It’s four o’clock in the morning and Jaime Hayon is still going full speed, sitting on a couch in Cape Town, candidly telling us about the time he tattooed one of the world’s top tattoo artists. Had he ever inked somebody before? Nope, and he never did again. While the 42-year-old, Valencia, Spain-based “creative guy” didn’t proceed to make ink-on-skin one of his regular artistic mediums, the story says a lot about his experimental approach to life and work. Hayon, a household name among the contemporary creative community, is seriously industrious yet always playful. He works across all disciplines, injecting his signature style into everything from furniture and watches to retail spaces and museum exhibitions.
We gleaned a lot from our late night conversation with the award-winning designer, but those insights (such as whose leg he tatted up) will remain a hazy souvenir of our time at this year’s Design Indaba Conference (where Hayon was a speaker). Instead, we spent some time chatting with Hayon during daylight hours, asking him about how he got his start and what it means to be a multi-faceted designer in the 21st century.
How did you become interested in the creative world?
I think at the beginning it was more curiosity, I was always a really curious guy. I’ve always liked to look at how things are made. When I was a kid, we lived in Madrid and my family was not into creativity so much, they were actually business people. But they were always very passionate about going to museums. I discovered that I liked more going to the museums than I did to go out. I met some people who were into the arts. My first girlfriend (whom I liked a lot), I ended up liking her father more than her because he was an amazing architect. He had incredible books about Danish architecture and about Dimitris Pikionis, the architect that made the Parthenon floors and did the renovation.
I was always curious about things so it was natural for me to go and discover things in galleries and museums and to go underground finding people who were a little twisted. When I had to decide where my studies would go, I was very confused. I thought I should do something artistic but I didn’t know what. Somebody told me about design school, so I started there [at Istituto Europeo di Diseño] and then I went to the creative arts school in Paris [at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs].
What was your focus at design school?
It was a very open school, you have to get a major at the end [Hayon finished with a degree in Industrial Design]. It was very transversal, you go from graphics to silk screening to photography. But I got even more confused about the discipline because the school in Paris was even more open-minded; you went to courses as you wish and you complete a certain type of credits. So when I got out, I was like “I’m an industrial designer, I have an industrial design diploma, but it’s because I focused the last year on a furniture course and an industrial design course.” In the middle of that, I had friends who had studied fine art. So when I got out I didn’t go into the discipline—the first thing I did was create a piece and try to find a gallery because that’s what everyone I knew was doing. It was like, do whatever shit you can do and then try to find somebody who will show it and eventually even [buy] it.
I never thought I was going to end up in design, but creativity-wise that was the starting point. I was fascinated with trying to do something with my hands, and you start little by little and things grow. Today, it’s still that curiosity though that brings me to do something new.
How do you define yourself today?
The thing that I’ve learned the most is that having no category means you’ll do something interesting, because you go from one discipline to the other. So I’m not an industrial designer fully because I’m not a servant of the industry. Even though the industry believes that I could help them; I’m just a curious person trying to learn by doing things and working with what I love. You put your whole energy into something, you discuss it, you analyze what’s happening, and before even drawing something you know the picture of where the strength is, and then you use that. When they ask me to define myself I say, “I’m a creative person. I’m an artist and a designer, that’s what I do, and that’s what I’m exposing.” But today the borders are broken, and I’m an actor of that sort of time. When I started, it was overwhelming, so I reinvented my profession but I had no idea what I was doing. I was always jealous of the guys from the Royal College [of Art] or [Design Academy] Eindhoven because they had a path. Now I’m thinking, “No, that was actually the strength of my work”—that I had no path. I was lost completely! It was like a sangria, a mix of stuff. I’ve always followed my intuition.
What I knew, from Day One, was that designers in the 21st century should not do just design
What I knew, from Day One, was that designers in the 21st century should not do just design. Designers should be an open book and not limit themselves into one specific thing. The profession made a humongous shift in the last 15 years; basically it went from anonymous design and service to industry to being totally analog. The only difference between a designer and an artist is the function—and not even. It’s decontextualizing function and bringing it to another level. When I made my first table for a gallery, it had 15 legs on it and every leg was different; you couldn’t even sit at it. I had asked a lot of people to send me a picture of a table leg in their home and I just redid them. And I had this industrial designer looking at it going like, “Jaime, this isn’t functional.” And I said, “I know, and I don’t even care!” So for a long time people didn’t know how to classify me, and even now.
Are you always working on different projects at once?
Yeah I do, because when you have your own identity, the story is there, it’s in the air. What I like is when projects are speaking to each other, and things are helping one another. One project feeds the others. But when you think about it really, wasn’t design and architecture like that in the past? When Arne Jacobson had to make the SAS Hotel, he made 30 elements in that hotel. And they’re bringing the family $20M in royalties still today.
It seems like you’ll try anything.
Yeah, that’s the way. I wouldn’t say I would try anything, but I would say, I’m not afraid of being misunderstood. What I know today is that people are attracted to you when you’re not doing the obvious. When I made stuff with Lladró, people said, “You’re nuts! What are you doing with Lladró, like a grandma piece?” But I remember going to Lladró [HQ] and having the most fun of my life. I mean it was like an Almodóvar movie. I actually would have called Pedro Almodóvar and said, “Pedro, I’ve got an idea for you man. I have a new movie and it’s called ‘White White’ and it’s about porcelain and cocaine! You wanna do it?’” The place was super sick and he would do the best movie there. Anyway I was doing the figurines [which resulted in The Fantasy Collection] and I had so much fun understanding it was not about design, it was about the scene. You get into it because you think you’re going to design porcelain and the last thing you’re doing is designing porcelain. You’re innovating on a technique which is 250 years old. Suddenly you come up with this new shit, and Christie’s, who is doing the history of 21st century ceramics is like, “This is relevant because this is different.”
Is there anything you’d like to do in the future that you haven’t done yet?
I’m getting a lot of requests, and there are so many things I want to do in the future, but today I’m turning down a lot of work. For me, you’ve got to work on the things you really believe in, that you truly think are right. Today I’m working with the companies who I really like, and in a rhythm that feels really good.
Portrait by Karen Day, all others courtesy of Hayon Studio