At Home (and Work) with Piet Houtenbos

Piet, looking fly

NYC-based designer Piet Houtenbos shot to fame with his iconic, controversial Grenade Oil Lamps. Nearly ten years later, he continues to create unique, playful objects with functional flair and a modernist core. We were lucky enough to catch up with the charming and talented designer at his Queens home and work studio on the eve of his second Fab sale. Check out some highlights from our interview about his thoughts on his own creations, those of others and what he expects his grandchildren to think of DVDs.

Halo Chandelier by Piet Houtenbos

What’s the object you’ve created that you’re the most proud of? 

Halo (above) would have to be my first pick: it’s an attempt to elevate the status of candle light in your home.  I was raised in a pretty cool family, and I remember all my parent’s dinner parties—lots of passionate talk, Al Greene playing in the background, just good, solid conversation and company—and there were always candles everywhere. After making the grenades, I realized candles were being wrongly relegated to the background. I wanted to make something on a larger scale. 

What else are you working on these days?

I’m proud of this flat iron I’m working on. Have you ever really looked at one of those things? They are so haphazard and under designed, as though no one every really gave any thought to whether or not a beauty object should be beautiful. When I finally saw beauty emerge with project and make sense, it was a relief to discover there is still hope for many mass-produced follies!

Diamond Mirror by Piet Houtenbos

What’s one amazing piece by someone else that you wish you had designed?

An oldie and a goodie: the Scimitar Chair by Kastholm and Fabricius. But there are so many good things out there! They can be hard to find, but Fab is unearthing a lot of amazing things. I’m always looking at things, trying to figure out how they were made and the relationships between the design decisions: why is it red? Why is it round? Talking to other designers about this stuff is like realizing you’re a telepath – we’re all drawn to similar ideas and aesthetics.

Three things you would bring to an isolated island?

Have I been abandoned?! Is it warm?! If so—shoes, rope and a big time machete. If this were a pre-meditated isolation, I’d go with the latest book about theoretical physics, a girl and some sunscreen.

Where do you find inspiration?

Whatever the thing is - one of my personal products or a design for someone else - I need to research what came before it.  That gives me an idea of what the thing is, and how it has evolved over time.  Then I make a hundred ugly drawings in a sketchbook. I usually end up over-designing at first, but then I boil things back down to nearly nothing. Usually, that’s when something becomes right.

Piet’s pet avocado, grown from a wee pit

Do you have a professional mission statement? What is it?

Stylistically, no. I’ll change everything on a whim if the object needs it.  Philosophically, I just try to make things I would love, and hope that feeling will come across to other people and they will love it, too.  It’s a tall order, making those kinds of things, but it can be done through design and some good thinking. 

What do you image the design landscape will look like 100 years from today?

There’s only one thing I know about that: I have no idea. Technology has changed the game for designers, in terms of developing new aesthetics and modes of thought. I believe a lot of the things that we love today will die out for future generations. Record players? Printed books? Libraries? These are doomed. I know, I know: it’s not an especially romantic way to think. But I fully expect my grandchildren to pick up an old, dusty DVD and assume it’s just a crappy plate with a hole in the center.