Shop Talk with Sylvain Willenz Vol. 7

08/19/2021

RBW

Shop Talk is the interview series where RBW’s friends and collaborators discuss the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design processes. For this edition, RBW co-founder Theo Richardson and award-winning, Brussels-based designer Sylvain Willenz discuss the creation of Print, their newly launched, collaborative collection.

Print is an elevated version of the familiar globe typology, distinguished by the quilted texture imprinted onto its shade. Willenz initially developed its unique surface patterns in 2008, experimenting with a team of glassblowing experts at the acclaimed French glass institute CIRVA. In 2019, he approached RBW to put Print into production, and together, the two studios relaunched the design in 2021 with new flush mount and sconce options, plus high-performance LEDs. Here, with Los Angeles-based design journalist Janelle Zara as moderator, Theo and Sylvain reflect on Print’s new features, the process of collaborating remotely during a pandemic, and the perks of merging age-old traditions with new technologies.

“A Long-Lost Sibling”

Janelle: Hello Theo and Sylvain, and welcome to Shop Talk. Although your studios operate on different sides of the Atlantic, I look at your respective practices and see a lot of similarities in your approach—a shared minimalism, for starters, and an efficiency of execution. Sylvain, your work has even been described in terms of ligne claire, a drawing style of bold, clear lines that also relates back to your history as an aspiring cartoonist. Did these shared affinities inspire your interest in collaborating with each other?

Sylvain: I always wanted to be an illustrator or cartoonist until I discovered design, and I feel like all of my products are a little bit like characters and cartoons. I love this idea of the ligne claire; I love to design things that are very understandable, that most people can read. I also love the simplicity of products that can be very graphic in the environment. As for RBW, we were introduced through a mutual friend a long time ago, and I was immediately attracted to the thoroughness and coherence of their work. My designs in general, or more specifically, Print, shares the kind of design details and cleverness that make a beautiful RBW product.

Theo: Despite how long we've known each other, Sylvain, I’ve only recently heard about your cartoonist background and ligne claire. It makes so much sense. In hindsight, my takeaway is thinking about design from that standpoint; ligne claire is the purity of expression and the absence of distraction—it’s being very specific about the idea while it’s still on the page, and imbuing that with a sense of personality. This Print collection is something that we feel a lot of affinity for, and feels in some way like a long-lost sibling to some of the other products that we’ve designed. It’s a nice alignment between the simplicity of the globe typology, and the needs of various commercial, hospitality, residential environments. It’s a focal point with quite a bit of character, and yet it's subtle enough to blend into environments and not dominate.

(From left) Print flush mount, pendant, sconce

Artisanal Craft Meets the 21st Century

Janelle: The original Print was created through very traditional processes—a CIRVA technician handblowing molten glass onto a metal grid—while RBW is oriented towards decidedly newer technologies. For both of you, as respective designer and designer-manufacturer, did your visions for the new Print align? What aspects of that original did you want to keep, and how has it changed?

Sylvain: I think it was very clear from the start where we would take Print together. I wanted to retain the main concept, the glass bubble imprinted with texture, but we would make it a 2021 product with up-to-date technology and other applications, like a flush mount for the walls and ceiling. I also wanted to revisit the texture, which was initially quite small. We sort of blew that up, and now it’s much more visible from a distance, more graphic.

Theo: We really leapt at the opportunity to revisit the design with Sylvain and see how we could update it more from a technical standpoint, since the aesthetic was so refined to begin with. Looking at how we could deliver more efficiency through LED thermal management, we essentially updated an incandescent product with LEDs in a range of color temperatures. In addition to the original glass, we also developed a new option in PET, which is less fragile and lighter in weight so that it can be installed outdoors. It has this very fine texture that creates a beautiful, diffuse, ambient glow.

The Pros and Cons of Digital Collaboration

Janelle: Although the conversation began in 2019, most of the production took place in 2020—a year of little to no international travel, nor in-person meetings. Were either of you prepared for that? In what ways has that experience changed your practices?

Sylvain: It’s been an obstacle for all of us to design for these international companies without being able to visit them. It's also quite an obstacle not being able to go to fairs, which is where I do a lot of my work. Thankfully, we have this technology that enables us to actually communicate faster, and perhaps more efficiently. You’ll just pick up your phone and do a video call with someone without organizing it; you just call that person, and he or she might be driving, in the factory, or at home. You can talk about the project anytime.

Theo: From our end, there was this wealth of new collaborative digital tools that we were already somewhat familiar with, but really found a lot more comfort with during the pandemic. If the old model was more heavily based on visits and in-person scheduling, certain types of collaboration are less challenging now than in the past, which is very exciting.

Janelle: In the very recent past, we might have been criticized for choosing screens over face-to face-contact.

Sylvain: You can’t beat sharing a sofa with someone and sharing ideas. I hope we’ll be able to do that again soon. That’s really how this project started: we were in Milan in 2019, having a drink at the Herman Miller opening, and the subject just kind of came up—very naturally, through a conversation.

Theo: I remember, Sylvain, always seeing you at Design Week in New York and hearing about what you're developing. Coming up around the same time, our generation has faced various obstacles—a global financial crisis 12 or 13 years ago, and then this pandemic. Year after year, it’s interesting to see the peers from that earlier decade who are still practicing, who’ve found a path forward.

Virtual Sanctuary — Created by Tom Hancocks. Print pendant, large globe in clear/frosted glass

Virtual Sanctuary — Created by Tom Hancocks

Print pendant, large globe in clear/frosted glass

Virtual Sanctuary — Created by Tom Hancocks. Print sconce, small globe in clear/frosted glass

Virtual Sanctuary — Created by Tom Hancocks

Print sconce, small globe in clear/frosted glass

Sustainability, The Driving Force Behind Innovative Design

Janelle: When you mention generations, I think about how different the world is today than it was when either of you started. When you look at younger designers emerging today, what kinds of new or unique issues do you see them facing?

Theo: When we design things, sustainability is achieved through understanding carbon footprint, and I think the next generation of designers has a better understanding than any group thus far. There's a big opportunity for designers and brands of the future to point ways forward that say, “This is a better way, and here’s why.” But I do think that there's still a gap for manufacturers and for designers to properly understand the impact of our decisions. It’s something that we continue to educate ourselves about.

Janelle: Does sustainability factor into your decisions on who to partner with? And does that responsibility land equally on designers and manufacturers?

Sylvain: Absolutely. Designers are very dependent on manufacturers, and vice versa; we need to share a vision to produce these things responsibly together.

Theo: We also can’t forget the consumer, the specifier, and the market, which is what really drives production. I think the relatively recent embrace of new certifications and new product markings help hold manufacturers accountable to deliver product at higher standards. I'm thinking of things like Red List, where we're trying to eliminate harmful processes and materials. Sustainability also has many components to it, from social and environmental dimensions. That's what helps point us in the direction of selecting collaborators.

Virtual Sanctuary — Created by Tom Hancocks. Print sconce, small globe in clear/frosted glass

Virtual Sanctuary — Created by Tom Hancocks

Print sconce, small globe in clear/frosted glass

Virtual Sanctuary — Created by Tom Hancocks. Print sconce, small globe in clear/frosted glass

Virtual Sanctuary — Created by Tom Hancocks

Print sconce, small globe in clear/frosted glass

Embracing Experimentation and the Unexpected

Janelle: Looking at the design industry right now on a more positive note, what are you excited about? Whether it’s a new material, a process, a style...

Sylvain: I think there’s a return, maybe, to craft and natural materials, handmade processes, and textures. I've been making my own ceramics lately, which is basically earth and water.

Janelle: I wonder if that’s something cyclical? I remember early in the previous decade, there was another rise in ceramics and the handmade that seemed to coincide with similar economic uncertainties.

Sylvain: At some point, you always want to go back to very basic things. I'm talking from my own experience, although I think others would relate: as much as the technology has enabled us to do so many things through the pandemic, everyone's also spent too much time on their screens. I just wanted to close my computer and do stuff with my hands—and when your hands are dirty, you can’t use your keyboard.

Theo: I really appreciate the tactility and spontaneity of making things. There are potentially economic reasons behind that, which you alluded to, Janelle: Craft processes sort of sidestep the need for investment in production. What I've also seen lately that I'm excited about is that through these global challenges, there is a real inventiveness with materials themselves, the adaptive reuse of waste and other overlooked, raw components. There hasn't been quite as much as far as new forms, new languages, or new products themselves, but students are experimenting with bioplastics. They’re taking toxic elements and firing them so that they become inert.

Sylvain: Absolutely. You’ve said a few words that for me are quite key: experimentation and research. I would not have been able to think of Print by just sitting behind my computer; it came out of experimentation, and that’s really, really important. As a designer, as a company, you need to invest and allocate some time in researching, experimenting, playing around, and sometimes just freeing your mind from everything you know already. Go towards the unexpected, new avenues where you haven’t been. That's when you come up with the most exciting ideas, or the most exciting results.

Sylvain Willenz

Industrial Designer

Sylvain Willenz is an award-winning, independent designer based in Brussels, Belgium. His celebrated approach to furniture, lighting, and textile design is distinguished by its striking graphic quality, combining clarity of function with elegance of form. Formerly an aspiring cartoonist, he’s described this approach as ligne claire — a drawing style defined by the boldness and simplicity of its outlines. Since founding Sylvain Willenz Design Office 2004, Willenz has won numerous international awards from iF, Red Dot and many others. In 2009, he was named Belgian Designer of the year, and in 2021, produced the Print collection with RBW.

Janelle Zara

Journalist

Janelle Zara is a Los Angeles-based journalist and critic focused on the intersections between art, design, and popular culture. Her writing can be found in a wide range of publications, including Architectural Digest, PINUP, and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, in addition to many others. She published her first book, “Becoming an Architect,” a comprehensive guide to anyone interested in the profession, in 2019.

Moderator

Virtual Rendering

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