Tord Boontje, product design

 8 February 2011

Tord Boontje is a hugely successful designer with an international reputation. Professor of the MA Design Products at the RCA, he has numerous awards for design work in lighting, glass, furniture and textiles.

Tord Boontje is Professor of the MA Design Products at the Royal College of Art.
Tord Boontje is Professor of the MA Design Products at the Royal College of Art.

Working at the Royal College of Art

“I am really busy at the moment, as all the MA students have recently arrived back at the college. I thought long and hard about applying for this position – and I decided that it was the right thing for me at this time. It’s a big move, as I am in the process of re-locating my home and my studio as part of my commitment. The RCA is unique, and very special to me. I am looking forward to the future here.

“I had such a good time and I got an awful lot out of my time as a student at the RCA. You are surrounded by creative people who take their work seriously and are passionate about what they do. I learned a lot from my peers at the time – we supported each other.”

Career path in design

 “I knew from about 15 or 16 years old that product design was the area I wanted to be in.

“There are new opportunities in the connections between the physical and the digital world - great opportunities for us to work differently.”

“My time at the Design Academy Eindhoven gave me a great grounding in design. At that time there were separate classes where you learned to work with lots of different materials such as metal, wood, plastics.

"I was also able to explore textile crafts such as knitting, which was great, but I knew my future wasn’t in textiles. I think this was the time I learned how to design. Whereas at the RCA at MA level you learn why we design.

“Some of my tutors at Eindhoven, such as Ulf Moritz and Joke van der Heijden, were very supportive of my design education. Joke van der Heijden is a fantastic, inquisitive designer/artist and he always encouraged me to keep experimenting.

In terms of designers who inspire Boontje, “there are many! Obviously the greats – such as Eames and Jacobson. I admire the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and then people such as Mendini, Ron Arad and Philippe Starke – although their work and approach may be very different to mine. I also very much admire the work of Shiro Kuramata, a Japanese designer who’s work had a truly poetic quality.”

Getting into product design

To become successful as a product designer, Boontje believes you need stubbornness and originality.

“You need to have an original approach, your own way of looking at the world. You also need that stubborn streak to keep on going – and certain amount of blindness to criticism. It often takes a good five years to gain some momentum.

"There are a lot of design graduates and not so many opportunities for getting into an established company, so starting independently is the way forward for a lot of people. This calls for tenacity and self belief."

Studying at the Royal College of Art

When looking at a student who wants to study at the Royal College of Art, “creativity is the most important. It’s very important for us at the RCA to give space to that individual creativity.

“You need to have an original approach. You need that stubborn streak to keep on going. It often takes five years to gain momentum."

“The second thing would be independence. I’d look for evidence of an ability that they can think for themselves. And then originality – doing something as only you would do it – not looking too much at how others would respond. With those qualities, we can develop the skills that the designers will need.

“We have some great relationships with other respected institutions – such as Imperial College, London – where we are working with scientists. If a student was interested in doing something with electronics, but had no knowledge of this field, we have the support systems in place here to allow that to develop. These things open up so many possibilities to students.

“Work experience is hugely important. It’s the best chance to test the reality of your chosen profession  and what it is that you really want to do. It’s also a good way of eliminating pathways that wouldn’t suit you.”

The future of product design

“I think it is really important that designers don’t focus on just making pretty things to adorn the living rooms of western society. We need to look at the future differently and engage with the wider world. In my work with the students at the RCA, I will be focusing on some specific issues that I believe are relevant and important. These include looking at extreme functionality; social issues including ecological and humanitarian aspects and we will also be looking at ‘the fantastic’.

“There is no doubt about the massive change that new technology has brought about in our society – in the fantastic access we all now have to information and communication. In professional terms, some of the new software programmes have dramatically enhanced the level of professionalism in student’s work.

“There are new opportunities in the connections between the physical and the digital world - and there are now great opportunities for us to work differently.”

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