Frederik Molenschot / Designer: "Find solutions within yourself."
Born next to a factory, Frederik Molenschot was probably destined to become a designer with an industrial bent. With Studio Molen he designs light sculptures, paintings, non-light-related sculptures and installations. These tend to be on a large scale because he wants people to be overwhelmed, to be shocked. Asked the purpose of his designs, he says: "To make something clever, beautiful and ergonomic."
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Where did you grow up and what did your parents do for a living? I grew up in Breda, where my mum worked in the pharmaceutical industry and my dad’s family owned a factory that produced industrial scales. He came from a big family – twelve brothers and one sister – and they supplied factories all over the world. My mum comes from a leather tanning family, and they still own factories. So I have industrial production on both sides – in fact, I was born right next to the factory – so it was quite logical that I’d end up doing something equally industrial, it’s just that I do it for art.
What were your parents like, and how else do you think they influenced you? My parents got divorced when I was still quite young, so I was actually raised by my mum and stepdad, who was a teacher and Dutch linguist. My mum is a very open, sweet-hearted person. She encouraged me to be optimistic and positive, and to be unafraid of making something of myself. My stepdad is very intelligent, and he taught me to be open, and to claim and use my freedom. He was very much inspired by existentialist philosophers like Sartre. He’s got a huge library and he reads a lot, whereas I will happily discuss 20 project ideas in an hour.
What sort of objects caught your attention as a kid? The scales. I was really curious about them, and asked questions about them: what were they for? how were they made? I was attracted to big, heavy, powerful objects, like boat anchors, tractors, big trees, things like that. Even now I look for places where humans are dwarfed by objects.
How would people have described you back then, and what remains of that kid? Open, wild, emotional, probably. I’m still emotional; I act and react with my emotions. And I’m still curious and very interested in people around me. I also painted, sculpted and made stuff as a kid; my whole room was one big painting.
So your direction was clear from quite early on. Yes, design was a natural choice. I was eighteen when I enrolled at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. I’d applied to both art school and the design academy, but chose the latter because I felt I could make a bigger impression with design and it makes you think about someone using what you make.
And how did you find your time at the academy? I had a great time there. The academy had just moved into an old Philips factory, so it was this very industrial place. I basically lived there for five years, and it felt like home. I worked on all sorts of projects involving all sorts of media – photography, film, commercial campaigns, interior design, architecture, etc. – and this gave me the time and freedom to discover my creative identity, so it was a very satisfying period of my life.
What didn’t you learn at the academy that you wish you had? If you’d asked me this question on my graduation day, I’d probably have said finance: what you need to know to make a living from what you make. But I found out a few years later that this isn’t something you can learn in the classroom. Doing business is not about money, but about building friendships and truly connecting with people you’re going to work with. If you connect with someone, only then you can start thinking about collaborating with them, because both parties need to derive something from the relationship beyond money. In my case, I’m hoping to understand people, bring them into my world and make them happy with what I make.
You were still quite young when you opened your studio, but designers aren’t necessarily natural entrepreneurs. Were you? Yes, I was. I didn’t know that it would come naturally, but it did. Even at the academy, I’d be working on a project and within no time and without even planning to, I’d have ten people working with me. I’d just ask one person to help me with one thing and someone else to help with something else, and I’d soon have a team. And I did that a lot, because it allowed me to make bigger things than I’d have been able to make on my own. So it was natural to have people collaborating with me at the studio as soon as I opened it.
Still quite a risk, though. Not really. I don’t take risks. I make design-related decisions quite quickly, but decisions about life or the business I make cautiously. It probably has something to do with my youth. Of course you could say I took a risk in setting up my studio and taking on certain projects, but I don’t consider these risks because I just knew things would work out; I trust my instincts. If this [gestures at studio] stops working out today, I could become a paper deliveryman tomorrow, and within six months I’d be doing something else.
Have you always had this view of your capacity for survival? Absolutely. Every day is a wonderful day. And of course I have my moments of sadness and doubt about my usefulness, but I mostly wake up happy to be alive. Being happy isn’t something that overcomes you; it has to do with how you chose to see life. You will never fix all the problems in your head; once you accept this, you might as well choose to be optimistic.
You took heed of your mum and stepdad’s counsel. Let’s talk a bit more about your work. Within the broad discipline that is design, you’re known for your bronze light sculptures. Why light sculptures, and why bronze? Light sculptures are only fifty per cent of what we do; we also make paintings, non-light-related sculptures, installations ... It’s just that the light sculptures have been very successful — thanks in part to our collaboration with the Carpenters Workshop Gallery — so they’ve received lots of attention. We never set out to design lamps; we made sculptures of cities, and stumbled across making lamps. I was always against making lamps, but while studying, I took part in a programme called the Siemens Mobile Design Lab in Munich in which ten designers from all over the world were sent to Shanghai for a month to work on and research the issue of architecture and communications in the city. So I started mapping the city and connecting the dots and understanding the history of the city’s immense growth, and experienced my first ever culture shock. I’d lived in Brabant, then Breda, and then Eindhoven, which was just 45 minutes away by train. And suddenly I was in Shanghai, where it was normal to be in a taxi on a seven-level highway. The world there is stacked – people, buildings, roads like ribbons of light – and it brought to mind Michael Jackson’s video for Leave Me Alone, where Michael is like a giant in a city. All of which inspired me to make sketches of what would eventually become CityLights.
What are you currently working on? An installation called Artificial Forests, which is based on trees and planting trees, hence this sketch of me rolling up the Amazon Forest like a carpet. We continuously plant trees and cut them down to make furniture, using nature as a resource. I don’t see it as a negative thing, I just observe, and look forward to how we can do things differently, more efficiently.
Do you want your work to change people’s perception of the environment? In a way, yes. I want to ask people how we plan to use our natural resources in the next 100 years. What’s behind these resources? What happens if a subterranean gas bubble implodes? I want to systemise the world, our planet and the landscapes and express this in design.
Could you elaborate a bit on that? I don’t believe that I’ll fix things with my sculptures; I’m just interested in what we’ve done over the past few thousand years and how we might work with our environment in future. I live in two mental worlds simultaneously: one half of my mind is preoccupied with everything that’s going on in the world, while in the other half there’s a constant flow of shapes and ideas. And of course you automatically start looking for relationships between those shapes and asking how can you make this, from what material, to evoke what feeling, etc. I make quick movies in my head.
What would you say is the purpose of design? To make something clever, beautiful and ergonomic. I see design as art, adapted to a human being or to a space. At the same time, design is an abstract concept, especially nowadays. Get a designer and an artist to make a bench intended for the beach and you’ll probably see art and design elements in both. That’s why I subscribe to the idea of the maker as a “baker”, whether you’re an artist, designer, writer, photographer; you’re making things using whatever you think is necessary. Mentally, they’re all part of the same system. Everything begins with you as an individual finding something in the world that you can transform. So design is about the person or team behind the idea.
Design art, like the objects you designed for Huys (luxury apartment building on Park Avenue). What did such a public commission mean to you? It was a mind-blowing experience, as a designer and human being. I was very flattered when Piet Boon, the interior architect who bought my first ever sculpture, and Lesley Bamberger, the owner of the building, invited me to create something visible for their building. They’re used to working on such a large scale, whereas mine is a small studio. We made over 250 elements that snaked through the building, and the cherry on the cake was the Ginger Blimp Chandelier, which is very visible to passers-by. It’s rough and beautiful, and embodies craftsmanship. The assignment kept me busy for about three or four years.
Had you ever done something like that before? No, but I studied Man and Public Space at the academy because it was very open and also the most art- and landscape architecture-related of all the departments. It wasn’t only about public space indoors or outdoors, but also about larger scale environments, like landscape design and cityscapes, and I’ve always found it very cool when an artist makes something that’s part of a building, so that it can be experienced by everyone, not just people who are interested in art. I love passing by these sixties and seventies buildings in Amsterdam with architectural sculptures on the wall. They really get your imagination going because they give you a sense of how things were at the time in relation to how things are now, and make you imagine how things could be in the future.
Any sleepless nights on such a big assignment? None. I rarely have sleepless nights. I’m usually sure everything will work out in the end. The only time I had sleepless nights was for my first show in Paris, in 2011. It was the first time I’d thrown myself open to the public, and I was worried that some of the light fixtures wouldn’t work.
Is that why it took so long from having the germ of the idea of CityLights to actual execution? It took three years. I didn’t see the urge to make it. That’s the thing about having a head permanently buzzing with ideas. The urgency has to do with getting them down on paper. But then you find yourself running a business so you can’t just concentrate on having ideas.
Is idea-generation your favourite part of the process? I like the painting and drawing stage, the very beginning. It’s very direct, and painting or working with paper and ink is the quickest way to release these ideas. I always feel I don’t have enough time to execute all the ideas, which is why I have eight desks in my studio, so I can bounce from one to the next.
Once I have the ideas on paper, I can start directing them to see what’s possible, and how I can turn these into the most amazing objects in the world.
What does your work reflect of you as a person? Each design is a reflection of the specific moment in my life when a certain amount of information came together in my head and allowed me to make a decision to make a specific thing. The same information at a different moment would lead to something else. Design for me is very connected to time, and the common thread linking all my work is me; it’s like creating an ongoing passport of my whole life.
Well, something else they share is scale; they tend to be quite big, your designs. “I like things large,” you once said. Why is that? I like to be overwhelmed, to be shocked. If I play music, I play it loud. If I need to concentrate and work all night, I put a movie on repeat and let it play in the background. I plan to visit a redwood forest in America in a few weeks, and I’m already wondering how small I will feel among all those trees. I want people who see my work to be overwhelmed too. I don’t even see what I produce as big because it’s normal for me to work on this scale.
Piet Boon said he considers Amsterdam the best city in the world. Do you find Amsterdam similarly inspiring? I do. Amsterdam is a city that actually feels like a city. London doesn’t feel like a city; it’s too big and baggy to grasp as a mental picture. It outgrew its shirt. You no longer see the structure. I know the Tube map, but that’s not the natural structure of the city. Amsterdam, on the other hand, is half an apple. If I draw three concentric half-circles and say this is Amsterdam, you know exactly what I mean. I think in terms of a city’s structure; so Amsterdam’s canals are ribbons of water with lights. Amsterdam is like Disneyworld for grownups, but with no closing time. Londoners and New Yorkers might consider it small, yet it attracts everybody, as it did me, and it feels like the only place where I can be in the world at the moment.
Why is that? Because it feels both big and international, and small and intimate, and you never stop discovering new things about the city as you bike around. It never stops inspiring ideas. But of all the cities I’ve visited, Shanghai has been the most creatively inspiring.
You’re clearly a very self-made individual. Nonetheless, besides what your mum and stepdad told you while growing up, what other career advice did anyone offer that struck you as wise? Find solutions within yourself. And it’s the same advice I’d give any aspiring designers. If you encounter a problem or even if something in your surroundings feels wrong, the solution lies with you. It’s part of the optimistic choice I was talking about earlier.
And, of course, trust your intuition. This is fundamental. I’ve never doubted my own judgement. I don’t doubt anyone else’s judgement, either; it’s just that I trust mine for what I’m doing. And let natural growth take its course. Don’t compare your rate of development to anyone else’s, and never try to work to somebody else’s pace or rhythm. It’s not about speed; it’s about finding your own rhythm and balance in life, and this applies as much to your work as to your personal life because you need to build up endurance, so your focus should be long-term, not on quick success.
Let’s return to scale for the final question: if you did have to design something small-scale and light, what would you choose to design? Probably a 1:10 model of something big. [Laughs]