In early December, in that weird social vacuum between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there's no more glorious place to be than Miami. That's when the planet's art-loving high rollers, and the scenesters who follow in their rarefied wake, descend on the city for the annual festival-cum-bacchanal Art Basel Miami Beach.
Party central for these seasonal migrants—many of whom couldn't tell a Francis Bacon from a Kevin Bacon—is the hotel scene on South Beach, where late-night revelers repair to the pool bars at the Delano or the Raleigh to toss back mojitos in the name of art. But this year, the epicenter is likely to shift to the $200 million Mondrian in South Beach, which will have its grand opening during the fair. The fanciful, exuberantly patterned confection, a 335-room hotel-and-condo development overlooking Biscayne Bay, is the brainchild of Marcel Wanders, the 45-year-old Dutch designer. The place promises to be high on drama, with a swooping, laser-cut steel staircase; secret "kissing gardens"; and bathrooms with showerheads embedded in chandeliers. With a nod to Miami, the Mondrian will have lush gardens, pools, and spectacular views. With a nod to Wanders's heritage, it will feature blue and white Delft tiles in the condos' kitchens. But this being South Beach, not South Holland, and this being Wanders, not Vermeer, those tiles will be rendered with a mischievous twist: Instead of scenes of windmills, storks, and tulips, they'll feature sharks, gators, and the ceramic equivalent of mud-flap girls.
"It will be like the castle of Sleeping Beauty," says Wanders, sitting in the library of New York's Hudson Hotel and looking like a slightly debauched prince himself in a pin-striped Pal Zileri suit, open collar, unbuttoned French cuffs, hot pink Bathing Ape sneakers, and a string of gumball-size pearls. "Like the moment when the story ends, and people wake up after 100 years and see with new eyes."
With longish, swept-back graying hair, bespoke tailoring, flaky footwear, and signature necklaces (he sometimes opts for a chunky turquoise number), Wanders is a veritable walking advertisement for Wanders Inc. He is arguably among the best marketers of his generation; design, in his galaxy, extends beyond making products to the total experience of his brand, something he does his best to control to the last detail. Today, he is at the center of a multiarmed empire that includes deals with Puma, upscale-furniture company B&B Italia, and a new partnership with Yoo, the new $10 billion international real-estate-development firm built by John Hitchcox and Philippe Starck, for which Wanders will design residential properties—in exchange for a percentage of sales. "For years, Philippe has been telling me that Marcel is the next Philippe Starck," says Hitchcox from London. "He's got that level of talent."
Mari Balestrazzi, vice president of design for, the Mondrian's developer, says Wanders was a "slam dunk" choice to mastermind the new Miami property. "Marcel combines world-class design with a sense of theatricality and sense of humor," she says. "And he has the vision to create a whole world."
The Mondrian is Wanders's first hotel-condo commission in the United States, and it's a significant gamble for the developer as well, given the broader economic doldrums stifling the industry. With properties such as the Delano and the Shore Club in Miami, the Royalton in New York, and the Sanderson in London, Morgans essentially launched the boutique-hotel phenomenon in 1984, when Ian Schrager tapped designers Andrée Putman and Starck to make its properties monuments to a certain studied cool. But Schrager has now gone on to other projects, most recently New York's Gramercy Park Hotel with Julian Schnabel, and Starck has signed a 15-year exclusive hotel deal with L.A. mogul-in-the-making Sam Nazarian. Their departures have forced Morgans to replace one of the great hotel developer/designer teams in history. Wanders's Mondrian will be the company's first new hotel in the post-Starck era.
"It was important for us that a designer could live up to the collective legacy of this company," says Morgans' chief marketing officer, Scott Williams. "To put this hotel out there is the most important statement we can make, and Marcel will demonstrate the richest sense of daring, free thinking, and style that we currently have." Morgans is so convinced it has found its next muse that Wanders has already been signed to create another Mondrian in Las Vegas, with a third in the wings.
Wanders has been building toward this grand U.S. debut for more than a decade. He first got noticed here in 1996 when his Knotted Chair, a gravity-defying work combining high-tech materials with the homely charms of macramé, captivated the design world—and was instantly acquired by MoMA. Wanders formed his own Amsterdam-based company, Wonders Holdings, two years later, and it has since grown into an umbrella group encompassing four divisions: his partnership in a small Dutch hotel company, Lute Suites; his real-estate ventures in Amsterdam; his mass-market home-and-office design company, Moooi ("beautiful" in Dutch, with an extra O for extra beautiful), which generates $30 million a year in revenues and exhibits Wanders's work as well as that of up-and-coming designers such as Maarten Baas, Jurgen Bey, and Richard Hutten; and his higher-end Marcel Wanders studio. The studio is responsible for 70% of the overall company's revenues and has a client list of some of the poshest names in the business: Italian furniture manufacturers Cappellini and Kartell, British wallpaper firm Graham and Brown, Puma, Italian tile company Bisazza, and luxe French brands Baccarat and Christofle, among others. Moooi, meanwhile, feeds the beast at Design Within Reach, B&B Italia, and various online retailers. But Wanders is increasingly looking at larger-scale projects, including retail spaces, museums, and real estate. A Villa Moda store in Bahrain will open in November, and an art museum in Kuwait is under discussion.
In much of the design universe, Wanders is already a boldface name. In Europe, "when I walk into a restaurant with Marcel, it's like walking in with Madonna," says Marc Benda, of New York's prestigious Friedman Benda design gallery, which shows Wanders's limited-edition work. Now with the Mondrian launch and a major one-man show going up at the Architecture and Design Museum Los Angeles next spring, Wanders is on the brink of superstardom, pearls and all.
It's Wednesday night at the Swarovski Crystal Palace VIP party, one of the glammest events at the world's most glamorous trade show, the Milan Furniture Fair, and Wanders is in despair. Each year, the party showcases a sparklefest of work made with the company's crystals, created by some of the globe's hottest designers—among them, this year, Zaha Hadid, Tokujin Yoshioka, Piero Lissoni, and Studio Job. For designers, the show is an opportunity to get the attention of industry executives—from cars to fashion to furniture—who can make or break careers. Professional rivalries are spackled over for the occasion, but only just.
At a Bombay Sapphire party the previous year, Wanders had convinced his choreographer girlfriend, Nanine Linning, to dress in a skimpy satin outfit and pour champagne for guests while hanging upside down from a chandelier. For the Swarovski fete this year, working for Bisazza, he created a giant shower stall, whose rear wall was emblazoned with a glitzy mural of swirling shapes and a romping lion rendered in orange, yellow, and crystal-studded tiles. Three showerheads, set into lavish crystal chandeliers, crowned the glass-enclosed space. And three models in crystal-encrusted bikinis were deployed to shower prettily as guests mingled with cocktails.
All good. Except at showtime, the showerheads refused to work.
"I was devastated," Wanders says later. "You dream all year of how it's going to look, how it's going to work, how excited people are going to be, the sparkle in their eyes, like, 'Wow!' You're waiting for that moment. And then, it's not there."
Organizers tried herding the girls into the shower and encouraging them to simulate bathing, but that drove Wanders nuts. "I told them, 'Get these girls out of there! It looks like a stupid porn show!' "
By the time the exhibit opened to the public, the showers were functioning, but the designer can't let go even weeks afterward. "Every opening night in Milan, I have the worst day of my life. One time, the showers don't work. Another time, the light's in the wrong position. Or there's a fat girl sitting on the sofa. In my dream, there's never a fat girl on my sofa." An aesthete to the last.
Wanders attributes his flair for the commercial to his father, a shop owner who once sang operetta: "He was very flamboyant, very outgoing. He earned his money in business, but in fact he was in theater. If he was in a restaurant, he owned the place. I learned from him the ability to stand out, to enhance life, to make things look more beautiful than perhaps they are."
That ability to amplify experience has made Wanders irresistible to a wide range of companies. In 2007, the Gap featured him in a reprise of its famous "portraits" series, shot by Annie Leibovitz. "It looked like an Old Masters painting," says Trey Laird, creative director of Laird+Partners, the company that was responsible for casting the shots. And in Milan, Wanders was ubiquitous, showing carpeting for Colorline, bedroom furniture for Poliform, lighting for Flos, and chairs for Slide, as well as tile, wallpaper, and furniture for other companies. He took over a vast space in Superstudio Più, in the city's famous design district, Zona Tortona, for Moooi, and created a series of rooms housing surrealistic tableaus of his own work as well as other Moooi designers'. There, even fat girls were welcome to frolic among the sofas, chairs, and lamps shaped like full-size horses.
The carefully balanced combination of studio work and commercial products reflects Wanders's strategic business sense, says Paola Antonelli, chief design curator at MoMA. "He does pieces with mass appeal [for Moooi], which he can very smartly sell a lot of, and then flagship pieces that reflect the mind of the company." And his natural hucksterism was a large part of the reason he was signed by Yoo in May. "The distinction between many designers today is their ability to recognize the value of marketing," Yoo cofounder Hitchcox says. "A lot of artists don't feel it's inherently their role to promote themselves."
For Wanders, to do otherwise is unthinkable. Hoping to upend a culture that tells designers they can be "beautiful poets" with no head for numbers, he set up a program at Moooi—which is now 50% owned by B&B Italia—to teach young designers about business. And he hopes to develop a film on the topic that he would send free to design schools, the better to get the message out. "As a designer, Marcel is a visionary," says Luca Fuso, B&B Italia's CEO, "but it's also surprising how good he is with numbers." Moooi's sales have tripled since the acquisition, Fuso says, thanks in part to B&B's extensive distribution channel.
For Wanders, caring about the business of design is a matter of respect for his partners—the folks who put a great deal of money on the line to have a given piece of work manufactured, distributed, and sold. "On Monday morning, this culture allows me to pick up a pencil and create some sketches," he says, taking a break from ushering dignitaries around the floor of the Moooi booth in Milan. "And that opportunity creates a responsibility to give back as much as possible. For me, it's very simple. I want to create a body of work that is really, deeply important to people. One of the vehicles I use is business."
"For me it's very simple," Wanders says. "I want to create a body of work that is really, deeply important to people. One of the vehicles I use is business."
He picks up a saucer from the table in Moooi's VIP lounge, and reads the name on the bottom. "It's the quality of who you are as a person, as a brand, that goes into this thing," he says. "This gives me an absolute obligation to be fabulous. I have to. And I can tell you, it's painful sometimes. I don't tire only myself."
"I have an absolute obligation to be fabulous," Wanders insists. "I have to. And I can tell you, it's painful sometimes. I don't tire only myself."
Sitting nearby, Robin Bevers, Wanders's business manager, rolls his eyes: "It's the terrible fabulousness of Marcel Wanders."
Not everyone is as high on Wanders as the sheikhs and gallery owners and hotel operators he counts as partners. And his most vocal critics may well be his compatriots.
The Dutch have always been an entrepreneurial bunch, making fortunes in businesses as diverse as spices and tulips and electronics; Amsterdam, particularly, is now an affluent city, where creative capitalism is in full flower. But Holland is also a country of dozens of political parties, with a rambunctious left wing. And Wanders's commercial success is hard to hide.
Until recently, Wanders tooled around Amsterdam in a Porsche, racking up some two-dozen speeding tickets. (He now drives an elderly Mercedes 250.) His office of 30 people is on the top floors of a five-story former school building called Westerhuis, which he turned into a cultural complex for Amsterdam's creative entrepreneurs. He and a partner also recently bought a former public library that will be part office complex, part gallery, and part hotel; it will have a conference center and a design library, and function as a postgraduate-education space for designers where, Bevers says, they can learn about how to run a business.
All of this has endeared Wanders to the Dutch government, which has embraced the idea that creativity can be the economic lifeblood of a city. But Wanders's Trumpian tendencies haven't always endeared him to his neighbors. "At one point, they said about Marcel, 'He's nothing but a real-estate millionaire!' " says Bevers. And that perception is only magnified by Wanders's tendency to hold himself at a distance. When I ask him if he's proud of Holland's success in the field—and whether he considers himself a Dutch designer at all—he hesitates: "No. No. To be honest, I don't particularly feel that in my expression of design."
Such exceptionalism, some critics argue, overlooks the fact that Wanders has benefited handsomely from the enormous support the Netherlands affords its artists and designers. To repudiate the Dutch label, they say, is to spurn the very culture that spawned him. "The Dutch are such spoiled brats," says MoMA's Antonelli, who curated a 1996 exhibit on contemporary design in the Netherlands. "And Marcel is king of them all."
Wanders counters that, while he loves his country, he thinks of himself more as an Amsterdammer than a Dutchman, and he sees the current "Dutch design" tag more as a marketing tool than as a movement or aesthetic in the mode of the Bauhaus or the Dutch artistic movement De Stijl. "People grab on to the label and want to be part of the big story," he says. "If I were them, I would do the same. But at the other end, I don't want to be part of it. I don't want to catch my own tail. I do what I do."
In August 2003, the day after the blackout in New York, Wanders gave a talk, called "The Naked Designer," to the Industrial Designers Society of America. It was billed as a discussion of how to design without fear and included 10 concepts and insights Wanders had learned in his practice. Stepping onto the stage in a nicely tailored suit, Wanders began by recounting a recent dream of standing nude before an audience. It was, he explained, one of the most frightening dreams he had ever experienced. "It's hot in here," he said, midspeech. "I hope you don't mind if I take off my jacket."
As the talk went on, each time he ticked through one of the 10 points on the screen, he took off another article of clothing. By No. 9, he was wearing only his shorts. By No. 10, he had stepped behind the podium, dropped his drawers, and was dressed only in a towel. As the moderator stepped onto the stage, Wanders exited, to raucous applause.
Suddenly, there was a new slide on the screen: RULE NO. 11: ALWAYS GIVE MORE THAN EXPECTED. That was when Wanders, sans towel, streaked from the back of the auditorium to the stage, threw candy into the crowd, and—boom!—the room went dark.
It's a story, says a now-clothed Wanders, over coffee in Milan, about the anxiety of the creative act. "You could, if you wanted, always be scared." Even today, he admits, once a new deal is signed, he retreats to the studio, where the inevitable moment of panic sets in. "There's a piece of white paper, and I have to make a design about something I have no idea about. That's when we say fuuuuccccckkk!"
Rule No. 11 was a life lesson Wanders had learned early and painfully. At 17, he enrolled at the Design Academy Eindhoven, the Netherlands' most prestigious design school. He admits he had stumbled into the field, but after nine months of study, was certain he had found his calling. "I understood: This is the thing. I will be a designer, and this is the school," he says. Then disaster struck. At the end of his first year, he flunked out.
"I was incredibly devastated," Wanders recalls. He went to his professor to try to argue for a better grade, but the man was unmoved. By September, Wanders found himself at a little school for jewelers and craftspeople—in Maastricht.
It was a fall from grace from which a lesser ego might have never recovered. But Wanders was determined. He vowed that for every assignment, he'd double the work—one version the teacher would like and one reflecting his own interpretation of the project. He also developed his own curriculum, based partly on a purloined syllabus from Eindhoven.
Wanders ultimately transferred to Arnhem, which had a well-respected design program. By the time he graduated, he had a chair in production with a famous Dutch furniture company, an entry in an important international jewelry fair, and had won three design competitions, including one in which all 33 other contestants were from Eindhoven. His final school project was featured on the cover of a national design magazine.
In 1993, Wanders was among the first group of young designers featured by Droog, the Dutch design collective, at the Milan fair. Three years later, he created the iconic Knotted Chair from braided, epoxy-soaked aramide rope with a carbon-fiber core. "The more contemporary and advanced the materials, the more you need to know about craft," says MoMA's Antonelli, who "snatched" the chair as soon as she saw it. "It's both ancient and totally innovative."
That fusion of technology, artistry, and a love of the bizarre became a hallmark of Wanders's work. For the German ceramics company Rosenthal, he created a series of objects from sponges dipped in porcelain and then fired, leaving a sort of spongy death mask in the shape of a vase or bowl. For Cappellini, he created the celebrated Snotty Vases by running images of airborne boogers through a 3-D scanner, creating weirdly asymmetrical receptacles for flowers. Punk design or genius? Murray Moss, whose shop in SoHo has been called the world's best design store, tends toward the latter. "The Snotty Vases are like objects from an 18th-century wunderkammer—a cabinet of wonders," he says admiringly. "We look at their form in a new way: not as something repulsive, but as something that's possibly very beautiful." Wanders followed that stunt with a vase formed around an egg-filled condom. By 2000, craving a bigger canvas, he had launched Moooi and the juggernaut was in motion.
For all his commercial success, Wanders has been haunted by his early failure at Eindhoven. In June, after 27 years, he finally connected with Herr Scheffer, the professor who had booted him. In an interview Wanders conducted with Scheffer for a Dutch magazine, the professor acknowledged that he was an unapologetic formalist and that he had been frustrated with Wanders's tendency to experiment. "You wouldn't color within the lines," he told his now-famous ex-student.
Wanders's BlackBerry is buzzing, as ever. Standing, he gestures to the products on the floor of the Moooi exhibit in Milan. "This is not because I'm talented. It's because I push hard, and I never, ever give up. You know pit bulls?" he asks, once again putting on the face of Marcel the Magnificent. "They're sissy boys."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.