Working on the cusp of design and craft, TORD BOONTJE, the Dutch-born, London-based product designer combines advanced technologies with artisanal techniques to create exquisite glassware, lighting and furniture.
From his early projects like the tranSglass series of recycled green bottles, to ambitious recent work such as the sumptuous replica of a bough of Blossom that he created as a Swarovski crystal chandelier, Tord Boontje has sought to imbue his products with a magic and romance that transcends their function.
Born in Enschede in the Netherlands in 1968, Boontje studied industrial design first at the Design Academy in Eindhoven and then the Royal College of Art in London, where he now teaches. As well as making limited edition pieces, such as his continuing collection of Swarovski chandeliers and the Inflorescence project of computer-generated floral drawings he is developing with the digital artist Andrew Shoben and computer programmer Andrew Allenson, Boontje is developing designs for mass-production.
He has adapted the Wednesday collection of lights he made in a batch edition in 2001 into a less expensive, mass-manufactured light to be sold in Habitat. Boontje is also continuing work on a collection of glassware for Dartington Crystal and to develop new products, such as eyewear, for the fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
See more of Tord Boontje’s work at tordboontje.com
Q. When did you first become aware of – and interested in – design?
A. Since I was very young, I have always enjoyed making things: dens, cakes etc. Also I grew up in a very creative environment. My mother taught history of art and textiles, so it seemed natural to pursue design as something I enjoyed. The difference now is that I do it full time.
Q. How did your design education – at Eindhoven and then the Royal College of Art – influence your work?
A. My experiences at Eindhoven and the RCA helped me to become more structured in my approach. Thanks to some fantastic people who invested time in me – Joke van der Heijden, Ulf Moritz, Gerard Belgraver, Daniel Weil and all the others – I was able to develop my work. I think the main thing I took away from Eindhoven was the urge to always keep experimenting, to make things that don’t already exist. At the RCA, I learned to think about the larger context in which design operates, also it is a place where many disciplines of art and design meet and sometimes crossover. I think my practice resembles a college studio more than a commercial design office. Most projects are self-generated and my focus is constantly on trying to do something new.
Q. Much of your early work, such as the tranSglass project, involved the use of found or recycled objects and materials. To what degree was this intentional and to what degree a practical response to the financial constraints on young designers?
A. Both tranSglass and (another early project) Rough-and-Ready furniture use very simple materials: vessels made from old wine and beer bottles; and chairs made from simple wood and old blankets and packaging strapping. The work stemmed partly from the reality that these were materials that I could afford to work with, but also from a recognition of the beauty of abandoned objects. At a time when design seems to be dominated by the glossy, the slick and the perfect, I automatically become attracted to the real, the raw and the unfinished.
Also tranSglass is a collaboration with Emma Woffenden, my partner. She is an artist who works a lot with glass and has a studio full of machines for cutting and grinding. By using old bottles, we had the advantage of being able to make a collection of glassware without having to invest in blowing moulds. We like to use what we have by being resourceful. Later when we showed tranSlass at the 100% Design exhibition and started to receive many orders, we bought a new diamond grinder so that we could make them quicker, but tranSglass is always made from used bottles. I think a positive attitude towards recycling is very important, because this is part of reality as well.
Q. How has your work developed since then? Recent projects, such as the Wednesday Light and the new Inflorescence series, have harnessed technology to create objects with very high production values, what motivated you to work in this way?
A. The attraction of the new. After my low-tech, austere period, I became very interested in decoration and homeliness. Probably a big motivation was the birth of my daughter in 2000. Technology for me is a means of creating new methods to make new expressions. Also I am interested in 17th, 18th and 19th century objects because I like the richness of the sensual use of materials and surfaces. Many of the techniques used to create these objects are very labour-intensive. New industrial processes enable us to explore these sensual qualities again. I am very disappointed by the global blandness that surrounds us and try to find ways out. Today I can draw something on my computer, send a file directly to a production machine and have an object made. The modernist rational of unadorned production starts to break down, when new possibilities arrive every day. I think this is a very exciting time to be involved in manufacturing.
Q. Much of your work has been in glass, what drew you to this?
Q. Similarly, what inspired you to work in lighting?
A. Darkness. Often we have too much light. Also light can be a very powerful tool to influence a space. I like the dappled light in forests, and the glitter and sparkle of ice, cities, crystals and parties.
Q. Who and what inspires your work? Do you draw inspiration in the work of other designers – historic or contemporary – or from work in other fields?
A. I constantly look at contemporary art and craft. Historical sources are important to me too. I always research whenever I work on something new to try to become aware of the subject. When I started embroidering, I spent a lot of time in the Victoria & Albert Museum going through the samples of 17th century English embroidery. On holiday in Sweden, I went and see rural embroidery. For the last four years I have worked with Alexander McQueen as a product designer. Fashion is a great inspiration for me – I love the experimentation and the speed with which ideas are tested. I am always drawn to things that are conceptually and visually exciting, like the work of Martin Margiela, David Lynch, Christian Boltanski and Graphic Thought Facility. I am now teaching at the Royal College of Art in Design Products and a big pleasure is to work there with Ron Arad and the other tutors in the department. Sometimes just going for a walk in the park where I live is the most inspiring thing – seeing a shadow, a puddle or a leaf.
Q. You are often cited, along with contemporaries such as Georg Baldele and Hella Jongerius, as straddling both design and craft. Is this an accurate description of your work?
A. I have a strong empathy with materials and, thinking through making, I value the making of an object as a method of testing ideas. The context in which I develop my approach to design usually refers back to industry.
Q. One of your most visible - and admired - projects has been the Blossom chandelier you created for Swarovski. What was the inspiration for Blossom and how did you develop it?
A. I was asked by Swarovski to reinterpret the chandelier using their existing components. For me there was an immediate attraction to the material with its glitter and colours. I like crystal when it is used densely with an internal light, because it becomes very magical, like the ice palace of the fairy queen. By using LED we were able to place the light source directly next to the crystals, and best of all they could be programmed to flash on and off in sequence – all adding to the magic. The form of the blossom branch came from a romantic idea. It is a place where crystal belongs.
Q. Another successful project has been the Wednesday Light which you manufactured yourself in its first incarnation and have since developed for mass-production by Habitat. Can you describe how you adapted the original design for mass-production?
A. Working with Habitat allowed the light to be produced in far larger quantities. Mass-production also makes it possible to go up in size while keeping the price down. The new version of the Wednesday Light is made in nickel plated brass instead of stainless steel. A larger size in turn meant that a larger variety of flower shapes would be nice. Also the Habitat version is packaged in a flat pack form and some of the sharper edges have been softened. It’s less punk, I guess.
Q. How did the Inflorescence project come about?
A. As a continuation of my interest in digital processes. I thought it would be really nice to make a computer programme which would draw patterns of flowers with output in the form of printing, etching, embroidery, stereo-lithography – all digital making processes. Straight from the computer to the object. I was awarded a Testing Ground grant from the London Arts Board and the Crafts Council to develop this idea. I worked with Andrew Shoben, who belongs to the digital art collaborative Grey World and with Andrew Allenson, a very creative computer programmer. Inflorescence draws flower patterns in a random manner and draws them differently each time. It also forgets what it has done before. We use the method in which it draws a system based on nodes to create sound – a flower-drawing music machine.
Q. What projects are you working on now and how do you envisage your work developing in the future?
A. At the moment I am working on a large commission to design lighting for a new mosque in Abu Dhabi. I am embroidering more chairs. At my studio, we are three people at the moment, we are starting to investigate plastic production techniques. The collaboration with Swarovski is ongoing with more sparkly, glittering, twinkling magic being developed. We are playing with some electric motors. I am making work with the Inflorescence programme in glass, textiles and other materials. And I am working on ideas for lights, shadows and garlands. The work seems to gravitate towards making a party.
Tord Boontje by Tord Boontje
1968 born in Enschede, Netherlands on 3 October at 23.50
1969 finished with breast feeding.
1970 drew a purple cow for my sister on her bedroom wall.
1971 refused to speak until the age of three and then I said: “Mama, I’m hungry, when are we eating?”
1972 was an indian.
1973 experiment one: smashed all the windows of our house that I could reach with a hammer.
1974 could do a perfect mimic of Kung Fu Dancing from the TV.
1975 experiment two: stuck two nails in an electrical socket.
1976 went happily to the Sunflower School.
1977 buried my guinea pig in the garden.
1978 wore any clothes, as long as they were blue (cornflower blue).
1979 experiment three: involving a moving train and toilet rolls.
1980 cycled 300 kilometres through Holland.
1981 went to my first real disco parties
1982 painted my room black, white and red.
1983 wore any clothes, as long as they were black, white or red.
1984 made a new earring every day.
1985 spent Saturday nights at Eureka.
1986 made sunglasses from perforated aluminium and sold them on the streets of Paris.
1987 spent Saturday nights at the Effenaar.
1988 scavenged the Phillips’ industrial rubbish dumps.
1989 work placement and clubbing in New York.
1990 worked for Studio Alchimia in Milan.
1991 graduated from the Design Academy in Eindhoven.
1992 came to London, met Emma.
1993 had a great year.
1994 graduated from the Royal College of Art, London.
1995 designed exhibitions with Ulf Moritz in Amsterdam.
1996 moved to Peckham, south London and set up my first studio.
1997 started recycling bottles under the name tranSglass.
1998 started designing products for Alexander McQueen.
1999 exhibited my Rough-and-Ready furniture at Tate Modern.
2000 my daughter Evelyn is born. Spent six weeks in a Swedish forest.
2001 became fascinated by bunnies, horses, flowers and started the Wednesday collection.
2002 went back to the RCA to teach. Made chandeliers for Swarovski.
2003 nominated for the Design Museum's Designer of the Year award.
2004 presented the Happy Ever After exhibition at Moroso in Milan.
2005 stages the opening exhibition of the Moss gallery in New York.
Visit Tord Boontje's website
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain