Andrea Francis, 2008
"The mirror is dead and all that’s left is a reflection,” laments Piet Houtenbos on the motivation for his latest endeavor, the Diamond Mirror.
For the 29-year-old New York born Dutch designer, the hype brought by his infamous design school conception—oil lamps fashioned from Army surplus grenades—underlined the importance of “subtlety and proportions” in his work, he says over the phone. (Houtenbos follows quickly with a promise to keep evolving, in that voice not quite New York or Holland, but charming because of its nowhere, normal-guy-ness.)
His latest evolutionary theory, to “invent newness in things that are old and comfortable,” has led him to resuscitate the mirror, a once upper-crust luxury now relegated to simple rectangles glued flush to bathroom walls—mere architectural detail. His design and demand for precision have been a challenge. Houtenbos says he’s waited nearly a year to “get through all the hoops” to produce his diamond in the rough.
The Diamond Mirror was inspired by a stroll through the period rooms in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (“Inspiration is like a new girlfriend, it just hits you when you least expect it,” he says.) Mirrors aren’t just mirrors at the Met; gilded and carved, they stem from centuries-old traditions, summoning the reflections of Marie Antoinette, Henry VIII and bourgeoisie alike.
The 16 facets of Houtenbos’ mirror are hand cut and polished — sometimes with a difference of less than half a degree — requiring the craftsmanship of a master glass beveler. The scheme behind the Diamond Mirror makes it modern. Its beveled teardrop shape mimics the ornamental designs of mirrors past, but streamlined, without that seventeenth century repoussé bling.
ANDREA FRANCIS: From where do you glean your inspiration? Where do you go? Who are your influences?
PIET HOUTENBOS: Inspiration is a weird thing. Real, good, useful inspiration that is. Im inspired all the time by anything. A new country, new systems, new ways of living, it could be a beautiful shape, or something someone says. It seems that that more you try to force it the harder it comes. But then like a new girlfriend, it just hits when you least expect it. I do all the regular things though, I try to go to museums, Im constantly looking around. At one point though taking it all in can be a detriment. Ignorance can be bliss when designing, forget about worrying if someones been there before.
AF: What process do you use, and how did you learn the process of designing things/furniture? (i.e. Is your work collaborative, open-ended and fluid, are you better with the concept or the finished product).
I also have this trick to try to inspire myself. If I have to come up with a piece of furniture or something, Ill just sit there and draw the most generic piece possible, then I look at what it is and dissect it and start drawing random details. Ill draw circles or squares on top of it, maybe and X or an uneven slash through the whole drawing. Later I go back to see if one of those box's or lines spark my imagination. My favorite part is people asking me "whats that", and i reply "i dont know".
But thats only part of it. The hard part is to really try to understand what it is your designing and why you need to design another one. I dont say, "forget everything you know about a table, prepare yourself for an all new never before seen TABLE!" I try to learn from the past so see how a table came to be, where its gone, where its arrived, discover the bumps in the road, something will eventually emerge as something exciting to focus on.
AF: How do you define your personal style? How do you, if at all, incorporate this into your designs?
I just think about things a lot. When I go out and look at other peoples work i see the final product but then i look closer, think about it and my mind goes into auto pilot trying to figure out why certain decisions were made and how it all came together. I find most of my favorite designs by other people seem to be simple logical ideas that happen to be pulled off beautifully. Beautifully simple. Sometimes its the idea, sometimes its the form, and if im really lucky its both.
AF: It seems that a lot of 21st century designers have a humanitarian and utilitarian approach in that they incorporate ecologically sustainable design, strive for innovation and functionality, and often use alternative materials. Is this where you fit in? If so, what makes your designs different, even from these characteristics?
PH: All this 'green design' talk just might kill the world. We have to be careful about this whole green movement. Its a load of crap right now. If you go to a store these days everyones touting the greenness of their products, its become such a marketing gold mine that anything with any hint at being green will make it into the green section. "It has less lead than the other one! Its made of bamboo! This plastic toy uses water based paint! Yeah!" Every little bit counts, but the point is we are being made to feel like environmental design is here in a major way when in reality, the marketing department has just done a good job making us feel good about ourselves. We have a long way to go on this. If we think were doing well now, we will kill the world. Designers making things out of bamboo and water based paints is just a tiny tiny barely noticeable speck of a start. Its bringing out awareness but its not yet saving the world. There are much bigger issues that need to be worked out regarding how products are made, shipped and even bigger problems with how our society consumes these products. In my mind the best green design is still plain old good design. Something you love so much you keep it your whole life, and it lasts.
I don't think I fit in anywhere, I'll do one thing one day and something different the next day. I just try to keep things interesting, easy to live with, and the real ultimate goal is to make things that people love. One of the more tormenting questions I think about is why myself and all of us designers are making more versions of garbage? Purple garbage, red garbage, round garbage, natural garbage. Well, if you reach the ultimate goal and you make something that people love, talk about, and keep for a lifetime, then you've finally made something other than garbage.
At this point, I don't want to be a designer that specializes in anything. But try me, maybe ill find my ultimate passion, but for now the passion is in thinking about things i haven't thought about.
AF: What is your motivation? It seems that your furniture pieces interlock, are designed to fit their spaces and the people who use them, have boxy, modern shapes. But is this all? Are they inspired, by memories or feelings, of sex, love, jealousy, anger etc? Or is this what separates designers from painters?
PH: First off, i'm not inspired by jealousy or anger, I hate those things. And sex and love dont make me think about tables and chairs, well, maybe just a little.
I imagine all designers have some inner hope that they can come up with the most innovative, thought provoking, mind blowing ideas that will inspire the world. I am one of them. But there's another side to me that wants to let things be. While its amazing to see some of the unbelievable results you get from modern technology, sometimes its just too much to live with. I'll often rather live with a simple wooden coffee table over a mind blowing orange rapid prototyped super coffee table. For the better or worse people are used to certain things and hate change, so lately ive found it interesting to invent newness in things that are old and comfortable. The furniture ive done, you look at it, and know what it is instantly, a desk, simple, you understand it, but then you get some warm new surprises. Sometimes its important to your sanity for a desk to look like a desk. That said, we do have to keep moving design forward all the time.
AF: Since 2003, your hand grenade oil lamp has gained a lot of popularity in the design world. How did the grenade oil lamp come to be? How has this piece, if at all, shaped/unshaped your current design vision?
PH: Yeah that was awesome to watch throughout the years. Stuff just kept happening with the grenades. People yelled at me, praised me, one girl even told me she didn't want to hang out with me because she thought i was scary. But I let it all happen without guiding it too much. It didn't teach me to become a better designer but it made me realize that good design speaks for itself, and that design really can be a powerful tool. I always kept my mouth shut about what my intentions were because i felt good design shouldn't dictate someone else's ideas but help to provoke your own ideas.
My vision though is just constantly evolving, when i was younger i wanted to innovate the hell out of everything, then i was hit by the hype the grenades created, then i saw what modern technology was enabling, then i realized how important subtlety and proportions were, and so on and so on. I think ill keep evolving but take the lessons learned and try to make the best stuff i can come up with. Not always the most innovative, or the most influential, but a good mix of everything learned.
AF: Do you have any upcoming design projects? If so, what/why are they?
PH: In the personal projects department, im keeping my mouth mostly shut. BUT, ive just finished the Diamond Mirror. I was walking through the Metropolitain Museum of Art one day and was struck by all of the incredible mirrors hanging in the period rooms. The realization just hit me that mirrors used to be such fantastic objects, guilded and carved for the worlds bourgeois and now a mirror has been relegated to simple rectangles glues flush into walls and used as architectural details. The mirror is dead and all thats left is a reflection. So I wanted to bring back the powerful presence mirrors used to have (Im talking 300 years ago) and do it in a modern way but slightly referencing the past.
This mirror was one of those moments, you just get kicked in the head and you know what to do. You need a story. The story is the inspiration.
AF: What is your favorite thing to do outside of design?
PH: Check out the internet or go outside.