In Conversation with Ben Storms, the Belgian Designer Giving Lightness to Marble
A couple of months ago in Antwerp, our team met with designer Ben Storms. His studio was, at the time, still in construction. Surrounded by some of his most innovative pieces, tending to defy gravity and traditional perceptions of matters, we took the time to reflect on his creative process and the way he became a master of novelty in marble design.
LV : I'd like to revisit your childhood and try to explore how, as a child, you developed your interest, and perhaps your skills and craftsmanship, at an early stage in your life, to forego your career.
BS : Well, it's quite simple. My father was a self-made man, meaning that he never went to school, but he had always shown interest in construction work. So at an early age, he started a business out of re-purposing old buildings' materials. His father (my grandfather) was already building houses and my father was working with him, so he never went to school. But then, an architect with whom he worked with later developed an interest in old buildings’ materials, so my father started a business out of this experience. That's the environment I grew up in. We had a big yard next to our house with all these materials piled up on pallets. This was me and my brother’s play yard, in which we played between all these old materials. Also at a young age, we started working with our father, helping in the family business, working with our hands, and with those old materials. I think that those experiences were a big part of my development. When I grew a bit older, I also took courses in stone cutting, and started doing just that in the company, through weekends and holidays as a student.
Then at university, I studied art history, while taking a lot of other courses in sculpting, woodworking, stone cutting, and others. At the end of my studies in art history, I took a one-year course in design. For me, everything came together during that year: my interests, which I had developed in the family, the knowledge I had in marble and natural stones and my university studies themselves. It all came together to the functional design pieces that I create today in a way. Before that, I was searching a lot to find what I wanted to do with my life. You know?
I was trying to find different ways. When you're taking a course in sculpting, and then you go to stone cutting, and then to woodworking, people around you start questioning your ambitions and your understanding of those fields…
During that time, I was also studying art history with my nose in the books, which was a totally different thing, but in the end, with what I'm doing now, it's all connected.
LV : Do you feel like your work today resonates with your dad's work in any way?
BS : Oh, I think it resonates mainly in terms of his search for developing techniques in a different way, trying to find his own language in finishing a piece or a material. That’s something I saw my father do, but he wasn't doing it as a designer. He was doing it in a more pragmatic way, such as by looking for different types of patina for example.
LV : I know you work with marble a lot, and that you have great connections with marble producers. Were those connections coming from your dad?
BS : Yes, my dad had them already. Actually, one of those companies still exists now. It was bought by my brother, who is continuing that family marble business. So when I need to cut or do any processes with marble, which is done using big machines and special tools, I go to my brother’s.
Furthermore, a lot of the new relations that I have now with marble providers is mainly due to the fact that they appreciate my work. It's quite easy for me to get access to them, where it would normally not be so simple to buy smaller amounts of rough stones, as it is normally sold at an industrial scale.
For the Belgium black marble, for instance, it took me a couple of years to be able to reach the owner and make my orders. It's very difficult to get. A lot of people in Belgium would even tell you that this marble doesn't exist anymore.
“What I find very interesting in all these old materials is that, since it’s been used for such a long time already, if you can find a way to use it in a different way, it will stand out and be unique.”
— Ben Storms
LV : What's the story behind the Belgium black marble?
BS : Well the Belgium black, it's very difficult to excavate. It's a very expensive stone. The guy who owns it also owns the Belgium gray marble, which my father used a lot in the past. He always said that he was one of the first to put it back on the market, but I don't know if that's true. So there was that connection already. My brother also had a connection with this marble producer. After a couple of... I don't know, maybe one year after I met this guy, I was able to buy his black marble and start working with it. It takes a lot of time and a lot of talking to gain access to it you know…
I don't know how to explain it. Sometimes I can get it, and then a few months later it gets more difficult. For me, it's annoying because my clients need to know if they can get it or not. This black marble is quite exclusive...
There is also another type of marble that I use, the Saint Anne marble, which is also from Belgium. The producer’s quarry closed a long time ago. You cannot get in there anymore. My brother was lucky to be able to buy a leftover stock that they found underneath a big pile of dirt.
The prototype of the “Inhale” coffee table for instance, was made out of this Saint Anne marble. For me, it's fun to do this, to use those materials, because they are so exclusive and hard to find. They are beautiful stones!
It's so interesting. We have a heart for it. We're very happy if we can find these kinds of special things. Maybe the audience would not find it too interesting, but I'm really into it.
LV : In previous interviews, you mentioned about the process of working with different stones, working with marble, and using those materials to achieve mind-bending results, so that they don't seem to be as heavy as they really are. Could you put us back in time when you created your first piece using marble, and tell us how you approached this project? What was your main idea behind it?
BS : My first piece would be the In Vein trestle table. This was my end project in a one year's design course. I chose to work with marble, because I grew up with this stone and so I had more knowledge about it.
Then, I basically summed up different characteristics of marble, just easy things that everybody understands: it's heavy, it's cold, sometimes it's kitsch, it breaks easily, etc. I compiled 25 different characteristics associated with marble.
Then, I looked for ways to do something different with it, because what I find interesting in these very old materials is that, since they have been used for such a long time already, you can find new and creative ways to use them, to make them stand out.
The first ideas I had were about making it look very heavy. I wanted to use the mass and the weight and the monumental aspect of the stone, a piece of that would weigh about 10 tons. But the teachers wouldn't allow me, although they liked the idea. At first they said, "Okay, if you're going to do this, you’ll automatically pass the course, because this is a good idea. You can make it, but we're just one month into the course, so try to come up with something different for now." Only then I came up with the idea of a trestle table. Therefore, I went in the opposite direction: to make the marble appear super light.
I went for a trestle table because it's the mother of all tables. I also had the idea of using it as a double function, where the back of the table would be a mirror. I thought I could polish the back of the table to get a mirror look, and then I thought of making it look like a blown up mirror.
About three weeks before the end of the year, I started making and crafting the piece. At first I did some tests, small scale, and then I built the table. The first prototype still exists, so it all worked out from the first attempt, which was fantastic.
LV : Amazing…
BS : Yeah, because all the materials and techniques used to make this piece are quite expensive. I was blowing the metal myself, but cutting the marble was done by my brother, and he wasn’t working for free of course, so those things were quite expensive for a student. But anyway, I took the challenge. It seems like it worked out well, because I'm still getting orders for this piece now.
“I’m mostly inspired when I have the time to let my mind wander and just dream away.”
— Ben Storms
LV : When a new client comes in and he wants you to create something new and different for him or when you think of a piece that you want to create for yourself, do you start on a blank page or do you always have an idea in advance of what you want to create, such as notes from previous ideas which you could revisit?
BS : Well, it's been a long time since I created something new actually. Which is quiet annoying. But I'm basically working on those two projects now for most of my time, the trestle table and the coffee table. I'm trying to reorganize myself, and try to delegate more work, so that I would have more time to create new stuff.
But to answer your question, I think ... The two pieces I did were just for myself, so it was not an assignment. I could have done whatever I wanted, which I liked a lot. I have different things in my mind now that I want to create in the future, so mostly it's just an inspiration that I get, sometimes when looking at art or something else apart from design. When I have the time to just wander and dream away, that's mostly when my ideas come up.
I have clients now that ask me to make something special for them, something new. That's something new for me also, but I feel that it's not easy, because they say that they give you carte blanche, but they still have something in mind that I would be trying to satisfy, so I would still be a bit restricted. I feel like this type of work is more difficult…
For the last item that I created, for instance, the black marble mirror seems blown, but it’s not. Because of the look, you don’t make the connection to marble anymore, as it looks like something that has been blown with air pressure. I like these kind of illusions a lot, basically tricking people to think that what they see is impossible.
LV : You mentioned earlier that you approached your first project by identifying a group of words which would guide your project’s direction. Is this a process that you often go through, or do you approach each project differently?
BS : No, the first piece, the trestle table, my starting point was just marble, just the one material. Then I summed up the words that are usually connected to that, like all the characteristics of the material. I then looked for a way to do something different with it, I wanted to go against the characteristics of marble.
Again, I made a lightweight marble table, which doesn’t normally exist. Two people can easily carry it, it’s only four millimeters thick which is also something that you don’t have with marble. Then the marble rests on trestles, also something you don’t do with marble plates because it would normally break.
So, there I just wanted to go against all the usual characteristics and then I searched for the right way and form to do that.
For the second piece, the Inhale coffee table, I was just looking at a remnant piece of marble; the Saint Anne that I was talking about earlier. It was just right in front of me and I loved the shape of the natural, rough side of the stone. I wanted to use that rough side as a coffee table. I started to think of a way to lift it up and balance it straight.
I wanted to make it seem almost invisible in the back and underneath, like jelly. After a while I remembered the first test I ever did to make this type of metal - to blow metal pillows.
It just clicked with me, that I could blow a metal pillow underneath the stone and it would take the shape of the stone and be balanced. The polished reflective object would just seem to disappear.
Just like that, I had my solution and I finished it the day before a fair in Belgium. The trestle table took me almost a year to develop and then the coffee table was just an instantaneous idea coming to life.
I never work on the computer. I have my schedule book, which is mainly filled with ideas, more written ideas than drawings. But, once I start a project, I will start in the workshop making it and testing the material. I will try to make it on scale, one to one and try to make it as if the first piece is going to be sold. I always try to get it right the first time around.
“I like these kind of illusions a lot, basically
tricking people to think what they see is impossible.”
— Ben Storms
LV : I also wanted to ask you a question about BRUT collective (Bram Vanderbeke, Cédric Etienne, Charlotte Jonckheer, Linde Freya Tangelder & Nel Verbeke). Have you known them for a long time ? How did you come about deciding to create the Antwerp Six of design?
BS : I’ve actually known Nel Verbeke for a long time. We were both into design and used to work together. She came to me once with the idea of forming this group of designers which would help each work towards collective objectives. I liked the idea. I knew she was involved in the industry and I trusted her, so I instantly said: “Okay, I’m in!” I was following my gut feeling, which is something that I always do.
Although I knew that I didn’t really have time for a collective, as I’m very busy with my own business, finishing all my projects and orders, I still went for it. It was a good choice. I didn’t know all of them. I saw a few things from Bram, who recently finished its studies at the Eindhoven Design Academy, I think. I’ve met Charlotte before, but didn’t know a lot about her. The design scene in Belgium is very small, so we all knew about each other, but didn’t really know one another.
I think it works perfectly, the way we communicate and our set-up, pictures, everything is fantastic. Do you like it?
LV : Yes, absolutely. That’s mostly why I’m asking, as I’m curious to hear your side of the story.
BS : I was actually thinking of doing something like that before, but I never had the time or the right people to do it with. So, when she called me and came up with that very same idea of working together, doing a fair and ultimately being stronger because of that, I think that’s why I immediately agreed to do it. That’s the way to go in the beginning.
LV : In the ideal world, if I could relieve you of all your current work and projects so that you could start the day tomorrow with nothing new on your plate, no deliveries, no due dates, nothing… What kind of project would you be most excited to work on?
BS : Oh my goodness, that is such a difficult question - the absolute dream scenario! I would have the time to do something that is most likely in my head right now. Most probably something sculptural and probably with marble.
LV : Would you go for a bigger or smaller scale project?
BS : A bigger project, I think. Something connected to architecture. It would still be a functional furniture piece, but sensible to its location and surroundings, as if it was becoming a part of it. It would still be a very individual piece, so you would see that it’s a piece on it’s own, but would only fit in that position, in that architecture.
It would probably be a large scale project, so it would lean more toward the sculptural again. I think it could be many different things…
All images by Alex Lesage — threefold.