“Pinned Up at the Stedelijk” by Marcel Wanders
I meet with Marcel Wanders in the monumental lower level galleries of the Stedelijk museum’s new wing where his exhibition opens tomorrow. He is busy illustrating characters directly onto the freshly painted walls. I stand behind him and he only turns to look at me if his point needs extra emphasis.
We talk mostly about a subject he feels so personally and passionately about that no matter what your stance is on his anti-modernist agenda, it’s impossible not to be influenced.
The thing that always strikes me about Wanders in person is that beyond being a dreamer, a romanticist and an incredibly nice guy, he is also wickedly smart.
“Everything I have done is theoretical,” he says. “My theories have evolved, but without them there would be no work. From a viewer or user’s perspective nothing is ever only rational, but it is not essential to understand the work, only the philosophy. No single object is ever more important than the idea, or the genetic code behind it … which is why I design.”
Wanders always says he designs for the public not for designers. In a design culture such as the Netherlands a lot is done, said and written from within the inner sanctum … and mostly for members of that same inner sanctum. It’s a situation Wanders abhors.
“The Dutch design scene is very stuck on its island,” he says. “And it is just not where I want to be. I want to be on the mainland doing things that real people actually love, want and need.”
Wanders gets into a lot of arguments with colleagues on this issue. “Mostly because if you try to act like a bridge connecting the design island to the mainland, they don’t like it,” he says. “Not one little bit. That is why this exhibition is so important - it reaches the general public, but also gives me a podium on the design island."
The issue of change in design is another topic I hit on with Wanders who manipulates the topic, managing to twist it to his own circumstances. “The field is really developing, “ he says, “our culture is changing and we are taking more and more distance from the dogmatic and formal way of understanding and handling the world.”
By this he of course means modernism. It’s a word he really doesn’t like – it’s a way of thinking, an aesthetic, a philosophy that angers him.
Wanders points out that if one looks in places where design in its most famous manifestations is not usually found, there is plenty of evidence of change. “Creativity in all areas is influencing product culture, “ he says.
Product culture? That’s a new term to me and a fascinating interpretation of what Wanders does.
He says his influence over the last 25 years has been on moving the produced world of objects away from what he calls “abstract and cold and technical and analytical and inhumane …. It was just so important that we find another way.”
In an early text titled “War on Design” Wanders wrote about dogmatic modernism. “Even a few weeks ago I saw an old Le Corbusier proposal where he presents an idea for ten skyscrapers in the center of Paris,” he says.
Wanders turns around from his illustration and glares at me. “Can you imagine!” he says. “Just ripping up a part of Paris to erect skyscrapers. It is insane. There is no past in modernism, there is only ever the future. But we need durability, what we create today can not be irrelevant tomorrow.
“And no matter what I will always say that dogmatic fundamentalism is wrong. Everything that is built on that basis disallows the creation of a durable, humane, romantic, and positive world.
“Modernism was a tool to create equality,” he continues. “Industry was charged with the task of making society more decent and equal. Machines could make amazing things, but they were not the things of Kings and Queens. So what could be made by machines had to be marketed as desirable and beautiful. It makes sense. But this is a different era and machines can make anything we want now yet still designers want to design things that those early machines were limited to.”
Wanders accuses such designers of being stylistic adventurers rather than honest seekers of truth.
Most designers and the design establishment that worship at the altar of modernism will of course never agree. “If I have not convinced them yet, then I never will,” Wanders admits. “Designers who have been committed to modernism for thirty years will never think they are wrong because this is not about predicting the next colour or shape trend, it is a very fundamental belief.”
Nothing grows old faster than the new is a motto that runs through this exhibition. In most of the 400 objects on display Wanders is constantly pulling references from the past in an attempt to not alienate people from what has been.
“Who has an old photograph of their great grandmother on their streamlined, modernist bench?” he asks spinning around from his drawing to make sure I get his point.
“But it is a lonely fight,” he admits sounding perhaps a little sad, “especially on the island. Who are you writing this for again?”
“Design.nl,” I remind him.
“Agh the island,” he accuses. “Another one from the island.”
Images of some of Wanders' work
Set Up Shades 1989
Knotted Chair 1996
Sponge Vase 1997
Big Shadow Lamps 1998
Airborne Snotty Vases 2001
Delft Blue 2009
Sparkling Chair 2010
"Marcel Wanders: Pinned up at the Stedelijk"
Runs from 1 Feb to 15 Jun 2014
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