Raf Simons may have moved to New York only last July, but he’s already no stranger to making the trek uptown from his home (and the Calvin Klein offices) in Midtown. “The Guggenheim is here,” he said matter of factly on Wednesday afternoon in one of his giant Twin Peaks sweaters, one arm clutching a Coke Zero, the other arm draped over a newly upholstered couch by Noguchi.
He was not too far from the museum at the National Academy of Design, which is hosting an exhibition of Simons’ latest collection for the European textile design giant Kvadrat, a set of pointillist and impressionist painter-inspired fabrics Simons unveiled later in the day on a series of upholstered legendary design pieces and floppy cushions scattered all across the academy's marble floors.
“It takes about one-and-a-half, two years to do the collections,” said Anders Byriel, Kvadrat’s chief executive, of their collaborations with Simons, adding that each of the 18 colors in Simons’s latest collection typically requires about 1,000 proposals, which this time around took place mostly in a small weaving mill on the west coast of Norway. “Raf is used to working much faster with fashion,” Byriel, who first met Simons through their mutual friend, the legendary graphic designer Peter Saville, added with a laugh.
Still, it’s precisely that pace—and assurance in quality—that keeps Simons coming back to Kvadrat, which he first started working with back at Jil Sander, and has turned to for his now signature pieces, like his collaborations with the artist Sterling Ruby, ever since. Not that their pairing is unlikely: Simons, after all, actually studied industrial design rather than fashion, and shares Kvadrat’s penchant for contemporary art—a bond Simons reaffirmed during a wide-ranging conversation with W on the works he’s been collecting for the past 20 years. He shares his thoughts on everything from how he feels most at home with stuffed animals to what he thinks of Rick Owens’ furniture, here.
Youth culture has always been so central to your work. How have you kept that attitude while working with interiors, which are so inherently adult?
Weirdly enough, even when I was really young, I was already quite into this whole idea of interiors. I don’t know why. As much as the way I wanted to dress and the environments I wanted to go out in and everything were completely different from the home thing, which was that I always wanted to have this gathering of interesting, beautiful things. The moment I lived alone, it was not just like, “I need a couch, I need a bed.” It was immediately something I really wanted to personalize, from the first moment I had the opportunity to. I did wait until I was away from my parents’ house to do that—I don’t know why, because that’s not very much a teenage thing. But when I graduated, I immediately went to flea markets and bought beautiful things; part of it was even my business when I graduated. I had no job, so I would buy things and sell things, and I was kind of working as a dealer—a very small one, with beautiful ceramics and glass and maybe here and there a piece of furniture or a lamp. I always liked it—finding pieces and bringing them back again to another context so they can live different lives. [Gestures at the furniture and lamps in the room.] Honestly, look at how incredibly beautiful these pieces are. People don’t really know them anymore. People aren’t looking at that stuff anymore. They buy the ugliest lamps in the world. I’m in shops, and I go, god, if I had a store, I would do all possible Noguchi lamps. I think they are the most beautiful things in the world, and they’re actually not expensive at all—it’s genius, to make paper lamps that you can fold down to two centimeters thick. Also, this sofa from him—there was nothing like that, though it is more of an object, I have to say. It’s not something you want to sit in for like five hours watching television with your love and your dog. But that’s also what I like: to make people relook at things.
How did you go about doing that this time around?
We usually present in quite clean, gallery-like environments, and I didn’t feel like doing that right now with this collection. I really liked this space—the room with the red is a bit like Twin Peaks, and this one is kind of like 2001: A Space Odyssey. I quite liked the idea that you would have very different moods coming together, because the fabric we’re launching now is very different, just like the inspiration.
Is that why you wanted to show in a different kind of setting?
No, I think I start to miss more and more the fact that design is less and less presented in an environment that suggests a total kind of idea. Everything I see is very fragmented. You know, Vitra, Cassina, industrial design furniture—everything I see is a product, in-store or completely disconnected. I wanted the furniture pieces to be set in an environment altogether that was a suggestion—it doesn’t really matter what the suggestion is, but to me, it just is more interesting and more inspiring to approach this more like a landscape or a setting, rather than being product-oriented. Like Joe Colombo and his Visiona presentations in the '60s and ‘70s. How does everything work together? How does this dirty creamy wall work with this light, this floor, these colors, these lamps—without being an interior designer, because I don’t want to go there, you know? Otherwise I would place it all directly in a domestic space and invite people there. This is a bit in between. The sacos [giant cushions] are like juxtapositions, related to but also disconnected from the space and this very clean, big-scale upholstery. They’re very playful and very free, not like incredibly chic pieces—they’re just bags. But when you throw a lot of them together, it’s in another way a kind of landscape, or as much as we can do one.
You’ve been making these collections with Kvadrat since 2014, and obviously have had plenty of life changes and no shortage of projects since then. What makes you keep coming back?
Well, it’s an ongoing thing. It’s an incredible, comfortable way of working together, and for me, it’s very calming. It’s nice to go in their world, and to go out of my world, because my world, the fashion world, is always hectic and I’m always against deadline. But our collaborating goes back way longer, because I worked with them before I started at Dior. I like small scale, but for them it’s not small scale because they have a big network and they’re a big distributor of fabric to the big houses—Casina, Vitra, Knoll, but also big architects. And what fascinated me about Anders’s approach is to kind of curate his own company. He’s a producer from fabric, but he has a curatorial brain, and I like that a lot. So me sitting in the brand with this collaboration collection, which is a small little thing sitting in that big Kvadrat house, is a curatorial approach, because they already have a very different way of working with me than probably with their own kind of development and design departments. They’re also incredible characters to work with. They have a very interesting mentality that’s very different from that of my environment. I’m Belgian, you know, and they are a little bit more spiritual and hippie, and it’s interesting. I’m a trained industrial designer, but that was so many years ago, and you know with fashion, I really always have to run against the clock. In a way, it’s ironic what I’m able to do with Kvadrat. [Pats the Noguchi couch upholstered in his fabric.] This is one fabric, and we did it in one year. I mean, in Dior or at Calvin, we would do like 150 fabrics in two months, for sure, from scratch to on the runway. It’s also a different responsibility, and a responsibility I like to take because it makes me think in a different way.
How is this responsibility different?
In fashion, things are not so much about the process or making it last. In fashion, they would actually prefer it doesn’t last. It was a very different kind of mentality when I was at Jil Sander, but it also worked against them, because people don’t really want it to last anymore. They say that they do, but it’s not true; everybody constantly wants something new. It’s so in people’s mentality of not only buying products, but even seeing things and consuming information. They don’t look very long anymore; they look, and they go already to the next thing. And I think that in design, it’s different. It’s still a long process to design and produce something and put it on the market, and it seems to be another world. Like, people who want to buy a sofa take a long time to make that decision; if they’re buying that sofa, they very often sit with it for many decades. If they buy a coat now—a year? Two? Or just three times, for some people in high fashion. And Kvadrat is high design, and what I like is that their attitude is completely about lasting.
Going back to what you were saying about the durability, I thought it was so interesting that Anders said one of Kvadrat’s most popular products is actually from 1968, which is of course the year you were born.
Yeah, but the beauty about their fabrics for me is that they have that timeless quality. You can think retro, but you also think today. It’s weird. Like if I see the red upholstered Kagan, one way or another, you could think that’s a fabric that could have been there in the ‘50s or in the ‘60s, but at the same time, you also know, no, there’s something not from the ‘50s or ‘60s, but something that feels very now. They have an incredible quality, but it’s also a lot about the coloration. In the ‘60s, that red would not be that red—it would be kind of a more cherry, softer, pinkish red. And that’s where I have to take a position, of course, because I love color and I love color juxtaposition. In this series, there was definitely a concept, too—the inspiration clearly comes from pointillism, but then I wanted to abstract it. These kind of fabrics they specialize in, everything is a repeat, but I wanted to make it feel like there is no repeat, which is very difficult, because it’s almost impossible to avoid the eye seeing it’s a repeat. I didn’t want it to be a pointillism painting with figuration, like people walking and a tree and a house, so it was more about taking a lot of fragments out of pointillist landscapes, and then working them in a way that they maybe become a little bit painterly again. But it’s not always so easy to kind of—in fashion it’s way easier, because you don’t have a responsibility to make it last. It doesn’t have to function the way this has to function. You need to be able to upholster it, it needs to last forever, because they have a quality control which is mind-blowing. Any fabric they produce lasts forever. So I have a lot of limitations as well, but I also like that.
Is it difficult to switch your brain over to working that way?
No, not really. But the idea from the beginning was to start with two or three fabrics and then add more gradually, until slowly over time it becomes a collection. I like that they relate, and now, lately, we’ve started to experiment a bit more, like with stripes or now the pointillism, because of course you have to also challenge a little bit over time. People get used also to the newness. In the beginning, people were just quite in shock about the new coloration—that was already "Whoa.” We did a lot of primarily colors and shocking green and shocking yellow, and even though now I’ve turned to mostly pastels, it’s still there. Sometimes the colors that sit in it are very strong, like this orange, but the use of two other colors weaken them.
Have you upholstered any pieces in your own home?
Well, actually, no, because I am also one of these people who takes many years to decide on what to upholster a sofa in. And then moving to New York, we just bought some kind of like easy cover you can take off, because we have a big dog, so I didn’t want to approach it too preciously.
I’m sure she’d probably like these cushions, too.
She’d probably like them. She always likes to be on the sofa and on the bed. She’s a tall dog. She might like this because she’s very spotted. You might not see her very well if she lies on top. [Laughs.]
Home seems like it’s always been very important to you, way before Calvin, when you said you’d only be a creative director again if you didn’t travel as much. I was reading about how when you were 18, in the ‘80s, you went to the series of art installations Jan Hoet curated in private homes across Ghent.
Yes, that was a really big trigger for me as a creative thinker.
Had you always cared that much about home? Did you realize the power of interiors before that?
Yeah, I think so. Home is in the first place important for me because of the idea of love and family and animals and children, but it’s also a place where you gather everything around you that matters, which is not only human or animal—it’s also object, color, everything. There was a couple of situations in the last decade where I had moments where I didn’t really feel like I had a home, because I would move to Milan for Jil and have to be in a hotel for nine months, and it really took me out of my system. It was really like, do you have your home now in Milan or in Paris? Being in two places, I never really know what is the real home—especially if you travel up and down a lot. Even if you have two apartments, it’s not always so easy, because home for me is not only that it looks the way you like, but that everything that you cherish is there from always being there—even food in the fridge and stupid things like that, that have to deal with by going to a supermarket if you travel all the time. That’s one of the reasons why I said after Dior that I’d come to New York: I do not want to travel anymore. I do not want to go up and down, up and down, and that’s why we really moved here. Our home is here now, though of course we have a home also in Europe. But actually, since we moved here in July, we’ve only been back to Antwerp for one week during the Christmas period, because of the situation, of course, with this first collection. And at first, it was very weird to be there. It was like being in a hotel in your own house.
You still do have a house there, though?
Yeah. It is home.
Do you still have family in Belgium?
Yeah, they still live in the same village and everything, even the house they built.
So your room’s still there? What was it like when you were a kid?
Very new and very simple. Scandinavian, everything in the same very light wood. The bed and the desk to study, the closet.
Did you have posters?
Yeah, posters, but also a lot of stuffed animals. But like, not real animals. How do you call them, when they’re fabric and everything?
Yeah, stuffed animals. Like a teddy bear?
Yeah, but not bears. Lots of dogs. [Laughs.] Because I always wanted dogs.
[Laughs.] Do you still have any stuffed animals?
Well, now there’s a lot in the house for the dog, yeah. I’m training my dog not to bite them—to see the difference between when it’s an animal figuration and a bone figuration. Because dogs, they tend to, you know, bite things and chew things. You probably think, like, you’re in cuckoo land. She’s a really big dog, and very sweet—zero aggression in her. But she’s very strong, so you give her a bone and it’s gone in 15 minutes, but you give her a toy, and the ear can be off in a second. Now I taught her to not do that anymore, so she treats them like family. [Laughs.] Sometimes I put them on the couch, and she wants to take, and I say, “No no no, they’re your friends,” and then she doesn’t take, and then I turn my back and then after half an hour she has one in the mouth, but she wouldn’t chew all of them. It’s interesting.
I’m sure she helped it feel like home once you moved here, but what are some of the other things you brought, like art or pieces of furniture, that helped make you feel settled in?
Quite some things. Some Sterling Ruby pieces. Cindy Sherman. Cady Noland. George Condo is in the house. Some younger artists like Sanya Kantarovsky. Anne Collier. We live with quite some stuff; I’ve always lived with quite some stuff. [Laughs.] I like it; it’s inspiring to me, to be with other people’s creations.
What about furniture?
We recently switched a little bit—I brought Nakashima stuff, and then we shipped them back to Antwerp when family came, because it was just not big enough; we needed this huge table we had in Paris. There was quite some Jeanneret, and also a bit of Gio Ponti. We also have two pelican chairs from Finn Juhl. I’ve collected a lot of stuff over time. It was a big, big passion.
Are some of those pieces now in your office, too?
Yeah, because I had to put an office together at Dior and it took a long time, so at Calvin I said, now you have to work it out, because people come in for meetings. So there there’s quite some Jeanneret stuff—I’ve been collecting him for many, many, many, years, way before that whole hype started and the whole gallery boom. I have a huge obsession with that whole Chandigargh project with Le Corbusier, and back in the day they just threw it away, they didn’t want to live with it anymore. So I built my showroom for my own brands completely with all these vintage pieces—all the sewing tables and all the chairs, because they are fantastic pieces to live with, and very functional. You don’t have to be scared when there’s kids around or a dog. These pieces have gone through lives already, and I quite like that. They’re beautiful antiques, I think, not only in terms of aesthetic, but how you feel they have lived a life. You see what they had to go through, especially in India. They are nice because they are not perfect.
Do you remember the first big artwork you bought?
Yes, I do very well, and actually he’s a very good friend of mine who has his very first opening with Paula Cooper gallery here this week. His name is Evan Holloway, and it was “001 Seconds.” It was up in the Antwerp house for a long time but it went down for another piece of his.
Who are some of the younger names you like?
I quite like Sanya’s work. But what is young and what is not young? That’s another thing these days in the art world. I mean, I still think of Evan Holloway as a young artist, but then in a way also completely not. They call it mid-career, I guess. But I don’t know, I keep coming back to that generation at a lot, and then I let it go a little bit, and now I’m looking at it a lot again: the generation that kind of created and caused my obsessions and interests. Some are not active anymore, like Cady Noland is my big obsession. I love that work so much, and I miss that kind of work right now. I’m a huge fan of Cindy Sherman. Mark Manders, Dutch sculptor, is somebody I like a lot; it’s weird work. But painting I find becomes more and more complex. You cannot find good new painting.
Have you been buying work since you’ve lived here?
Yes. I actually recently bought a collage work of Steven Shearer. I loved the show of his paintings at the Brant Foundation, but lately, I’m looking again at photography a lot. I wasn’t for a very long time—except Anne Collier, I wasn’t touching it at all. Now I’m looking again: Tillmans, Gursky, Steven Shearer’s collage work, looking around. You know, when I started collecting, I was really, really not so much going into photography, except some of the early heroes—Larry Clark, for example. And then I was going a lot into sculpture and painting. Now there’s such a massive amount of bad sculpture and bad painting that I think it’s interesting again to look at photography. But it’s not easy either.
Does working with Kvadrat ever make you feel like you’re going back to industrial design, where you started?
I’m not going back to industrial design. I like a curatorial position, so in that sense I also feel the need now, if you do one fabric, that I can push it further through a curatorial approach, and it could be going so much further, but also sometimes I like to pull back and just keep it very kind of sober. Because I don’t want at any point for what I do with them to feel pretentious to the design world. I don’t want to take that attitude. I quite like that it’s a suggestion, and it stays quite sober and minimal in a way, I think. I think that’s the approach. I would not want to go back to industrial design. Not to say that—maybe I would like to do some pieces when the time is right, but it would almost be more interesting for me to go back to the practice than to go to the business. The idea of me doing furniture or ceramics and then producing and distributing it—I don’t know, I don’t really want that or need that. Definitely not need. But the idea of practicing it, I like. Ceramics is something I am obsessed with. I collect a lot of it and I am obsessed with the idea that you can do it all by yourself, with earth, fire, and water, the elements. Incredible stuff. It’s so difficult, maybe, because it’s simple, because you don’t need a lot. And everything I do, I always need so much stuff around me, you know? The whole fashion thing, you need so much organization and production places and assistants and public relations. But it’s not that I complain, because that’s the nature of the thing.
Just curious, have you ever looked at Rick Owens’s furniture?
Yeah, and I think it’s very good. Everybody’s always so competitive, but I’m a huge admirer of Rick's, and his furniture is actually one of the last things that has really blown me away in the last two decades in the furniture business. It’s not really a furniture business, you know, it’s a gallery thing. But what I like about it is that he makes pieces that you can immediately see in his own world, in his environment. It’s very specific, and you like it or you hate it—that’s not what it’s about. It’s more than some kind of designer who makes a chair for Vitra or a table for Knoll, or an artist who does a ceramic for whichever brand, and everything is fragmented. Rick keeps it as all one unit, and I think is mind blowing if people are able to do that these days, because with our industry, our organization, our processes, our systematic behavior of making product and selling product, it’s harder and harder to do that. Of course, I think it’s so strong also because I think for him it’s almost like a hobby. It’s like something he needs to do on the side, or he does it the way he does a dress. It feels very together.
Would you ever buy one of his pieces?
I didn’t buy Rick, but I have to say, I was tempted to. I also collect furniture, but at one point I stopped buying it because it was pure object, like when you really can’t sit. That doesn’t mean I’m criticizing it, because I think it’s great, but I don’t want to sleep in an alabaster bed. I don’t want to sit on a straight bench with antlers, because it’s purely object, and I cannot do that anymore. I think that’s also why I keep seeing that I’m buying things from the past, because I keep thinking they had it more in balance, with the beauty of the shape and the materials and the function. But I do think he makes really great things, and there were moments that I thought of buying it.
I know what you mean, though—they’re not the most inviting things to sit on.
It’s a different approach. It’s a very gallery approach, also, in a way, but I like to think about Rick’s thing in the context of his own environment, and then it all makes sense to me. It’s a lifestyle, like the Jil Sander world or the old Calvin world—or concrete minimalism, Marie Antoinette, Versailles. What I find very interesting with Rick is that it’s his thing, and it doesn’t connect to anything I’ve ever seen. I can see him lying in this alabaster bed with 50 mink blankets, but that doesn’t mean that I can do that. Me, I like to build environments, but for him, it’s all together, his collection, his shows, his shops, and I know how his house is. It’s all one universe, the way some designers back in the day were too, like Pierre Cardin had that as well with his fashion and his furniture and his architecture like the Palais Bulles. It was all one world, and it’s interesting if people can push it that far.
Do you think you have your own world?
Curatorially, yes, but not—I’m not designing my own furniture. I also don’t feel the need so much. I cannot have too many of my own things around.
Really? That’s interesting because you’re wearing your Twin Peaks sweater, and you seem to wear so many of your own designs.
Not really, actually. Lately I’ve been wearing these big huge things because they are so easy, and then a splatter shirt or something like this and that’s it. Not so much as you’d think. But in the environment I live, there are no things around from me. There is nothing from the collection. I don’t work at home—I rarely, rarely take work home. I really have an office where I work, and the house is another thing. I think I also would not be comfortable to sit in my own furniture. Maybe I could be, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m inspired by other people’s work. I love to have other people’s work around me. I love it.
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