Pure emotion around heritage, craftsmanship and innovation.



Sabine Marcelis grew up in New Zealand, was a snowboarder
and is now one of the most exciting designers of our time.
She works for brands such as Céline and Fendi —
and refreshes the car scene with unusual perspectives and approaches.
A meeting in Rotterdam.

Jörn Kengelbach: Sabine Marcelis, after just a few years you are one of Europe’s trend-setting designers and have already presented a whole series of unforgettable works. Can you tell us what makes a design iconic?

Sabine Marcelis: In my opinion, two things make exceptionally good work possible design icons: When a design bears a very specific signature – and still manages to appear timeless. I think that with many iconic designs, function doesn’t have to be the main focus. Things that have a very well thought-out function do not automatically become icons. That alone is not enough. They must endure, remain exciting. That’s why I always try to find this timelessness in my work. I think it’s important to bring things into the world that aren’t just trendy – or something that people might want to get rid of in a few years’ time.

On the one hand, you design seating objects weighing several tons made of granite, quartzite and marble, which are shown as part of the London Design Festival in St. Giles Square, you present your work at Art Basel or work for brands such as Céline, Dior and Bulgari – but also for IKEA. How does that fit in with your maxim of timelessness?

I had this timelessness in mind for the project with Ikea, even though I usually design limited editions or one-off pieces. If you’re designing something to be bought by the masses, my worst nightmare would be that customers want to get rid of it after a few years. In fact, it is surprising how long good designs last, even from large houses. Such an order also leaves enough room to be more unusual and timeless than the rest.

As an expert, how do you define good design?

Good design should be something you can use your whole life. In product design, you should be able to have a good product in your first apartment all the way to your own house. It must always remain relevant – regardless of its surroundings.

Part of your job is to anticipate the future. In other words, to design what will be trend-setting tomorrow and ideally beyond. On the other hand, it sometimes takes many years or even decades to recognize what was not just fashionable but really endures. How do you personally deal with trends?

Trends are best ignored. They are created by the media, give magazines something to write about. They are an excuse for companies to bring out new colors and sell more. They are dangerous because they imply that there are things that are not trendy and that you have to get rid of. I reject that.

Which designs have impressed or even influenced you personally the most?

I don’t even know who designed the first one. But the object is so cleverly made! It is a can opener, a Japanese design. It moves by itself while you pry open a can. A very simple and perfectly functioning design. The second draft is not that old, maybe ten years old. It comes from a Swedish designer, Jenny Nordberg. She designed this mirror, basically a sheet of float glass that she sprayed with silver nitrate. These organic splashes change everything about the mirror. For me, this is a great example of how you can work with materials. Because each of these mirrors is unique. The object is one of those designs where I say: I wish it was mine. I also like to integrate the third design into my own interior designs. I also have it at home myself: the Osaka sofa by Pierre Paulin from 1970. It is so versatile because it consists of three different segments and can be set up completely straight or curved. I appreciate this kind of flexibility. What I like best about it is that attentive users can see that the sofa is based on this flexible system. At first glance, all you think is: cool sofa. But if you look closely, there is a really clever design behind it. I am impressed by the different levels in this design.

Last year, you presented a retro-futuristic show car of the first Twingo from 1993 for Renault – and caused quite a stir. What particularly attracted you to this vehicle?

Renault had asked me to develop something for the 30th anniversary of the Twingo. So it wasn’t about a study of the future, but about bringing the iconic details of the Twingo to life. I knew the vehicle well, but had never considered it a special car. These are often the most charming projects when you ask yourself: What do I do if I don’t particularly like something right away?

Are you satisfied with the result?

Yes. I had underestimated the power of the Twingo at the beginning. It is ingenious if you take a closer look at it. The metal of the bodywork is visible inside, the folding seats in conjunction with the rear bench create space like in a camper.

How did you approach this car design?

I have identified the key features and taken them to the extreme. For example, with a large one-piece rear-view mirror integrated into the sun visor. In this way, several functions become a single object, and I really like that about the Twingo. It was a challenge for me to work on this project because I had never worked on a car before. It also opens your eyes to the work of car designers. It is an extremely demanding discipline.

The show car also had a typical Sabine Marcelis element – a transparent, fluorescent steering wheel. Transparency seems to be a unifying element in your work. Where does your enthusiasm for transparent surfaces and materials come from?

I’ve always been very attracted to the way you can think about light and material together. Components such as transparency, reflection and colors are added quite quickly. These components are the toolbox for playing with light – and yes: in most of my projects I work with at least one of these three approaches.

How has this affected your work for Renault?

My first idea was to develop a completely transparent car to celebrate the construction. To make all the details visible, for example where the metal was reinforced and so on. But unfortunately that was not technically possible. So we made a double bowl. The outer layer is now transparent so that the structure can be seen. The outer shell consists of a single piece of acrylic, i.e. windows and bodywork. Fading the opacity from bottom to top creates an interesting effect: if you look at the car from an angle of 45 degrees, it is completely opaque. When you move, it becomes transparent. I find it appealing to create objects that can be rediscovered from different angles.

Her preference for transparency inevitably leads to comparisons with light artists such as Olafur Eliasson or Helen Pashgian. Are the comparisons comprehensible to you?

Absolutely. I was particularly inspired by the early works, the Californian Light and Space movement of the 1950s to 1970s. I admire the pioneers of this way of thinking. This is also reflected in the materials, such as casting resins, which I work with a lot. The recently deceased sculptor DeWain Valentine was the first to use them. And Helen Pashgian was also a great inspiration.

Do you do a lot of research into the past?

I try not to do too much research in my work into what other artists or designers are doing or have done. It is more interesting to be inspired by unexpected sources or simply to go out and experience light and space. For example in nature.

Philippe Starck once mentioned in an interview that he avoids cities because they only show man-made things. He prefers to be far away in nature and even more so by the sea, because man cannot transform it.

Exactly. Nature is the best designer. When I’m sitting in an airplane, above the clouds and the sun is setting, I think: What could be better than that? Nobody says at such a moment: “But that’s ugly. I try to bring these moments back to life in my work. Whether it’s the way the sun glistens on the sea during the day or the moon on the ocean at night, or the way a raindrop gets stuck somewhere, all these tiny details can be the starting point for a new idea.

How do you bring designs to life if you like working with light as much as you do? Do you make elaborate renderings or sketches?

Even during my studies, many of my fellow students were often better at creating rendered 3D sketches. I still tend to work with simple, almost naïve sketches. It works for me. I can communicate my ideas to my team in this way.

Do you take notes on the go?

I never take notes when I have an inspiration. I live like a giant sponge. And when I want to create something or am given a project brief, I draw from this sponge. That works even in this interview: I’m glad I didn’t see the questions beforehand. Now everything is much more spontaneous. And you get honest answers.

You don’t come across as someone who just works spontaneously. Your projects appear very precise. In your previous life, you were a professional snowboarder. Is that where their goal orientation comes from?

Perhaps above all the determination to want to achieve something as a team! You learn that quickly in competitive sport: even in individual sports, you are never really a lone fighter. Even with designs, I always have to communicate clearly with employees, develop a plan – and then work together with my team to implement it. I have to win my team over for every project, set goals that everyone believes in.

And if your team says no?

No is not an answer for me. For me, no means: think again! What if we could do it? And if something goes wrong, it’s like learning a new snowboard trick: then you have to analyze what went wrong. How can I improve without repeating the same mistake? One example: Years ago, we did a project for Fendi that involved ten fountains. I had never thought about how a fountain works. When the brand said: “Cool, let’s do it!”, I thought to myself: “Oh God, now I actually have to do it. I often get carried away with very ambitious projects.

As a designer, you have long since become a brand. What is it like for you to work with big brands today?

Very different. And almost always challenging. Sure, I also get requests where the project is almost finished and I’m asked: Can you do that for us? But if there is no creative freedom, I’m not interested. The added value of a collaboration between my studio and another brand is that the worlds that move both sides merge. The result must be something I wouldn’t have done if it had been an independent project. For the brand, it should be something that also has added value. You definitely need a lot of creative freedom for that. Fendi is another good example. The original brief was to design furniture. That didn’t feel right. So I did some research. The theme of water was a recurring motif in Fendi’s work – and this is how the fountains came about. I measure great brands precisely by this: by the courage to engage with such ideas and processes.

Your objects appear almost perfect. What role does production play in your work?

Two aspects are crucial: many of my designs are so minimalist that they really have to be perfectly executed in order to work. It doesn’t matter whether it’s more about craft or industrial projects. Amazing craftsmen are at work on the cast resin designs that are produced here in the workshop next door. I have a lot of respect for them. The same applies to glass, which is more of an industrial process. But it also has to be perfectly coordinated. I love perfectionism. At the moment I’m working on a project in Japan that takes perfection and craftsmanship to the extreme. The government there has identified many different trades that are dying out because there are cheaper industrial alternatives. My” project involves extremely complex paintwork. A process that takes months, layers upon layers are applied to wooden objects like nail varnish, but with a natural resin base. The products, often shells, dry for a week and then the craftsman starts the next layer. An entire village was built around this craft. There is a worker who works the wood next to the river because they transported the logs on the river. And then it goes on to the next expert, who takes the next step, and so on. When the father of the current owner ran the company, there were 170 employees, now there are only five and the population is over-aged. So he doesn’t even know whether there will be a next generation. Heartbreaking. And yet incredibly fascinating. The Japanese government wants to promote this craft and make it better known. They try to anchor the manufacturing techniques in the field of collector design.

Collecting is a good keyword. Many of her designs have long been coveted collector’s items. The boundaries between art and design are blurred in her work.

I work in a gray area. With some projects I think: this is definitely art and no longer design. But the main reason why my work ended up in this collector’s area right from the start is simply that I like to use high-quality materials that are treated in elaborate and expensive processes. You reach a price point where it quickly becomes a matter of limited editions or unique pieces. Part of the reason is that I want to experiment and explore the limits of the materials I work with. Often there is simply no optimized production method for mass production.

What is your favorite part of the design process?

When we are in the workshop and working directly with the material specialists and producers. I don’t enjoy industrial processes that much. With projects like Ikea’s, you make a design, send it off and someone implements the design. Of course it was a very interesting project, but being part of the process is important to me.

You work a lot with plastics or artificial materials. What appeals to you about it?

There’s an interesting tension when you combine artificial and natural materials, especially when it’s not clear which is which: that’s why I like working with stones like onyx and marble, because they can also look very artificial with their bright colors. And then to combine these materials with resin arouses curiosity: Which part is natural? Incidentally, the boundary between natural and artificial components is also becoming blurred in synthetic resins: In the past, it was usually five percent biological components in the entire formulation, but now it is up to 80 percent.

You have also worked for the Mille Miglia – once the legendary, breakneck car race from Brescia to Rome and back, today one of the most important classic car events in the world. Did you take part in the event?

Yes. I was there, of course. We designed the resin trophies in the first year of the collaboration. Last year, we were commissioned to create a special installation consisting of eight different sculptures. Each of them celebrated details of automotive innovations. So pistons, engine, hydraulics, headlights and so on. This year we are again designing the medals and trophies.

What do you personally associate with automotive design?

I’ve never said to myself: when I have money, I’ll buy this or that car. But that’s exactly what makes me approach such jobs with an open mind. I can go into a meeting with a blank sheet of paper and filter out things that are of interest to me as an outsider. I have a lot of respect for automobile production. Also because so many different trades come together there. The products must function perfectly for a very long time. To this day, getting a car to drive is probably one of the greatest human team projects.

Do you remember what you played with as a child?

I played with Transformers, which are part machine, part human, and a lot with Lego. But more importantly, my sister and I were brought up by my parents to be creative, even if they are not necessarily creative themselves. For example, they never wanted anything material or bought for their birthdays. They always said: Do something for me! And then we did some handicrafts. My parents grew flowers in New Zealand for a while and sold them at weekly markets. I made jewelry and bags and did the same. It was always an outlet for me to make things – that has remained. My father is also an engineer and took things apart to understand them. I owe my curiosity to him, as well as my enthusiasm for factories: I once visited Bentley in Crewe, England. It’s pure madness for me, the conveyor belts passing by.

How do they prefer to move around?

I drive a Polestar.

An electric car, also a design statement – the CEO is also the chief designer.

Oh, I didn’t know that. I’m just happy with it, and I really love that I never have to drive to the gas station.

Do you like driving?

Yes, I love driving! It gives me important moments of solitude during the day, as there are always lots of people wanting something from me. I can think in the car. But it also has something to do with my youth in New Zealand.

In what way?

For someone who grew up in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand, a car meant something completely different than it does here in Rotterdam. I got my driver’s license when I turned 16, exactly on my 16th birthday. I got my father’s old Isuzu Bighorn – and I immediately felt free. The distances in New Zealand are huge, and a seven-hour drive was no big deal for me back then. I like the fact that this feeling of distance is still with me. In my mind, the world is much smaller because I grew up in a place where things are so far apart. The first car set the standard for my world.

Your products radiate coolness. You often use the term joy in conversation. Can design be funny?

I don’t think of myself as a cool or serious person. Every design should evoke emotions in people. And I want them to be positive. If people think my design is fun, that’s great.

Which of your designs are the most sought-after by collectors today?

One of my very first projects was the Candy Cube. We are still selling it, a timeless object. It has developed a life of its own, as it was originally designed to store bags and shoes for a fashion brand. It was then ordered as a side table. Last year, the Vitra Design Museum acquired it and placed it on its posters alongside iconic chair designs. The New Zealand singer Lorde took him on tour with her. I find it exciting that the Candy Cube is so ambiguous that everyone gives it their own meaning. The personal relationship between many people even made it possible for him to set up a second-hand market. The crazy thing is – and I didn’t expect this – with the Ikea collection it continues like this, most of these designs were limited. In the meantime, you have to pay a multiple of the retail price.

Is there something you collect?

I own an insane amount of sunglasses.

Presumably including old snowboard goggles with bright filters?

Also such. But glasses simply have to do with my work. It’s about filtering, color and glass. That simply fascinates me. And you know: you can just wear the most boring T-shirt or the oldest pair of jeans – but if you combine it with a good pair of sunglasses, you’ll instantly look great.

You have a four-year-old son. Does he understand what his mother is doing?

Yes, he definitely knows that I’m a designer because he often points to objects and asks: Did you design that? He knows very well that I have designed mirrors. He often points to it. Design is basically like seeing with different eyes. Anyone who sees objects for the first time, like my son, questions: Why does something look like that? A child doesn’t know why it gets dark at night. Children help us to think about everyday things in a new way.

Is that why you keep designing everyday objects?

Maybe. In any case, you can recognize wonderful details in the everyday. I once developed a charging station for electric cars for Audi. The task was to design a charging station for the city of Amsterdam. We analyzed which materials make Amsterdam interesting. The buildings there are built deep into the sand, which ensures their stability. They are surrounded by water, which is everywhere and reflects the city back into itself. I used the power of these materials. The base is made of 3D-printed sand. I then set the luminosity of the sky for the upper part. This transparent part was intended to reflect the light of the city like the water of the canals. This laminated glass contains solar panels

… which unfortunately always look equally ugly.

Exactly. They are always a compromise. So I worked with a glass manufacturer to make these solar cells invisible. The glass still lets enough sunlight through. Last year in Egypt I built a large glass sundial with the same type of solar cells. The clock charges itself during the day so that it can illuminate itself at night using the stored sunlight. The technology makes it possible for illuminated objects outdoors to be completely self-sufficient and able to supply themselves with energy.

Do your clients still question your designs? Or do they already have too much respect for you?

Definitely a trap you can fall into. Many clients expect nothing new, but above all something similar when they approach me. I like to challenge this expectation.