As part of of Space Furniture's Business of Design talks, Casper Vissers, co-founder and CEO of the maverick Dutch brand Moooi, touched down in Sydney to provide some insights on Moooi's creative approach to business. From product imagery with graphic nudity, to furniture in the form of animals, Moooi's approach has always been to shock, inspire and have fun.
As Casper Vissers confessed before his talk last Wednesday night at Space Furniture’s showroom in Sydney, CEO’s are often quite boring, so he was delighted that so many people had come out to listen to him talk on the business of design. Vissers was anything but boring with great anecdotes that confirmed everything we had heard about the “playfulness” of Marcel Wanders along with some very honest confessions about how little he and Wanders knew about running a business in the early days of Moooi.
In fact, he was quite happy to admit that even after 14 years the brand was still making mistakes from time to time but that they were getting things right more often than not. With two very different personalities at the head of the company, the main requirement is that they both agree on the brand's direction - this way avoiding potential hair-brained ideas and errors of judgment.
I have highlighted the major concepts raised during what was a very honest and entertaining talk. These included the formation of the brand, the company’s core philosophy and new ways of growing the business.
Casper Vissers' background.
"When I was eight I started asking my mother to light the candles rather than use the electric light and by the time I was thirteen I was redecorating my room four times a year", says Vissers. "Of course my father had a little bit of “doubt” in his mind because of the evolution of his son…... When I turned nineteen, I went to Amsterdam to do a marketing degree (which I didn’t finish) but where I got my own little room and started to source my own furniture. Looking back on things from that time I think I had an innate need to change things. I still do - when I arrive at a hotel with horrible light I take out the lamps and go down to a 711 and buy some candles. I’ll take the time to change things that offend my sensibility”.
Vissers' first real job was as a paint salesman. then as a sales manager of a timber supply company. Despite having a good job he was quick to throw it in for the uncertainty of working for himself. Moving to London in 1995 he visited the debut 100% Design event – in those days housed in a tent on the Kings Road. Here he saw the work of Tom Dixon for the first time and asked to become a distributor. Dixon’s response was “well if you think you can sell it go ahead”. With that Vissers became part of the furniture industry and was soon distributing brands like Extremis. But the real clincher for the future of Moooi was when Vissers met Marcel Wanders around the time when Wanders had just launched his ‘Knotted’ chair with Cappellini (1996). Vissers started to distribute Wanders’ 'Set up shades' lamps and the two hit it off to the extent that they decided to start a brand together.
Moooi is made.
“The truth is that while we could tell you that “Mooi” is Dutch for beautiful and so Marcel decided to add an extra “o” to make it even more beautiful, in actual fact we added that extra ‘o’ because the domain name for mooi.com had already gone”, says Vissers candidly.
This type of honesty was a welcome insight into just how-off-the cuff the creation of Moooi was. The brand was initially nothing more than the two of them, a name and after a little prompting, a manifesto.
"On one of the first weekends after we decided to start a brand together, Marcel said to me, ‘Casper we have to do a course - we are going to do a leadership course with Tony Robbins in Frankfurt" recalls Vissers. "The interesting thing was that it did a lot for us because it was the very early stages of Moooi and we didn’t really know much about what we were doing. Tony Robbins said one very important thing to us, that while it’s a very American approach, you need a Mission Statement. On the train on the way home to Amsterdam we put this mission statement down on paper. It’s a very simple statement that reads, We are here to make the environment more beautiful, inspiring and exciting. It seems strange looking back on it that it took us four hours to arrive at this but it was worth the time because it remains at the core of what we do to this day. To bring your mission to market and to start communicating it, you also need another very American idea - a value system. The Moooi values are probably more or less the same as Facebook and Google and all these other global brands because all the important ones are here. It’s not particularly clever to put these values down on paper because many people have done the same before. The cleverness comes in that you have to stick to those values”.
Vissers went on to tell an anecdote that ocurred after four years in business. Approached by the Conran Shop - a big name in Britain who could potentially sell a lot more product - it would have involved dumping their two original London dealers, who were both quite small but loyal.
“You have to understand that in year four we were loosing money', says Vissers. "We were loosing money like hell actually……. because Marcel wanted to do pictures with Erwin Olaf that cost 50,000 euros and to take big spaces in Milan which were crazily expensive. I had a great desire to say 'YES' to Conran but in the back of my mind was Moooi’s list of values”.
Faced with points 2 and 3 of the Moooi value system you can see why:
We treat every team member, customer, supplier and even competitor with kindness and respect.
We always tell the truth and we always do what we say we will do. Our word is our bond.
“So, I sent this list to Conran’s buyer and that was the end of that. We still only sell small numbers of products to Conran and the two original London dealers don’t even exist any more but it feels good that we stuck to our values", says Vissers.
"We have a very nice corporate identity - done by us - for the last fourteen years", says Vissers. "We changed after seven years from an experience based marketing model to more meaningful marketing. What I mean by this is that early on we did stunts at our launches in Milan like hanging Marcel’s then girlfriend (who is a dancer and acrobat) upside down from a big chandelier. She was popping campaign corks and pouring drinks for the people below. But after seven years of crazy stunts like this I said to Marcel that creating this type of turbulence was not enough - grabbing attention for the sake of it was becoming a little tiresome. I thought we should also be doing things that were meaningful. From that moment on we have spent a lot of time and energy in giving the art and design community a lot of tools to better appreciate out products. Finding the balance between the necessary turbulence to prevent things from becoming predictable, and offering something more meaningful required going back to our mission statement: We are here to make the environment more beautiful, inspiring and exciting".
"For the first twelve years of Moooi we told the design story and the story of the product", says Vissers. "We forgot that while this is enough for the art and design communities, that there is a third and necessary way of communicating with the consumer - showing the products in ways that they can relate to in terms of the way they are set out and styled. Since our April 2013 launch in Milan which was the first time we adopted this new approach, we have seen a 30% growth in sales. It’s not just in one country or in one product, it is across the board so it must have something to do with the way we are showing our collection. We stand for an eclectic interior because we believe a home with real soul has a lot of different elements - old furniture from your grandparents, beautiful art you purchased on a big trip somewhere and furniture that you love. Your home is an expression of who you are".
"Our slogan The Unexpected Welcome is an interpretation of the word “design”. When we started Moooi we wanted a new approach. We couldn’t come up with a single word that expressed the term “design” so we came up with The Unexpected Welcome", says Vissers. "You can buy a chair that is perfectly good to sit on for $80 but we are trying to sell chairs that cost 5, 6 or 8 hundred dollars. People are spending this big difference between 80 and 800 dollars only because something has been communicated. At Moooi we think that people are prepared to do this because they are triggered by a story, a shape, a colour - or a combination of these kind of elements. People will buy something only if it’s welcome. If a particular product is a conversation piece but only a conversation piece then it’s not welcome in your home - it belongs in a museum. We don’t want that - we have a business to run after all and in any case people want something that speaks to them in a special way”.
"Because the Moooi's style is so eclectic it’s not one look but dozens of looks", says Vissers. "This is a pretty attractive proposition to property developers, so we have ventured down the path of associating the Moooi name with some apartment developers who would like to have their name associated with Moooi. Right now we have two projects underway, one in New York and one in Holland. We aren’t doing this to move into architecture or interior design - we want to continue to collaborate with interior designers and architects but the money we make from the licensing of the Moooi name can be poured back into what we do best - which is create interesting, beautiful products".
"We are also licensing our name to a company called Luxury Hotel Cosmetics, who specialize in hotel soaps", says Vissers. "They make 200 million dollars out of their soaps every year. At first we declined their offer but then they reminded us that even an 80 room hotel turns over around 55,000 guests per year. We want our name to spread across a new group who don’t necessarily know us from the furniture or lighting we make but who will perhaps become aware of this later. We have found two new channels for communicating who we are and this is really what marketing is all about".