Best known for their inventive furniture and bold splashes of colour, Belgian design duo Muller van Severen live and work in a small town named Evergem just outside of Ghent.
Next door to their imposing 19th century family home sits a characterful studio, a former orangery that has been lovingly renovated into a modern workspace. Filled with an array of signature pieces, rough-hewn colour samples and unfinished prototypes, we joined Hannes van Severen and Fien Muller in their light-filled studio to find out more about their playful approach to design…
Do your backgrounds as artists influence your approach to designing furniture?
Hannes: Having an artistic background has been so important. We started making art more than 10 years ago –
Fien: No, 15 years ago…
Hannes: Yes! We were at the same art school – Fien was creating modern still life arrangements with found objects, combining colours and form. I was making sculptures, like the stairway you can see in the garden.
And do you still practise as artists?
Hannes: Not in the same way, but we don't feel like what we do now is far away from our artistic practice. I'm still satisfied because I think of furniture as sculpture: making prototypes by hand is essentially sculpting.
Fien: Yes, it's the same way of working. It’s another medium, of course, and you have to consider functionality, but the practical boundaries can be surprisingly freeing.
Who or what are your key influences? Is there anything unexpected?
Fien: I’d say that daily life is the biggest influence on what we do; we find so much inspiration in small, everyday details. There are many artists I admire, but I don't really have one particular hero.
And what about designers, who are your favourites? We notice that you have a Jean Prouvé chair amongst your own designs in the office…
Hannes: Yes, I like a lot of the modernist designers…
Fien: And I really like Konstantin Grcic – his thought process and the way he looks at objects is fascinating.
Colour clearly plays an important role in your work. How do you define your palette?
Fien: It's something that seems to come naturally for us. It’s not quite the last thing we consider, but we usually start with form and functionality and then consider colour after that. But deciding on the colour is always a quick, instinctive process.
Hannes: Often we discover a material and it has already a set colour, so that defines the colours we combine it with. And because we’re searching for a particular colour, this sometimes leads us to discover new materials.
So colour informs the material and the material informs colour?
Hannes: As an example, one of the first materials we used was polyethylene for the table tops and shelves – it’s actually the material used for plastic cutting boards in professional kitchens. There are only five colours because they use it to separate different foods for hygiene – you cut vegetables on green…
Ah, and meat on red…
Hannes: Yes, and blue is for fish and yellow for chicken!
Fien: So then we started to combine them. In the beginning we were frustrated that there were only five colours, but when the choice is so limited it forces you to find interesting combinations.
And are there any colours you'd never use?
Hannes: Purple! I also have a problem with orange sometimes…
Fien: (laughs) I don't necessarily have a problem with any colour, but I’m particular about combinations. Purple can be so beautiful, but not necessarily in combination with our palette.
And going back to the materials, aside from the industrial polyethylene, you use a lot of marble and various metals. What informs those choices?
Hannes: We like really honest, solid materials. We never want to hide anything, we like the materials in their original form.
Fien: Sometimes people think that the cutting boards we made are just samples for the material because they look quite raw, but it’s the finished product! We like that simplicity.
There's a delicate balance in your work between functional product and decorative art piece. How do you imagine or want people to interact with it? As furniture or sculpture?
Hannes: Furniture. But there is always a sculptural element. I like the idea of someone creating a kind of landscape with our pieces.
Fien: Obviously people are free to see the work as they choose and we often hear that we’re somewhere between art and design. After all, we’re artists that create design so it's kind of expected. I can see how the pieces are viewed as sculpture but I hope that people who have them in their homes consider them to be honest, useful objects rather than something in between.
So how do you ensure that the more playful designs stay within the limits of functionality?
Hannes: We’re always looking for the right balance between comfort and form. It’s the most difficult thing to make a good chair. You have to consider the body in a way you don’t for a table or shelves, for those you can almost do anything you like. A lot of people take one look at our chair and say “ah, that doesn’t look so comfortable”, but when they sit down…
Fien: They say “it's nice! You can really use it.” And we are like “of course!” – it’s really important that we achieve that. Otherwise we would have just remained individual artists.
Do you think working together has also encouraged you to create furniture that can be shared? For example, your seats that are designed for two.
Hannes: Yes, but I also think combining two things is about wanting to make something more sculptural; with more dimensions, more space.
Fien: I don’t think it was a conscious goal, but working together has probably influenced this duality. Also, we did a show called Future Primitives in 2012 where we were asked to think about how we will live in the future. We thought we will ‘live smaller’ in the future so will need to consider combining several functions in one piece.
Ah, so part of it is about saving space in a practical way?
Hannes: But not in a rigid sense – we are definitely emotional designers, not industrial designers.
Fien: We should tell you the story behind one of our first pieces of furniture… It was for our very first exhibition as Muller van Severen, for Valerie Traan’s gallery in Antwerp that specialises in both art and design. At the time we were renovating our house and had lots of problems with the electrical wiring in the ceiling, but we needed overhead light. This is what inspired the design of table with the overhead lamp – it worked for the show and as a practical real-life solution.
And that explains the influence of everyday life on your work perfectly. Once you have established a ‘problem’ to solve, is your creative process quite spontaneous and improvised? Or do you like to plan?
Hannes: It’s definitely planned. One of us will start drawing and then the other is like ‘oh yeah…’
Fien: And then the piece is born! We like to start making the piece almost immediately after completing a drawing; to have something in 3D, see what the real proportions are, what it does with the body, and so on. We're makers. We want to be in the studio, creating with our hands and melding things.
You’ve said in the past that you aim to make timeless objects. What does timelessness mean to you?
Fien: I think it's important to make something that in 100 years’ time can’t be easily identified as being made in the eighties or nineties. I wouldn’t say that our work is timeless, you may see that it's from a certain period but that ‘sense’ of timelessness is something to search for and work towards.
Interestingly, it's the same for COS. Aiming to create designs that last far beyond the season rather than led by trends…
Hannes: Exactly, we definitely don’t work with trends in mind. Like sometimes we say ‘ah no, this colour will be a trend’ so we don’t want to use it.
Belgium has a long history as a centre of art and design, and is now home to a number of leading creative studios. Do you think there's a Belgian design identity? And does it affect you in any way?
Fien: I’m not sure that there is a specific Belgian style, but I think that Belgian creators – and people in general – are very modest. We like to stay grounded. I think even if we lived in, I don't know, say Mexico, we would be making the same work. I really do.