Interview Magazine
Stephanie Seymour Nominates Piet Houtenbos

Stephanie Seymour, 2009


29-year-old Piet Houtenbos first blew up with a series of lamps in the shapes of grenades. But it hasn't stopped there; Stephanie Seymour asks the Dutch designer about what puts design consumers on-edge.

STEPHANIE SEYMOUR: How do you ship your grenade lamps?  Don't they get confiscated?

PIET HOUTENBOS: The oil lamps have been seldom confiscated—a store was once raided by government officials and they've been kinda sorta maybe banned from The Netherlands all together but aside from that it hasn't been a real problem. It doesn't matter that they happen to come from real grenades. You could cast your own identical pieces and run into the same issues. They're inert, and essentially just metal containers.

SS: But people must have a strong reaction to those kinds of designs.

PH: The problem, or maybe the prize, is that people are emotional. The pineapple shape is a very familiar one. Even with the pin, lever, and detonator entirely removed seeing one in the wild can freak people out.  So what's the solution?  Outlaw the pineapple shape or force you to paint them? There's really nothing illegal about it. The reality is there is no problem only emotion.

SS: What is your inspiration right now?

PH: I recently finished the Diamond Mirror which really got me thinking about the past. I spent a lot of time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art amazed by the reconstructed period rooms from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries—just the "stuff" people lived with, the undeniable presence and sense of power each piece had and the incredible time spent crafting and manipulating materials.  Contemporary design just seemed to pail in comparison to the old master works. The aim of the Diamond Mirror was to bring back some of that power from its glory days using newer techniques.  

SS: Where else has that inspiration gone?

PH: It stuck with me for two other pieces, the Black Hole Bowl and the Propellor Shelf. I wanted to highly manipulate materials while maintaining simple clean designs. I like to think of the Propellor Shelf as a a highly evolved board of mahogany. A single piece of wood is painstakingly cut, shaped, profiled, sanded, proportioned and detailed to make a humble little floating entryway shelf.

SS: And the second?

PH: The Black Hole Bowl was also inspired by Marc Newson's monumental furniture carved from single giant blocks of marble.  I was stunned to see such an old typecast material subjected to such futuristic lines. The funny thing about inspiration is that once you've found it you have to do something else or you risk copying it, which was excruciatingly inevitable in this case. So I did the opposite of his grand scaled emblematic marble grain covered super works: I created a very thin, very subtle, very black granite bowl cut with the absolute precision of computer control. The bold nature of Marc's pieces led me to creating the most subtle thing I've ever made.

SS: Do you usually design by hand or by computer?

PH: Both. Sometimes the proportions you draw are naturally better than those imposed by numbers or math on a computer. Finding them often takes the loose wavering nature of sketching. The trick is capturing what you drew on paper and duplicating it in a world without line weights or natural variation—just harsh one-dimensional lines. But that's the point. Good design is a bunch of materials proportioned and configured in a good way.

SS: What's the difference between the two methods for you?

PH: Computers are good at finding variations and specifics. When I was designing the Diamond Mirror, days were spent adjusting the angles and lengths of the profile shape to get the proportions just right, you'd be surprised how long we toil over the smallest details and computers are great at nailing down specific details with exactness. It is all about computers now, and I love everything about them but i like to think that the computer is one of the few things that has become as useful as a pencil.

SS: What's one trend in design that you cannot stand?

PH: Gimmicks. I have a love/hate relationship with design that relies on visual references of something else to make an impact. They're one-liners. It can happen when you take inspiration too literally, like making a coat hook that looks like a tree. I just made that up but I bet it exists; I bet there's 20 different designs. When you rely too heavily on external references you kind of loose the chance to design something. I cant say I hate it, I love it. After all, I made a Grenade Oil Lamp.

SS: Earliest memory of you being interested in furniture design?

PH: Oh god a memory question!  I always liked making things, I used to sell "birds nests" with my younger brother on the side of the road in Long Island when I was about nine.  They were piles of mud mixed with straw I stole from the neighbors.  People would stop, give me two bucks and not take the birds nest.  The first real time I felt some real pride and satisfaction from making something was a lamp I made in architecture class around ninth grade.  I stayed late after school to finish it for a couple weeks. The last day our teacher gave us a chord and a bulb to glue in and we turned them all on.  I just remember thinking, I made something that does something!

SS: How did you start your line?

PH: The furniture line for modernlink had some pretty clear goals and some open ends.  The line was an homage to the Scandinavian classics of the 1950's and 60's but my personal goal was to bring some visual and useful inventiveness into the pieces.  Certain details started flowing through all the pieces like the long slot in the Honey floating bookshelf.  I then cut slots into the surface of the James desk for embedded desktop filing and that feature mutated to in/out mail slots for the Ryder entryway table.  Ideas on simplifying your life became the details that shaped the line.

SS: How did the collaboration with Bumble & Bumble come about?

PH: I've known Bumble for a while through my father Christiaan. In 2001 when I was just starting out Michael Gordon, the founder of Bumble, got curious. I remember him saying, "Okay so you're totally unproven, lets give it a try."  As all young designers do, I went all out and designed something radically different but far too difficult to produce at the time. Years later I approached Bumble again with the idea of doing a rubber-band ball with hair elastics. Howard McLaren, their creative director and hair kingpin, loved it.  Within a month or so Bumble asked if I could adapt the idea to their holiday program.

SS: How would you describe your own home?

PH: Sparse and deliberate. I don't like clutter and I would prefer to live without something for a while than buy a bunch of garbage all at once.  If you don't really love it, its garbage.  I like being a little eclectic too.  Eclectic adds life, it is life.

SS: Is there anything you haven't designed that you'd like to?

PH: Something mass produced and mass marketed.  Its one thing to design a high end mirror or a desk.  They're bigger purchases, people spend much longer searching for the right one.  For some reason the quest to fill your life with nice things fails when it comes to small everyday things like nail clippers, razors, or a stick of deodorant. Why is it easier to find beautifully designed silverware than beautifully designed toothbrush?  Because other people watch you use the silverware.  Design gets a little neglected when it becomes 'just for you'.  The perfume people get it.  Design is created just for you. I would love to design a whole group of those neglected little things.

SS: What's one thing you wish you'd designed?

PH: The Bullet Space Pen.  It writes upside down, right side up, backwards, forwards, under water, in zero gravity, in the freezing cold at high altitudes in the desert heat and has a shelf life of 100 years.  It was an engineering marvel in the 1950's.  Imagine all that and i like it because of its looks.  It might be a perfect design.

SS: If you weren't designing furniture, what would you be doing?

PH: I'd be figuring out what to do with the internet.  In the future we'll all be downloading our furniture and bowls and silverware and printing them out at home.  Some sort of rapid prototyping machine will become a household appliance but it will take a while. We'll all be printing our own dinnerware, candle sticks, recycle the material and change your stuff whenever you want.