As a testament to his longevity, rock-star status and sheer ingenuity, designer Marcel Wanders has been called both the Madonna and the Lady Gaga of the furniture world.
The comparisons seem fair when considering his furniture. The Amsterdamer eschews the minimal aesthetic of peers like Philippe Starck in favour of adding a subversive – sometimes kitschy – touch to the familiar and iconic. In 2008, when designing the interiors of Miami Beach's Mondrian Hotel, for instance, he paid homage to his Dutch heritage by festooning the rooms with blue-and-white Delft tiles. But instead of windmills and bunnies, his ceramics featured sharks and beach babes.
It's this playful sensibility that has made him so influential over his more than 20-year career. He's made it cool for designers to incorporate whimsy, irony and romanticism in a profession that for so long seemed dead set against anything but sober functionalism and simplicity. The next time you look at a piece of decor with any kind of wit, you can probably thank Wanders.
His relentless output of products – which covers high-end, low-end and everything in between – has also helped garner a diverse fan base. He works with exclusive manufacturers like Flos and Moroso to create museum-quality pieces (his 1996 Knotted Chair, produced by Cappellini, is in the permanent collections of both the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and New York's MoMA). He also co-owns Moooi, a mass-market maker of home and office furniture, and has made Christmas ornaments for Target, flip flops for Puma and collaborated on a makeup line with MAC.
Wanders was in Toronto last week for the North American launch of a new line of products for Moooi (including a a floor lamp reminiscent of an oil well). The launch party was hosted by one of the city's most respected retailers of contemporary furniture, Klaus Nienkamper II, and more than 1,500 people – including luminaries like restaurant impresario Charles Khabouth and fashion designer Amanda Lew Key – came to pay their respects.
Although Nienkamper's gallery-like store was lined with Wanders pieces (including one of Moooi's most ostentatious – a life-sized, PVC horse with a lightbulb coming out of its head), most people were more interested in catching a glimpse of, or better yet, a cell snap with the designer.
Wanders, after all, is famously larger than life. In 2003, he gave a talk to the Industrial Designers Society of America about working without fear. He started the lecture by discussing one his own anxieties: being naked in public. He finished by streaking, in the buff, across the stage.
He's also renowned for his party antics: In 2005, at an event at the Milan Furniture Fair, he engineered a special chandelier – aptly called the Happy Hour – from which his girlfriend, choreographer Nanine Linning, hung upside down, dispensing champagne to guests while intermittently feeding Wanders fresh grapes.
When I met him before the party, his outfit seemed consistent with his sensibility: a conservative, tailored black suit jacket, paired with flowing Palazzo pants, pink-and-red sneakers and the kind of beaded necklace that skateboarders used to wear in the nineties (except more sparkly).
But he was more soft-spoken and subdued than I expected. He bristled when I asked him if he preferred to be likened to Madge or Lady G ("Those comparisons are really for other people to make"). But his youthful optimism came out when we started talking about his work. Wanders believes that as a designer, it's not his job to make stuff – it's to uplift and improve people's lives through the beauty of his craft.
"I don't just want to create products," he said. "I want to reach into people's hearts and minds. I want to create memories."
It's because of this desire to tap into people's emotions that Wanders often starts with something traditional. His 2006 Crotchet chair, for example, looks like it was stitched together from a bunch of grandma-made doilies. "I want to do things that are, in a way, instantly recognizable," he explains. Yet he always adds a twist – the Crotchet Chair has a curvy, futuristic shape – that he hopes will surprise and ultimately stick in people's heads.
But Wanders is careful to point out that even when his work is lighthearted (as it often is – his new Bell lights are topped with bows), he isn't necessarily trying to be humorous. "A joke is something you can tell only once," he notes. "And then it isn't funny any more."
That's why he often balances the outlandish with a sense of restraint. His Skygarden Pendant Lights, for example, conceal florid, old-world flower patterning within a sleek, minimalist dome.
Creating this sense of intrigue is an idea that Wanders extends to all areas of his life. He believes his personality is integral to his work. Hence the publicity stunts and the party antics.
"I can't be boring," he says. "If people like my designs, then meet me, and find out that I'm boring, they won't want my stuff."