I first met Wendy Legro and Maarten Collignon of Studio WM in 2012 while they were showing their first full collection at Ventura Lambrate during Salone. I was smitten straight away with their gentle, clean aesthetic and incredible attention to detail. Each year since I have made a point of seeing their new work during Salone and always admire it's purity. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to snare an interview with them both toward the tail-end of Salone and spent an hour chatting with them at a café in San Babila. I am happy to report that they are as wonderfully open and honest as I had hoped they would be. In fact they are the perfect design couple - talented, good looking, intelligent…….and incredibly nice.
D.d: Can you start by telling us how Studio WM came about?
Maarten: We met while we were both studying at Design Academy Eindhoven - Wendy had just graduated and I was starting my graduation year. We started to go out together before we began working together. Wendy helped out on a graduation project and it worked out really well so we thought we should do more things together. It was really as simple as that.
Wendy: But after we both completed our degrees at Eindhoven we thought we should create some distance between us and design so we could work out what direction we wanted to go in. We moved to Antwerp and did nothing related to design for about six months but then started to miss it.
Maarten: Then one day we saw that there was an Elle Decoration competition with two weeks left before the entries closed so for a little bit of fun we decided to enter. We did some drawings and it looked pretty good – it ended up being the ‘Bombus’ side table that you can find on our website. We made it into the final six entries and at the same time Eindhoven contacted us as past alumni to do a pitch for a 'brain-marker' area sign for a small Silicon Valley-style area outside of Eindhoven called Son and Breugel. We decided it was such a different field from what we were used to that it might be a nice thing to do together. It went so well that we eventually won the pitch with a sign that resembles a three-dimensional PCB board.
Wendy: At the same time Droog decided to put my graduation project, - the hot water bottle - into production so we decided that maybe we should just work together from now on. To start our studio we had a think about the best approach and best country for us to work from given that nobody really knew us and so we felt that we should create our own collection which would show our style and philosophy.
Maarten: Our though process was that nobody would ask us to design a chair if we haven’t made a chair before so why not go out and show that we can do with a range of things.
Wendy: We just thought about what type of projects we would love to be commissioned to do and by which companies and went ahead and designed them and began manufacturing them on a small scale.
Maarten: Within two months we had designed the entire collection and around the beginning of August 2011 we decided to participate in Dutch Design Week that started in the beginning of October. The entire Lightness in Lines collection was made and presented for the first time at this event and included the ‘Porcelain’ lamp, the ‘Gradient’ lamp the ‘Dining’ and ‘Easy’ chairs, (now called ‘String’) ‘Aphis’ desk and the ‘Bombus’ side table. The ‘String’ chair is now being produced by the Danish brand Menu. It was a very quick, spontaneous period of design for us - we really just wanted to design some objects and to get the creative energy out that had be stacking up inside us for quite a while.
Wendy: We also decided to move to Rotterdam to give the studio the best chance as it’s close to Antwerp, Amsterdam, Paris Cologne and London. We didn’t really know anything about Rotterdam and in a way that was what we wanted – we didn’t want to be distracted or influenced by any scene or existing style. It was a sort of blank canvas for us.
Maarten: We noticed during the design of the first collection how easy it was for us to work together. The things that chains us together is that we have the same taste in what we like and the same mind set. Of course we do have different views on some things that we then discuss but this gives us the opportunity to reflect properly on aspects of our work. It’s like holding up a mirror to each other so we can make the right decisions.
Maarten: We just need to say to the other person “what do you think?” and we each give an honest opinion and through this you can discuss it properly and from that the idea starts to develop in a path that we both agree is right. It’s easy to get one idea stuck in your head that just goes round and round when you work alone but by working together we avoid this. It makes our design process really quick because we bounce off each other’s ideas. We wouldn’t have designed the objects we presented in our first collection had we been working individually - the collaborative process is what made it so successful.
D.d: What strikes me as totally unique about your work is its visual lightness. Your pieces seem to be almost weightless. Where do you think this particular quality comes from?
Wendy: I don’t really know. For the last two years (2013 and 2014) we have been showing in Milan as a group called 010 – 020 (after the phone area codes of Rotterdam and Amsterdam) with David Derksen, Lex Pott, Earnest Studio, Jeroen van Leur, Mae Engelgeer and Phil Proctor. Each year when we set up I sort of exclaim to myself “Whoa, our work is so subtle maybe it wont get any attention amongst all the noise”.
Maarten: Even though it is light and fragile it still stands out enough to be noticed. It’s really our taste. We look for this lightness.
Wendy: It sounds a bit weird but I think we are a bit oversensitive in comparison to the norm. Details are the design for us. We don’t like in your face design, we look for balance and subtlety in everything we do. We think it’s more interesting to discover a product over time. It has to seem simple but hopefully people discover the essence of our designs as they discover the fine details once they have looked at it for a while and used it.
Maarten: Our work is quite minimal but we don’t want it to become sterile or cold. By giving our products this texture and a particular colouring it becomes warmer and softer.
Wendy: When we create a shape we talk about creatures and ask ourselves ‘What type of character would you like this stool to have?’ We try to teach this to our students – get them to imagine what type of creature they are trying to create………the best objects are ones that people want to pick up and hold.
Martyn: We really design objects that we would like for ourselves – it’s perhaps a bit selfish but it is an honest approach at least!
D.d: What changes has the move from Eindhoven to Rotterdam made to the way that you work or the things that you design?
Wendy: There were a lot of distractions in Eindhoven, a lot of design and designers……Whether it is good or not I don’t know but as a student you always listen to the teacher and are ultimately influenced in some way by them. It was a cleaning up of our minds to move to Rotterdam.We really went back to what we like, what we wanted. If we don’t do what we want how we will we be able to do it for the long term?
Maarten: Plus Rotterdam is very inspiring with it’s harbour and things like that. Had we moved to Amsterdam we would have liked the social life much better I'm sure but in Rotterdam there isn’t so much to do so you tend to get on with your work. It has really helped us to focus and you can. be very anonymous in Rotterdam.
D.d: You have been loyal exhibitors at Ventura Lambrate but quite a few designer moved from there back into the city this year. What are your thoughts on why this happened.
Wendy: Ventura Lambrate has a great sense of freedom and creativity but at the same time it can feel a little bit less professional and some people write it off as just a load of student work. For some designers in more advanced stages of their career this can be a problem, so I can see why they might decide to move to places like Brera to show their work. It’s really the only downside of Lambrate. Because of the raw buildings and the party atmosphere some people don’t think that the design on show is serious.
Maarten: After a while you need to test the waters elsewhere and see what the reaction to your work is in a different area. We also thought about showing somewhere else this year but then we were offered an amazing space at Via Privata Massimiano 21, so we had to do it! We had been showing there for 5 years so we knew that the old garage was our dream space (officially know as Officina Temporanea).
D.d: Where are you heading in terms of having your work produced by other companies? I know Menu are producing your ‘String’ chair but is there anything else on the horizon?
Wendy: We want to keep two sides to the studio – our own in-house production where we can produce items that don’t need to be massed produced and another side where we design objects for outside manufacture. We are really happy to be working with a great company like Menu. Working in mass produced items has limitations but the boundaries which are imposed are a difference not a downside. It is still exciting to work on this type of project but we insist on working with companies who want to produce our items in the proper way with a high appreciation of their intrinsic qualities. For our own stuff we don’t need to sell a lot we just need to sell to the people who really love it.
Wendy: We keep objects like the 'Porcelain lamps' close to our heart and produce them ourselves. They are a crafted object not an industrial one like the ‘WM String’ chair, so we can do it as well as anyone and we actually really enjoy making them. With products made elsewhere we just insist on the quality being right. With Menu we insisted the cushion had to be made in Kvadrat fabric so you get a nice balance between the mass production of the metal components and the luxury of the fabric upholstery.
Maarten: We have turned down a number of offers to manufacture our products when we have felt that the fit wasn’t right for us. We need to be right for the label but we also need to feel happy with how they present our designs. Sometimes the making of some thing like what we do with the ‘Porcelain Lamps’ is a nice liberation from design work. It is craft so it frees the mind for a while and you work with your hands.
Wendy: In Milan you just see the end result of being a designer but you need to make thethe day to day routine fun as well. We want to stay close to the end users of the items we design. Sometimes they send us pictures of our products in their homes and this is really nice. You don’t have this connection when your products are being made by a manufacturer.
Maarten: We also need space in our studio time for exploration into things that might not necessarily go anywhere or sell in any numbers. This will keep us interested. Our Senses Unfold collection from 2014 was like that, we just became really fascinated by ways of delivering scent and work on it for ages without any thought that it will eventually need to be come a marketable product but actually we have been approached by a number of perfume brands to produce vessels for them.
Wendy: It’s really nice to be able to work both on mass products that are relatively inexpensive and on niche ones that sell very few but have all the expensive details left in. We are doing the same thing in a way with our work for Hermes, designing some window and interior displays for them.
Maarten: We coined this phrase architectural voyeurism – It’s when you are outside waiting for the bus or sitting in your car driving somewhere and you see a light go on in a building and you watch a silhouette of a person doing something extremely normal like washing the dishes or cleaning the windows. It feels a bit wrong to look but you can’t help yourself. It’s a tiny snapshot of everyday life. Hitchcock’s Rear Window was sort of the inspiration behind our Hermes window displays in Via Monte Napoleone.
Wendy: Hermes gave us tremendous freedom to do what ever we wanted because they really liked our style and just wanted to see where we would take it.
Maarten: The biggest compliment we get is that people can recognise our style in everything we do. We see our work in interiors as no different to our object design – we can inject the same level of detail. The Hermes store in Via Gastone Pisoni is very small and quite dark so we created a lot of artificial windows using projections so that the space now feels completely different and full of light with walls that are like gardens using Hermes wallpaper. You don’t notice it actually but we use light in our work quite a lot. We use it to make the important things stand out.
For more on the beautifully restrained work of Studio WM go to their website (and shop) here.