Richard Hutten isn’t worried if you graffiti his designs, roll around naked on them, or allow your dog to chew them up. In fact, his first major retrospective at the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, features photos of people (and animals) doing all of the above. "I make things to be used," he says. "When people send me photos like these, of my furniture in their homes, that’s the biggest compliment they can pay me." He looks around at his Bronto chairs and Elephant hassocks standing pristine and captive in the exhibit. "The museum isn’t a natural environment for my work," he reflects. "I’m not about perfect images, but real objects for real people."
With an impressive body of work behind him, from his intelligent reworking of the Arts and Crafts Berlage Chair, to the casual but calculated Zzzidt stool (also known as Skippy, and named as the ultimate Dutch design object by Aaron Betsky in False Flat: Why Dutch Design Is So Good), Hutten is one of the Netherlands’s most internationally successful designers. Still only 40, he belongs to the select but diverse group including Marcel Wanders, Hella Jongerius, and Jurgen Bey, who surfed the wave created by Droog Design in the early 1990s. At this year’s Milan furniture fair, he showed 15 new objects, ranging from sleek silverware for Christofle to the enigmatic white Elephant developed for a real estate project in Amsterdam.
In a sense, Hutten enjoys the broadest appeal among his Droog contemporaries—having achieved a level of popularity in Asia to rival that of another Dutch icon, Miffy (Dick Bruna’s cute white rabbit)—but he remains the most Dutch in his resolute functionality: De Stijl furniture maker and architect Gerrit Rietveld is his idol, for the sober radicalism of his work. "I’ve been called the new Rietveld, and that’s immensely flattering," he says. "Rietveld was a revolutionary. He showed what you can do with just a few sticks of wood."
A similar austerity is evident in all Hutten’s objects, but the key to their success lies in the conceptual twist that gives them a frank and friendly presence. For example, Table-chair, his 1991 graduation project from the Design Academy Eindhoven, uses the simplest of forms to redefine both table and chair, by collapsing the boundaries between them. By the time he designed this piece, Hutten had already evolved his "No sign of design" philosophy. What would become his signature phrase found early expression in a room he created in which everything was composed of the same basic element: A flat-topped, four-legged form was used in varying sizes to serve as floor, ceiling, bed, chair, and table. "Scale gives meaning and defines function," Hutten adds.
The same disciplined approach is evident in the Atomes d’Argent series of silverware that he recently designed for Christofle. Each of the seven pieces in the luxury collection is functional, he is keen to point out. Moreover, all repeat the same simple design motif: clusters of spheres. He chose spheres, he says, because he considers their reflections more beautiful than those of flat forms. In fact, it’s the reflections that give the objects their decorative appearance, allowing the designer to achieve an ornamental effect while using a restrained geometric shape. "For me, design is a thinking process," says Hutten. "It’s not about form, it’s not about shaping."
Dutch writer Ed van Hinte succinctly summarizes his method: "Richard Hutten is an industrial designer who works from a clearly defined set of limitations rather than towards an image of what the object is going to have to look like." This Chair, a lean and lovely stackable design for Lensvelt (2004), demonstrates the strictness of Hutten’s working method, which is based on what he calls "defining the rules."
"The plywood seat and metal frame chair has been done so many times before, but for me, [Arne] Jacobsen’s Series 7 was always the best," Hutten explains. "So I thought, how can I add anything to that?" He decided instead to reduce the raw materials to create a lighter, more sustainable chair. Whereas Jacobsen used 12-millimeter-thick plywood, Hutten settled on 5 millimeters, a decision that pushed current technology to the limit. Following a long search for a manufacturer for the seat and back, there was a two-and-a-half-year struggle to perfect the molds. "It looks simple, but it was a nightmare because there isn’t a straight line in it." says Hutten. "Traditionally, design aims at solving problems. But I don’t solve problems, I create possibilities."
"The charm of Richard’s objects is that they look so straightforward, yet they are complex and difficult to achieve," comments Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum. "There’s a childlike innocence to his basic forms that he treats with a smile and manipulates into something adult."
"Richard’s designs have great clarity," adds Wim Pijbes, director of Rotterdam’s Kunsthal, who has been familiar with Hutten since Droog’s first exhibition in Milan in 1993. "He’s a true designer. When you ask Richard for a chair, a chair is what you get, not an art object that you can also sit on. His work always shows a good use of materials and is sold at a good price. I think in the future he will emerge as a great designer of mass-produced objects, unlike Wanders and Jongerius, who are basically limited-edition designers."
Dombo, Hutten’s famously jolly child’s drinking cup with big ears for handles, suggests that Pijbes is right: 100,000 have been sold so far. Dombo retails at about ten euros, making it a highly democratic design object. "But it’s still the most expensive plastic cup in the world!" counters Hutten. "I want to make beautiful objects that as many people as possible can enjoy." He continues unabashedly, and without irony, "I think everyone deserves a Richard Hutten."
Meanwhile, fresh fields beckon: In Korea he was asked to design the building (an enormous 2,152,782-square-foot complex complete with design shopping mall) and curriculum for a new design school, which will also bear his name. "Attitude is what I’m going to teach," he says. "The Asian way is to follow a leader; they say, tell me what to do. I say, you have to think for yourself."
The building will be a collaboration with MVRDV, with whom he also collaborated on a new housing development in Amsterdam. The Parkrand apartment block features three huge "outdoor rooms" which Hutten outfitted with giant plant pots on enormous saucers, 13-foot-tall chandeliers, and sofas. For the playroom, he created the Elephant hassock and light, using a toy (belonging to his young sons, Abel and Boris) as a model: The ribbon pattern on it is the result of the low-resolution scan he used. "The context is the reason this object exists," he says. "Form follows context."
Given the strongly architectonic element in his work, more adventures in building seem inevitable. "There will absolutely be a Richard Hutten building one day," he agrees. He is also working on a series of photographs of people in their own homes, which will form the basis of an exhibition and book. "The theme is voyeurism," he says. "The subject is people who are just waking up and going about their morning routines, all over the world. It’s based on sequences. I’ve been a fan of Eadweard Muybridge and his time-lapse images since I was a kid."
One plan Hutten does not have is to enlarge his studio. "I have five people working for me, and I want to keep it small," he says. "We’re like a rock band and I’m the singer/songwriter—I’m very selective about the commissions I take on, and I do all the design. I don’t want to run a design factory. If someone calls up and asks for a Richard Hutten, then a Richard Hutten is exactly what they’re going to get."
Amsterdam-based contributing editor Jane Szita took the train to Ghent–three hours away, but a very different Franco-Flemish culture. While touring Van Everbroeck's house, she took time to revisit Jan van Eyck's 15th-century painted church altarpiece. "Flemish painters' works have a depth of color artists had never achieved before," says Szita. "Ghent was the perfect place for an assignment; one could argue that the city was the birthplace of the modern color palette."