Q&A with piet houtenbos

Judith Bailon, 2014


JUDITH BAILON: What’s your daily moment of peace?
PIET HOUTENBOS: First thing in the morning I always head to the internet and check out what’s new.

JB: What aspect we don’t expect about you?
PH: I have a hidden part of me thats a bit sentimental.

JB: Do you design by hand or by computer?
PH: I always start drawing in one of my large sketchbooks.  It’s a quick way to to figure out where you’re going.  They’re physical so you end up building a library of your ideas you can reference in the future.  A good piece of advice is to never use loose paper that you’ll loose in a week.  If an idea doesn’t make the cut now it might be valuable for something else down the road.  3D modeling is great for understanding how your ideas translate to the real world.  You come across a lot of physical problems you never realized in your head.  Since you have to add real word dimensions its great for fine tuning proportions that looked great in a loose sketch but less so when you have to make it to a certain dimension.  I can’t tell you how many times I finally sketch something that looks great and then take it to Solidworks and realize I can’t get the proportion I want at the size I need.  But then you can start to play with things and find ways to make it look and work even better.

JB: A trend in design that you can’t stand?
PH: While I love the 3D printing revolution, I can’t stand that everyones just making things with holes in it.

JB: What do you do on a long flight?
PH: I always take my sketch book to brainstorm something I’m working on.  But in reality I rarely do it because I’m tall enough that long flights are just so damn uncomfortable.  So I pretty much try to work on getting into the right time zone.  Though if its daytime I can stare out the window at the earth and clouds for hours.

JB: In Halo, a ring of fire in a modern ceramic chandelier, you inspired from our religious and royal past and then exploring the boundaries of modernism, it happens the same in the Diamond Mirror. How does the past influence your work?
PH: I think part of the reason I’m so affected by ‘royal era’ stuff is because it’s so entirely different than the way I design things yet I find it full of beautiful moments.  If my work thrives in subtlety theirs thrived in the flamboyant use of ornamentation.  Buts theres a lot more to it than that.  If you look at a carved and gilded piece of furniture and you squint to try to remove all the ornamentation theres still a lot there to look at.  By using ornamentation everywhere including basic structure they came up with some pretty unique forms and gestures.  For me its an endless library to draw from.  You can find a baroque table with 1000 details and design a whole new table using just one good gesture as inspiration.

JB: Your works often encapsulates a moment or aesthetic idea from the past but presents it in a modern context.  Do you think there’s a balance between classic and something that’s a tad sterile, often seen in more contemporary furniture these days?
PH: Tastes will always change with the times but there will always be some nostalgia.  My tendency is to design with a cleaner aesthetic vocabulary, what you might call more ‘modern’.  Though there is a place where that can get a little sterile or boring and so yes, finding that balance brings you to an interesting place.  I think good design should be simple and approachable but have a little life in it.  Thats why I like the royal era stuff so much.  Its just exploding with life.  So I like to find ways to mute that a bit and bring some of those ideas to a place thats a little less loud.  I also learned a great deal by studying Scandinavian modernism from the 50’s and 60’s.  The stuff architects all seem to love.  There are so many great examples of simple clean designs using a very sophisticated vocabulary.

JB: Minimalism or kitsch?
PH: Those are pretty extreme!  I think ‘minimalism’ however you define it is too bland and boring for everyday life and while ‘kitsch’ can be elicit emotions or capture a moment it pretty much ends at a one liner.

JB: In 1998, your design of a grenade oil lamp put you on the map as a designer to watch. How did you come up with the design? It was a metaphor?
PH: That project actually started while I was in my first year at the Rhode Island School of Design.  We were asked to take an object and turn it into something else.  I remember walking into an army surplus store at the time and asked to see one of their inert grenades.  Just holding one elicits all sorts of emotions.  It was a heavy, scary, powerful object yet really beautiful at the same time. So I war responding to those emotions more than anything else.  I remember thinking all anyone knows about grenades is if you see one just run!  So I thought it would be great if you could light one and stay there.  Almost like a Russian Roulette feeling, like wait a minute this is not right.  Truth be told I actually first tried turning it into a lighter but couldn’t figure out how to fit the components into the existing neck of the grenade.  Later I settled on a simpler and more poignant approach, that was an oil lamp.

JB: It seems that a lot of 21st century designers incorporate ecologically sustainable design, strive for innovation and functionality, and often use alternative materials. How do you fit in and how do you make a difference?
PH: There’s really nothing we produce thats bad for the environment.  I can’t actually think of anything we use thats toxic or any significant amount of waste we produce and everything we design uses natural materials like wood, metal, stone, glass and ceramics.  We dont buy our wood from harvested forests and instead, take efforts to get our wood from salvaged sources whenever possible.  We dont use toxic finishes simply because we dont want to work with it and we wouldn’t want it on our own furniture.  But perhaps most importantly make durable products that can be handed down for generations. If you can make something people love it will stay out of the landfills.

JB: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
PH: I can’t remember.

JB: What comes first, materials or the design idea?
PH: There really is no first, you have to take everything into account when you’re designing something.  Its a balancing act between your ideas, how many you have to make and listening to the materials conducive nature.  When i’m designing a piece of wooden furniture I usually focus on finding the idea which is basically what it looks like and how it works. You’re always keeping in mind what you know the material can and can’t do and it guides you. Then you figure out where to push the limits. You can’t force an idea onto a material it will just push back at every step of the way.  But you do have to get your ideas realized and thats really where the nuts and bolts of design comes in.  You have to figure out how to best execute your idea given the limitations of the materials you want to use and the processes available to you.

JB: You decided to start your own business. What have you learned? Are you still learning along your creative business journey?
PH: You have to keep changing.  What worked for you in the past, might not work for you going forward.  I used to focus on selling products but there are dramatic differences between selling a $60 oil lamp and a $5,000 mirror.  More recently I’ve been focusing on furniture which again makes you to find new ways to get your work out there.  Furniture is a tough one.  We make very high end work and we pay more for beautiful wood and really great craftsmen, so you really have to figure out how to make your margins work.  You also have to pick which directions to go.  Its really important to cultivate relationships with people that have the right attitude.  For a relationship to work, everyone needs to share the risks and rewards.  I’ve seen some very one sided relationships and they just never work out.  As Larry David once said, “A good deal is one where everyone walks away a little pissed off.”

JB: What do you imagine design will look like 50 years from today?
PH: I really dont know!  I imagine some things will continue to be digitized into extinction.  I think theres a big future in 3D printing or some kind of personal fabrication, well probably be printing our silverware instead of traveling to the store.  I hope we’ll still be allowed to use natural materials like wood and stone but there are already restrictions on using some wood species. I really hope that the bigger companies start to follow Apples lead.  At the moment they only seem to focus on design when they feel they’ve grown stagnant and need to inject a little life into their brand.  You see it in the headlines, ‘Marc Newson designs Nikons next camera.’.  The problem is they go right back to their boring selves after that one burst of energy.  They need to start realizing that if you’re making products design should be in their blood all the time.  Its happening, just with a little less vigor than I’d like to see.

JB: How would you describe your own home?
PH: Its a testing ground.  Sometimes you can best figure out what needs to be designed when you need something yourself and can’t find anything thats great.  I can’t live in a world of all my own stuff so I have a good mix of my own prototypes, my friends art and a lot of vintage Scandinavian stuff.

JB: Functionality or aesthetics?
PH: Any great design is successful in both of those things.  Who wants something that looks great but doesn’t work?  Pretty much nobody.

JB: Have your practices changed to keep up with new technologies?
PH: I use a good mix of newer digital fabrication like 3D printing and CNC milling and old tried and tested techniques.  Some things like woodworking haven’t changed all that much in 50 years besides more rapid automation.  The way we make furniture though is probably exactly the way they did it half a century ago.  There are so many different processes people are figuring out all the time.  I actually like to go on You Tube and watch industrial videos…

JB: What is your favorite planet?
PH: Mars is pretty cool right now.  They just dont have any trees.  I’d love to make a solid wood cabinet from earth with a martian stone top.