Finding Treasures and Striking Oil

Emma Silverman, 2013


"I would call myself a modernist, but with a lot of care going towards making sure modernism isn’t boring. Finding the difference between simple and beautiful and simple and boring."


Piet Houtenbos is a designer through and through. He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001, and moved back to his hometown: New York. Piet says, “I sort of graduated right around when 9/11 happened and the whole world went into a jumble. And I think a lot of us designers were sort of on our own.” Piet started selling his grenade oil lamps at various stores. “The funny thing is, I started with those grenades, which was one of the first things I ever did, and that kind of took over. To this day I’m sort of known as the grenade guy.” While the lamps alone don’t define Piet’s aesthetic, they were a hit. “They are an elegant, funny idea.” From there, he designed for several different companies while doing his own work on the side. Today, Piet designs furniture, creating what he calls “refined things from the past, sort of modernized.”

Piet has a strong design sensibility. He thinks about everything. And then he thinks about it again. “It’s really all up in your head, and you’ve got to extract it, boil it down, and throw it out and redo it. Eventually you’ll come to something that is successful and long-lasting.” Piet is not trying to make things that are disposable, but rather things that are built to last, things that people will love. He says, “I am truly passionate about trying to find a very good design for whatever the parameters are.…I think in the end the only thing we really should be doing is trying to find what the best answers are. And there’s a lot of best answers for the same problem.” This involves being thoughtful, introspective and self-critical: “There’s tremendous value in overthinking things and constantly trying to look at everything you’re doing—taking a step back, forgetting about it and coming back and seeing if what you’ve done is good.” And that’s what makes for great design.

The grenade oil lamp came about when Piet was still in school at RISD. For his 'found objects' project, his assignment was to take one object and turn it into something else. He went into an Army Surplus Store in Providence, not thinking about the project, and saw the grenade, “and when I put it in my hand, it was so heavy, and it was a really powerful moment.” Inspiration struck during a winter-break snowboarding trip. His first inclination was to turn the grenade into a lighter. Something about the concept of having it light on fire but not explode intrigued him. When that failed, he decided to make it into an oil lamp. “I started by making 20, and within six months to a year I was making 1,000 at a time.” The process is simple: He glues a quarter to the bottom, where there is a hole to indicate that it is a dummy grenade. And then he plates them. And that’s it. Simple, striking design.  

We asked Piet a few fun questions.  Heres a little inside info on what he likes.


EMMA SILVERMAN: What’s your go to restaurant? 

PIET HOUTENBOS: If theres anything "go to" for me - its Fanellis.  Its on the corner of Prince and Mercer.  Its more of a really old neighborhood bar but the food is good also.  Ive been going there over 20 years and Im 34.

ES: What’s your favorite website?

PH:  I find it inspiring and pretty and simple and to the point and easy to get around.

ES: What is your favorite store?

PH: The online kind.

ES: What is your favorite app?

PH: Apps that control real world things.  The Nest learning thermostat and its app are great.  I dont know why thermostats were so bad for so long.  Now I can control if from my phone and it knows when I'm gone and turns it off.  pretty simple, pretty amazing.  Im also having a blast with my weird new Hue color changing lightbulbs controlled by my iPhone.  Theres an app coming out that can unlock your front door when your outside of it.  You can also send temporary digital keys to your friends.  Its a changing world.  I can't wait to get rid of all my credit cards.

ES: What songs would be on your playlist?

PH: A whole lot of Beck.  I liked him as a kid, and I still like him now.  

ES: I have 24 hours in your city or town what should I do?

PH: In NYC?  You can do anything here.  Whatever you like to do you can do in an awesome way here.  So just do that.

ES: Describe your brand in 3 words:

PH: Thoughtful.  Uncluttered.  Honest.

ES: What is your favorite part about designing?

PH: Finally figuring out what the best answer is for something.  Sometimes designing a component of something or figuring out how to make it work with the right aesthetic can be a painful process.  And then all of a sudden you realize the solution where its beautiful and works well and its all worthwhile. 

ES: Paperback book or electronic reader?

PH: iPad, not an ebook reader.  Im not into paper anymore i'd rather save trees and oil and read on a screen.  And if you dont see the possibilities of adding audio, video, images, and interaction into a piece of literature then well, we're different I guess.  Im also a fan of working while listening to an audio book.

ES: What is your favorite book or artist?

PH: My friends are my favorite artists.  I just read Tina Fey's book.  I think she's pretty funny.

ES: When you’re cooking, what is your signature dish?

PH: I didn't know what it was called till i just googled it.  Chicken Paillard.  

ES: Your latest obsession?

PH: Ebay.  Its a total goldmine.  I was late to the game.

ES: Where is the first place that you go to get your news?

PH: The internet.  

ES: What website/blog do you stalk most often?

PH: I still like and

ES: Favorite quote?

PH: "Wherever you go, there you are."  I think thats from the Brady Bunch movie.

ES: Describe your classic customer.

PH: You can never tell who's going to respond to what.  There are so many tastes out there.  Sometimes you inspire someone for one reason and sometimes it the exact opposite thing that people are responding to.  Its actually a great and refreshing thing.  It keeps you on your toes.