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23 March 2023
The Belgian designer tells how his passion for furniture was born from comics
Scribbling comics in the notebook while the teacher explains in class: it’s a recurring scenario in any high school and it’s probably what happened to Sylvain Willenz who, after finishing school, decided to become a cartoonist. But soon comics weren’t enough for him, and the desire was born in him to draw something that would turn into reality, something to live with, to become attached to.
And this is how he chose the path of design, as he himself tells us, without completely forgetting his first love and trying to draw on comics to create his own personal style.
In your projects we often find rounded shapes and curves: what is the origin of this characteristic?
When I came out of high-school, I wanted to become a cartoonist. I love playful hand-drawn characters and grew up reading Belgian comic strips. But I quickly realized I had an interest for a third dimensions, and so I decided to study product design. I developed a certain interest for furniture and lighting. It was natural for me to translate the rounded and ligne-claire aesthetic I had been used to see into my designs. The first object I designed in such a way was the Torch, soft and rounded, like a recognizable character of its own. This product defined my style and line. I like the idea to design friendly, approachable objects with a classic and elegant touch. I don’t like sharp angles and corners which I find more aggressive and I would not want to live with. I like to play with archetypes and turn these into gentle and warm shapes. I like to give my furniture a sort of dejà-vu feeling, a sort of familiarity combined with elements of newness, which I believe makes a long-lasting and mass appealing design. Other typical and recent products that carry this approach are the Body, Upon and Baani chairs amongst others. The Homerun chair was literally inspired by Goofy. And Cepe is a reinterpretation of the typical mushroom. Totem barstool’s sculptural form is surprising, and its graphic silhouette reveals my passion for illustration, transcending the function of a seat to become a decorative object.
When collaborating with companies, what aspects of the production process do you care about the most?
It is very important for me to have a good relationship and communication with my clients. We should share the same values, same objectives and contribute towards each-other in a positive and friendly way. But each collaboration and every process are different. Some designs are simple and take forever because we need to resolve technical issues of production, some can be complex and go fast because we are dealing with a specialist in its own field. But at every moment, what I find to be the most important is communication. If the dialogue isn’t smooth, the process will be affected, or the product will simply not be resolved properly or never see the day. Then, I enjoy all aspects of production, especially visiting factories and talking with the specialists, learning from their savoir-faire and knowledge, sharing my ideas, and trying out new possibilities. The first prototypes are always extremely exciting to go and review.
How would you define your home?
My house is very typical because it is a 1968 white brick pavilion with half floors and everything connecting from area to another. The kitchen is open towards the dining room and the living room, which are overlooked by a long mezzanine. In this space I have my home desk and a long bookshelf. I renovated the house in 2017 and chose for a very simple and general black and white feel with nice natural materials and soft colours. The floor in the dining area bears original terracotta hexagonal tiles, whilst beige complements the living room through textiles chosen for the rugs, sofa, and in the rooms for the curtains or bedlinen. The house is very functional and at the same time it is very comfortable. There is always an atmosphere of creativity because my kids are always making something, my wife has her painting atelier in the attic, and I also have a ceramic atelier in the garage. And life happens in between those spaces.
Is there a distinctive element of the Belgian style?
The 90’s definitely saw a rise, or the birth of Belgian minimalism… but I cannot say there is a particular Belgian design style nowadays. At least in furniture and lighting… Perhaps there is something a little more distinctive in interior design where there is a liking for natural materials, soft and warm tones, beige and grey linens, dark wood, and mineral atmospheres. There are a lot of design producers in Belgium, and all have their own style or approach. I personally like the style and direction taken by Serax who produces my Silex vases and Curve seats. Durlet who produces my Dune, Yale and Moor seats is also a beautiful family company who’s managed to stand out thanks to its quality and unique craftsmanship in leather upholstery.
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