A new exhibition opening in January presents the contrasting originality of Tord Boontje and Emma Woffenden. Robert Bound explores the studio shared by this husband and wife.

LONDON - Rather than “install” or “present,” perhaps “stage” is the better term for putting on a dual retrospective of Tord Boontje’s design pieces and sculptures by his wife, Emma Woffenden. The ethereal yet substantial work of the Dutch designer and the surreal, suggestive pieces by the British sculptor create a sense of storytelling, a fairytale land, a hint of playfulness and strangeness and above all, theatre. Their creative approaches will be shown side by side in Originals, an exhibition organised by curator Janice Blackburn and opening at Sotheby’s London on 6 January.

“I became interested in using design as a means of storytelling,” says Boontje, as a photographer prepares to shoot his Princess Chair (2004) on the first floor of Studio Tord Boontje, his cavernous bare-brick Shoreditch studio. “I look at Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood; they are all storytellers in each film, each show, each collection. I approach design in a similar way.”

Boontje – tall, soft-spoken, thoughtful and considered in his speech – is far from removed, however, from the business of resolving problems, answering briefs, the rigours of making. Craft is never far from this craftsman and there’s a horny-handed son of toil beneath the photogenic exterior of this notable designer. “These pieces – that are more like stories – happen alongside the part of my studio where commercial clients come with a specific brief or industrial design project, and I approach those with rationale and problem solving; it’s a different part of my brain,” he says.

Tord Boontje with Doll Chair, designed in collaboration with Alexander McQueen in 2005. Emma Woffenden with her work Trapeze Figures from 2009. Photographs by Nick Ballon.

Witness to this model of precise product development allied to a charm and a lightness of touch is Herbal Medley, Boontje’s commission for the new paediatric wing of the famous Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. A permanent window coating incorporating the patterns of 24 medicinal plants was applied to ensure the privacy of young patients, while also washing an organic warmth through the wards. Herbal Medley is something of a signature piece: the practical disguised as the ethereal.

For curator Janice Blackburn, Originals is a good place to start a discussion about where art and design cross, dovetail and perhaps even argue with each other. “One of the things that appeals to me is his ability to produce functional objects – glassware, china, scarves, for example – and also the flights of fancy,” observes Blackburn. This ability to accommodate fantasy and reality is “very Dutch, very Eindhoven,” she says, alluding to the famed Design Academy Eindhoven, of which Boontje is a celebrated alumnus.

Tord Boontje's Princess Chair, 2004. Courtesy of Tord Boontje and Emma Woffenden.

This discussion of the debt that surface owes to depth and vice versa amuses the other half of this duo. “Making a scarf would never make me get out of bed in the morning, but I’m glad they exist,” says Woffenden, whose personally charged pieces, especially those seemingly prone glass figures bound to chairs, are definitely the dark side of the story – decidedly not the fairytale ending. “Tord and I talked a lot about his Princess Chair,” she says. “They’re about lifting the skirts, being invited into the den; they’re not quite as nice as they seem, really.” Boontje likes this: “Well, the underside of the table is probably more important than the top side when you’re a child,” he says.

The pair, for this show at least, acknowledge a crossover in thinking about materials and uses. “An obvious one would be working with tranSglass,” says Woffenden referring to the recycled glass material they both use. “As a product designer he knows what’s interesting to use in the world right now and our processes rub off on each other – I wouldn’t have thought of it if I hadn’t met Tord.”

Processes cannot be discussed without nodding to the handsome elephant in the room, “the showstopper” as Blackburn calls it. Fig Leaf (2008) is Boontje’s heavily detailed, endlessly worked on, bewitching concoction of design, craft, skill and artistry that fixed him as a star in the design firmament. Fig Leaf is a wardrobe in enamel and bronze with some dizzying attendant facts: it took six hours to paint each of the 616 leaves; in the spring of 2007 it was nearly impossible to have anything enamelled in the UK because Boontje’s wardrobe was employing the best of the workforce. It is to furniture what a Fabergé egg is to Easter. It’s a lot and it is exquisite in every way.

Tord Boontje’s spectacular 2008 Fig Leaf wardrobe. Courtesy of Tord Boontje and Emma Woffenden.

Does Boontje like showing off? “It’s a show and I’m a showman, absolutely,” says the otherwise self-effacing Dutchman, “but the most attractive part of it all is being able to express yourself through making.”

As Woffenden and Boontje flick through images of the works they will show, notably her Baby Hammer series where glass baubles, ostrich eggs and fragile looking enamel infants replace hammerheads and his Night Blossom black chandeliers, there’s a sense of something strange, a cosy antagonism that flowers from piece to piece. “She’s like chamber music, I’m like stadium rock,” says Boontje with a smile, “but we can both build the stage, too, if we need to.” Originals is indeed a fitting name for this duo.

Robert Bound is Culture Editor of Monocle.

Lead image: Tord Boontje's Fig Leaf wardrobe (detail).