London Design Festival

Casper Vissers on Moooi


3 October 2012

During London Design Festival Disegno took the opportunity to catch up with Casper Vissers, the CEO of Dutch design brand Moooi. In the resulting interview, Vissers revealed how Moooi's style owes more to fashion than design and why a horse lamp may be the company's defining product.

Moooi was founded by Vissers and the Dutch designer Marcel Wanders in 2001. Over the next 11 years, the brand worked with designers such as Maarten Baas, Richard Hutten, Jurgen Bey and Jasper Morrison, and quickly developed a reputation for flamboyant, divisive design.

In 2011, Moooi launched Gothic Chair, a play school-style twist on a traditional chair by Studio Job. The irreverence of the design was familiar; only a year previously the brand had shown Monster Chair by Marcel Wanders, a quilted black leather chair with a growling face stitched into its backrest.

Now, for 2012, the brand have released new designs by Studio Job and Wanders: the cartoon-daubed Altdeutsche furniture range and the oversized Big Ben wall clock respectively.

In the following interview, Vissers describes Moooi's selection process for new designs and defends the brand's flamboyant style against its critics.

How do you select which designers to work with?
It varies. When we started in 1999 it was just Marcel and myself. We founded the company on the idea that we would do creative things, but within a commercial reality. The playing field is such that you can make the mistake of making extraordinarily beautiful things which end up in a museum and do not reach the market. We try to work with people who can do both.

What do you look for in a new design?
Why does someone buy a chair? If you just have the physical need of a chair, you can go to any cheap store and pay €5 for something to sit on with four legs. Why do people pay €800 to buy a beautiful chair from our collection? Because there is a creative thinking and a story behind each piece, which means that they feel connected to our brand. At the same time, there is a huge variety in our objects. It's not like B&B Italia who have only one style.

How does the partnership between yourself and Marcel work?
Marcel's cultural mind is much further trained than mine and my market mind is much further trained than his. If we both agree on a certain product, there's a pretty high chance it will succeed. If one of us has doubts, we won't do it. That's a ground rule. Even if I love something very much, if Marcel doesn't like it, we won't do it.

The brand is highly flamboyant. Why cultivate this image?
Eleven years ago if you looked at interior magazines, the only thing you saw were tremendously bland furniture advertisements. They were pretty boring. In the same year if you bought Elle or any other fashion magazine, all of the fashion adverts were super interesting. They had a little fantasy and creativity about them. What we have done is take the approach of a fashion company for a design company.

How does that approach tie into your concern with ensuring that a piece is commercial?
Well, sometimes we've done things that we weren't sure about. Smoke Chair from Martin Baas was one we didn't think would be super selling, but we thought would be important for PR. We thought it was so beautiful that we should do it regardless. But it actually became one of our best selling pieces. You really can't predict things sometimes. But we couldn't behave like that all the time. The big danger for a design company is that you have beautiful things that are well produced, but people see them as art pieces rather than stuff to use every day.

But something like Studio Job's Gothic Chair has a very strong art element?
Ok, but it still has a traditional shape and that makes it commercial. If you look at that chair you have a recognition of something traditional, even though it's been given a twist by the designer. It's a 200 or 300 year old shape, we've just blown up the proportions. It's love or hate with that piece, but a lot of people like it.

Blowing up the proportions of objects seems a staple of Moooi's design. It's something Marcel does in the Big Ben clock.
It's super important to our brand. A philosophy of ours is to turn around classical approaches and classical shapes. Everything has been done in this world, so rather than try and do completely new things, we work on the evolution of things. A product is easier to sell if it's in some way familiar. You look and live with certain forms as a child and then, when you have money to buy furniture, those traditional forms are the ones you want. People want something familiar, but with a twist.

How do you stop that twist veering into kitsch?
If a product has value enough at a certain time, then it's not tacky. The horse lamp that Front designed for us for instance is both loved and hated. There is still a culture of designers who spit on it. But when Front came up with this lamp seven years ago, not one fashion shop in the world had animals in the windows. Within one year of Front's lamp, almost all of the big fashion chains were putting animals in their window. But it was Moooi who presented that horse first. The timing was right for it back then, but if we did that today, it would be naff and cheap. It's already been done.

Was the criticism of the lamp hard to take?
If you do unexpected things you hit unexpected answers. It's something we have to accept. But it's not just negative if someone says something is very ugly, because then at least it's a conversation piece. However, it was not some upcoming fashion designer who made that horse lamp; it was serious designers who were seriously thinking about furniture. It was nice to allow for that through our platform. We've stopped showing it now though. It's such an eye-catcher that if you show it year after year, people think that we don't do anything new. I think people know we have the horse by now.

How has the brand changed since it launched?
The craziest thing with Moooi happened in our seventh year. We launched 32 new products in Milan and people who looked through our hall came out and said that although it was nice, they thought that we normally did more new stuff. Normally we did eight new products a year! Marcel thought that we should be the company who develops the most new things, but that was a complete misunderstanding of what people like. If you make too many new designs, people think it's too much like fashion and can't take it in. Since that show we only do seven or eight new product lines a year.