Jan Puylaert, industrial designer, artist, writer and mastermind behind WET, discusses his creative explorations with old student Ilia Chidzey.
A lot longer ago than I care to acknowledge, I returned from a 3 month stint as an industrial design student trainee at Philips in Eindhoven, Netherlands. A little bit over the whole Dutch thing, I think I may have groaned when my wonderful lecturer and mentor Don Carson shooed me over to my next lecture mentioning that we had a Dutch guest lecturer for our next project. I felt that the Eindhoven experience had tainted wooden clogs, tulips and stern men that glared and grunted at me for some time and if I had to argue with another brick wall of Dutch officialdom again I was going to be reduced to a quivering mess on the floor. Low and behold, Don introduced me to one of the most creative, energetic, and passionate designers I have ever known. Jan Puylaert is a whirlwind of inspiration and I was incredibly fortunate to be guided by him for a semester of mayhem and madness. Between the pair of us, we possibly did more all-nighters and drank more Jack Daniels than is humanly possible – but we also designed up a storm!
It’s been a few years (decades) since those heady months at the University of Canberra where I sanded so much that the entire C Level nearly asphyxiated and Jan evacuated the building by merely wanting to play Meat Loaf (‘Meat Balls’ as he affectionately referred to them) in a strictly Violent Femmes zone.
Recently I caught up with Jan and asked him about his latest projects, where he’s been and what inspires him.
IC: Where on earth could someone as creative as you come from?
JP: I was born in Sas van Gent, a small village in Holland. There was no design there, so one day I took off for Milano, where it was all (supposed) to happen.
IC: What motivates you?
JP: At first it was typical ‘industrial’ design – the challenge of transforming visual ideas into products using machinery and plastics or other similar materials. Nowadays I find myself wondering what it is that drives people to want something new, why it is that culture changes. ‘What’ will the future be like, rather then ‘how’ we are going to achieve that.
IC: Why the visual experience?
JP: I feel spoken language is not enough.
IC: Tell me a little about WET – what do you design and produce? How long has it been around, and how did it begin?
JP: It all started with a single idea and no clients. I rented a small space on a trade fair in Milan and went from there. A jump into the deep as we say in Holland. I wanted to make products which made real sense, explore new concepts that others wouldn’t dare make. It has never been easy, but when I get to make something interesting, – something that is totally unique, it is definitely worth the effort!
IC: Is there a particular direction for WET’s design focus?
JP: I try to see the future – what is missing from our current times.
IC: I don’t know if you are aware of this, but one day I was surfing the net and there was a listing of the top 10 bathrooms in the world – and there was one of your amazing bathtubs! I was so excited I forgot to send you the link (typical). Do you get much recognition for your designs?
JP: Sometimes I get letters from people that tell me they love what I design, that is amazing. Hard to believe.
IC: Is there an expectation for you to be consistent in your design?
JP: I like to begin from scratch whenever I can. The world changes and so what benefit could there be to hang on to rules?
IC: I love the combination of playing with both light and water – they are possibly the most challenging elements to capture – they have no solid form. Is that why you work with your backlit bathroom features?
JP: I like bathrooms, maybe because it comes from a primal instinct? A WET illuminated bathtub or washbasin surprises and intrigues when it radiates light and this gives it a magic aspect.
IC: What are some of the trials and tribulations you’ve experienced in developing your own brand?
JP: A person needs money.
IC: Where did your little crown icon/symbol come from?
JP: It symbolises quality in all respects. I also see it as a message to yourself – crown yourself and you’ll feel important
IC: Is self promotion difficult?
JP: I keep on trying to figure it out. Trade fairs have lost a lot of credibility. People nowadays surf on the web or get to know you through blogs or Facebook. Direct contact is often interpreted as spam and generally unwanted. A client wants to take the initiative and find you instead of being sought out (attacked) by your publicity onslaught.
IC: As a creative individual I know you have had many different, design focussed projects over the years – teaching me at the University of Canberra for example – what an inspiration! What have been some of your favourite projects?
JP: Teaching you was certainly amongst my best experiences. Actually I believe teaching gave me plenty back. I learnt a lot from my students.
IC: I’ve seen some of your beautiful drawings – do you use drawing simply as a tool to express ideas and forms, or is it also a creative outlet?
JP: Yes and no – I need a simple pencil and some paper to start any design project.
IC: Several years ago, you wrote a book – was that a giant leap in the design process for you? What motivated you to do it. When most people think of a book these days, they think about downloading an eBook with a focus on words and the written language – you went a few steps beyond that – the final marketing presentation was spectacular. I should have known better, but I have to admit I was surprised at the attention to detail.
JP: When I wrote the story I never thought it would actually become a real book. I find eBooks useful of course, they are perfect to distribute written stories, but when I hear the word ‘book’, in my designer’s mind I see an object. A book for me, apart from carrying a story, is a square object you can open – the paper, the design, the typography, the outside covered in leather with gold inlay. A beautiful package. The era around 1900 epitomises the absolute peak of book design for me. During Art Deco, books were works of art. Before that period paper was precious and not to be spoiled, so letters were small and ran as close to the sides as possible, the paper was also very thin. After a brief period of decadence in the early 1900s books in about 1920 became rather dull – more utilitarian, and soon appeared in paperback form. We made the design of World Wide Forest as if it was printed in 1910, using the same machines and typography to create a real book!
IC: Recently you did a workshop with marble and woodcarving in Cairo – how did that go?
A: Cairo is a beautiful and crazy place. Wonderful people. The cultural difference is vast, and their poverty made me think a lot about our own society and our designs.
IC: This is my favourite topic: have you ever had any design titanics – beautiful ideas that were going to change the world that you launched and consequently shipwrecked before their journey was through? I’ve got hundreds of ‘em…
JP: Haha, isn’t that how all idea start? I hope that one day I will make a product that isn’t a titanic and actually makes some money!
- ATTRACTION by WET!: The magnet shower and bathroom system. All items are simply attached to the walls and mirror. This idea was going to make me a millionaire…
- SURROUND by WET! Connect your iphone to your washbasin and have great music in the bathroom – total flop!
- MrBIG by WET! For those of you who also believe sinks are too low. Well this one is not! No more back-problems. Market disaster No. 48…
IC: How would you define ‘Art’ vs ‘Design’?
JP: I wouldn’t mind calling a Warhol print a piece of design if an artist doesn’t mind calling one of my tubs a piece of art.
IC: It’s a deal… Warhol – wriggle over a bit and let Jan in…
IC: Have you ever felt stuck? Where did you turn for emergency reference and inspiration ?
JP: I was told to go to a supermarket once…
IC: I know this is a bit of an open ended question, but how long does it take to bring a concept into production? Take your original illuminated bathtub for example?
JP: This might be the reason I started my own company. Usually marketing, design, engineering, research and development, meetings and general talk and negotiation can spread out for years for no good reason. At WET I make a decision in minutes. It took LTT bathtub two months to exist!
IC: How do you deal with doubters?
JP: I don’t listen to people with doubts. If something is wrong it has to be wrong, if it is right it is right.
IC: Do you find yourself making compromises from the original creative to arrive at an object you could actually mass produce and market?
IC: What makes you tick?
JP: Suddenly, sometimes I have an idea I want to exist. It excites me create it, so I can see it, touch or use it. It has to exist. Suddenly it is there. Something that never existed before is real – as if it were born.
IC: I don’t think I ever really recovered from your enthusiasm for Meat Loaf. What kind of music do you work to now?
IC: What has been your biggest hurdle in your design career?
JP: Building WET store. The rain comes in everywhere, it’s impossible to heat or cool down, there is humidity everywhere and it has the worst acoustics – absolutely no good for Blues!
IC: What has been your biggest triumph in your design career?
JP: My first washbasin ‘Quatre Mains’ . The world’s first double basin, copied by everyone. It’s still beautiful.
IC: What’s something quirky that you’ve done in the past?
JP: What kind of question is that? Do you mean like doing all-nighters with Ilia Chidzey?
See more products of Jan’s prolific and fertile imagination at wet or if you’re lucky enough to be in Europe – just pass by his office at the Maggiore Lake, Italy!