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Sylvain Willenz : " Business is not a dirty word " Design - 10 November 2014

It is proving to be a busy end of the year for Sylvain Willenz. Ubiquitous during the last Biennale Intérieur, he couldn't even find the time to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his studio. "It doesn't matter", he smiles. "It gives us enough time to prepare for our 15th..."

Was it a deliberate choice to unveil so many innovations at Intérieur?
Yes, because the Biennale is an important event, and I always had the feeling of missing the boat. This year, I got the timing right, with a good selection of products to display, including Belgian brands I don't usually have much opportunity to work with. And working for the first time with Durlet and Wild Spirit was very exciting.

Why this return to Belgium?
I like to work with Belgian manufacturers. There are some really talented people out there and it's a way of showcasing their expertise. And in terms of the practicalities and communication it's also much easier ... you never have to travel more than 150 kilometres.

Is it harder to work with the Germans or the Japanese?
It depends, but sometimes it's more difficult. For me, there is no recipe; each product is the outcome of a different process. Managing their multiple aspects, including the relationships that have to be nurtured, is complicated but very rewarding. The main thing is to grasp what the brand is all about, while offering something new.

Your international career began very early, was that down to chance or ambition?
I certainly didn't graduate and announce to the world that I was going to work at Established & Sons and Cappellini. Everything happened very naturally, almost by chance, even if I am ambitious by nature.

Do you owe this international outlook to your years in the United States and England? Do you feel influenced by the Anglo-Saxon model?
Yes. I've always admired people like Jonathan Ive, James Dyson and Tom Dixon - my hero! - all alumni of the Royal College, who also inspired me to study there. In England, there's a very different attitude towards the creative professions and the entrepreneurial aspect, which is given much more emphasis. It's all about innovation. People are given a greater margin of trust and freedom and there's an incremental tax system. There's a certain logic behind it all, whereas here, everything is terribly difficult for freelancers. It hampers entrepreneurship and creativity.

You seem to be interested in economic matters...
Yes I am, although I would never claim to be an economist. I have to make a living from my profession and the business component is part of design. From a practical point of view, one of the first questions I broach with my client are the terms and conditions. I have no desire whatsoever to settle those questions at the last minute. I want to know what I will derive from the efforts deployed. I'm also interested in the history of companies, who was acquired by whom, who applies which model. It's important, as it affects the object and my approach to things. I personally find that some approaches have more merit than others. Business is not a dirty word, it can be supremely human.

After enjoying success very early on, what has allowed you to keep going during these 10 years of activity?
Despite the glamorous and effervescent side of success, you can never rest on your laurels, you have to stay organised and focused. I protect myself by trying to have the right people around me and I keep family and work strictly separate, even with my home office. At half past five, the day is over, everyone is gone.

In retrospect, what decisions were decisive?
One of the most important crossroads to negotiate was the diversification of our business, with the opening of the webshop in 2011. Another key moment, the redesign of the website, which has become much more than a facade, but a real tool. And between the two, redefining our three areas of work: mass production, the volume average and limited editions, like my creations for Victor Hunt.

What can we still wish you for the future? Would you consider working with the Belgian fashion world?
I would love to, although I don't claim to be an expert. Working with a brand, a designer, even doing stores, now that would be great.

Written by Maxime Fischer

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