Sylvain Willenz

BELGIUM (1978)

Sylvain Willenz discovered his passion for design in the woods of New Hampshire, of all places. From ages 10 to 16, Willenz went to summer camp in that state, making the trip each year from his native Brussels. “I loved making artifacts such as baseball bats, bowls and pencil holders in the wood shop,” he recalls. “Though I was always rather creative, I think this is where my interest for making things was born.”


From those rustic beginnings in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Willenz went on to become a designer of a broad range of products – from rugs, mirrors and light fixtures to chairs, shelving and electronics – for customers around the world, including Design Within Reach.


His favorite product is still his first that went into production: Brackets Included, a steel shelf with impressions of support brackets molded into the shelf itself, ingeniously eliminating the need for extra hardware. “I came up with the product when I was thinking about an idea of merging shelving and wallpaper.” The design is now manufactured by Hay of Denmark in various colors and sizes. “It’s amazing to see them used across the world,” Willenz says.


He moved with his family when he was 5 from Brussels to Connecticut for his father’s job at Yale University. They all moved back when he was 10 but continued visiting Vermont and Maine every year, helping foster in him a love of moose and loons and a fluency in English to rival his proficiency in French and Dutch, widely spoken in Brussels alongside French.


After first heading toward a career as a comic-strip illustrator, he discovered furniture design at Nene University College in Northampton, England, and went on to earn a master’s degree in product design in 2003 from the Royal College of Art of London. A year later, he established the Sylvain Willenz Design Office in Brussels. In 2009, he was named Belgian designer of the year by a panel of industry authorities.


Willenz is inspired by the work of Scandinavian greats Børge Mogensen and Poul Kjærholm along with countrymen Jules Wabbes and Maarten Van Severen. But he most admires Austrian designer Ettore Sottsass. “What’s interesting is his capacity to be so organic,” he says, “and then industrial as well.”

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