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Behind the Ceiling

The much anticipated first monograph of the works of Marcel Wanders has hit the bookshelves. Holland’s most prolific designer has built a career on dry humour, grand sobriety and playful pragmatism, but also a very personal vision that moves beyond humanism to very much within himself. And his fans love it.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 27-05-2009

Marcel Wanders grew up in Boxtel in the Netherlands, not part of the art or cultural elite, but in a typical and cozy middle-class Dutch family. His parents ran a household-appliance shop and until late in his teens, the mind behind some of the most celebrated furniture, lighting, interior design, tableware, decorative porcelain and ceramic vase icons didn’t even know what design was.

“Things just looked as they looked. Period,” he told the de Volkskrant newspaper last December. “My background though is an advantage. I’m not stuck in that century of minimalism. I have always consciously rebelled against so-called ‘good taste’. I love looking at kitsch and the aesthetics of people with uneducated tastes.”

That century of modernism he refers to and the fundamental grip the Bauhaus movement has on the intellectual side of design is Wanders nemesis. He likes to point out that in cultures like China, Russia and Brazil, which were not subjected to a century of Bauhaus, people look at things with different eyes. He even goes so far to suggest that, as a result, they have more freedom.

The struggle for Wanders and his cultural crusade is that modernism in the west is more than just an aesthetic, it’s a morality. “At the beginning of the twentieth century, machines dictated what was possible to mass produce,” he writes. “It was about welfare, equality and the political foundations of democracy.”

To rally against that morality propels his arguments beyond the more superficial issue of taste. In the more serious echelons of design, to be anti-modernist is to be at best unfashionable, and at worst anti-intellectual, which in that world translates as overly-commercial.

In "Behind the Ceiling" (published by Gestalten), Wanders sets out his argument and fights it to the end. He defends his anti-modernist position as something that is more supportive of the people. Modernism, he argues, lacks a humanist soul, often fails to communicate and is a little bit dull. He links the movements’ cleans lines to the limitations of the industrial revolution and of machines that were fixed and thus the enemy of the imagination.

“I believe design is one of the greatest things man can do for the benefit of the community in which he is living,” Wanders writes. “But we have to challenge the industry so it learns to follow and not lead,”

Wanders backs up his belief in fantasy with page after page of theatrical design that lets women feel royal, men feel powerful and us all feel indulged. He points to designers like Achille Castiglioni and Philippe Starck as his inspiration and makes constant reference to the public who he feels can always be better served by design.

In the same Volkskrant article written at the end of last year by Evelien van Veen, Wanders talked about his more personal past. His first wife’s harrowing fight with cancer, the birth of his little girl, Joy, and the difficult decision to part ways with her mother.

On top of that, Wanders persevered with his own health issue, a heart which he describes as being “literally too big”. He had a pace maker inserted at the age of fifteen and has survive three small strokes. “It’s quite inconvenient when you hit the floor and can’t talk anymore,” he told Van Veen. “Especially when you talk as much as me.”

It’s a fascinating insight that really helps to explain his work. Live big, live fast, savour and celebrate every moment as if it could be your last.

"Behind the Ceiling" covers the gamut from Wanders’ early work for Droog Design, his tableware for the renowned Dutch porcelain manufacturers Tichelaar Makkum and Royal Delft, his personal collections as well as his designs for Moooi, the company he co-founded with Casper Vissers. In addition, it presents some of the textiles and furniture he has designed for brands such as B&B Italia, Poliform, Moroso and Cappellini.

On the controversial decision to start branding some Moooi products with Wanders’ signature façade he writes: “I think we took a huge responsibility when we put our name on the product, but now we have to take it seriously. If our name is on it, the product has to get better.”

Function, another of Wanders’ dislikes, is something he dismisses as overrated. “If I am designing a pool, it is not a great pool because you can swim in it,” he writes. “If I design a vase, it is not good because it can contain a flower. If this is what we are telling our audience, we are not going to get them connected or excited.”

Design as communication is referred to throughout the chapters. He writes that when designing, he tries to take into account the three different ways people absorb information - visually, rationally and emotionally. “Every imaginable combination between the three is, of course, possible. This is very important to me because I want to communicate with as many people as possible … If I want my message - my story - to get across, I have to speak the right language, even if it is simply a matter of respect for those with whom I am communicating.”

Whether his designs become genuinely important to people is therefore determined by the quality of the information. To reach as broach a group as possible and to extend his relevance, his designs are packed with information.

“If we want to become an inspiration to others, we have to become communicators,” he concludes. “Scream if you want to be heard.”

Gestalten podcast with Marcel Wanders here.

Behind the Ceiling
Author: Marcel Wanders
Editors: R. Klanten, S. Moreno, A. Mollard
Language: English
Release: April 2009
Price: € 49,90 / $ 70,00 / £ 45,00
Format: 25,1 x 31,9 cm
Features: 320 pages, full colour, hardcover
ISBN: 9783899552348

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