On the eve of the Milan Salone del Mobile, where SCP are presenting the new Home sofa and daybed by Piet Hein Eek, our edtior talked to the designer about his working days, his views on design and life, and asked him what one piece of advice he would give the world. See the Home sofa and Daybed at Rossana Orlandi on Via Matteo Bandello for the whole week.
What does your normal working day look like? Are you a pencil, pen or computer person?
Well, I have a computer for the communication, not for drawing, not for creative processes, and I sit at my desk to make drawings, and draw solutions for all kinds of problems around me, because there are a lot of employees who have questions all the time. I have an old fashioned design board with an arm, where I make the drawings for the furniture and small architectural projects and so on. That is it, more or less.
Do you split your day into different kinds of activity? Is there a normal shape to a day, or is every day different?
Because the company grew over the years, my role has become more specialised, in the sense that I do all of the problems in the company. It doesn’t matter in which aspect, it is either the shop, or the restaurant, or the gallery, or the production, or the logistics – if there is a problem, most of the time I get it. So, that is a daily business, solving problems. Then of course I have the design commissions that are always going on, which I have to make drawings and designs, which are both conceptual and drawings to prepare for production, the technical drawings in the computer I am not doing much of. So, the work in the office is a lot of communicating, writing also, which is quite different from most designers, I also write all of the text we communicate with, and the books and so on. So that is an additional thing that people might not expect. So, it’s communication on a computer like everybody else, but then in my profession it is making drawing and sketches, and solving every kind of problem occurring in a company like I have, with very different professions. It is not only carpentry, we have ceramics, metal, wood, upholstery, spraying cabin, printing, so technically we have a variety of processes in-house, but we also have the gallery, the shop and restaurants, and we will open up a hotel soon. It is on top of our building. We just got it financed, so we can start making it. That should be around October, when the Dutch design week starts, we use that to empty everything, and then after that we start actually building it.
How have your views on design changed since you first began? What has changed?
We used to do everything by post and by telephone. Then suddenly a few years later we didn’t send any envelopes anymore, and there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people looking at our website and finding out much more information than we could ever send in those envelopes. So it changed in a few years from totally analogue to completely digital. I think for our company this development into ICT has been very important in terms of sales and communication, as we sell our products all over the world in real small quantities. Which is almost impossible if you would have to do it in the old fashioned way.
Perhaps the key benefit from the change to digital for design companies has been the possibility to communicate internationally.
Yes, for us and for everybody, for sure. In the end it is still as complicated – to make something for a decent price in Europe, something you want to export abroad, to finance it and distribute it. In the end, it’s the same problem, if you sell a product, you have all kinds of very practical problems, and the biggest is, whether or not people want to buy it. You never know. The one mayor theme is – does it sell?
What is the working or living environment like for you? Are there certain objects that you can’t live without?
I am positively not interested in objects. Even, I don’t like to buy things. So I would never be my own client (laughs).
How do you reconcile design with consumerism?
I don’t think it is useful to buy things. What I do think is important, and in the end relates very much to what we do, is that my working environment, as well as where I live, my personal environment – I really like to be in an environment that makes me happy. I doesn’t mean it has to be designed, it doesn’t mean anything, for me, I like very much when it is chaotic. When there is a huge amount of processes going on, so you can’t see in one glance what is happening, and there is a lot of visual complication. So I like it when it is chaos, which is the opposite to most people, but actually that is what I have created here, a sort of chaos, but also with a huge amount of possibilities, processes, skills and opportunities. This variety always gives inspiration, so for me that is an important part. Then I like very much the team and the people that I work with, it is extremely important to have a stimulating environment in terms of the people you work with, friends and family. All the people you are with, it is important that they are a positive part of your life. For me, those are much more important aspects. In the end, furniture or design, what I try to do, is part of this environment, and if it is well done, it makes you feel happy.
This is not always what people see as the most characteristic thing of design. Often it is newness, or if it is minimalistic, or very baroque – you look at it, the visual aspect of it, because you could say minimalism could also be just the way it is produced. If somebody calls something minimalistic design, it means that it appears as if it is a really simple product, it doesn’t mean that it is simply made. It can be very complicated to make, and still be minimalistic design. So, it’s all visual. And for me, the feeling behind the product, and the way you relate to it, in terms of what you know, and what you enjoyed in the past, and which objects, colours, materials you actually felt as being nice and rewarding and warm, or cold – for me this aspect of feeling in furniture is much more important. I want to make objects which feel natural, like they are the outcome of a natural process, which is not like thought of. Like it is meant to be like that – wood should be used as wood, fabric as fabric, and they come together in a natural way. Which very much relates to our historical feeling about them. If you have seen thousands of products, you have a memory in it, and I would like to refer to what people feel comfortable with in terms of visual aspects. That is very much to do with technique also, you use the materials, you implement all the different parts into one design. So new for me is not interesting. As soon as you think about something, it becomes new, whether you like it or not, but it doesn’t have to be new, I don’t mind. A lot of principles which are normal in the design scene, I don’t value for myself. I don’t say it is wrong or bad, but just not of value for me.
A lot of people share your feeling for that. I think a lot of people are turned off by many aspects of contemporary design.
Outside of design, what interests you in terms of books, music and culture? Do you have heroes?
The best book for me, so the best writer, is by Daniel Kahneman. He is a psychologist who won the Nobel prize for Economics, which is quite normal, but nobody expected ten or twenty years ago that economy was psychology. Which everybody knows now because it has been written down, but he and Tversky, who is his colleague that he did a lot of research with, wrote an inspiring book, that I never stop going on about. (Kahneman, D., Tversky, A. (Eds.) (2000) Choices, Values and Frames).
What about music?
In my youth I collected a huge amount of vinyl, most of it soul, or funk, or jazz, or jazz-rock and so on. Then I started listening to classical music when I left home, because my parents were always listening to it, so I didn’t need it, but when I left I started missing it and needed it again. More recently I have been mixing it all together, but from my youth, someone I still like a lot is Gil Scott Heron. He is a musician with sort of spoken word and poetry. The reason I like him so much is because his texts are so well written, with a natural rhythm. So you hear his lyrics once, and you are almost immediately able to copy them, because it is all logic, in terms of language and feeling.
If you had one piece of advice for the world, what would it be?
Wow, that’s a difficult one. Okay, I have one thing, which I have been thinking about for decades. It is for the Western world, because not everywhere is the same. It is that we should change the way we think about labour, for ourselves. It is not for money, in the end, labour is a necessary and nice part of life. So, we should reconsider our way of thinking, apart from the system we have created for it. That is the most important issue we will have in the near future.