Profile: Paula Arntzen

What is it about the Netherlands? It’s barely larger than Delaware, and yet it’s such a major design powerhouse that it really does boggle the mind.  Architects Rem Koolhaas/OMA and Concrete. Multi-faceted industrial designers/artists Tord Boontje, Hella Jongerius (so fabulous), Maarten Baas. Furniture designer Piet Hein Eek. Category-defying design collectives like Droog and Moooi. Craft-incorporating artists like Marcel Wanders, Irma Boom, Vincent de Rijk.

And that’s just scratching the surface.

How does a country produce such amazing designers? Is it genetic? Something in the water? The beer? Amsterdam’s famous tolerance? Quite possibly. But more likely it’s through a wickedly effective combination of great design schools; a system of public and private subsidies for the creative arts; a corporate and public sector that understands the importance of good design; and a government that lends a hand to the creative industries at home and abroad. (Hmmm, let’s consider that for a moment.)

Add to this a long history of artists (from Rembrandt to Mondrian), a culture of pragmatism, a strong craft culture, an amazing ability to fuse wit with function, a certain embrace of the imperfect, and (there’s that pragmatism again) a willingness to tear down walls between art and commerce. Now this is what you’d call a helluva good start.

But then there’s that other thing you need: talent.

Like that of up and coming design star Paula Arntzen.

Paula is a fabulous example of how it all comes together. The great thing about Paula: there are no lines between the things she does. Artist? Check. Crafts person? Check. Product designer? Check.

Paula works in Arnhem where she has her own design studio. She studied traditional furniture making at HMC in Amsterdam and then studied Product Design at ArtEZ Academy of the Arts in Arnhem. Her medium? Paper. The product? Lighting – really stunning lighting: gossamer-light, colorful, substantial, sculptural, kinetic, witty, and joyful. The forms manage to be classically rooted, futuristic, and completely organic all at the same time…meaning of course, that they’d fit in a wide variety of spaces.

She’s currently working with the very cool LA-based Artecnica, which collaborates with designers and makers from around the world (including the aforementioned Tord Boontje and Hella Jongerius) to manufacture and distribute (sustainably and responsibly, by the way) seriously cool products like lighting, tabletop, and accessories. You’ve seen their products: they’re in all our favorite design stores: A+R in LA, Zinc Details and Propeller in SF, Moss and ABC Carpet and Home in NYC.

What made you switch from furniture making to product design? In the furniture work, it was all technique based, but not design oriented. I wanted to have more opportunities to be creative, but it was very good to have the technique-based approach in my background too. It made me respect the materials.

Speaking of materials: how did you decide to work with paper? I like paper a great deal. It’s elegant and lovely to work with. I was working on my graduation project and got this idea that it would be perfect for lamps because it’s so light. You know, most lights are hard with hard lines. I wanted to keep it light.

That’s amazing. What kind of papers do you like to work with? I started working with lots of different types of papers, and got to know how different papers work. I now use coated paper: the quality of the paper is very high. For my graduation project, I used plain paper, but I’ve started to use Tyvek, which is very durable. Because it’s really thick, the shape stays. I also use thinner paper, where the lamp just needs to hang. Like anything, it’s about making sure you have the right material for the purpose. (And oh by the way, the lights pack flat, and are completely recyclable…not that you’ll be discarding them soon.)

What do you think appeals to people about your work? I think it’s the festive feeling…lots of colors. It’s really light.

Do you have a manufactured line and a hand-made line? Yes, I have an exclusive collection of lights that I hand make. These hand-made ones are mostly placed in exhibits, then people can order them if they want.

What inspires you? I am really inspired by fabrics and fashion design, especially the designers who like to do a lot of draping in their work. Anyone specific? No specific designers come to mind. But you know, everything inspires. Art, or the way the people think, or specific techniques, or flowers. Lots of things with sculptural or decorative forms: the world is full of inspiration.

There are tons of companies to partner with. How did you come to work with Artecnica? Or did they come to you? Another designer in the Netherlands told me about Artecnica: they do work with Tord Boontje, and also have other things made out of Tyvek and flat pack. I liked what they did.

Did many companies approach you after they saw your work? I had three companies approach me.

I think lots of crafts people and designers are interested in working with partners like Artecnica. What’s your advice about working with a partner like them? The hardest thing is to let your product loose. You have to trust people and let it go.  I think it’s about your feeling about the people and how you communicate. It’s a chemistry mix.

How does the partnership work? Simple. I design, they produce, and they take care of distribution. OK maybe it’s more complicated. They chose some of the things from the collection in my graduation project, and had to see if they could produce it, and they could. Do you get involved in the manufacturing process? Every step, they check with me about process and quality and we (Artecnica and I) troubleshoot together.

So what’s next? I love paper so will continue with that. Other materials are great too: I’m thinking a lot about fabrics as well. But I’m not a computer-based designer. I really like to work hands-on with the material.  And I am a designer and I love making lights…but am interested in other things as well. (But she wouldn’t tell! Of course, you can check out her website for hints.)

Did you always want to be a designer? I’m not sure. I was always surrounded by art and design: my parents always took me to museums, and I didn’t like it at all then, but I’m glad that I did it. Are your parents in a creative field? No they’re not in the arts business, but they’re interested. And my sister is a theatrical designer so clearly there’s something there.

What are the hallmarks of Dutch design? Why do you think it’s found so much success all over the world? I think that Dutch design tries to tell you a story that speaks to people. It’s also airy and not heavy. And there are little jokes all the way through that make things interesting. Dutch designers also play with proportion and make you look at things in a different way which I think is intriguing for people. The tradition of craft is very developed in Dutch design so I think people enjoy the quality and detail.

Plus there’s a lot of design support in the Netherlands. There’s a commission that looks at your product and if it’s interesting you can get grants and commissions. Also, if you have graduated from design school, they give you some funding to build up your company. It gives you freedom to expand, to explore or exhibit. (Fantastic.)

Who do you think the most exciting designers are? Oh that’s hard. But definitely Maarten Baas: he uses lots of little jokes, and makes things that look familiar but are still a little…different. (Definitely!) Scholten and Baijings–great colors, so delicate, really beautiful. (Completely amazing. Check out their paper porcelain. And I’m in love with their website, too.)

Thanks, Paula!

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