To be more sustainable, we need fewer objects of greater value – less of more.
Fresh from creating the Audi Lab this year’s Milan Design Week, designer Marcel Wanders talks about values, innovation and ‘humanistic' cars.
Marcel Wanders studio
7 October, 2021
Human-centred design is about understanding that we are not as rational as we like to think
Marcel Wanders is a celebrated Dutch designer, who, along with Gabriele Chiave’s preside over Marcel Wanders studio in Amsterdam. Wanders became famous in 1996 for his iconic Knotted Chair and in 2001, he co-founded the design label Moooi. His projects have been selected for the most important design collections and exhibitions worldwide and his approach to design is both inspirational and thought provoking. He shared his philosophy with Audi Magazine.
Your design approach is human-centred – what does that mean?
You know, we humans do weird things. We put Christmas trees in our houses, we wear high heels and get tattooed, and we get excited when a cat licks its fur. Human-centred design is about understanding that we are not as rational as we like to think. It’s about how we engage with objects and each other in our world, both as individuals and together. For the longest time, we thought of design as a rational, systematic activity. But in reality, people are at least partly irrational and I believe that makes us beautiful and poetic.
How do you apply the principles of human-centred design?
Human-centred design is about the connections between humans and their man-made environment. Function is maybe the first connection. Yet functionality is the lowest standard. If it doesn’t work, it fails to meet the minimum reasonable standard. We often stop once things work. But human-centred design really begins where functionality ends. It is our job to elevate things to the next level. A level where a question turns into a welcoming invitation – and finding the answer is like solving an intriguing riddle.
What does that mean for people’s lives in general – and does sustainability play a particular role?
I guess it means that if we are able and willing to engage with the objects that surround us, our artificial environment – like our natural environment – will become more meaningful. And if the objects surrounding us become more engaging and meaningful, I am certain there will also be greater reflection on their purpose, leading them to give us more value for longer. To be more sustainable, we need fewer objects of greater value. Less of more.
Can you give us an example of one of your humanistic designs?
One of my signature designs is a large lamp representing a bell. We’ve all heard bells ringing. They are a symbol of arrival, gathering, alarm and welcome. The bell was the first medium of mass communication. It was the first way to call people across great distances. The bell performed that role. We have now used this icon to do the same again. The bell lamp draws people together. Once you see the lamp, above a dining table or in a hotel lobby, you know you have arrived. You heard the bell from afar, you were invited, you came and you arrived.
The bell was the first medium of mass communication – it was the first way to call people across great distances
So now, after more than three millennia, this ugly pot has had babies
Price tag notwithstanding, how do you add value to an object?
It’s not rocket science. Fundamentally, it’s easy, although not yet ubiquitous. If you have something that you really like, that you searched for and found, that does what other objects do but you wouldn’t want to swap it, then you have found added value. Congratulations! If you have something in your house and you don’t care if you have it, would you trade it for another version that does the same thing? If so – I’m sorry – either you shouldn’t have bought it to begin with, or it has miserably failed to live up to its promise.
What would you save from a burning house?
I have an ugly ceramic pot that is 3000 years old. It was at the bottom of the ocean for a very, very long time. It got lost with an Asian ship on which it was used for more than 100 years. It has been in my house for 23 years now. I feel humble in its presence. My own design label Moooi now makes copies of this ancient pot, which we sell as a porcelain vase. So now, after more than three millennia, this ugly pot has had babies. It feels like I gave a family to this old pot and its maker. It’s very important to me.
Your studio created the concept and furniture for the Audi City Lab at Milan Design Week 2021. What was the motivation.
Light as a medium that conveys information and mood plays an important role for Audi and is crucial to the experience of Audi City Lab. There are lights everywhere. They lead the way, attract your eyes, tell you stories, play with your senses and heighten your sensitivity. It is a game that is intuitive and carmakers are the best players. Beyond the lighting, I think it is more than interesting that an Audi car seat never looks anything like a normal seat that you would have in your home. You expect something different from a chair in your car than you do from a chair in your house. That is partly functional, but there is still a symbolism to it. So for Milan, we created an automotive Audi chair for a home setting – mixing the symbols and thus creating a lost and wandering anomaly.
Talking about automotive, in your opinion, what makes a car human-centred?
Isn’t it crazy that your body flies 20 centimetres above the rock-hard ground at such fast speeds? Protected only by this relatively small environment. The big challenge for a car therefore is not only physical and functional, it’s also – and maybe entirely – about making sure you don’t completely freak out in a raging panic inside that space. Cars must be human-centred symbiotic bionic beings. We need a completely reliable unity between driver and car.
Isn’t it crazy that your body flies 20 centimetres above the rock-hard ground at such fast speeds
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