Objects with Narratives
Objects With Narratives is a Swiss-based design studio and label founded by Belgian brothers Nik and Robbe Vandewyngaerde. With backgrounds in engineering and architecture, Nik and Robbe have a unique perspective when it comes to design, one that pervades mere aesthetics or the practicalities of function, and delves deeper into the story, meaning, and essence of a piece, be it furniture or art. Objects With Narratives is multifaceted in its operation - serving as a studio where Nik and Rob create their own pieces, a collective for other like-minded storytelling designers, and an incubator for cultivating exciting, new talent. Contributor Eva Ramirez spoke with Nik and Robbe to hear their musings on work, art, life, and finding the meaning behind it all.
Where does a creative idea begin for you?
We believe in shifting the incentive of design from aesthetics and function to objects powered by narratives. With this approach, the object becomes merely the medium. These narratives are critically approached by architects, ergonomically shaped by designers and carefully crafted by engineers. The aim is to provoke consumers to look beyond a design label and to build an affinity with these story-driven pieces that relate to a wide variety of audiences.
You both have degrees in civil engineering and architecture. How does this education inform the way you view and interpret objects? Do you see them through a technical lens?
Firstly the world between design and architecture is not totally different, they actually collide very often. There are many architects who design furniture too. I think as an architect we tend to look how an object can spatially also be fascinating or how it would act within a space. For example is you would scale the One Curve Chair 10 times it would also create some interesting spatial moments. Another aspect of our engineering background is that we are naturally drawn to strong structural entities like the One Curve Chair or even stronger the Fragmented Shelf where separate fragments emerge into a stabile entity when simply stacked.
Memories & Reflection
What do you enjoy the most about creating a new piece?
Our stories never start from an aesthetic consideration, yet don’t necessarily need to solve a problem. It is for us more important to raise questions and discussions so one can form affinities with their object. So what we truly enjoy the most are these moments when narratives are intellectually formed and even better shaped into an object. The highest form of enjoyment is when the story of the object is just right like the object is what it is and it couldn’t be or look like something else. Where everything just seems to fit right in place and everything reacts perfectly to each other. Yet this only happens very rarely…
Objects can trigger thoughts and reflections in the viewer/user. What is your earliest memory of an object triggering a particular thought or reflection for you?
Gaetano Pesce’s La Mamma is one of those pieces that is always wandering in my mind. It results in an image that keeps on eluding, no matter what interpretation you give it. Is it an organic, very comfortable sofa? Is it reminiscent of the body of a woman? Are you its embryo? Then what does that connected ball mean? It really confronts you and asks for a discussion, while persuading positive and nostalgic memories.
Your One Curve Chair was a finalist for the Henry van de Velde Belgian Design Awards. What was your inspiration behind this piece?
The narrative was born out of a very simple question: How can one relate to an object in the 21st century when the community has an overabundance of tools to create any abstract shape possible? We inspired ourselves by looking at one of the fundamentals of sketching where almost any creative idea starts. Something so simple -understood by anyone- yet so strong, The curve. Our narrative starts from physicalizing this curve. By bending 3 abstract labile planes along this trajectory and intersecting them, a structural entity is emerging. The two-dimensional line becomes a spatial object, which on its turn creates complex three-dimensional curves. Nevertheless, the physical presence of one line highlights the simplicity of the narrative, hence the name “One Curve Chair”.
How did the material chosen, tempered steel, influence and shape the narrative of the chair?
Since the narrative talks about lines, we had to use a very thin yet strong structural entity like steel that allowed a 3mm thin plate. We love the idea of material gestures where their natural properties could tell something more about the material itself while enhancing the narrative of the total object. We as consumers barely ever encounter raw steel since it is mostly treated, yet after doing some research on the process of this material, we discovered some of its beautiful material characteristics, namely its ability to change color when being tempered. This gesture of the material expression is thus totally not innovative, yet rarely seen in our daily lives. We believe showing its natural properties can create awareness as we today lost the one-to-one relationship with our products, what they are and how they are made. When steel thus gets heated up over 200°C, it changes characteristics and as a by-product undergoes a transformation in colors which is called tempering. These color changes are very fragile and need to be carefully monitored. Max Lipsey is a specialist in this treatment and guided to the wanted result. The finished object turns into a gradient of colors that accentuates the curves, intersections, and material properties.
How did the creation of Objects With Narratives come about?
Nik Vandewyngaerde is an engineer and architect who worked for the architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, and Robbe Vandewyngaerde is an architect and designer that worked for OMA. The world of architecture and design are closely linked to each other and so we have always been interested in furniture design. After some years of looking at the world of design, we saw many beautiful pieces but little of them had a true narrative. Yet architects approach design more often through narrative-based ideas. So about two years ago we decided to manufacture objects with narratives as a way to express ourselves. At the same time, we wanted to construct a creative space where we support other narrative-based designers who we really believe in.
What advice would you give to aspiring young designers starting out in their careers?
We ourselves are very young starting designers yet if there is one thing we can give as advice: Collaboration is key. One can learn and achieve much more by working together than alone, especially today where we after decades have the capacity to even work together across continents. At this moment we represent around 12 objects: 3 from ourselves, 3 through collaborations, and 6 from other designers. Even the objects from ourselves are made with local craftsmen to get the results we aim for. Collaboration is thus fundamental for our label and we think as well for all professions in these contemporary times. There are so many talented designers and craftsmen that it would be ignorant of us or other designers to state that we/you alone create objects with compelling narratives. It is self-evident that there are many designers who think this way, so why not embrace and support each other by the means of the collective rather than those of the individual.
Have you ever been to London? If so, where is your first port of call for great design when you’re in the city?
I (Robbe) have visited London several times yet I actually stayed in London for about 2 months, right before Covid-19 hit and during the pandemic. The pandemic of course changed the whole city, yet its true power arose from this emptiness too. Simply walking in the empty streets of the business district or Kings Cross can really be inspiring. I have also always liked to go to the Tate or other museums/theaters such as the Barbican, The Royal National Theatre, or Brunswick Centre that have a powerful show as also a powerful spatial presence.
Another popular piece of yours is the Tamayi Stool, which is predominantly crafted from bamboo. Bamboo is revered for being an eco-friendly material as it is regenerative, hardwearing, and requires no fertiliser in order to grow. What is your take on the role sustainability plays within the design world and how important is this to you?
Sustainability has always been a strong design element for us. Studying architecture made us very aware of what impact we can have as designers and builders in our society. We must also understand that almost no material or product is ever really sustainable, but it can react in different ways, from using natural materials, to produce with a longer lifespan and therefore being able to be passed on by generations/ families, lower carbon footprints etc. The Tamayi Stool was our first ever design and we wanted it to be very sustainable, Yet also learned along the way that even steel -which has a negative connotation- is a rather sustainable material to use since it is over 90% recyclable. We are also working on a piece with Studio Nienke Hoogvliet- who are world-renowned for their sustainability-driven design- that is made from thrown-away fish skin. I really hope that in the future we can produce some designs that can tell more stories about sustainability as the main protagonist.
The Tamayi Stool is an interactive and adaptive piece, and you’ve shared that the name translates to ‘shape things to your own liking’. What importance do you place on the interactivity and versatility of pieces?
This really depends on the object itself and its story. For example for the One Curve Chair, is a piece that doesn’t ask for versatility. It is also not an object to sit on all day or to put under your dining table and therefore to be moved around all day. It is a lounge chair that creates its own space and attention that doesn’t require movement. The fragmented shelf interprets adaptability in a different way. It is a shelf and has one expression, yet it can be easily disassembled (to be transported, moved, etc) since the material is stainless steel and therefore very heavy. The Story of the Tamayi allowed for a form to perform. It wants to be “child-like”, a “design object” as a toy for adults so to speak. We have some stools in our own house and we regularly change the design from time to time just to have some fun. It succeeds in that way where the object can be highly personalized and that is where the name Tamayi comes from.
Do you feel a singular object can tell one story, and then take on a different meaning within the context of other objects?
This is a very intriguing question…A good design is not about how functional or beautiful it is, but how it can evoke feelings for everyone. An object should speak to professional designers as it should to children who know nothing about it. This is -we believe- accomplished by design that tells stories and as our labels suggest that is exactly what we look for when we curate. We are currently organizing a Solo-exhibition for Atelier Ecru where we will finally see around 10 pieces all together in 1 room. Our goal is to create “mini-scenes” or “micro-narratives” that hopefully have a positive mutual influence on each other. We are still in the middle of creating these little conversations and are very curious about how they will turn out. Maybe some new stories will arise, maybe some new dialogues or even maybe some confrontations…
Do you feel a singular object can tell one story, and then take on a different meaning within the context of other objects?
This is a very intriguing question…A good design is not about how functional or beautiful it is, but how it can evoke feelings for everyone. An object should speak to professional designers as it should to children who know nothing about it. This is - we believe - accomplished by design that tells stories and as our labels suggest that is exactly what we look for when we curate. We are currently organizing a Solo-exhibition for Atelier Ecru where we will finally see around 10 pieces all together in 1 room. Our goal is to create “mini-scenes” or “micro-narratives” that hopefully have a positive mutual influence on each other. We are still in the middle of creating these little conversations and are very curious about how they will turn out. Maybe some new stories will arise, maybe some new dialogues or even maybe some confrontations…
Fast furniture, like fast fashion, is harmful both to the environment and the integrity of designers who often see their pieces replicated and mass-produced. What are your thoughts on this side of the industry, and how can consumers who prioritise affordability still invest in quality pieces?
One thing of the future is certain, that nothing is certain…What we do know is that technology’s footprint is increasing in every aspect of our lives. We get inspired by these new inventions and applications and so it is very important to adapt to our ever-changing environment. Yet we can’t forget the history of craft this world of design embraces. So we (will) always work with local craftsmen and continue to support our local economy. Yet design has a very specific contradictory position in our time. We believe that design should be for the masses, yet some designs' production methods (long processes by local craftsmen, expensive materials) don’t allow this as some others do. We also don’t have anything against mass-production, there are some products that can be designed very well and they can be easily mass-produced. Many Alessi designs are very strong, yet allow them to be manufactured at an affordable price. Our Tamayi Stool and Fragmented Shelf are also 2 products that eventually allow it to be mass-produced, yet today they are manufactured on demand and made with rather expensive materials. Maybe in the future, we can find ways to drastically reduce the price in order to distribute them on a larger scale while still supporting our local economy.
Can you share some of your favorite design or architecture books?
We ourselves don’t have many design books laying on our shelves. Today we have some books of Vitra, Maarten Van Severen & Objects Of Desire. On the other hand, we have dozens of architecture books, mostly about specific architects or manifestos. Some of the books we are currently reading are Monographs of Christian Kerez, Rem Koolhaas, Victor Horta, and Anne Holtrop; all architects whose projects are story-driven, yet have a totally different expression.
Who are some of your favourite product designers and why?
Currently the designers we represent, we believe are extremely talented as they also inspire us and we are very grateful to work with them. These designers are Raphael Kadid, Anima Ona, Comte Meuwly, Laurids Gallée, Studio Vlora, Studio Nienke Hoogvliet. Also, Designers during the past decades can strongly inspire such as Maarten Van Severen, Verner Panton, Gaetano Pesce… all designers who also have a story to tell through their design which is the most beautiful thing to do.
Designed by Woulfe has invited travel and lifestyle journalist Eva Ramirez to curate our Emerging Talent Series for the Design Journal. Having lent her voice to publications including Robb Report, Conde Nast Traveller and British Vogue, she has documented her travels and the people she has met along the way in the form of long-form features, city guides, in-depth interviews and personal accounts. Through a sensibility towards conscious travel, Eva shares insight into what’s worth seeing - in between the typical hotels, restaurants or boutiques - and in the process, has honed her discerning eye for the fresh talent that are shaking things up in their respective industries. In this collection of interviews, Eva discusses creativity, craft and inspiration with some of the design world's most exciting and inspiring trailblazers.