Tord Boontje, the designer is unusually well known. Even if you do not know his name, chances are you will recognize his distinctive, delicate, and at times, edgy work. The New York Times described him as ‘the closest thing industrial design has to a celebrity’, a backhanded compliment if ever there was one. In person he is gentle but with an obviously serious core. Like many artists, he has retained a certain childlike quality. He is from Holland, but his mother is Swedish and he grew up in a small house outside of Stockholm. His parents divorced when he was three and he was raised by a mother who encouraged him from an early age to develop and to follow his creative side. He also mentions that the pragmatic optimism in his present approach to life was established in his childhood. ‘It was very much: If we needed a table, well, we’ll make a table.’
We interviewed him recently at the Mercer Hotel in Soho, where he was in town to promote his intriguing new book: “Tord Boontje” by Martina Margetts, published by Rizzoli.
Someone described your work as full of ornament, craft and wit and that you brought these things to life again in a contemporary way. What do you think it says about modern design that these words are so despised?
I find it particularly weird and insulting. In a way it’s a very stylistic way of looking at the world. Instead of coming from human behavior, and human sensorial experience of the world, it’s [from] a very rigid, very male-dominated world … like I think here in America there is a discussion here about quilt-making as an art form. Women were not allowed to just go and become a painter or a sculptor and they had to stay in the domestic world. Within that there are definitely artistic expressions, which are incredible.
It’s automatic when you go to design school you ought not to think about an ornament but if I go to the Victoria and Albert Museum and I see metal-worked table or an old wood carving, it really touches me. There’s a sensuality in there, which is completely lost.
I don’t even really like modern furniture, personally, I like old furniture, but I loved your work because it appeals to people who don’t like modern furniture … it’s very whimsical…
Yeah, yeah. But I think this is very much the appeal I have because and what my motivation was to start making this kind of work was not relating to it all to this cold minimalism.
But it’s interesting because your first work was actually very hard-edged and a little bit darker, I would say. And then it transforms itself into something very voluptuous, almost feminine. How did that happen? Did your life change — you had a child …
Which was a real big turning point. Before that Em [his wife Emma] and I probably spent more time in the workshop than at home. But then when you have a child, I think it’s this nesting instinct. I don’t see a home as a white box. I want to create this really lovely environment around myself to raise a child …
The New York Times actually described you as “the closest thing industrial design has to a celebrity” How do you feel about that all of a sudden?
[Laughs] I am aware of that. It has good things because it allows me creative freedom, to do what I want … I don’t need to convince [people] why it would be interesting to make a certain design. As a young designer you really have to fight for that. I don’t think the things I make are bought because they have my name on them.
Something that really interested me in one of the photographs of your book was this cut greeting cards draped on a tree and they are virtually indistinguishable from the foliage around them. What is your feeling between the relationship between human touch and nature?
That was a kind of coincidence. We tried it in different places and it suddenly really really worked, like you don’t see it and then you have to look close and try to pick it out. I just like a direct inspiration, motifs, that whole joy of nature, which I started to do because there’s a rich tradition of using flowers as ornamentation, by referring back to something that came before the Industrial Revolution.
You mean the William Morris, Arts and Crafts Movement?
Even before that. If you look at 14th century textiles, you’ll see it. It also has to do with random, organic, unplanned thing.
Are you organized?
No! [laughs] No I’m not! [still laughing]
Do you think creativity goes along with organization?
Well you need to have a certain structure to get through the day but I couldn’t work on an empty desk. That would just kill everything for me.
Murray Moss compared you to William Morris. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s a very big compliment. He is, of course, one of the artists whom I admire. He was just there at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. He had this very personal look at it, turning to local producers, local artisans. But then it became quite elitist. I think where I am different, is that I don’t necessarily embrace the whole idea of globalization, but I have definitely also been working within that. One of our major factories is in China and I’ve sold all over the world. We can make things for a really good price, make it democratic but I think we are very careful with the factory we work with, that the labor conditions are respected.
Your work lends itself to the descriptions such as ‘fairy tale-like’ but fairy tales can be quite dark. How do you feel about drawing on that side of yourself for your work? There is some darkness to it …
Definitely, definitely. I think there’s always been an interest in the whole Gothic and Victorian worlds. I am also a great fan of Hitchcock and Tim Burton films. I think it is a part of our cultural spectrum. I can’t always work with it, like when we collaborated with Target, it was very clear that this was not a side that was appropriate for them. But now with these ceramic pans, they are all based on witches, dark and Gothic for Technica.
What do you say to people who think what you make is frivolous?
I respect the fact that it’s whimsical and it’s very lightweight. Maybe because it makes you happy, people think that that is frivolous … I don’t know … if you give a lollipop to a child, it can be very meaningful, or wearing flowers in your hair can be very meaningful … so …
Yes … I think that’s what it boils down to. It doesn’t have to be dark to be important. How would you describe where you are now in your career?
I’ve much more taken on the role of fine artist rather than [running] a design office. A design office doesn’t do anything unless somebody calls with a brief and a commission, then people start working. What I really don’t understand is when designers say design is like problem-solving. It’s so weird to me: it’s like if there is no brief, no commission, no problem, then there is nothing to do. But if you’re a painter, you paint anyway.