OFITEEN: Hello, thank you for letting us interview you. I’m curious to hear how you decided to start Singular Products?
PIET HOUTENBOS: I wanted to be able to design a wide range of things. After having done the line of furniture for modernlink, I was getting a little bored of doing furniture (which quickly passes when you stop doing it!). Modernlink was really great. I had guidelines to follow, there was a clear goal over there, but within that, I was able to invent and rethink as much as I wanted. It was one of William Lee's (president of modernlink) many great qualities - he was open - and because of that were were able to get a lot of interesting pieces out. But of course he was adamant about what he thought people cared about and what they didn’t care about. His mind was equally split between business and design. Mine was all design at the time. It was inspiring to learn the business side from someone who genuinely cared about design. Basically he gave it to me gently!
So, I learned a lot about the up's and down's and business behind it at modernlink. I also had great success with an earlier piece, the Hand Grenade Oil Lamps. The whole time at modernlink I had this side job making, selling, and promoting the grenades. Nights, weekends, whenever. I knew if I could just do a few more things like that I could sustain myself and start to grow. If there's a piece of advice I could give it would be that working for someone bigger than you is an incredibly good thing to do.
OFITEEN: What do you think sets your company apart from the others?
PH: Each designer sets themselves apart. Theres room for just about everyone.
OFITEEN: What is your goal for Piet Houtenbos?
PH: Thats still evolving. I dont want to fall into a niche. I want to do all sorts of things. The ultimate goal is to create great products that people keep their whole lives. Part of that comes from having been involved with modernlink. They sell beautiful vintage furniture along with the bamboo line I did. People still pay top dollar for used furniture thats over 50 years old. Think about it, thats pretty incredible on many levels.
OFITEEN: How would you describe your work?
PH: I think about thinks a lot. Maybe too much. But you have to. The world is changing like crazy and you have to keep asking yourself why you are producing this thing for people. Do they want it? Do they need it? Do they still need it? Do they have something similar already? Once i whittle it down to "Whats the point?" or "Whats wrong with it?" I can usually find something neglected, and build on that. Its not good enough to just make something prettier than the next one because pretty is subjective. You have to find a reason for everything. Sometimes it comes in the form of innovation, sometimes its a mental connection, and other times its just getting rid of the frills.
I dont work towards the goal of being a sexy designer, or an innovative designer or a modern designer. I take what I see and try to understand why things are happening, what's good and bad about it and then design my own version of it based off the collective thoughts. Sometimes it leads to innovation and beauty but they aren’t necessarily the goals. The James and Jimmy desks for modernlink were born from the idea that we still live in a paper world and a desk should have to deal with that in some way. The result was to embed the filing into the surface of the desk instead of having a separate piece of furniture for that. The idea came first, the design, how it was executed came second. The execution makes it cool, but it all has to start with an interesting idea.
OFITEEN: Do you have a mentor? If so, how have they been influential in shaping your ideas?
PH: Everything I see keeps me evolving. A while back it was all these cool simple ideas that were floating around the brooklyn design stores. They were like one liners. Brilliantly simple in their execution and message. More recently its been people like Marc Newson and Tom Dixon. Newson has such a unique style that whether you like it or not its stays with you. He also manages to push the envelope so many times that I think you have to be inspired by him. Check out the Azzedine Alaia Boutique, its beautifully simple. Tom Dixon sparked a little design realization in me. The idea that one of the most amazing things you can do is take standard stuff and configure it in a way that makes it beautiful. Think about tubular steel furniture. Its a bunch of tubes, but you bend them the right way and you get beauty. Its amazing.
OFITEEN: Do you feel that your work reveals your identity in a certain way?
PH: Im a redhead, but my work isn't red. I think about my work decisions much more than I think about my life decisions. In life I go with the flow. Its an exciting way to live. Up's downs and a whole lot of surprises. Actually I'd say my process can be a lot like my life. Sometimes Ill just draw anything. I dont even know what it is, but then ill look back at it and see something. That first stage is an open book, then I start refining the idea. Its like inspiration, it can come from anywhere.
OFITEEN: Do you think your personal life is different from your work life?
PH: Its all intertwined.
OFITEEN: How do you like to spend your spare time?
PH: I have a great group of creative friends, I love to hang out with them. I like meeting new people. I also waste a lot of time on the internet. A few years ago I bought a Vespa so I could get around New York and do whatever. That turned out to be a great decision.
OFITEEN: If you do not mind sharing, what would be your pet peeves?
PH: When things are taken just a little bit too far. There are so many times when I see something I think is almost perfect but then there's a little thing, that just looks like they thought it had to be a little more designy or something. But thats all relative, what I like someone else doesn't. In life i get annoyed by people that make a big deal about stupid little things.
OFITEEN: How do you stay inspired to maintain your company?
PH: Getting things out into the world keeps me going. There's the initial satisfaction of completing something and seeing it realized. But the big pay off is watching it slowly creep around the world. You start promoting it where you can and then you watch as people love it or hate it and spread it all over the place. Blogs, magazines, stores, newspapers, whatever, and these days it can be in any order. There's so much action in the design world that products have a life of their own. They go places you never would have thought of. I love to watch and learn from those journeys. The internet is seriously cool.
OFITEEN: What would you like to try that you have not tried already?
PH: I would really like to redesign something that people take for granted, like a gallon of milk, a can of soda, or a tube of toothpaste. Those kinds of things involve so many design considerations outside the "what does it look like" that I think it would be a really interesting thing to work on.
OFITEEN: What music have you been listening to lately?
PH: Wow, thats a great question, because the answer is just about everything. Everyone says music is worse these days than it was in the era of the Beatles and the Stones. Its not, you just have to find it. And there are incredible things out there making it possible namely Pandora and Last.fm. The internet is one big distribution channel and music is finding very creative ways of utilizing that. I don't even know what Im listening to half the time but I love it. Everything else will follow that idea in time. Even products. One day I'm sure everyone will have a 3D printer appliance in their house just like a dishwasher or a stove. You'll just buy your new silverware online and it gets printed out in your house.
I've always been a big Beck fan.
OFITEEN: What are your favorite book(s)?
PH: I don't read a lot of books. I used to think that was embarrassing, but a lot of my friends don't either. I read the internet, I read magazines, I read the newspaper. I read all day, just not books. I do have a little hobby of reading books about theoretical physics when im on the beach. Its an incredibly fascinating topic to me, but to understand it I have to be like - totally relaxed. I have a thing about libraries. I think they're kinda doomed and outdated. I get a lot of flak for that.
OFITEEN: What would be your most prized possession(s)?
PH: My friends art and design that I have traded for.