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Richard Hutten on sustainability, optimism and the power of playful design

The trailblazing Dutch designer invites us into his home and explains his plan to boycott plastic in his work

designer richard hutten in his rotterdam home
Filippo Bamberghi/Photofoyer

Last year, designer Richard Hutten set himself a personal mission: to not design a single thing using plastic. It’s a goal that tested his seemingly limitless positivity. ‘I found out it’s almost fucking impossible!’ he jokes.

‘It’s a challenge, and I like challenges, but this is a tough one.’ We needn’t worry, though, because if anyone possesses the stamina for the task ahead it’s Richard, who has been at the forefront of eco design since the early days of his career.

Graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven in 1991, he set up his eponymous studio the very same year. In 1993, he became involved in the fledgling Droog design movement. Alongside fellow influential designers, from Hella Jongerius to Marcel Wanders, he shaped the group’s wry sense of humour (droog means dry in Dutch), raising important social and environmental issues with a smile. ‘At the beginning, a lot of the work we were doing addressed over-production and over-consumption,’ says Richard, ‘but nobody was listening.’

designer richard hutten’s colourful living room, featuring pieces by fellow droog designers
Filippo Bamberghi/Photofoyer

Today, the design landscape is different, with sustainability very much in the spotlight. Richard still faced hurdles in 2008, however, when he turned his house into an example of energy-neutral living. He shares the former garage in Rotterdam with his three children, Abel, Boris and Wolf.

‘People thought I was crazy,’ he recalls. ‘I even had to pay a penalty to take my home off the grid, but now everybody calls me a visionary.’ The property uses three heat pumps, buried 150 metres underground, and solar panels on the roof to provide all of the power it needs.

‘People thought I was crazy. I even had to pay a penalty to take my home off the grid’

Plastic, Richard’s current adversary, is still present in many of the pieces in his home, though. One of the most famous designs is his ‘Dombo’ mug, created for Gispen, the Dutch furniture brand he has been art director of since 2008. With its oversized plastic ears, it may not follow his current ethos, but it is fun and, importantly, durable.

This sense of an object’s longevity is something that is important to the designer. ‘Everything I buy for my home is chosen carefully, because I want to live with it for the rest of my life,’ he explains. It’s a sentiment he hopes the people who purchase his creations share.

designer chairs on display in the living room of designer richard hutten
Filippo Bamberghi/Photofoyer

Most of the pieces dotted throughout this exhibition-like space aren’t bought but exchanged, designer to designer. This is a multicoloured swap shop of a house. ‘They get something from me, and I get something from them,’ says Richard. ‘It’s nice because I know the makers of 99 per cent of the designs in my home, so everything has a story.’

There’s furniture from his Droog contemporaries, including Tejo Remy’s ‘You Can’t Lay Down Your Memory’ chest of drawers to the ‘Knotted Chair’ by Marcel Wanders. But there’s also notable additions from other eras, including Gerrit Rietveld’s ‘Red and Blue Chair’, a design for the Dutch De Stijl art movement of the 1920s. One thing every item has in common is a playfulness and a freedom of expression.

kitchen and dining room in designer richard hutten’s rotterdam home
Filippo Bamberghi/Photofoyer

‘Play is the essence of everything I do,’ explains Richard. ‘Design is often described as a problem-solving profession. I don’t solve problems, I create possibilities within a set of rules. It’s the very definition of a game. For me, living is playing.’

The 300-square-metre, open-plan living area at the heart of his home is, he says, ‘like a pitch before a match’. It’s where he and his sons run, play catch, dance and battle it out at table football. The other necessities of life – eating, sleeping and working – all happen around this central hub.

‘Play is the essence of everything I do. For me, living is playing’

With the coronavirus-induced lockdown still in full force when we talk, Richard has been spending more time than ever at home, but it’s a situation he’s taken to with characteristic positivity. ‘It allows me to concentrate,’ he enthuses. ‘I hardly travel any more anyway, and all of my meetings are on the screen. I’m no longer doing the things that are bad for the planet.’

He’s also fortunate to still be working on projects, with several taking on a new shape in the light of the current global crisis. His commission to create 27,000 seats for Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport using circular design ethos has had to encompass the rules of social distancing. ‘We’re adding transparent screens between the seats so that people won’t infect each other,’ he explains. ‘It’s the new normal.’

‘The crisis is showing that we are all capable of change,’ he adds. ‘I hope it acts as an eye-opener. As an optimist, I have the feeling that a lot of other people will see that their actions make a difference to the planet. I’ve never seen the skies above Rotterdam looking so clear and blue!’ richardhutten.com

For the full house tour see ELLE Decoration July 2020

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