Tord Boontje is an enigma. One moment he’s working with the Dutch postal service designing festive stamps that spread the spirit of Christmas all across the Netherlands, the next teaming up with Moroso to produce whimsical armchairs that double up as dreamcatchers. Indeed, since Studio Tord Boontje was established in 1996, it has emerged as one of the more thoughtful, versatile and progressive outfits in contemporary design. Boontje has created chandeliers in partnership with Swarovski for over 15 years, yet continues to seek out collaborations with local artisans in developing communities from Guatemala to Senegal. Equally comfortable crafting eye-catching light installations, playful pieces of furniture and lush, bucolic-inspired fabrics, his works can be found in MoMA, the V&A and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We sit down with this innovator and consummate artist to discuss his work on the Chelsea Barracks’ balconies.
Despite being born and raised in the Netherlands, Tord Boontje is every inch a Londoner. Having graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 1991, he came to study at the Royal College of Art in 1994. He loved the city so much he decided to make it his home. Barring a four-year hiatus in rural France, he’s been here ever since. His studio has moved – from Peckham to Shoreditch to New Cross – but his connection with the city remains constant.
It is this harmony, gratitude even, that truly drove Tord’s desire to design the balconies at Chelsea Barracks. “This project offered a nice opportunity to contribute something to the city that I live in,” Tord reflects. “Most of my work ends up indoors. So to do something outside, especially like this, so public on the street – in London, in my city – that’s a very special opportunity for me.” For Tord, there’s something fundamental in giving back to the community, in ensuring that everyone can share in the beauty of his craft.
That said, more than two decades of urban living have done little to dull his affection for the pastoral. “I have a passion for nature” he explains. “And I want to translate that interest into objects that we live with in our everyday life.” Establishing a strong union between architecture and environment was especially important when it came to thinking about the balconies at Chelsea Barracks. “The development has many garden elements – there’s a lot of planting around the site – and that combination between nature and the actual houses is very advanced. It felt very appropriate for me to bring something of the garden to the site. I think I contributed something there, not only through the craftsmanship but through a sense of nature that links the houses to the outside world.”
Tord’s sense that natural elements should be incorporated into the balconies at Chelsea Barracks was further enhanced by the site’s proximity to the annual Chelsea Flower Show – arguably the world’s best renowned exhibition of flora – as well as the area’s architectural provenance. “In this area of London, the Arts and Crafts movement was very important,” he tells us. “Even going back to pre-Victorian metalwork we see a lot of floral elements, so I wanted to bring some of that heritage to this project as well.”
These contemplations ultimately led Tord to conceive balconies comprised of two distinct elements. First, there is what he calls an “organic geometrical” background railing, onto which a combination of twelve different flowers – all commonly found in Britain – are placed. There are wild and garden roses, peonies, apple blossoms and chrysanthemums. “The background railing is a curved but geometrical arrangement and then the flowers are very natural, and quite randomly placed,” Tord reflects. “That contrast between the natural and unorganized, and the geometry on the other hand, I find very exciting. The geometry also goes with the formality of the facade of the house, so it brings the two together.”
What’s more, Tord’s creative ingenuity has enabled each balcony to have its own personality without sacrificing the sense of the Barracks’ uniformity. Each block of houses has its own uniquely designed background rail, while the plurality of flowers he has chosen allows a sort of natural variety. “We were able to create a lot of diversity,” he says. “Each house is unique in the flower combinations on its balconies, but at the same time from the street there is a kind of homogenous picture as well. The combination of flowers is different for each house – so you can say that each house is individual.” On a project of this scale, that in itself is a remarkable achievement.
Of course, even for a designer as experienced and talented as Tord, an undertaking like Chelsea Barracks is not without its challenges. “There are a huge range of skills involved in this project,” he tells us. “It starts in the design studio when we are provided with the facade of the house, and are asked to add on a balcony and railing structure. Somehow they need to work together: it needs to respect the architecture but also be something on its own, so there’s already a certain sensitivity and skill involved in that.”
For Tord, the answer to such questions lie in finding an equilibrium between the man-made and the natural. He tells us that he’s “very keen to bring a sense of organicness” to his work, but at the same time is aware that a balance has to be found “between the world of organic nature and the geometry of the house. In a way the background railings are this bridging element between that, where we have organic forms but they still follow a certain logic,” he concludes. “And then there are the floral elements added onto that. They work in harmony together.”
Yet for all the effort that Tord expends on design, he is acutely aware that it is just one part of the process of bringing the balconies to life. “Nowadays, it’s not so common to find blacksmiths – and especially really good ones,” he states regretfully. “Because the better the blacksmith is, the higher the quality of the craftsmanship and the more beautifully my designs will be translated. So I spent a lot of time researching blacksmiths in Britain, and visited many different workshops.”
Eventually, he struck on West Country Blacksmiths, an exciting and accomplished team of metalworkers operating out of a seventeenth century forge in Somerset. “They are very highly skilled,” Tord reflects effusively. “A very energetic young team who are a pleasure to work with. And they have a very nice way of interpreting my designs and making them into metal.” Tord sees it as especially important that designer and blacksmith are able to forge such a strong relationship. “During this translation of materials the design changes as well,” he explains. “Sometimes the things can be made in a more beautiful way than I imagined, sometimes things are not achievable. There’s a kind of play that happens between the designer and the blacksmith at that moment.”
Take, for example, the process behind selecting materials for Chelsea Barracks’ balconies. After much contemplation, Tord opted to craft the floral elements from stainless steel. “It’s a very hard metal so we’re free to cut any shape we want,” he reflects. “But there are some limitations there. There’s a fluidity you can achieve but if you try and fold things too tight the metal can break. That’s where the blacksmith comes in. It’s my skill as a designer to understand our limitations, but the blacksmiths are the precise craftsmen. With their skills they can really understand how to form these leaves and petals in the best way and how to assemble these flowers. There’s a kind of efficiency in the making on one hand, but on the other it all looks very natural and organic.”
The more you talk to Tord – and the more you stop and consider the meticulous manner in which his pieces are made – the clearer it becomes that this is an artist utterly devoted to his work. His designs may come in a multiplicity of forms, but they are tied together by Tord’s unshakable commitment to artistry. “The ability to make objects in a beautiful, considered, elegant way is very important in my work,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether we work with a very industrial manufacturer or a completely artisanal manufacturer where things are made by hand. We always try to get things made as well as possible. Not only does it bring a certain elegance to the work, but it ensures that the products are durable and long lasting.”
Naturally, the unwillingness to settle for anything but the best meant that he approached designing the balconies with a mentality that mirrors the ethos which underpins the entire Chelsea Barracks project. “The experience of working with Chelsea Barracks turned out to be very positive, because they’re so focused in achieving a high quality,” he concludes. “That’s something I really support. Over the period of a year we developed the designs and invested a lot of time and effort into creating something very very beautiful. So it’s very pleasing that Chelsea Barracks are also so committed to translating these designs into really beautiful artworks.”
Tord’s balconies are a perfect example of the kind of attention to detail that sets Chelsea Barracks apart. His designs do more than simply connect these graceful residences to their idyllic surroundings. Tord Boontje’s involvement in the project ensures that each and every home will always be blessed by a little bit of nature.