It's 1 p.m. on a Wednesday and Raf Simons is at home in Antwerp. A lot of hoo-ha has been made about how social distancing is also a social equalizer (whether you believe it or not is another matter), but there's something rather odd about picking up the phone in my pajamas and ringing the near-mythical fashion designer and new Co-Creative Director of Prada.
Simons and I have been united to talk about Kvadrat, the gold-standard textiles brand from Denmark, with whom he's been collaborating with on homeware upholstery fabrics for some seven years. It's through this project Simons assumes the role of alchemist, translating disparate natural materials into luxurious new guises — like he were a painter crushing his own pigments. The end results are invariably gorgeous, a nod to Simons' roots as a furniture dealer.
As Simons explains it, his latest Kvadrat collection is an exploration of tactility and texture, conveyed most obviously by his teddybear-like "Silas" fabric. It is the perfect kind of upholstery for if you were, say, forced into a three-month-long streaming binge without leaving the house because of, I don't know, an unprecedented pandemic.
Calling Simons on his mobile, we caught up about Kvadrat, why people shouldn't balk at spending money on their home, and, of course, what he's currently watching on TV.
Not many people know that you studied industrial and furniture design.
I graduated in '91, and thinking about furniture and the environment in which we live has always been very much in my general interest. One way or another, it comes together for everybody — with fashion, as well as music, interior, architecture. All creation, except the art.
That's a different thing for me.
All of these other things are applied art — which is actually meant to serve people in one way or another. Art is a different thing. I don’t think it's made with the purpose to serve somebody. That almost sounds [like] bullshit when you say "serve somebody," but at the end, it is, you know? Clothes are supposed to be worn. Fabrics are supposed to go on a piece of furniture that people use in their environment. But with art it’s not a need. Perhaps only psychologically.
Why do you think young people put furniture design on such a pedestal these days? Was it always like that?
No. And it was the same for fashion. In the '60s, '70s, '80s, most parents wouldn't want their kid to become a fashion designer. I have a friend, Peter de Potter, who said when he graduated from the Antwerp Academy: "Fashion is the new pop." And everybody was looking at him like, "What's he saying?" But it's so true. Everybody wants to be a fashion designer. They think, "Oh. Success, and money, and fame." That’s something different now from how people saw it back then. That’s maybe a good evolution, but on the other hand, I still think that it's a whole different dialogue: Are we talking about making clothes for people? Or are we talking high fashion? It's two different things.
But I'm interested in what you say, that the young generation is placing furniture and fabric design on a pedestal. These days, now sitting at home all the time, I'm thinking about how I was thinking a year ago. I was kind of switching my direction, in terms of how I was thinking about the fabrics I wanted to develop with Kvadrat. Because, before, I think I was mostly very much focusing on the visual impact of the fabric. I was thinking a lot about the aesthetic impact. And about the coloration and the juxtaposition of color.
Now I’ve been thinking more and more about the tactility. The actual feel. The feeling when you touch, but also, what it then does psychologically. I was thinking very cocoony, and homey, and warm. And it's kind of weird, sitting at home now in the last two weeks. Thinking like, "Wow." In the end, I've always had that feeling. Because everybody has that; the idea of your home and your environment being very important at the end, being crucial.
This is your sixth year working with Kvadrat. You clearly enjoy working with them a lot.
Oh, yes. It’s very calming. It's very different from working in the fashion industry right now. They do not race against the clock, and everything they do is about lasting. They've had that attitude since I started working with them. It's unlike any other business that I'm familiar with, where everything has a timescale.
The idea is to make things that last forever. When we started this, we had a new fabric. I think we started with three fabrics. And then the year after that, another two or three. And so on. But it's not that things are replaced. It's not like, "Okay, let's take out those qualities now and go and do something very new." I think it's a very nice and beautiful way of building.
It’s nice to consider permanence in your approach, which is the complete opposite of fashion, in many respects.
Especially in the last 15 years. Fashion has been escalating to a rhythm that is becoming extremely complicated and self-damaging for the industry. The nature of fashion is to be ahead of its time in terms of conceptual and aesthetic impulses. But I think that the rate has been problematic in the sense that the creative outcome is suffering from that. To constantly stay creative and powerful is just not possible.
I think young people my age are more open to spending money on good furniture because it’s a sense of lasting in a world that moves so fast. If you buy something expensive from Kvadrat, you can have it in your possession forever. So even if the rent price of your apartment rises, or you have to move out of your home for whatever reason, it's still a belonging, in the literal sense of the word.
That is something that has always fascinated me. I question it as much as I want to analyze it and try to maybe give a response to it. Even if I don't really know the exact answer to it. That our society has come to a point that if we talk about things that you're talking about now — applied art. That most people have no problem buying a €2,000 coat. And they also don't have a problem if they are not going to wear that for the rest of their life. But, oh my God, if I have to buy a chair, which is €1,000, it’s completely different. Even if you can have it for the rest of your life.
And I think it has a lot to do with the exposure. You walk everywhere in the street. And everywhere in your clothes. So it has a lot to do with the identity and perception of people. How people think about each other. I think that, for me, it has never really been different, in that sense. I don't see hierarchy. For me it's as important that in my home, I have the things that I find important to myself. I don't see a hierarchy between buying a coat from Prada, for example, or buying a piece of furniture from somebody. Or upholstery of my couch. It's the same for me. I don't really think about it, in the sense, like, "Oh my gosh. I wouldn't do this. Because nobody sees it. This is expensive, but nobody sees it. So therefore, I'm not going to do it."
Let’s talk about the fabrics, they’re beautiful!
Well, there are two fabrics: Helia, as well as Silas. They were very much starting from the idea of surface and touch. You know, most of the fabrics that I have been working on for Kvadrat of all those years were fabrics that are composed with more color, but I think that right now, I was way more invested in tactility and surface. Visually as well as literally, when you touch it. The Silas was more linked to the idea of something that almost has the feeling of a teddy bear that you just want to touch all the time.
You've used your fabrics in a fashion context before, I think back in 2015. Do you plan on doing that again?
I'm very interested in using both of them in fashion. Actually, that's how it all started. I was thinking a lot about Jil [Sander] when I was in the process of developing Helia and Silas. Back in the day, when I was at Jil, I wanted to go away from fabrics that we used there all the time. I was out for something new. And that brought me to Kvadrat. I was talking with my fabric person at Jil, and he had heard about this company. And then we ordered fabrics and a big part of the collections were made in Kvadrat fabrics. And then many, many years later, it was Peter Saville, who works for them, who said, "Hey, you guys should hook up with Raf because maybe you could do something together." And that's how it all started.
Before we finish up, I just wanted to ask — was there one product, like an important furniture piece that you bought early on, that really stands out and is really sentimental to you?
Probably a George Nakashima piece. From a very young age, I’ve always been interested in about three, four, or five designers. At the end of the '80s, it wasn't very popular to like these people. At the time you needed to like Philippe Starck and all that. But me, I was way more into people like Nakashima, Corbusier, Prouvé, and Perriand. I really liked their social responsibility. And then Nakashima, for me, was really interesting. The idea that furniture — and maybe it's my hardcore industrial design background — needs to function.
It's also an attitude that I really apply a lot to Kvadrat. I like the idea of practicality and the idea of really serving the user.
Use is the main thing, it's not there to just be admired?
Well, thank you for your time Raf, it’s been a lovely call. I hope you and your loved ones stay safe out there.
And yours too. Hopefully next time we are not sitting at home anymore. Although, it's not so bad. I think for everybody. It's a good time to reflect, I think.
And you can get some reading done.
And television series!
Are you watching anything good?
Well, just now I was watching The Sinner. I'm very into television series, you know? Like a lot of different things. From Schitt's Creek and everything. It's also good to be able to laugh a little bit when everything is so heavy.