Ones to Watch: Piet Houtenbos

Designer Piet Houtenbos thought it best to let his Grenades speak for themselves.  In 2003, his Grenade Oil Lamp – a defused grenade that is filled with paraffin oil, sometimes gilded, and then topped with a wick – was first being sold out of The Future Perfect, a design shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It drew an instant reaction from customers, which ranged from enthusiastic to vitriolic. “People were like, ‘This is f**ked!’” says Houtenbos, a wiry and exuberant 29-year old. “Some people yelled, told me it was horrible, I was profiteering.”

In contrast, others viewed the lamp as an ironic symbol of a post-9/11 America. Either way, the Grenade got people curious, both on its original intention and on its designer. Soon, magazines like I.D. and Playboy were quick to feature the Grenade.

“Everybody asked me, ‘What’s your idea behind this?’ And I didn’t say anything,” says Houtenbos, a native New Yorker. “It kept people talking.”The real idea behind the Grenade was simple: there was no idea. Houtenbos came across a dummy grenade at an Army/Navy shop in Providence, RI in 1998 and immediately knew he could transform it into something. “Once I picked it up, it felt intimidating,” says Houtenbos, who was a freshman at the Rhode Island School of Design at the time.

“My first thought was to turn it into a lighter, but that proved impossible for my minimal means.” It instead became an oil lamp from which people could draw their own conclusions as to what it really signified, political or not. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he admits. “I was so struck. I thought, ‘How could some people love it, could get it so easily, and others just try to tear me apart about it?”

Not to say that the mixed reaction hurt his sales. His grenades are now sold in 30 shops worldwide. To meet with demand, Houtenbos will make 1,000 grenades – he purchases the dummy grenades from the US Army surplus – all by hand, over the course of two weeks.  When he first started out, he was only making 10 at a time. “I never pushed it,” says Houtenbos. “Slowly but surely people were asking the store how to get in touch with me.”

One person who reached out to Houtenbos was William Lee, owner of modernlink, a shop in Soho that sells vintage Scandinavian furniture. In 2003, Lee had wanted to launch his own line of furniture, onelink, and eventually brought in Houtenbos as the lead designer, with Lee and architects Carmen Lenzi and Ed Pang overseeing the project. “That was great, because I got to take the reins and do whatever I wanted and get edited like crazy by William,” says Houtenbos. “But through working there, and being edited and edited and listening to (Lee),” he adds, “I started to realize how important other parts of design are that I never paid that much attention to.”

You have to be very selective about what you do and be very confident about it and then push it.

“He’s tireless,” says Lee, over a recent telephone interview. “He won’t let a problem stump him. He’ll just keep at it and keep at it. He’s like a masseuse working at a bump that won’t give up.”  By 2005, modernlink released the first of Houtenbos’ onelink designs, the Jimmy, a bamboo desk that featured desk-top “gills” used for arranging and filing documents and the like. When prospective customers entered the shop, he would not introduce himself as onelink’s designer, instead acting as one of the shop’s salesmen. Doing so gave him a better idea as to what customers liked and disliked about the line’s features.

“You got a hell of a lot of insight into what people thought,” says Houtenbos. “You also saw that everybody’s their own character: One person wants this and one person wants that.”  The entire experience also exposed Houtenbos to the business aspect of design, something that he was eager to grasp. “Every designer needs to do something where they’re at least listening in on the business part,” says Houtenbos. “If you don’t have that part of it somehow, and you try to go on your own, you’re going to f**k up on the business end.” Houtenbos would eventually work on 14 designs for the onelink line, all of which are still being sold at modernlink.

Once onelink had settled down, Houtenbos decided to focus next on an independent project.  To help brainstorm, he would repeatedly visit the period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He found himself fixated on the mirrors in both the European and American rooms, not just on how they were designed, but also on how they were utilized. “They would put them on huge walls and that was it. They commanded the wall,” says Houtenbos.

After his tenth visit to the Met, Houtenbos spent his twenty-minute walk home thinking over five new designs for mirrors. By the time he arrived at his door, he had settled on his design, one that “spoke to the object as opposed to just a cool reflection.” He immediately tinkered with his design on SolidWorks, a 3D design software, and by night’s end he had the basic design for the Diamond Mirror.

The brand new Diamond Mirror features 16 hand-cut bevels, low iron glass (a higher quality glass that is stripped of most mineral impurities) and a magnetized back for mounting in place of a string (the mirror comes with a steel screw-in plate), resulting in a classical shape fused with modern technology and styling. Before marketing the mirror, he would spend six months developing the first five prototypes. Those five mirrors were quickly purchased and he is now about to make twenty more specifically for design shops (the mirrors retail for $3500). As he was working without the support of a backer, the entire process required a lot of his own investment. In the end, though, he has the network of critics, bloggers, shops and customers who endorsed his earlier work to help sell the Diamond Mirror. Focusing so much time and energy on one project is, in his mind, the best approach for any young designer.

“You have to be very selective about what you do and be very confident about it and then push it. Consolidate all your efforts into one thing and go from there and don’t spread yourself too thin,” says Houtenbos. “If you really focus on every aspect of the one thing… you will have a much better chance of succeeding.”

In this 4-part series, writer Daniel Edward Rosen profiles creative professionals in the early phases of very promising careers.

More insights on: Decision-Making, Iteration
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