Vescom design director Christiane Müller: on innovation and her process
‘Form and function go hand in hand,’ says Christiane Müller, as we sip coffee in her Amsterdam studio. ‘At Vescom, we are not decorators nor artists; we’re not trying to put a signature on the wall.’ Instead, they approach things architecturally – with surfaces that optimize the wall.
Having visited the Vescom production facility in Deurne, Müller has invited me to her studio to talk about her work and take a closer look at the creative process, which begins long before the industrial embossing rollers start turning.
Tell me about your background. Have you always worked in textiles?
CHRISTIANE MÜLLER: I studied at Design Academy Eindhoven in the 80s. After I graduated, I worked with my professor Ulf Moritz, and then I met my partner Bas and we started Studio Müller Van Tol, which is specialized in interior and industrial design.
I’ve known Vescom for twenty years, always freelancing in different functions. Initially they asked me to build up the textile side of the business, then I took over as Vescom art director when my predecessor Marijke van der Wijst retired.
Then three years ago, Philippe van Esch, the owner of Vescom, offered me the position of design director. It was a challenge I couldn’t resist. Designers are trained to solve problems, so I could do more than advise on aesthetics. I could understand all sides of the story – production, research and development, brand identity – and connect them into a whole.
I’d always felt attracted to Vescom on a professional level, because I quite quickly realised that I was interested in creating architectural surfaces. Vescom asks what a material does to an interior: how it impacts people in connection to their productivity or relaxation in work, hospitality, healthcare, or retail spaces. And that is very different from designing textiles or materials for the home.
I like it when things are functional; not in the sense of being technical, but meaningful. Why should you use this material, why would you choose it?
Everything in an interior is connected. Hard flooring, carpeting; wood, glass; these materials need to be integrated in our thinking when we design another material for a space.
There are so many things out there nowadays. There has to be a reason, I think, to design a new product or launch a new collection, other than to have something to sell.
Yet you have such a high production cycle. Vescom launches a new collection – what is it, every six weeks?
Well, it’s not our ambition to simply create more, but to improve with every collection. That’s my target at this moment – to keep what is good, to develop something only if it makes sense.
That’s why the cycles are so fast. I have ideas that I want to achieve as quickly as possible. I love the challenge of launching collections that fit the times, the context, the market. I have a clear vision of what we should do.
So this is something that you have stepped up?
Yes, but it was a strategic decision we made as a team. Vescom used to introduce new products in the spring and autumn, in smaller collections. But now we want to take things to the next level. We have all these possibilities in terms of production; we can really innovate now that we know so much more about manufacturing techniques, usability, and the market.
It’s a good moment for us. Vescom has always been dedicated to design, architecture, and art – I didn’t change the direction of the company.
You said you don't want to make your products a signature on a wall. How do you balance this with what you want to achieve?
I think it's a combination of listening and telling your story. I’ve spent the last two years having more meetings with architects from different countries, because I was interested in how they work and how they do things. Everybody has their own story, their own style – you have to understand what they're looking for.
Architects don’t want to get overwhelmed by more stuff. What they really want is to have some support because they are not textile designers, they are not colour designers, they are not surface designers. But they know how to put materials together in a space; they know how to combine contrasting elements to create an ambience. So you must filter the information to offer something to them that they cannot invent.
There has to be a balance. That's why we offer a wide collection that can inspire and also serve as functional solutions, answering technical requirements such as cleanability at high temperatures and heavy-duty use.
Tell me what an architectural surface means.
To me, an architectural surface supports the total atmosphere of a space, increasing the quality of the environment both aesthetically and functionally.
Architectural surfaces go through trends. In the ‘80s, it was minimalistic. In the early 2000s, it was luxurious, almost glittery. Today, architectural surfaces have changed to become softer, friendlier. More organic.
How much of that evolution is due to innovation? When you didn’t have technology like 3D printing twenty years ago.
It was impossible to create the soft surfaces we have now. Look at Boyd for example. It’s amazing what we can do with the embossing rollers.
Of course you can just paint a wall, but this – the texture, the way it plays with light, the way it stands out – is what makes a wallcovering a wallcovering.
How does a surface like this get developed?
Well, of course it starts with an idea. Then we develop the structure.
The embossment people hate us. [laughs] Because when making an embossment you use a laser that cuts the steel or copper roller in layers. So for a complicated structure it takes a lot of time to do and is technically very demanding. Not a lot of people can do this.
But it’s worth it to create a material that isn’t just copying something else. We know that textile is textile. We want to take vinyl so far as to create a new material feel. Something that has its own personality, that can make people say, ‘Okay, this looks like fabric, but you can see that it’s not woven – so what is it?’
The finish can transform the material entirely. We can make something matte, or we can make it shiny. It’s a technical choice between the inks, and how you finish the film. The components are the structure, the finish (whether matte or shiny), and the colour. How you combine it is what makes the product.
As for how we choose the colours in a collection – each product has a specific approach to colour.
John Koolen showed me the colour-mixing Kitchen you have in Deurne.
Yes, all the colour-mixing is done there, which I love. We can really define the exact feel we want to create, the precise level of matte or shininess and intensity of colour.
I like to play with a mix of metallic and matte in the colour cards. Allowing architects to decide between a matte, paper-like surface, and a reflective one makes them aware of dimensionality of the colours.
The people in my design department are so good at bringing out these nuances – because you can say ‘gold’ but then I would say What kind of gold? How much sheen? – but they can make the inks, exactly as shown.
We are horribly precise in making colours.
This fastidiousness is also because designers and architects are so much more sensitive to materials nowadays. There were times when gold was gold and bronze was bronze, but nowadays architects are so specific when it comes to wall colours and the nuances in an interior. That’s how they distinguish themselves – with their choices and combinations of materials.
How do you develop the designs? Some of the patterns are so complex and incredibly detailed.
The design team makes many studies by hand. It’s a lot of work, with all these small textures. But the mistakes in designs made by hand are what make them beautiful.
But I believe in both handmade and 3D-digital design. The two connect and merge nowadays.
Look at this.
This is unique amongst the Vescom products. It moves organically, it’s soft, but still an architectural surface. The computer is not the solution. It is the person who creates the design.
There’s this perception that designers are very chaotic, but we analyse things down to millimetres and decimal percentages to define the surface.
We are still developing an identity with our textile collection. They connect to our DNA – the acoustic curtains, for instance, fit so well with our philosophy because they are problem-solving and beautiful.
The transparent acoustic curtains are a response to the hard finishes you see in interiors nowadays – in the flooring, ceiling, doors, and glass windows. They were developed by a Swiss textile designer, Annette Douglas, to improve the acoustic value in a room.
How differently do you approach wallcoverings and textiles?
The production process is different of course, because textiles need to be woven, but the design approach is the same. It should be the same, we have one design identity under one brand.
I’m not imposing Vescom-only materials on architects, but if you like the style of one, it makes sense to tell the same story with the other. So the interior materials come from one fountain, with one handwriting.
Textiles and wall coverings naturally go together in a room, so they connect with each other. But the way they arrive there is very different.