No kitsch or nostalgia
Tord Boontje takes a considered and quiet approach, something one may perhaps not readily expect given his at times almost playful furniture and luminaire designs. His small studio in south London is as functional as it is bright and inviting. Above the desks gleams the “Blossom” chandelier which was Tord Boontje’s first design for Swarovski Crystal Palace. The creative process for his current “Luminious Reflections” project can be gleaned from a moodboard next to his desk: Images of countrysides, plant worlds, organically shaped and unpolished crystals that softly reflect the light. In conversation with Anna Moldenhauer he outlines how this gets turned into a chandelier and what his first “Rough & Ready” pieces have in common with his current work.
Anna Moldenhauer: Comparing your "Rough & Ready" collection, which you designed 17 years ago, with your work today: There’s an obvious difference in the design language and the choice of the material. What happened?
Tord Boontje: I think the “Rough & Ready” is pretty much about seeing design democratically, that a lot of people should enjoy and have access to it. I did the first chair in 1998 or 1999, that was very much at the beginning, after I left college. I was like everyone else in this situation: very little work, very little money, but also full of energy and the will to express yourself. The furniture I saw at the fairs was very glossy, sleek, minimal at that time. I wanted to make furniture that expresses who I was at that moment, create things out of nothing, seeing beauty in every day. With this attitude, you can make a table from whatever you find and it’s not perfect, but it's a good table. First I made a small collection just for my own house, but then people saw it and asked if I could show it in some exhibitions. In 2000, my daughter Evie was born. At that moment I looked again at where I lived. You get this nesting instinct and we wanted to make the home a really beautiful loving kind of place. I became very interested in folk art. I looked at things that were made before the Industrial Revolution, kind of much more ornate. And I found a sort of emotional quality in those pieces that was missing in the world we were living in, which seemed to be very hard and minimal, masculine, to me. I also started to question a part of my education, the Modernist tradition that I grew up with in Holland, which was about automatically rejecting any form of decoration. I asked myself what if we would use ornamentation, symbolism, ornaments, figuration in everyday objects without making it kind of kitsch and without making it looking boringly nostalgic?
So the examination of different aesthetic approaches became increasingly important for you?
Tord Boontje: Yes, but even for the “Rough & Ready” furniture, all the items of which are completely simple in terms of materials and construction, I spent a lot of time making models and prototypes to get the proportions as elegant as I could. There was always an underlying aesthetic in my work, even completely outside the showroom culture.
Tord Boontje: Well, as part of the “Wednesday collection” I made a luminaire, the “Wednesday light”, which is a metal cut-out light. Ilse Crawford saw it, who at the time was an editor at “Elle Decoration”. She was advising Swarovski on designers to work with to create new chandeliers. They want to re-invent the material so that the chandelier became a romantic object, but in a contemporary way. There was something involved in the “Wednesday light” that gave Ilse a feeling that this could be what they were looking for. And so I created the “Blossom” chandelier for Swarovski Crystal Palace.
Chandeliers are an important part of your portfolio. Do you like things opulent or do you want to re-invent the chandelier?
Tord Boontje: I think it’s really about the invention – that is my main interest. Of course, a chandelier is a big statement. And as a designer it’s very appealing to work on something like that. A lot of things that are made in crystal are indeed very opulent and in that sense quite repulsive to me as well. There is a big challenge in taking this beautiful material and then using it in a sensible way.
What fascinates you working with glass crystals? What makes it so special?
Tord Boontje: It’s really about the light! I think working with crystals is like working with light itself. It’s a material that’s very alive, because of its reflection, its sparkle, its inner glow. Also the colours. And it’s a material which you can place in different contexts and it will have a very different effect, it responds to its environment as well.
Could one say that light is a common leitmotif in your work?
Tord Boontje: Yes, you can say that. Light and shadow were always a topic for me, from the “Transglass” glass vases to the “Until Dawn” paper curtains with all the cut-outs to the “Shadow fabric”, for which we found a way to print shadows of plants very faintly on the curtains so they look really realistic.
Your current work for Swarovski Crystal Palace is named “Luminous Reflections”, a luster with integrated LED technology. Is this technology new for you to design with?
Tord Boontje: No, I already started using LEDs for the “Blossom” chandelier I created for Swarovski. The LEDs are really next to the crystals here. With halogen lights things get too hot, you can’t put them very close to the crystals. And of course LEDs save a lot of energy, which is an important fact for me and for Swarovski as well. I want to design products which are as sustainable as possible. It is about creating something to live with, where you are kind of reminded in a very indirect way for the importance of reusing things, the value of resources. But at the same time making things that are desirable, elegant and beautiful. Swarovski is concerned about the sustainability as well and they go to very great lengths to be as clean as possible. They use a lot of local hydropower from the river to create energy for their production. And given all the water used inside the factory for the glass cutting, they have now adopted a closed-circuit water system, meaning everything is filtered and cleaned and sent back out.
Is there a reason you chose the London Design Festival to present your “Luminous Reflections”?
Tord Boontje: Yeah, I am based here in London and it feels good to do something here in our home city. I think the design festival has a very nice balance, on the one hand it’s commercial and on the other very experimental and showcases innovations. And for me it’s all about having that mix. Milan, especially the Euroluce, is a very commercial fair. So to come up with something like this is a new approach towards crystal and lighting, and that we want to communicate and the LDF is very suitable event to show it at.