Willenz and his Profile chair
This is the latest installment of our Core77 Questionnaire. Previously, we talked to the lighting designer Bec Brittain.
Name: Sylvain Willenz
Occupation: Industrial designer
Current projects: At the moment we are working on a variety of things. It's mainly chairs and lighting, which are products that I have a strong interest in. And then there are some complementary accessories as well, such as tables and mirrors, for example. We are also working on a number of textile-based projects using several techniques; this is an area that we are developing and in which I enjoy working.
Mission: To design useful things that people will enjoy using. But also to contribute to the company that is making these things. So I'm not just concerned about the end user; I'm also concerned about the context of the product and it being something interesting and viable for whoever's producing it.
Drop is a simple, affordable, injection-molded-plastic bucket designed by Willenz for the Belgian housewares company Xala. The legs of Willenz's Candy tables are steel rebar like that normally found on construction sites.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a designer? I guess when I was around 18 and I discovered that this profession existed. At first I wanted to be an illustrator, doing comics. Then when I discovered that you could actually design things and objects, I got really interested in that. But I believe that I have kept my interest in comics and sort of translated it into objects. Because I've always had a really strong interest in drawings—in drawing myself, in other people's drawings, in comics, in how you can simplify reality into a drawing. And I liked the idea of doing that with products, of making sort of three-dimensional sketches that are resolved in really functional and useful objects.
Education: I studied in the UK. I did a B.A. in three-dimensional design, and then I did a two-year masters course at the Royal College of Art in London, in what they called Design Products, rather than product design. That was something that Ron Arad had put into place when he started as the director of the course. I believe he thought it was more interesting to turn things around and call it Design Products, because it opened the possibilities of what you could design.
First design job: The Brackets Included shelf, which was my graduation project and which went into production a year later, in 2004, with a company that no longer exists—and which now, ten years later, has been put back into production by Wrong For Hay in a revised design. The design concept is still the same, but we refined it and tuned a few details. It's much nicer now.
Who is your design hero? There are many designers I admire for obvious reasons. Philippe Starck would be a major one, because I think he's a fascinating mind. Not that I necessarily like what he does in terms of his work and style and products; not that I necessarily agree with everything or understand everything that he does—but I do think he is a profoundly interesting mind.
A detail view of the Profile chair, which is made of lightweight compressed-cotton tubing with an ash veneer.
Describe your workspace: It's a 75-square-meter wide-open space with a concrete floor and two very big tables; one is mine and the other is for my assistant and interns. It's integrated with my home, so I try to keep it extremely tidy. But that's also because it's the way I work—I like things to be very, very structured and organized.
Other than the computer, what is your most important tool? A Muji black-ink pen, which I usually buy in bulk
What is the best part of your job? When the company you're working for is satisfied with something. I give a lot of importance to the people that I work for, and it's really gratifying to know that the people you've designed something for are happy to put it on the market. That's one nice thing. Also, when you have people writing to you and sending a picture of something of yours that they use—it's very nice to know that people enjoy the products we design. Other than that, it is quite a tough labor, full of frustrations. It's full of joys as well, but it's a bumpy road along the way to the end product.
What is the worst part of your job? Spending a lot of time on things that sometimes never happen, that never go all the way
Inside Willenz's studio in Brussels
What time do you get up and go to bed? I go to bed relatively early, around 11:00 p.m. I get up around 7:30 a.m. and I start working at 9:00.
How do you procrastinate? Do I procrastinate? I guess I do a little. It's very easy to procrastinate by checking your e-mails, which is an obvious thing of our generation, I suppose. But generally I don't procrastinate that much. During the week, I tend to be on a pretty well-organized mission, which generally gets accomplished.
What is your favorite productivity tip or trick? Synchronizing my lists from one device to another. I just use a standard Apple thing. I have my lists on at least three devices, and my assistant gets updates and things like that. It's very useful.
What is the most important quality in a designer? Patience, and being able to listen to your client—specifically, being able to listen and respond while retaining your own creativity as well.
What is the most widespread misunderstanding about design or designers? About design: that it's cool and funky and colorful. About designers: that we work for free.
The underside of the Lock coatrack, which is made from a Bakelite ball and three ash rods
What is your most prized design possession? Well, everything is designed, so it can be anything, right? There are so many things; I collect so many samples and so many different bits and bobs of materials.
One thing that is on my desk at the moment is a small plastic moose. I brought it back from my parents' house. It's made in Hong Kong, I see—it should be made in Maine, really. I used to live in the States, when I was little, and we used to go to Maine and Vermont quite often. I've had this plastic moose ever since I was a boy, so it's a very important thing to me.
What is exciting you in design right now? There's the online factor, which is very important for everybody today and which is influencing products. Before, you had flat-pack furniture in an Ikea way; today, you have flat-pack furniture in a shippable-by-UPS way, which is another way of looking at efficiency of design and how to bring it to the end user. I think that's interesting.
If you could redesign anything, what would you choose? I have no idea. I'm often asked what would be my dream thing to design. I don't necessarily have one. I like to have to design something for some reason, for someone. I think it makes more sense to design something I'm asked to. It's not like I want to design a bicycle or a space rocket or something.
What do you hope to be doing in ten years? The same thing I'm doing today, but perhaps with a bit more ease—with more time to design and less time spent doing admin, and with easier access to advanced technologies.
Lastly, who's more fun to have a drink with: architects, industrial designers or graphic designers? Architects, I suppose? I'm planning on perhaps building my house in the near future, so I've been enjoying speaking to a lot of architects lately.