The Business of Extremis

Nov 4, 2009
  • Article by Jan Henderson
  • Designer Dirk Wynants

Dirk Wynants is an unusual designer. As the ‘big boss’ of Extremis, the Belgian furniture company, he has designed some interesting products, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I first meet him at the opening of State of Design in Melbourne where earlier in the afternoon he has helped assemble his Kosmos seating product for the Design: Made Flanders stand. He’s plainly hands-on, and meeting and talking to him about his business and philosophy shows the man is also a thinker – not esoteric, but one who speaks his mind in plain language and with a good deal of common sense. Having started Extremis in 2004 he has come a long way, now employing some 25 staff and proffering a diversity of products that are exported worldwide. Then there are the awards, not just for design, but for his management prowess – he runs a tight ship and has the success to prove his methods work.

Jan Henderson: How did you get started in the business of design?
Dirk Wynants: I was the eldest of four brothers and I was expected to work in my father’s furniture business; he made traditional furniture. At the age of 14 I worked after school helping with the joinery and then the business side of things, invoicing and dealing with clients. After some years I realised this was not where I wanted to be and left to start my own business. First, I decided to work in other companies to get as much experience as possible, not to go for the money, but really for the experience, so I chose jobs that could help me learn the things I needed to make a business of my own successful. The last thing I did before starting my business was to work in the distribution of design, because that is a large part of design and it was fortunate that I did because otherwise I would have made many, many mistakes. I worked as an agent for several companies and witnessed product launches, how to market products, calculations on prices, sales strategies, things like that. And I didn’t only see good things, but I also saw a lot of things done badly, which was very beneficial.

JH So this has shaped your business philosophy and the way you administer Extremis now?
DW Yes, I really thought it was important to learn all the other things, beside design. I personally see that as a designer, design is not art; design is the opposite of art, somehow, because artists don’t have to accept any limits at any level. As a designer, you have to accept all the limits of functionality, ecology and economics on all these levels; that is our world. So we are the opposite of art; that is my strong belief. But, as a designer, then you have to be interested in all these different fields as well. What I see is that people are not interested in the commercial side – commercial seems to be something dirty somehow. It is part of the thing we do, however, and if we make furniture that is not sold, that is a bad design. It might be an interesting art piece, but it’s only good design when people buy it.

JH How did Extremis begin?
DW At 30 I was successful working in a metal business that I had built up, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, which was to design my own furniture. I didn’t see any examples of Belgian furniture companies in design that were successful. There were big Italian companies making another sofa, another table and chair. I would never be able to compete with what was already in the market, and therefore I chose another path and that was outdoor furniture. In ’94 on a design level, there was nothing in the market. There was nothing on the market because there was no market. That was also the problem. But still, I had my first design, the Gargantua table. It was also a sort of strategy in the sense that this piece is not a range; it’s one piece, one size, one finish – the perfect thing to start a business with. In the beginning the design companies and showrooms I visited said, “It is very nice, we love it, but we don’t do outdoor furniture.” And the garden furniture companies I went to said, “It’s too modern for us.” So there was no market, there was no distribution. So step-by-step, I ended up launching the product myself.

JH Where are your markets? Are you well-received at home in Belgium?
DW We sold internationally immediately. I think my third invoice was for outside of Belgium. I still remember one of the first fairs in Belgium and people approached me and said, “It’s nice, where does it come from? Does it come from Italy?” We said, “No, it’s from Belgium, here.” It’s changed a lot since then, but in those days, if it was not from Italy then people didn’t trust it. The local market was not an advantage.

JH So you made a conscious decision from the word go to export because that was the only way to survive. And the impetus then built up, and your name and product became recognised?
DW I was always very active in giving people the opportunity to discover my designs by going to international fairs. Of course, while I was working as an agent years before I had made many contacts, which came in very handy. So I built a certain strategy; it’s not a coincidence. Also there is strategy in all my designs, nothing is a coincidence. Every detail has been thought of. We give the impression in our catalogues that everything is fun and it is, but at the same time, it’s really serious and really professional.

JH There is a certain whimsy about your products, a sense of humour, and your designs are very much geared to the lifestyles in countries like Australia, Asia and North America. How do you find these markets?
DW The US was our most important market until last year. It is a difficult market, but it’s a huge market, so it becomes important quite easily; however, I think this year will be a little different.

JH So where do you see your new expansion?
DW Unlike many other companies, we are still growing, which is exceptional for a furniture company. Our expansion is in two directions: first of all, the new product we launched this year, Kosmos, is the first product that has taken off commercially immediately. All the others have taken at least two or three years before they became successful, but Kosmos was an instant success. And this year we had the best fair ever in Milan. Second, we are doing a lot of work in the eastern European countries.

JH I understand that you manufacture where you source your materials. How do you coordinate production?
DW We don’t manufacture ourselves anymore, because our company grew a little bit too fast to follow that, and I wanted to be free to work with any material that I want to work with. Also, because we are seasonal, I cannot have production that stops and have the risk that there is no work for my staff. We never order finished products; we only order components that are shipped over to us. Before it leaves to go to our customers, it has already been in our hands to ensure quality control. If you want tropical wood, then you have to allow these people to work on that wood as much as possible, so that they have work as well.

JH That brings me to the word sustainability; however, it appears to me that sustainability is just a matter of course within your business.
DW Sustainability is now the new fashion word, and everybody is trying to show that they are sustainable. We don’t have to show that because it’s really in our DNA. First of all, we design things that are not designed by other companies. That is sustainable because who needs another chair that looks the same? Second, we try to have designs that have a long life span, both structurally and aesthetically. Our first products, designed in ’92 [and] on the market since ’94, are still growing in sales today. And then, of course, you have the sustainability in the materials you use as well. Another important factor for me is transport volumes. I don’t need to transport by air. Our pieces are always incredibly small to pack because they are designed that way.

JH Your furniture promotes interaction – barbecues in the backyard or a group sitting around a table at a dinner party. Which comes first: the furniture or the party?
DW I always design my products for myself, to please me, and then if I’m lucky there are other people who like the things the way I do. My garden is really a laboratory: I do something, I make a prototype, I put it there, invite some friends and see what happens. The interaction between people that are using that furniture is what is important. After an evening when everyone has had a good time together, I think that is the thing we have to value the most nowadays. The furniture itself is just the tool that you need to do it with and, if you can have them in a beautiful design, of course you will do that.

Extremis products are available at Corporate Culture.
1 Donuts, which received a Red Dot Award in 2005
2 The Bronco and Corral range
3 Kosmos Oris, a modern take on the lecturn and pulpit
4 Gargantua table
5 PicNik, a portable table and chair

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