pieces, including a chair made of found wood, a blanket and some string, were made available through free drawings with building instructions. For tranSglass, another early project, Boontje collaborated with his partner artist Emma Woffenden to make glassware out of old bottles. But the birth of Boontje’s daughter in 2000 inspired a new creative direction in which he embraced a more ‘loving and feminine’ aesthetic.
The result was the Wednesday Collection, a range of light shades, chairs, tables and glassware embellished with delicate, intricate patterns. It included the Wednesday Light, a spray of laser-cut metal flowers that wraps around a light bulb. The product was hugely desirable and had a price tag to match, but Boontje was keen that his new work should still be attainable, and in 2002 he worked with Habitat to make an affordable version of the Wednesday Light. Embodying the same do-it-yourself ethos as his Rough and Ready collection, the Garland Light was sold as a flat sheet which the customer could bend and shape as desired. It cost just £19 and, unsurprisingly, became a best seller.
Since then he has designed furniture, lighting and textiles for the likes of Kvadrat and Moroso, but he has continued to supplement his high-end products with more attainable ones. He also balances his work for big brands with more socially conscientious projects.
‘I feel very strongly that design should not just be about the western world,’ he says. ‘It should also be about developing countries, too.’ In one recent project with his students at the RCA, Boontje collaborated with fellow designer and RCA tutor Jurgen Bey to design products for a school in South Africa. ‘One of our students came up with the idea of supplying a kit of standard components, made mostly of steel, which you can connect in different ways to make furniture such as desks, chairs and benches,’ says Boontje. ‘The idea is that schools could assemble scale models in the way that they want them and then go to a local welder or fabricator. It’s very simple, but you realise there’s much more value in having lots of local workshops making school furniture than there is in having one large factory exporting worldwide. It’s about spreading labour and keeping money within a local community.’
Boontje’s approach to teaching mirrors that of his own design practice. ‘I teach around three focus areas,’ he explains. ‘The first, which I call Extreme Functionality, is about making things that really perform. If you make a chair, for example, it should be a really good chair to sit on; the second is the Social Manifesto, which is about looking at the role of design in society; and the third is Fantastic. It’s about how art and design can give us a pure emotional pleasure. These three focus areas are very closely connected and good design has all these things.’
It’s a design philosophy that Boontje has been able to apply to projects as diverse as a Swarovski crystal Christmas tree, designed in collaboration with Alexander McQueen, and the cover of a new edition of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel Doctor Zhivago. Following these principles also seems to free Boontje from becoming tied to a certain style, allowing him to change direction aesthetically while adhering to the same principles.
Furniture for the home is still the studio’s mainstay, but Boontje says he’d love to have a crack at designing a hotel. ‘For a long time I’ve been saying that’s something I’d like to do, because it’s a total environment and, though nobody lives there, you go there because it’s special. You can do things in a hotel that are more extravagant and imaginative than you would usually do in a residential setting.’
He’s guarded about the details of his latest furniture collection, due in September, but he explains that much of it has come from an interest in science, particularly electricity and magnetism. These experiments will, in turn, flow into Boontje’s commercial projects for manufacturers such as Moroso. ‘I like having my own agenda, my own direction,’ he explains. ‘I don’t wait around for a client to come to me with a brief.’
This article was first published in fx Magazine.