How refreshing it is to meet a designer liberated enough to argue against Modernism, especially if product design, glassware, lighting and furniture is his bread and butter.
But Tord Boontje, the 34-year-old Royal College of Art-trained Dutch designer can afford to. His highly decorative work is the result of an intellectually curious mind, keen to combine ancient traditions such as 17th century embroidery with the potential of new techniques and materials. His Wednesday Light (pictured far right), presented for the first time at the Oxo Peugeot Design Awards in 2001 is a typical example: a bare light bulb swathed by an intricately photo-etched myriad of minute stainless steel leaves. The lamp is probably his most popular design, selling in retailers in an equally detailed black, grey and white Graphic Thought Facility-designed packaging.
‘The Wednesday collection [comprising about 15 items such as tables, cabinets, lights and glassware) was developed after my daughter Evelyn’s birth, when I started being interested in much warmer, loving items.’ says Boontje. ‘As designers we are trained to design very plain objects. But I question this Modernist idea.’ Not that he dismisses the movement, on the contrary, Boontje believes that Modernism has been hijacked by a stylish approach that can be all too often seen in office environments, far removed from its original socialist, utopian ethic when it was used as solution for housing schemes. ‘It’s good to reassess decoration at home. The living environment should not resemble a bad office or a train station.’
Boontje’s collaboration with Swarovski has allowed his passion for ornamentation to flourish. At the past Milan Furniture Fair he showcased two oversized crystal chandeliers, one fashioned as a luminescent branch of blossom lit by an LED system and the second as a horse lit by halogen lamps. Each chandelier carries about £2000 worth of crystals. A recent Swarovski project, still to be launched, involves a series of A4 sheets adorned by crystals that can be peeled off and attached to wallpaper or painted walls.
Patterns are another passion – child-like figures of horses, bunnies and foxes that he painstakingly embroiders on textile covers for his furniture range. Dots, flowers, butterflies and birds populate a fantasy jungle on the surfaces of his furniture, glassware and most recently, laser-cut devorÃ© silk screens.
‘It’s about fantasising, using the ability of decoration to trigger memories,’ says Boontje. ‘A chandelier can recall a spring day, when the orchard is frozen by ice.’
But Boontje’s work isn’t all rooted in a Narnia-like world. The designer is acutely aware of the potential of new computer-led technologies, that have led him to develop (together with a software programmer and Andrew Shoben from digital group Greyworld) his very own projection programme, which, among other functions, draws flowers on surfaces. For his metal Wednesday tables (pictured second from left) he uses CNC punch, a computer-controlled punch software that allows the manufacturers to imprint 11 000 dots on the stainless steel surfaces in 10 minutes rather than two days.
Boontje also collaborates often with Simon Moore, design director at Dartington and previously at Venetian glass factory Salviati. For the glassware, Boontje has developed a wooden plank system with nails that is imprinted on the warm glass, embossing particular patterns.
Future projects include a prestigious commission designing Swarovski crystal chandeliers for a giant, new mosque in the United Arab Emirates, due for completion in December 2003. So far he has been asked to draw sketches for the three main domes of the mosque, whose diameters are 30m wide as well as the lighting design for the arcades. The project is a far cry for his smaller, domestic oriented work, but one that should appeal to his pattern-led sensitivity, given the Islamic tradition of calligraphy as art.
Tord Boontje will be part of Design Museum’s Great Brits, an exhibition of new British design. It will be on show at the Milan Furniture Fair from 4-9 April 2003