Interview: Marcel Wanders on Design in All The Realms

The design superstar tells us about the importance of design in the physical world and in the digital space

Marcel Wanders is all about ideas, stories and the senses. The widely admired Dutch designer and art director (perhaps best known for his Knotted Chair) approaches all his projects with fresh perspective and an innate, conceptual understanding of design. At the helm of the Marcel Wanders Studio (which focused on product and interior design until Wanders ceased operation earlier this year) and Moooi (a furniture and lighting company that he co-founded with Casper Vissers in 2001), he combines innovation, tradition and technology with digital and physical elements. Last month, we meet with him at the Moooi A Life Extraordinary installation during Milan Design Week to discuss the brand’s recent collection, the return of in-person events, the role of digital in design, as well as the metaverse and sustainability.

“I got into design strangely, coincidentally,” Wanders says. “I had no idea what design was and someone told me about it. I said. ‘Let’s try.'” Wanders went to school for design but admits that he was too wild and ultimately kicked out. It was there, however, that he realized “design is cool” and that, really, he saw what design was for the first time. “I fell in love with the idea that you could make something for someone,” he says. “I saw beautiful things, but I wanted to create something that had meaning for society.”

This pragmatism mixed with lofty goals made sense when we visited the Moooi installation. There was plenty of beauty and lot of technology, but the tech didn’t overwhelm—it was offset by warm lighting, rich colors, soft materials and tridimensional surfaces that created a highly tactile atmosphere. “This is a company that has been multi-sensory for as long as its life,” Wanders tells us. “We have always been a company that embraces that depth and breadth. We feel that we really [need to] push on the full human sensory experience.”

Wanders says the installation was an “appetizer” for what the company has in store—a blend of technology, digital and physical. “I think if I look to the world today and the industry we are in,” he says, “so much is happening. The tech phase is old, the digital phase is fantastic. All we can do is try to put them next to each other. They have to try to learn from each other… We’re building a bigger consciousness from the polarity and necessity of both worlds.”

This amalgam is reflected in the Piro home fragrance diffusers—a robotic perfume-dispenser made in collaboration with IDEO. The device, which was in development for eight years, “sits in your house and dances to the music you play,” Wanders says. “It throws out perfume and makes a little ring, like your grandfather smoking cigars. That’s the new world. That’s physical, that’s digital.”

Moooi’s Hortensia armchair (designed by Andres Reisinger and Julia Esque) also echoes the blend of digital and physical. The chair—appearing to bloom with hydrangeas—was initially just a 3D rendering (that subsequently went viral on Instagram), and believed to be impossible to actually make. Of course, Moooi ended up making the chair and covering it in 30,000 laser-cut petals. “We have always done amazing things and have to do amazing things tomorrow,” he says of the piece.

The only part of design that is not free is the ownership—and that’s the least important part

His understanding and appreciation of the digital world is much more than renderings; it’s philosophical, and imbues his entire approach to design and its impact on the world. “Let me say this: some people ask me why design is so expensive, but I tell them it’s for free,” he explains. “If someone opens a magazine and reads through it, loves this and likes that, they’re not just trying to buy a sofa. They’re trying to understand where their lives will take them when they are inspired by art, color and stories. That’s all free. The only part of design that is not free is the ownership—and that’s the least important part.”

This conceptual view of design and its significance lends itself to his output. “The whole point is that the world of design, for the most part, is loved for its meaning and contribution to human existence—and this is digital. This is thoughts, illusions, dreams, fantasy and storytelling. That is the richness and the beauty of design.”

Inevitably, his appreciation for, and understanding of, the digital world led him to explore web3, and he sees great potential in the space. “What’s happening in the metaverse, I don’t think it’s interesting to me—it is still empty, but it’s an opportunity. I think the opportunity, the promise, will only happen if it’s us that fills it up. It’s like the iPhone: it was an opportunity, but if nobody had made apps, it was nothing. So we are responsible for the future of the metaverse. If we have no ideas, it will fail. If we have ideas, it will succeed. And I’ll try to be doing my part.”

Sustainability is central to his appreciation of the metaverse and the digital realm, but also when it comes to the role of physical objects. The idea of “less is more” isn’t Wanders’ philosophy, rather he wants more, but using less. “If you see what design, art and dance have done to the world, I think the metaverse can do better because there are more possibilities. You can take the material and the energy out because we don’t need it. We can do better with less. The whole point of design is that every designer wants to do more value with less material. In other words, core values with fewer needs for the longest time. That’s my fundamental, fundamental, fundamental position: more, but with less material, for the longest time—and it has to work in a beautiful, poetic way together.”

“We don’t need a sofa every five years because we crave excitement. That excitement can come from the digital space,” Wanders says. As such, he adds, “Reality can be more powerful, more universal and more long-lasting. [Physical objects] should be worth the material you spend your money on.” He says this is can combat the fact that, “we’re making disposable furniture now, and it’s horrible.”

Ultimately though, no matter the project, Wanders says the central theme has to be an authentic passion and to make the world a little better. “To me, to make things with love is a great first step toward sustainability. You [need] to make something that is worth your love,” he says. “If I don’t love it, what can I expect from the world? This is the bare minimum.”

Images courtesy of Moooi