Are you taking the piss?’ The question only momentarily ruffles Marcel Wanders’ considerable charm and composure. He pushes his 6 foot 4 inches frame back on an expensive chair in the penthouse suite of London’s super-plush Sanderson hotel, one long, silver-jean-clad leg crossed over the other, his hair swept away from his face by a crystal-encrusted tiara, and announces with quiet conviction, ‘You know, I am not a cynic.’
The question relates to New Antiques, the challenging furniture series he created two years ago for Cappellini, retro in all the ways we don’t really want. ‘It’s very serious and not meant to be funny,’ he explains. If it was just a joke, he says, it would have come out of his own studio, but it was intended to sell, and has done, so he claims.
Wanders has a reputation as one of design’s biggest showmen, and has enjoyed a stellar career since the launch, in 1996, of the Knotted Chair he created while part of the Droog collective. King of a poppy, kitsch aesthetic, Wanders is the quintessential anti-Modernist designer.
‘I tend to work for women – they’re more fun and exciting,’ he explains. ‘I want to make them all feel like princesses.’ But the suggestion that this leads to fashion, rather than design, is met with vehement denial. ‘There is machinery now that can do fantastic things. Why use the vocabulary we created at that moment [the beginning of industrial production] that drew its inspiration from engineering and technology? It is good in design not to make something that is easy to produce or economic. We are free from the dogma of Modernism. We can go anywhere, even backwards,’ he explains.
Wanders is in London promoting Mondrian South Beach, the new Miami hotel from Morgans Hotel Group opening later this year, for which he designed the interiors. The set-up is more akin to a Hollywood star promoting a new movie, or a popstar pushing a new album. Paris and Milan are also on the ‘tour’, but Wanders is only doing London. The group, incidentally, also owns the Sanderson.
Ian Schrager has relinquished day-to-day control, and Philippe Starck is no longer the group’s designer, but Wanders says he has spoken to his hero Starck and that he ‘is happy I am doing it’.
Is it not funny that he should be working on a hotel named after the austere Modernist at the very opposite end of the Dutch aesthetic? He laughs, and points out that the name was fixed before his appointment. But he adds that the design of large wall fittings, holding the shelves, TV and desk for the rooms, started off from playing around with the themes from Piet Mondrian. Another typically ironic, but very Dutch reference is the tiled kitchen area. ‘It’s a new interior. It needs to have life and shouldn’t feel too new, so we have an old Dutch kitchen.’ What look like Delft tiles turn out, on closer inspection, to have drawings of Bay Watch girls and so on, Wanders explains with a grin.
Interior design is a relatively recent departure for Wanders. ‘You need to play with different flavours,’ he says. ‘My furniture is considered pretty conceptual, but with interiors there can’t be just one idea. It would be boring.’ Instead, says Wanders, you need ‘the creativity of a musician’, bringing in different instruments, to orchestrate a range of different ideas.
Wanders prides himself on not repeating himself, and it’s that quality he most admires in Starck. So what’s in the pipeline? The interiors sideline will expand, but Wanders is also looking to move into architecture, despite no training in the subject. ‘Creative people are best in what they can’t do,’ he reasons. ‘Does Rem Koolhaas know the molecular structure of concrete? No, he works with someone who does.’ He mentions a series of projects, including a villa in Jakarta, that will definitely be built.
But other things are keeping him pretty busy. Increasing his sense of Dutchness is the 5000m2 Westerhuis building he has taken over in the centre of Amsterdam, which he envisages becoming a communal creative hub. He is also beavering away ahead of the Milan Furniture Fair, for which there is a slew of new projects for Flos, Kartell, and, he hopes, a chandelier for Swarovski. But Moooi (the company Wanders founded, which is now co-owned by B&B Italia), he says with a twinkle in his eye, will show the work of a 72-year-old Dutch inventor. You somehow guess he is being serious, but you can’t be sure.