An Afternoon Conversation with Piet Houtenbos

Liz Kinnmark, 2009


Piet’s conceptual sensibility leads to objects that are hard to forget, such as the Grenade Oil Lamp. Based in Long Island City (where all the studios we’ve seen have superior views, sigh!) he took some time out to discuss his inspiration and process with us.


DESIGN GLUT: Your grenade oil lamp really put you on the map as a designer to watch. How did you come up with the design?

PIET HOUTENBOS: I designed them in 1998, in college, during my freshman year at RISD. The idea was to take something that exists and turn it into something else. I found these grenades in an army surplus store, held one, and thought it was incredible. I never thought I would hold a grenade. It’s such a powerful object and it was such a weird experience to hold it.

After a few ideas I realized I should put a wick in it and make it an oil lamp.

DG: When did you start selling them?

PH: After I graduated, Dave from The Future Perfect emailed me out of the blue. I’d just posted some of my college work on Coroflot. He said, “I’ve seen your pieces, I’m opening a store, and I’d love to sell your work.” I told him that I had these grenade lamps that I could easily make. It was at the height of the Iraq war, so the timing was perfect.

It was a very lucky product for a young designer, because we struggle with the cost of everything. Young designer’s work is expensive because we don’t manufacture huge runs. It costs a lot of money to make something cheap.

Grenades are cast by the government, dirt cheap, and are made by the billion. Originally I just took the grenades, coated them in oil, and put a top on bottom on them. Then, around Christmas, I got the idea to plate them in gold and silver. Slowly but surely, because of the power of Dave’s store, people came, they saw it, they loved it, and it really built momentum. It was just timing, a great store, great guy and an interesting object.

DG: What else were you doing when you got out of school?

PH: After that I got a real job. I worked at Modernlink doing furniture – I was their only designer. I think you should work as often as possible for someone else. You will learn tremendously from working for other people, and you get paid. I think it’s a mistake for somebody right out of college to try to just go for it on their own. It’s valiant, and a lot of hard work, but very difficult. My five years at Modernlink taught me more about what I like in design than almost all of college.

DG: What made you leave?

PH: After having a job at Modernlink for 4-5 years, I realized the design was slowing down there, and I needed to move on. Try my own work again. This mirror was the first thing that came out of it.

I had all this free time, no job, and I started going to the Met a lot. I was awestruck by the period rooms. One of the things I was drawn to most were the mirrors. A mirror is just a piece of glass, but the frames were crazy. They were status symbols. You would walk into a room, see it, and know where you were. I wanted to capture that. Not copying the style, but the presence.

DG: How are your mirrors made?

PH: The glass is beveled to create the form. I thought it would be really simple to make, but actually it’s a nightmare of precision. I asked all these companies if they could make it, they looked at the design and said it was impossible.

When you feed glass through line-beveling machines, the glass bends and warps. Wide bevels are really tough. You get uneven lines. If this piece is off by 1mm, the corresponding line will shoot in the wrong direction. The mirror company puts the design into their computer program and presses a button, if it says it can’t make it, then that’s it. I ended up finding a guy in the midwest who is 50 years old, has been doing it forever, who said he could do. This one guy in his shop is able to do what a huge mirror company that can’t.

The other challenge was hanging this piece. The way you hang mirrors with incredible frames is with a wire and hooks in in the frame! This mirror has no frame, so I came up with a magnetic system. You screw the plate onto the wall, and the mirror sticks.

DG: I want to hang everything like that!

The reason it works for the mirror is because it’s flat and there is no torque.

DG: Beyond your personal design work, you work for Bumble and Bumble is well known. How does designing for a specific client differ from designing for yourself?

PH: When you give a company something, no matter how cool it is, they don’t know where to fit it into their master plan. They also need perceived value – if it’s something too simple, people will say, “I could do that myself.”

I came up with the rubber band ball, and brought it to Bumble because they were the only company cool enough to pull it off. The idea was to embed a rubber bouncy ball in the center of a larger ball with orbits cut out of it. It was a delivery system for 100 rubber bands. A holder.

DG: How would you describe your design philosophy?

PH: I take a standard material, apply a lot of something to it, and turn it into a beautiful thing. For example – these shelves are made from floorboards, a cheap material that’s readily available. I sand a little from the top, for tactility, and a lot from the bottom, and create this form. The thin flat edge on the curve was inspired by the transition on the MacBook Air.

Some people go on to slowly build shops, but I’m not into that. I think if you start amassing a wood shop, you’ll be making tables your whole life. I want to make all kinds of different stuff – granite bowls, beautiful mirrors, oil lamps, whatever.