As he bounds into an airy meeting room in his central Amsterdam studio complex, Marcel Wanders looks every bit the design superstar. Dressed in a Paul Smith tuxedo-jacketed suit that has become his work-life uniform over the years, he is tall, tan, and upbeat, with thick hair an almost unnerving shade of shimmering silver. “I’ve just ordered a new one of these,” he says pulling at his jacket lapel. “It will be my fourth!” His immaculate white shirt is 17 years old. “I had 20 of them made in India. They just don’t wear out."
Neither, it seems, does Wanders. The Dutch-born designer first made his name at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1996 with an ingenious chair made of knotted rope that is still in production (there’s even a version that is dipped in gold). Over the following 20 years, he has expanded his repertoire from furnishings—his style marries traditional concepts like a plush sofa or a decorated plate with contemporary wit—to a world of design that ranges from residential and commercial interiors to baby monitors, watches, and even air-pollution masks.
Wanders collaborates with a wide variety of companies, and this year he’s on overdrive: His studio created a bath collection for Laufen whose pieces have rims curved as gently as a flower petal; an incredibly lightweight chaise for Louis Vuitton’s series of Objets Nomades; outdoor pieces for Spanish brand Vondom; flamboyant rugs, sofas, and consoles for Roche Bobois; and home fragrances for Alessi.
“So much in design is presented as a big miracle when it’s just a repetition of what’s been happening for 80 years,” he says. “Design has to have a spark of current culture or technical innovation. We’re in a strange era of neo-humanism. It’s holistic and nonrational.” In other words, we’re living in a world that’s full of contradictions: We’re obsessed with technology and have abandoned old ways of living, but still want an authentic connection to the things we buy. His recent wall coverings for his own furnishings brand, Moooi, are classic Wanders and exemplify this line of thought. The works feature extinct species—striped quaggas, blushing sloths— that are derived from zoological drawings he found in museum archives. It’s a reminder “to hold on to what is lost, to celebrate it,” he says.
Lately, the polymath has been expanding his outlook, spending time in various cities around the world, including Milan and Budapest. “It’s the 21st century,” he says. “I can rent a house anywhere and still communicate with my office.” Does he travel light? “I take almost nothing and buy nothing,” he says. “The things I own are sacred.” Interiors have become a large part of Wanders’s portfolio. In Doha, Qatar, he recently completed the Mondrian hotel, a fantasy of gilded Islamic patterning, glass mosaic tiles, and chandeliers that drip down to the carpet. It is, says Wanders, reflective of his belief in design for all: “Opulence doesn’t cost more than boring.” Besides, he couldn’t do boring if he tried.
This boundless curiosity led him to earn an MBA from a school in Paris in 2014. “All my clients are in business, and I advise them. I wanted to know how they think,” he says. In 2015, he interned for three months with IDEO, a tech consultancy in San Francisco. “In tech, people want an object for what’s inside it, what it does. You need to make a defensive design that people won’t walk away from,” he says. “A chair is aggressive—you want a customer to choose it from many others.” In San Francisco, he went on to work in venture capital, funding Oculus Rift, and developed a baby sock that monitors an infant’s heartbeat as a way to prevent sudden infant death syndrome. But the city didn’t really suit him.
“Everyone goes to bed at 10 p.m.!” he says, appalled. If Silicon Valley taught Wanders to look forward, his time in northern Italy grounded him in tradition. After all, it’s still a region that treats furniture making as serious craft. He also learned Italian— fluently, of course. His new collections for Natuzzi are inspired by Puglia, the rustic southern region where the company was founded and is still based today. Despite costing Natuzzi millions more to manufacture in a rural area, the company’s owners are staying put.
“That social program really excites me,” he says. His collections for them, Agronomist and Oceanographer, reflect the region’s connections to both land and sea; the pieces have a tactility that is more country house than urban apartment, a subtle departure for the brand. Pasquale Junior Natuzzi, the son of the brand’s founder, says that choosing Wanders was obvious. “We believe that values should come first,” says Natuzzi. “When we share them, everything will go well.”