Hee Welling talks to Ajeng G. Anindita about avoiding trends and the quest for long-lasting furniture.
What’s in a chair? A lot, actually, according to Hee Welling, a Danish Furniture Designer who recently visited Jakarta for the launch of his recent About A Chair collection with HAY, brought here by BWI Furniture. Now, he doesn’t only design chairs as he also does tables, lounges, even door handles. But somehow, both Welling and HAY have always been associated with chairs. The reason is simple—he’s always been passionate about making a good chair. Another reason is that, among all furniture types, the chair is the most complex item you could create. And for Welling, that complexity is what challenges him to create something really good.
It was back in 2004, a year after he graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, Denmark, that Welling met Rolfe Hay, the founder of HAY, at a fair in the city. His wire chair was exhibited and quickly gained a lot of attention from manufacturers due to the way it was designed and the limited amount of material he used to construct it. Welling admitted that the chair was made as a personal project and was blown away by the amount of attention he got from the manufacturer. On the last day of the fair, he met Rolfe and the two immediately clicked as they share the same passion and values in design. A few years and several projects later, they decided to develop the About A collection.
Reflecting his Danish and Scandinavian roots, Welling’s designs are logical and functional. They’re not flamboyant, but you are guaranteed to be very comfortable sitting on them for long hours of work or reading. His About A collection is pragmatic—able to stand out but also blend in. The collection, which began with a simple chair, blossomed into a line up of virtually unlimited potential, demonstrating that a single strong idea can contain a lot of development potential. The About A Collection now includes four series: About A Chair, About A Stool, About A Table and About A Lounge.
Welling currently has his own studio and work as a freelancer for various companies around the world. Still, HAY has been his main manufacturer—one he has been working the closest with. The About A collection represents a partnership that has been going on for 13 years, and the collection keeps growing. The chair I was sitting on when I interviewed him at Museum Macan, the AAC 100, is the newest member of the family. Highlights:
I heard that you discovered your interest in designing from your father, a cabinet maker?
Yes, he was building—structuring, mostly—wood furniture. But he didn’t design the stuff. People would come to him with a drawing and he would create it. I’ve always been interested in his work. I went to this workshop and found little pieces, scraps of woods and put things together.
So, how did that shape you as a designer?
Actually, I learned a lot about construction, a lot about how to create stuff. I think that’s very important, especially for furniture design. You need to be able to build the stuff you design. And I have an understanding on how things are produced. Because otherwise, you would end up doing designs that are not possible to work on.
What inspires you when you are conceiving a piece of work?
Honestly, I can get inspiration from everywhere. It could be new materials, production techniques, etc. It can be nature as well. There’s a chair from a few years ago that was actually inspired the way you have a window and see the cars. I think if you’re open minded, inspiration can come from everywhere.
What comes first: the material, design or idea?
It varies from project to project. Some projects come with a brief so we know exactly what type of furniture we are going to make. Of course, I would need to research about the typology of the furniture, what it is used for. From there, we move on to choosing the material that’s suitable for it and how to work it. A lot of times, the manufacturer would tell us that they just found a new sub-contractor and that they’ve developed a new way to do things. If you can then work on a project together with them, we can actually use that new production technique. So, again, it depends very much on the kind of project.
How do you choose your materials?
I think I’m pretty open minded about choosing materials. I don’t stick to certain materials. I don’t only use wood, steel or plastics. I try to find the optimal choice for each project. Here I mean “optimal” in the sense as being the most logical. Sometimes wood is the best choice for a project, sometimes it’s steel, aluminum, or plastic. If you don’t have certain materials that you prefer to work with, you are able to create much better furniture because you find the optimal solution for both materials and construction.
What’s your take on sustainability?
It’s a huge issue. It’s something that we, as a designers and architects, play a big part in—especially in taking it to the next level. I design furniture that’s mass-produced—thousands of pieces at a time; by working smarter, production-wise, you can actually make a huge difference.
The one you’re sitting on now, the About A Chair series, was started 13 years ago and at that time there wasn’t much talk about the environment. Even so, we wanted to make sure that everything in the chair was interchangeable. You can mix and match frames, shells, and bases in limitless combinations. This enabled us to streamline the supply chain and create a more efficient and less wasteful production setup. We used fewer molds and fewer parts by recycling them again and again.
Another way that I think is more important is making designs that are long-lasting so that people want to keep the products for decades or even centuries and pass them on to the next generation. That’s actually the best thing that designers can do. Sustainability is pretty much inherent to the Scandinavian design and it has developed so much in the past five to six years. But that was determined by logic. If you make something that is functional, logical, proportionate and with very clean lines, I think it will be long lasting.
Minimalist Scandinavian design has become increasingly popular these days. And I also think that people are taking sustainability very seriously. What is your take on this?
In Scandinavian countries, it’s just the way we do it. I completely agree that we have consumed too much. I’m really glad that I’m not working in another design field, because some are actually very much about short term use. It’s a good thing that furniture—if it has good quality, good construction, uses durable materials that look better over time and has timeless designs—can last so long.
I also read that you’re not very keen on trends….
No. The problem is that the furniture industry is not slow, but it takes a lot of time to develop things. Normally, the process of making a piece of furniture—from the first concept until the final product that’s ready to be sold—takes between one to two years. If I were to focus on trends, it would probably be over by the time I finish a product.
I’m really glad that trends are not an issue for me since the beginning. The problem with trendy furniture is that people will appreciate it, but only for a very short period. If you buy something that’s trendy right now, in two years’ time you would probably regret it, say “what were we thinking?” and throw it out. And that’s exactly what I’m fighting against. When you buy something that’s trendy, it will only make sense at the moment. Trust me: In a few years, you’ll regret it.
Do you get critical whenever you enter a house, room or building?
No. Actually, I believe that people need to make their own decisions. For me, there’s no right or wrong. If some people like using all-red furniture, then by all means use that.
In the Scandinavian countries, it gets very cold and dark during the winter, so we spend a lot of time at home. As such, we spend a lot of time and money to decorate the house and make sure that it’s cosy. So, when I come home, I want to feel relaxed; I don’t want to be in a flashy place with a lot of colours and everything. I like to be able to come into a house and immediately feel relaxed. That’s what I like. And many people in Scandinavia has the same view of design: clean white walls, a bit of colour in the furniture or cushions. If you have a huge couch, for example, and you can choose cushions in different colours, maybe that’s the trendy part right there. But the main thing is having basic colours that’s close to natural colours—very neutral.
What is your workspace like?
My workspace is a little bit messier—but not in a way where I don’t know where things are. There are so many samples, prototypes, materials—a lot of different things. And of course, it shows a work in progress. I have three kids and they do a lot of drawings, so the place is more or less covered up in their drawings. It also makes me feel like I’m home.
What excites you the most of the design process?
That depends on what we are working on. If, for example, you have an opportunity to work with certain materials for the first time, that can be extremely challenging as you try to find the limits of what’s possible, what it is useful for and so on. New materials are actually popping up all the time, but there needs to be a reason for their use. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it can’t be useless.
What are the main challenges you face in producing a piece of furniture?
Even though there are millions of chairs made in the past hundreds of years, it’s strange that you can keep designing new stuff. The main challenge is to come up with a piece where everything is more or less equally important. It should be ergonomic, of good quality, long lasting, simple but at the same time functional. All these things, for me, make a great design.
If you take one element out—for example, functionality—it wouldn’t make sense because a chair has to be useful. You take out comfort, and it wouldn’t work, too.
If you hadn’t become a furniture designer, what would you probably be doing now?
Even since I was child, I had a dream of creating bridges. I think engineering is a great thing, because it’s all about optimizing everything. Everything needs to have purpose. So, to answer your question, maybe something that is still related to what I’m doing now.