COOLHAVEN (the Dutch name translates to “coal harbor”), a waterfront district on the west side of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, is gentrifying fast. But the converted warehouse that designer Sabine Marcelis occupies is still a work in progress, if the loop of construction wire substituting for a knob on the front door is any indication.
Her gritty surroundings and the boat traffic that navigates the river Schie just outside her window aren’t nearly as captivating as the view she’s come up with indoors, where on the loft’s freshly poured concrete floors a fleet of colorful objects idles: a six-foot-tall ceramic totem by local artist Koen Taselaar; a blocky chaise of wire mesh from Belgian design duo Muller Van Severen; and a tiny table that looks like a meteorite pierced by shards of a shimmery disco ball, by the Danish artist FOS.
Marcelis acquired the pieces one by one as opportunities to barter for her own work came along. Even the sofa, a long squeeze of pink peppermint designed by Pierre Paulin in the 1960s, was a trade of sorts with Paulin’s son Benjamin, whom she met a few years ago. The furnishings don’t work together so much as coexist, and she’s still experimenting with their placement.
“I like the idea of filling a house with richness, because you’re surrounded by the work of your friends,” says the designer, 33, balancing a plate of store-bought baklava between us on the pink sofa. Her own contributions are limited to fill-ins—a discarded panel of tinted glass that’s become a dining table, a botched resin cube repurposed as a planter and a few chairs and barstools she made with her boyfriend, architect Paul Cournet, when they couldn’t find seating they liked.
The couple moved into the building last year after an 18-month renovation that subdivided an open floor into 2,600 square feet and an outdoor terrace plus two smaller units, which they now rent out. The unfettered space was a turn-on for Cournet, 30, a Frenchman who has lived in his fair share of vertically oriented Dutch houses during his eight years in the Rotterdam office of Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm OMA.
“Paul said, ‘We’re not going to put up any walls,’ ” Marcelis recalls. “And I said, ‘Are you sure? Maybe that’s a little extreme? What about some bathrooms?’ ” She laughs. “So now we have The Wall.” In one decisive move, Cournet inserted what he describes as “a slim band of pocketed rooms, where each space is defined by one single material and color to create distinct environments.” A storage area is lined in plywood from floor to ceiling, while the powder room is clad in rosy handmade tiles with a distinctly anatomical vibe. “People call it ‘the brain room,’ ” he says. The only unfinished space is the master bath, which Marcelis plans to envelop in a luscious, pigmented polyester resin she often uses in her work—though the details are still at issue (“Paul wants mint green and I want a warm caramel, like skin,” she explains).
“What Sabine does is very pure and elegant,” says Maria Foerlev, whose Copenhagen gallery, Etage Projects, has represented the designer’s work since 2012, a year after her graduation from Design Academy Eindhoven. “But she always wants to create a relationship between the piece and the viewer. Like her Soap table of resin—people just want to touch it. Or one of her gradient mirrors. Is it a hole in the wall? It’s hard to tell. You really have to look.”
The designer’s obsessions with industrial materials and manufacturing have taken her down some of the same conceptual rabbit holes that enticed the Southern California Light and Space artists, who made surface perfection a proxy for transcendence—and perceptual unease. Despite their seductive colors and surfaces, Marcelis’s creations raise as many questions as they answer.
A few years ago, her work caught the attention of Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, a partner at OMA, and since then she’s collaborated with the firm on a variety of projects, including an illusionistic mirrored entry for Berlin’s KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens) department store and the sharp-edged interior of the Repossi jewelry boutique on Paris’s Place Vendôme. A number of fashion brands have come calling as well, among them Céline, Givenchy and Salle Privée.
For Isabel Marant, she assisted with a new retail concept—“a whole group of designers working together,” she says—that debuted in Amsterdam this spring and will roll out internationally in the coming months. Over the summer, Marcelis partnered with Burberry and Opening Ceremony on store installations in New York and Los Angeles that stretched the classic Burberry plaid like taffy into translucent panels for framing and display; in December, her first project with Fendi will debut at Design Miami to mark the 10th anniversary of the brand’s participation at the fair and of its Peekaboo bag.
Though the pace of fashion work can be punishing, Marcelis relishes the freedom it offers. “Something that works as display could be almost anything, as long as a bag can sit on top of it,” she says. “It’s a nice way to experiment.” Clocking crazy hours in her studio, a 10-minute drive from the loft, the self-described “production nerd” delves deeper and deeper into process—a way of working that’s influenced, she says, by her teenage experiences with competitive sports.
From the ages of 17 to 21, Marcelis trained to be a professional snowboarder, living back-to-back winters in New Zealand and California’s Sierra Nevadas. “Every day I would be in the park, trying to get a trick, land a jump, do rails—you’re constantly trying to achieve a goal. It’s a mixture of adrenaline and determination,” she says. “I was never really good enough to earn my living with it, but it was all I really wanted to do.” In 2006, she quit the sport and went back to school, first to study economics, then industrial design.
“Now, looking back, it feels like someone else’s life,” she says. What has endured is a passion for “figuring out how to do the impossible. There’s an idea, and it has to be that. But it doesn’t work. So how can you make it work?”
As the loft came together, the couple felt the need to mediate Cournet’s precious open space with some softer, more intimate elements. When friends come over, Marcelis can slide several floor-length theatrical draperies around a track in the ceiling to create an ad hoc room centered on the sofa.
Wiping a few pastry crumbs from her hands, she walks over to another column of fabric and draws the moss-green velvet around her until she’s cocooned inside an oval: instant projection room. Beside it is a curtain of silver foil enclosing a platform bed. The arrangement looks a little claustrophobic, but Marcelis explains that she and Cournet like to beam movies onto the ceiling before going to sleep, adding that “the space changes to manipulate the light.”
Not every design problem is so gratifying to solve. Today Marcelis is deciding whether to fix her car, which is in the shop, or buy a new one. Not being able to move quickly between home, studio, fabricators, collaborators and suppliers with a trunkload of prototypes and samples is becoming a major inconvenience. A few new projects have her feeling stretched, even with four employees helping out in the studio.
“My goal for this year is to focus more and do less,” she says. She’d love to work with a theater company sometime on scenography. Until then, she’s trying out new ideas at home. •