On one hand loved for his curiosity and child-like joy, and on the other critiqued for being impossible to categorise, Marcel Wanders tells Daven Wu about “trusting yourself” when they meet at the new Iberostar.
One of the first impressions that strikes you when you meet Marcel Wanders is just how tall he is. As he unfolds himself out of the chair, for a small eternity, the length of the man just keeps straightening up until, fully extended at 196cm, he doesn’t so much stand as he looms. But like so many tall men, he seems genuinely embarrassed by his height, as if he’s taking up too much space. And as if to compensate, his manner is, for someone of his professional stature, unexpectedly intimate and warm. Beneath thick salt-and-pepper hair, his smile is particularly disarming, as is his air of casual informality, which is overlaid by the courtly politeness of a European.
The occasion is the launch of the 53-year-old’s latest project, the 66-room Iberostar Grand Portals Nous hotel in south-west Mallorca that the Dutch designer has conceived with what he airily describes as “symbols and constant allusions to life”. Which translates to all-white bedrooms lined with white wall panels of moulded botanical motifs, a forest of white arches, bulbous tree-like installations in public spaces, and an eye-catching pool embellished with enormous white and blue mosaic flowers.
Of course, this is not Wanders’ first hotel project. In fact, it was his outsized work on the Lute Suites, the Andaz, and the Westerhuis in Amsterdam, the Mira Moon in Hong Kong, and the Mondrian South Beach in Miami that brought him a wider fame beyond the insulated world of design cognoscenti. This summer, he also completed the lavish 270-room Mondrian Doha. “I like designing for hotels,” he says. “I like that we can attract people to a hotel partly because of its design. That’s major league! So, of course I said yes when we were approached to work on the Iberostar.”
And there is every reason to expect the Spanish hotel to lure curious design aficionados and Wanders fans. There is a distinct sense of the fantastical about the property, but there is also a method to the madness. The all-white palate is a sensible complement to Mallorca’s high season of heat and sun when the hotel will be at its peak occupancy. “It’s got a summery feel,” Wanders says. “But for other periods of the year when it’s not so sunny and it’s grey outside, you also want some warm colours.” Which explains the gigantic trompe l’oeil of an ocular iris on the back of the bathroom mirror and the circular rugs of radiating warm oranges in the bedrooms.
In many ways, the Grand Portals Nous perfectly distils Wanders’ technical skills as a designer, as well as demonstrates his empathy for the end-user. Odd, then, to realise that critics have long harped on his work — slamming it for being kitsch and of dubious taste — but they overlook or ignore the curiosity and child-like joy of the designs. Why, after all, does being “grown-up” mean having to be serious?
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Wanders came of age in the 1980s, at a time when, as Ingeborg de Roode points out, the world was still reeling from Memphis, a movement that bucked the pre-existing order for structured classical lines. It’s not exactly a Freudian insight to work out where Wanders’ predilection for odd shapes and colour came from. After a year at Design Academy Eindhoven — he was expelled for being too strong-minded — he found his groove at the ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, from which he graduated cum laude in 3D design in 1988.
By then, his work had already attracted attention, and by the time he produced his Knotted Chair — a low-slung, geometric slouching conceit made of a carbon core, knotted aramid fibre cord and epoxy resin — it was impossible to deny him, as it were, a seat at the table.
In the years since, Wanders has allowed his restless imagination and creativity roam far and wide. “I see design as a way to tell a story” is a favourite refrain. And in his career, he’s told a great many stories.
As an industrial designer, his output is prodigious and there’s been no shortage of blue-chip furniture houses lining up to collaborate with him and to produce his designs. He has designed table lamps for Flos, fabric for Kvadrat, sunglasses for Marks & Spencer, vases for Droog for Rosenthal, bathroom accessories for Bisazza, and chairs for Cappellini.
As a further challenge to himself, he has designed a pregnancy test kit and USB sticks, handbags for Mandarina Duck, and crystal for Swarovski. He’s currently working on an anti-pollution face mask, as well as a violin for Monica Geronimo. “She’s getting deaf. Can you imagine that? That’s like telling a designer he cannot see.” Wanders looks aghast. “She’s been playing with dampers, but that destroys the sound, so I’m designing a violin with a volume no higher than 80 decibels.”
In a way, this varied portfolio explains the beef among detractors with Wanders’ work. He’s impossible to categorise. He does what he wants, and for whom he wants. The stubborn streak so evident to his teachers at Eindhoven has solidified into a hard core of steel.
Which is why his advice to young designers starting out in the business is this: “People will tell you that you have to conform to their design fundamentals. But you need to trust and believe in what you want. Yes, it’s easier to stay on the common ground, but if you want to make something different, you need to trust yourself. Because it’s going to be tough and lonely,” he adds, leaning forward in his chair. He seems anxious to make clear this point. “You’ll be judged and often by people who aren’t good. But only you can tell if you’re any good as a designer.”
Of course, this is not to say that Wanders is a lone wolf. Far from it — he absorbs everything, from all the designers, past and present. His admiration, though, he reserves for a select few. “Someone like [Achille] Castiglioni…A great designer, yes, but he never came up with a great idea. He didn’t change the field. Not like [Charles and Ray] Eames. Or the way Philippe Starck did. Starck has changed the field and the way we think about design, and he’s done it multiple times!”
These are busy times for Wanders and his 50-strong studio in Amsterdam. He is constantly in the air, meeting clients, and visiting projects around the world, art-directing his Mooi brand, magazine covers and book projects, and just generally travelling, the better to be inspired. “I’ve never been to Riyadh, but I’m going this year,” he says, completely unconcerned that it seems an odd destination to have on a bucket list that includes Mexico City and Norway.
In spite of his hectic schedule and incredibly prolific career, it’s safe to say that Wanders’ greatest achievement and ongoing project is his daughter, a striking 19-year-old who has inherited her father’s slender height, looks and, it seems, talent. Just out of high school, she has accompanied Wanders on the Grand Portals Nous press tour and, unusually, she sits in on the interview. “She has an incredible eye,” says Wanders père, with more than a hint of pride in his voice. “She’s not doing design though. She’s studying sustainability science. Today, if I had to do it all over, I’d be doing something like that, and not design.” It’s safe to say that, if he had, the world would have been a much less interesting place.