MEET PIET HOUTENBOS
Responsible for bringing us the Grenade Oil Lamp, we had a chat with Piet to discover what it is about design that keeps him inspired to continue to craft pieces that tell both a story and at times solve problems - but above all, are a seamless blend of beauty and function.
KULTURE BOMB: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a designer?
PIET HOUTENBOS: It was a guess. I was a young kid that decided to go to art school instead of ‘regular’ college and headed straight for the industrial design department. I thought I liked design. I was certainly a visual guy, but in reality I had never designed a single thing! To this day I still think it’s a crazy move to declare your lifelong profession so early on. But alas, I followed my youthful optimism went to RISD and became a designer.
But not really.
It's only recently - maybe a few years ago - that I started to realize I had become a designer. I noticed that I was able to solve problems with better solutions and repeat the caliber of work I was creating. By caliber lets just say I mean I was happy with the result myself. I think when you're a young designer your work can be a little hit or miss because you just dont have enough experience with the end results of your work, that moment you can reflect on all the decisions and see if you guided yourself to a good place or not. Sometimes you think you are but you just miss it. With experience comes a greater understanding of all the parts in the process and you get a better sense of seeing the future - the end result. Then there’s the creative catch 22. With any creative endeavor you want to push boundaries. You're always directing yourself into cloudy water instead of the clear stream just to the left. So you’ll really never have a crystal ball but you will get better at navigating the muddy water.
KB: What elements of your designing process do you enjoy the most, the ones that keep you going each day?
PH: I really enjoy the wide eyed optimism of sketching. Nothing is all that important, its very fast, and its one of the times that just about any idea can flourish. Things can get technical pretty quickly. Needs have to be met, manufacturing processes have to be considered, all kinds of constraints start swarming like bees. I also like the initial phases of 3D modeling. Its sort of a more direct form of sketching. Its a place to refine a sketch, see what the proportions are really like and test out alternate versions. I actually love when I think I have something good on paper then refine it in CAD and test my love for it.
KB: What inspires your unique creations?
PH: A healthy respect for the past and all the work that has been done up to now mixed with my own perceptions and realizations. Its pretty funny actually. I research the hell out of something and then try to block it all out so I can come up with something fresh.
For example my Halsey and Halsey Five Credenzas are a pretty simple take on a classic cabinet. Wood, stone top, and a bunch of doors. But I decided firmly at the time that handles don’t always have to be theses little doodads that you pull on. I thought, its just a tiny lightweight cabinet door, theres almost no resistance, you dont need to go overboard with functional handles. So instead of designing the handles themselves I designed the space where the handles would go and borrowed some gothic references because I was using stone. I think a really good detail can drive the aesthetic of an entire piece. So I keep my eyes open all the time.
KB: Do you believe that your finished product reflects who you are personally at all? If so, in what way?
PH: Well it certainly reflects my taste but I'm much rougher around the edges than my work. I was thinking about this question at dinner the other night. I had some scallops. It came to the table with a rich sauce on top, some tiny scallion looking things, a couple complicated nuts here and there and some other thinly sliced colorful things. It was delicious and beautiful, no doubt about it. But I would never cook that way, and I dont design that way. I like to keep things simple and casual in my life. I really dont like superfluous fluff. For me its all about boiling down to find simple beauty. For me its more like the apprentice in Jiro Dreams of Sushi who had to make scrambled eggs (aka Tomago) over and over and over until it was perfect and then cried. In a nutshell - My work is much more gentle and refined than i am as a person but I do obsess over details just as I do about things on eBay.
KB: What are you favorite materials to work with?
PH: Hard to say. I have more experience with wood, metal and stone. They're mostly natural materials and I love them for it. I do love how materials like plastic can be devoid of all color and texture and so a design really stands on its own merits rather than relying on wood grain to lure you in. For the moment I’d have to say solid wood is the most complex and rewarding material I've gotten the pleasure to know. You get incredible tapestries from the grain but you have to deal with it in your design. You need an intimate understanding of its movement over time but its relatively easy to work with. It’s just an endless give and take but a fascinating organic material.
KB: Are there any other designers or creatives that you really feel inspired by, or that you just love to admire the work of?
KB: Reflecting on your career so far, have there been any real highlights for you?
PH: For me its been a slow and steady push. My body of work is the result of some great jobs and clients I’ve had as well as some explorations that led to something special. As a designer the end of each job feels like a highlight. A moment of clarity for the months of work you put in.
Some jobs feel extra special but any real big highlight is hard to pinpoint. I just keep designing and have my share of success and failures. Get back to me in 30 years when I'm 65 and Ill tell you what they were!
KB: Do you have any upcoming projects that you are excited about that you would like to share? What is next for you?
PH: Of course! I recently finished a new commissioned desk design. It needed to separate a living room from the home office and so really had to look good from the back. I used a vocabulary I had been developing for some time and it has a lot of details but the result is quite simple. I thought it was successful enough that I modeled a new bench after it which will be up on the site in about a month. For now you can check out the Asa Desk, we did it in solid Wenge which really made a great bold statement with some simple lines. When it was done it felt like a highlight!
Aside from that I’m starting to make some smaller things starting with cutting and carving boards believe it or not. It’s exciting to start working smaller scale again. I was particularly intrigued by the carving board for slicing juicy meat as it has some interesting things to take into account and its really fun to think about the solutions. I think I have a great one! We should have them up on our site by the end of next month. I hope you like them and more to come!
KB: We look forward to following Piet's design journey, we certainly love and admire his work.