is globally recognized for his contributions to the fashion world while at the helm of Jil Sander, Dior, and most recently Calvin Klein. On the side, his interest in interiors and furniture brought him to , where he's been developing a collection of textiles that just released its latest product. Ria, a Pointillism-inspired print, upholstered iconic furnishings for its debut showcase at the National Academy of Design in New York. We sat down with Simons on the eve of the launch.
ID: You trained in industrial design. What was that like?
RS: Early on, I was very passionate about design. I thought it would be interesting to go to school for industrial design, but it became too technical for me. I’m not so technical—I’m more about the social, emotional, and psychological. I graduated with a furniture collection, and then I went back to the village where my parents lived. I knew a lot about Vitra and Cassina and Cappellini. I was not sure how I could be in the village and still make a living. I was starting to go to flea markets to sell things to other flea markets. When the pieces were really good, there were interesting stores in Belgium and I would drag them there. That was my living for two years.
ID: How did you transition out of that?
RS: I went to an interim office with my portfolio. They placed me with a garden architect. He asked me to draw for him, and then the manufacturer would produce pieces, and the architect would place them in the gardens he was designing. I did that for a year, and then I moved to Antwerp and met a lot of people who were in the fashion scene. At the time there was Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela… it was a very inspiring environment. For furniture, I didn’t have an atelier or any way to produce myself, so that’s when I decided to study fashion. The director from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp said, 'You don’t need to be here, just start making clothes if you want.' And that’s how I started.
ID: How did you start working with Kvadrat?
RS: Five or six years ago, Anders Byriel from Kvadrat came knocking on my door. Peter Saville and I had a history and had collaborated, and he had said to Anders, why don’t you get in touch with Raf. We developed a capsule collection. It’s a beautiful ongoing collaboration.
In fashion, we have to push out big collections almost in impossible timing, where with Kvadrat it’s a different approach. From scratch we started working on three fabrics, and then we added two fabrics, and this season we added one fabric. I remember the first year we had to do a presentation with just three fabrics, and it changed my way of thinking.
ID: How do you approach designing for interiors?
RS: For me it was important to take a curatorial approach. I have followed the furniture market intensely. A lot of pieces are designed individually, and presented in individual ways. I recall moments in the past where things were may more linked to environments—throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, and 70’s. I’m thinking Joe Colombo with the Visiona presentation or even people like Prouvé who would build a school and all the furniture that comes with that. Or Jeanneret with Corbusier in Chandigarh. I think when we design a piece, it’s important to suggest how it could be part of your life.
ID: How does working with textiles differ for upholstery and fashion?
RS: The quality control of Kvadrat is incredible. It lasts forever. That’s something in fashion you don’t have to consider. You could make a dress in plastic that can damage tomorrow, and it’s not even a problem for the high fashion people.
In fashion, it’s about the direct impact of the feel and the touch and the performance. In furniture, it’s very different. It has to be upholstered, so it’s not about if it’s going to stand or if it will collapse. I’m also challenging the audience because one of my big obsessions is coloration. It’s one thing to choose a fabric but it’s another thing to choose a color for a piece like a sofa. It’s a long process. People think that the furniture has to last forever.
ID: How did you develop these color palettes?
RS: It’s a daily thing. I’m always gathering—something could be on the ground, a tiny little thing. I have a whole wall of swatches of color, pieces of fabric, and tiny objects.
I just recently upholstered a piece in a red for my home, which is something I never expected myself to do. But then in another place, I live in beige and off-white. The red is an upholstery and I hope it lasts forever because it cost a fortune to upholster the piece. But the other one is removable because we have a really big dog. Everything depends on the circumstances.
ID: How did art factor into the new introduction?
RS: This one was very inspired by Pointillism, but I wanted to abstract it. In Pointillism paintings, there is often figuration or trees. For me it was more important that it feels like fragments out of a painting. They feel like very abstracted landscape.
ID: Does your industrial design training enter your thinking?
RS: Unconsciously, it’s helpful to think of material development. Fashion does not take the responsibility that industrial design takes. It’s so much more about feelings and emotions. For me, the creative process for fashion is very inspiring. It’s all about people. Maybe that’s why I left industrial design—I found it very isolating. I went for 20 years through the fashion thing—it is always so fast, but you get so used to it. It’s extremely comforting to be able to do something like this for Kvadrat, because it’s not about the amount you produce.
ID: What furniture inspires you?
RS: I like strong pieces, but they have to be very comfortable and easy. I see a lot of pieces that are designed for the galleries and don’t have anything to do with serving the human being. That’s not my interest. I keep coming back to the generations of design that were so ergonomic—Prouvé, Eames. But there are always exceptions to the rule, because I’m a huge Nakashima fan. I love how everything is unique and you can feel the hand.