Marcel Wanders has a long tradition of designing for Alessi but his new Circus collection is his best yet. Here he discusses art, design and functionality with Absolutely

Words Pendle Harte

You can tell that Marcel Wanders is an internationally famed designer just by looking at him. He cuts an impressive presence, taller than everyone else in the room, with flamboyant grey hair and a quick, authoritative manner. He has a Northern European philosophical slant to his conversation, which leads him to answer questions in ways that I’m not quite expecting. We are at Harrods, here to discuss his ongoing collaboration with Italian design house Alessi and the newly launched Circus collection, about which he is very excited.

“Functionality is important for things we don’t care about, like vacuum cleaners.”

Wanders’ relationship with Alessi goes back a long way and takes in about 160 pieces over the last eight years at the higher quality end of the range, the ceramic and stainless steel end, not the bright plastic selection. ‘Alessi has a wonderful heritage,’ he asserts. ‘Throughout the 80s and the 90s you could walk into an Alessi store, pick something blind, take it to a wedding and everybody would be happy.’ The collaborative nature of their relationship is integral. ‘Design companies don’t tell designers what to do – they listen to designers. Of course it’s a collaboration, and there’s a lot of talking, but in the end we make what we want to make. If the designer is the mother and the company is the father, well, you want to make babies that the father recognises once they’re there, right? Because then the father will take better care of them. It’s all connected, so we designers try to find fathers who are worthwhile.’ It’s an undeniably compelling analogy.

Anyway, Wanders was always certain that in working with Alessi and its impressive rosta of collaborators, he wanted to be special. ‘I never wanted to be designer number 744 who does an egg cup,’ he asserts. Who wouldn’t want better things for their babies?

The new collection, Circus, is a success he says because even though neither he nor Alessi has ever done anything similar, it’s still immediately identifiable as a collaboration between them. ‘We have really found an area where both can give what they have to give,’ he says. The circus theme, although it could easily have arisen from Alessi’s tradition of characters and quirky figures, comes instead from Wanders’ newly developed (though secret) method of combining colour with stainless steel. They worked on the new technology first and once they’d perfected it, set about thinking of something to use it for. ‘So we were looking for something that would allow the combination of bright colour with steel and we thought of the circus, with all the nostalgia, the characters and the misfits. They never did something like this. We never did something like this. But when you put it out there you can tell very clearly that it’s us.’

The range comprises 29 pieces of tableware, including trays, bowls, an ice bucket, a wine cooler and various containers, as well as a limited edition collection of five curiosities: a jester corkscrew, a strongman nutcracker, a ballerina music box, a ringmaster bell and a candyman sweet dispenser, each of them sold in numbered editions of 999. Which one is Wanders’ favourite? It’s not a question he takes favourably to. ‘Favourites are complicated. It’s like asking which is my favourite child. Even if you know you won’t tell, right?’ But today, this morning, he’s preferring the ballerina, which he’s just chosen as a gift for a friend’s baby. ‘I see that girl in 20 years in her school dorm with that thing next to her.’

The ballerina is a music box and the jester is a corkscrew – and I am expecting him to enthuse about the functionality of his pieces. But on the contrary, he’s quite dismissive about functionality altogether and becomes quite animated. ‘It’s a very overqualified idea. To explain design with functional criteria is ridiculous. Our functionality is not extremely relevant to the piece, which for a lot of designers is not something they would want to admit. Functionality is important for things we don’t care about, like vacuum cleaners. Nobody even wants a vacuum cleaner, they just want a clean house. If you make a vacuum cleaner and it doesn’t work then that’s terrible because functionality is the foundation – but having a foundation doesn’t make a thing good. It’s not enough. There are houses that need foundations, but dream castles in the air that can do without them.’

His views on the relationship between art and design are similarly robust. ‘Art affects a few people in a very deep way, design a lot of people in a light way,’ he says. As both an artist and a designer, the two worlds are very clearly separate for him. ‘The message of an artwork is different from the message of a design piece. It makes a different connection to the world. In design, my message is about my trust in the world, it’s about giving, sharing, community. But having done that for 25 years, I started to see that maybe all that body of work is not a perfect mirror of who I am as a person and I wanted to express different ideas. My fears, my anger, my disappointment in myself and others.

That started a different, more intimate conversation about things I don’t want on the back of a cornflakes packet.’ In essence, design is cheerful while art is not. It’s a clear definition. The Alessi spokesperson at his side interjects to point out that the limited edition pieces in the Circus collection are also art pieces, but Wanders won’t have it. ‘It’s very easy to say that if we make a chair in a lower quantity and with more careful production then it’s art, but it’s not. The things I make which I call art have a very different meaning and importance. They have something different to say.’

If Wanders is the mother of his works, he’s definitely a Tiger Mother, ambitious, strong and fierce. And his future projects? ‘I’d love to do an opera at the Met,’ he says. Doesn’t the Tiger Mother always achieve her aim?

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