It feels good to be in Tord Boontje’s world. His day-to-day world, a petite, ground floor studio in a converted warehouse in New Cross, is similarly inviting. The walls are covered in collages of polar bears, arctic wolves, blue whales, leopards – mock-ups for a future fit-out of the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden in the Netherlands. There are animal masks on a shelf, a Blossom chandelier twinkling over a cluster of computers, books on dinosaurs and prehistoric animals and botanical art, and a dog bowl in the corner. “For the days when I walk my dog Rocky here,” says Boontje, who, with his neat appearance has something of the look of a Silicon Valley guru. Quiet and softly spoken, a thinker, pausing in conversation to articulate himself better, he laughs often and is warm, hospitable company.
Such friendly solicitude is inherent to Boontje’s personality – but not, perhaps, a trait widely shared in the ego-jostling, high-minded world of star designers. Boontje has never been afraid of putting feeling and fun at the center of his life or work. His light designs for Habitat, for example are very much part of his approach to design, with their practicality, inventiveness and affordability. Likewise, when we meet, he has recently installed public seating at Nine Elms in London, at the spot along the Thames where J.M.W. Turner used to paint the sunrise and sunset over the river. To capitalize on this double view, Boontje’s seats rotate, so you can choose your vista depending on the time of day.
A connection to the outside world is central to his ideas, from a Meadow sofa for Moroso, its curved shape evoking a woodland clearing, to his latest collaboration with Swarovski. Continuing his 15-year relationship with the company, Luminous Reflections is a series of four lighting pieces consisting of pendants and orb-like chandeliers. Showcased at Somerset House during the London Design Festival in 2017, the shaded room – furnished with a Meadow sofa, a very Boontje-like touch – was dappled with light from the new pieces on display. One of these, called Shimmering Jewel, is a rivulet of crystals shaped with sharp ridges and soft edges, like the tiny waves that might buffet a small pond. Each stone has an LED light hidden within it, so that the crystals appear to glow – a fiendishly clever bit of laboratory innovation employed to maximum effect.
“I started by walking and looking at the sunlight,” Boontje says of his low-fi inspiration for the collection. “On a winter’s day when it’s overcast, the light is even and soft. I started thinking about the idea of soft light and then how we could find the right crystal shapes to achieve that.” He began with clay models “but I couldn’t see what the light did,” so he turned to the Swarovski jewelry archive, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Scandinavian glass from the 1960s, “to understand what kind of shapes would deliver this light”. The collection “doesn’t depict nature, it’s an abstraction.”
Is he pulling away from the creatures-and-flora-of-the-forest aesthetic, the fairy tales and folklore? Is he becoming a minimalist? No, he shakes his head, smiling. “Both worlds live parallel within me, the decorative and the abstract.” He shows me his Winter Wonderland installation, a fantasy snow-covered landscape for Swarovski, for which he has written a fable featuring foxes and giants and winged creatures. This spring he’s installing balconies at Chelsea’s Royal Hospital townhouses, featuring ornate metalwork that evokes the botanical exuberance of the annual flower show. And his creative process is reassuringly analogue, involving long walks in nature and research trips to museums and galleries. His mornings are reserved for thinking, sketching, dreaming. (The afternoons are for emails and other “tedious things”.)
“I love art, film, books, the Brothers Grimm, the Moomins and their Scandinavian creator Tove Jansson. My mother is Swedish, so I grew up with Moomintrolls,” he says. Home was a town of 14,000: “a little place called Zevenaar near Arnhem in the east of the Netherlands. But we were always outside, and in the holidays we went camping.” His childhood was particularly formative. “I loved art. My mother trained as a textile designer and she taught textiles and costume history. There were lots of books on art history everywhere. It was very creative in my house and I loved making things. It was, ‘If you need a table, you make a table’. I think I was 16 when I realized I could go to design school and do this as a job.”
A degree in industrial design followed at the prestigious Design Academy Eindhoven. “The trend at that time was very strong within the modernist, minimalist tradition, but then, my friends,” including the pair that founded the Droog design company, “started working more for themselves and doing experimental things.” It was a time of growing individuality in design practice. While doing a masters at the Royal College of Art – where he was later made head of the product design department – Boontje met and was influenced by Tom Dixon and Ron Arad, “who had started their own things from nothing”.
‘Decorative’ was no longer a dirty word. Amongst Boontje’s first projects was a commission to design sunglasses for Alexander McQueen, sharing with the late designer a fascination with the stories, materials and techniques of the Victorian period. “Being behind the scenes, seeing the collections, we would meet every two weeks,” Boontje recalls. The relationship is longstanding – most recently, Boontje designed a fang-shaped, copper-scaled bar for McQueen’s charitable Sarabande Foundation. “Design needs to excite you, like a good book or a great film,” says Boontje. “That’s something I really picked up from working for McQueen.”
For all Boontje’s commitment to technical innovation, he is perhaps most drawn to design’s emotional impact, an interest that began with his design for the Midsummer light he made for Artecnica in 2004. The lacy, floral lantern was inspired by the birth of his daughter. “It was the first time I started thinking about home as a place where you are, and about these nesting instincts. I wanted to make it into a really lovely place,” Boontje explains. “I was brought up in this really modernist tradition which automatically rejected any form of ornamentation or decoration and I started to really question that. I recognized there was a sensuality there that I thought was lacking because the world around us was getting harder and colder and blander.”
If, as Boontje has said before, design should tell us who we are and who we want to be, the age of technology has had “an enormous impact”, and not necessarily a beneficial one. “Apple products have brought back a kind of minimalism. It’s weird because suddenly interiors and furniture are lead by aesthetics developed in technology.” Far more of interest to Boontje is the ecological question in design. “The idea of growing a building,” he grins. “Now, that really excites me.”