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  • Witch Chair, part of the Happy Ever After installation at Moroso, Milan, 2004

Seats of Influence

Tord Boontje talks to Grant Gibson

‘For me, chairs are really nice vehicles for experimenting,’ Tord Boontje tells me as we hunker down in a corner of his Shoreditch studio-cum-shop. And to prove the point we’re surrounded by a cluster of designs many of which will be showing in an installation at this year’s COLLECT. 

They run a gamut of styles and materials from a very sharp, masculine-looking cantilever chair made from mild steel to the Crow Chair, notable for its embroidered upholstery. ‘A chair is a good piece with which to communicate,’ he continues. ‘Chairs and lights are nice things because we all have them in our lives. I don’t know if you’ve ever counted the number of chairs that you use or own? It’s much, much more than one.’ 

Crow Chair, Wednesday Collection, 2001

In some respects COLLECT is an intriguing place for him to exhibit. It’s a show some industrial designers, imbued with the ethos of modernism, have occasionally failed to appreciate. Chris Eckersley, for instance, has confessed that visiting gave him the inspiration to create an antidote in Real Craft, the exhibition he curated last year at New Brewery Arts in Cirencester. Boontje though has no such foibles. ‘I feel very comfortable moving between machine-made things and handmade things,’ he reasons. ‘Hand-making can add so much value to products. If you go on the high street or a car showroom or step into a train interior, materialistically it’s a very poor world we live in. It lacks the sensorial qualities that craft offers.’  

Boontje, of course, is a designer who appears to enjoy swimming against the tide. Born in Holland in 1968, he initially studied at Eindhoven, where he spent time learning craft skills such as weaving, knitting and printing and graduated with a collection of perfume bottles. However, after deciding that he didn’t want to be a textile designer he went to London’s Royal College of Art for his MA in the industrial design department. 

He sprang to wider attention at 100% Design in 1997 when he and his partner, the glass artist Emma Woffenden, launched their tranSglass range of tableware. The pieces were self-produced in Woffenden’s workshop using recycled bottles. ‘Six months later we were selling it in 30 countries. It was a full time job to produce it,’ he recalls. Since 2003, the range has been manufactured in Guatemala City by US company Artecnica, which prides itself on working with artisan communities in developing countries to produce objects that reflect local skills. 

In 1998, Boontje came up with the Rough and Ready Chair made from salvaged materials, which was shown at the ICA’s Stealing Beauty exhibition. In a nod to the iconic Italian designer Enzo Mari, the idea was that people could use the free drawings to build their own version by collecting wood, blankets and string. So far, so utilitarian. Then something really interesting happened: Boontje discovered decoration. The Wednesday Collection, created in 2000/2001, mixed hand-making techniques such as embroidery with newer technologies like laser-cutting, to dazzling effect. Picking up a version of his Crow Chair, he explains that he was keen to break out of the masculine world of industrial design. 

Rough and Ready Chair, 1998

‘At the RCA there were 15 of us and only one girl in our second year.’ As a result he found himself attracted to something often considered to be a ‘female, domestic activity’. In retrospect it was an incredibly bold move, as he points out: ‘Any magazine that you would pick up at the time had super-slick, glossy tables by Ross Lovegrove 
and Philippe Starck. Then you had John Pawson interiors. There was nothing there that I could identify myself with,’ he says. ‘In general I’ve always drifted to the places where there are less people, whether it was music or clothes when I was growing up. I was always a bit outside.’ 

This interest in ornament started with the birth of his daughter. Before that, he confesses, he and Woffenden spent most of their time in the workshop rather than their flat in Peckham. Then suddenly that all changed. ‘It wasn’t acceptable anymore to have a pile of wood in the front room,’ he says. ‘Is it a white box that you want to live in? Is that what you want to call home?’ 

It was the Wednesday Light that brought him to a genuinely mainstream audience, beyond the design conscious. He had initially made the product for an exhibition by the British Council in Prague, using his budget to buy the required tooling and manufacturing 12 for the show. When they sold instantly, he realised he might be on to something. It subsequently appeared in The Guardian’s interiors supplement ‘Space’ and orders, to use his own turn of phrase, ‘went wild’. 

Wednesday Light, Wednesday Collection, 2001

‘It was very pretty and ornamental but in a very technological sort of way. On one hand it was a completely new expression, at the same time it had a sentiment that can be recognised, without being nostalgic,’ he says. A different iteration of the product, the Garland Light, which was rather less sharp and considerably larger, was picked up by Habitat. 

That sheet of photo-etched steel was Boontje’s first real brush with mass manufacturing and industry. However, arguably his most important relationship has been with the high-end Italian furniture company Moroso. The Witch Chair came from his hugely theatrical Happy Ever After installation at the company’s showroom during the Milan Furniture Fair in 2004, in which he attempted to fuse a sense of nature together with technology and fashion. 

Witch Chair, part of the Happy Ever After installation, Moroso, Milan, 2004

Ah! I just used the F-word. It’s one that divides the design world. The likes of Dieter Rams, for instance, have argued that products should be beyond the seasonal cycle of clothes. Boontje, however, isn’t so sure. ‘I find it very exciting that fashion is so constantly moving and innovating,’ he tells me. ‘And I think that’s what is really attractive about fashion. Fashion is set up in a way that means you don’t need to make the same jacket year after year. You can change the pattern; you can change the fabrics, it’s fine. The problem is with consumerism: throwing away a perfectly fine jacket and not wearing it because you don’t have enough self-belief to wear what you like. That’s more where the problem lies. The problem also lies with advertising that leaves people feeling insecure about not being up-to-date.’

He collaborated with Alexander McQueen to design a Christmas tree made up of 100,000 Swarovski crystals for the V&A in 2003 and the pair struck up a friendship. ‘We connected very strongly based on material, interest in craft, in Victorian things as well,’ he recalls. ‘What McQueen had was an amazing ability to present ideas. The shows were like the idea of gesamtkunstwerk, where the visual things, the staging, the music, the lighting, everything comes together in this amazing 15 minutes. He was the complete master of it. That I learned a lot from.’ 

Princess Chair, part of the Happily Ever After installation at Moroso, Milan, 2004

More recently he has been concerned with working alongside artisans from developing countries and, in his owns words, ‘using their traditional techniques that are in a different way relevant to the Western world.’ Results include the Shadowy Chair for Moroso, which has a shape redolent of beach furniture from the 1920s, while its digitally drawn colour pattern is woven by Senegalese craftsmen using plastic threads around a steel frame. ‘On one hand it’s a cultural exploration but they are also 
commercial projects,’ says Boontje. 

Over the years much of this work has gone on against the backdrop of his teaching. He left his role as head of design products at the Royal College of Art in 2013 after four years because, he says: ‘It was getting impossible to balance that and getting the studio here. Now I couldn’t do it. We have too much going on.’ 

Boontje’s work, along with the likes of Hella Jongerius and Jurgen Bey, anticipated the recent revival of interest in craft and ornament, showing it was possible for a designer to use hand-making processes and new technology while working cheek-by-jowl with industry. In the process, he helped break down the sense that these disciplines exist in separate silos. His installation should prove to be a hugely welcome addition to COLLECT. 

This is taken from Crafts Guide to COLLECT 2015 which comes free with the May/June issue of Crafts Magazine 

Red Cut Flower Chair, The Wednesday Collection

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