When does furniture become art?

While both art and design involve creativity and aesthetics, they are too often kept separate in discourse, defined and evaluated more by their distinctions than their similarities. But every once in a while a designer like Jesse Visser comes along whose work sits so comfortably at the intersection of art and design, so as to make them inseparable. Visser is a luminary in contemporary design, whose unmistakably singular aesthetic and iconic designs prioritize user interaction, balancing conceptual purity with commercial appeal. “Applied art distinguishes itself by involving a user,” Visser says, “I always seek interaction with the user so that one becomes conscious of the actions being performed. It’s not just about looking at it, but the emphasis is on the experience.”  


“[With the Sunset Sunrise] you need to perform a physical action to control the light.”

Inviting touchpoints to activate the mind and body

Visser’s studio is known for reinventing and modifying conventional combinations of materials and design-build techniques. “We often push the boundaries, which can be challenging but makes the process highly valuable and distinctive,” says Visser, “The emphasis is frequently placed on the surface of materials, the initial touchpoint with a product. Something special should happen there. The coating or surface treatment can impart a unique quality to the product, making it inviting to use. The surface is utilized to stimulate the sense of touch.” 

Jesse Visser in his studio in Amsterdam | Photograph by Bas Losekoot

The emphasis on creating a holistic sensory experience distinguishes his work, making it not only visually striking but also rich in experiential qualities. In the case of the Sunset Sunrise, the art of the piece’s practical functionally is inseparable from the art. “It’s about an action you perform, Visser explains, “you move the panels up and downwards with your hands. A design where it’s not about providing light; the light is always there, like the sun; it’s about blocking light.” 

Sometimes the concept of the initial touchpoint and the holistic sensory experience are cleverly intertwined. Take, for example, the Soft Sofa his studio designed for Brothers and Sons. When it was first showcased in Milan, viewers thought it was ceramic, but it had a special coating on the foam that only gave it the appearance but not the touch of a hard stone. The piece is actually extremely soft and cozy. The subversion of expectation was made in the aesthetic design decisions, with the understanding that the piece was going to be used, not merely gazed upon.

Soft Sofa designed by Jesse Visser and Geke Lensink

Letting inspiration find you 

Visser is modest about how he gets and stays inspired, relying heavily on his intuition and learned experience: “Many designers talk about inspiration, but to be honest, a lot of my ideas just pop up. I observe my surroundings, everyday things, peculiar details, technical solutions, and often try to reduce the image to its essence. Does something ‘carry,’ ‘lift,’ ’embrace,’ etc.?” 

“…The iconic Harold cabinet emerged ‘out of nowhere’ and was sketched on paper within a minute. There has never been any change to the design since then.”

“The story was different for the Alumni series [chair]. It originated on commission by Brothers and Sons, a Dutch furniture brand, and was designed in collaboration with Geke Lensink. The goal was to create a distinctive shell chair. Instead of opting for the standard round shapes, which are already abundant in the market, we explored possibilities for folding aluminum. In the furniture industry, components are often purchased, but with this design, we developed every detail further, even the cross-legged base and the mechanism for adjusting the chair’s height.” – Jesse Visser

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Jesse Visser alumni series chair
Alumni Series chair designed by Jesse Visser and Geke Lensink
Part of Visser’s mission statement states, “The aim is to create a body of work that reflects contemporary society while offering a refuge from it.” He finds the balance between reflecting the present and providing a timeless, contemplative experience. “Many of my designs revolve around hope,“ he says, “Not in a religious sense, more in a spiritual way. The belief you can have in something provides stability; it’s like your own anchor. This is particularly translated into the ‘Beacon of Light’, originated during the COVID pandemic. It reflects the search for wandering and holding on, like an anchor in the mist. You can see the boulder as an anchor, but also the light sphere, which can be both a guide or a wandering light.” (‘video’Beacon of Light,’ courtesy Mia Karlova Galerie)

Designing limited editions vs mainstream products

His studio creates limited editions driven by discovery and experimentation, such as the Triptych Classic XL and Sphaera. But his studio also creates more mainstream products like the Alumni chair. He works closely with production partners, visiting their workshops, and observing what is and isn’t feasible. He had this to say regarding the relationship between developing personal products, limited editions, and a brand collaboration intended to have a wider reach: “When I design for brands, I am more conscious of the [price] and try to guide it to align with the segment in which the brand operates.

Visser balances pushing boundaries with the practicalities of cost. And by reducing ideas to their essence, he creates work that appeals to all the senses.

“Many of my designs originate from my own initiative. Sometimes, I develop them into a limited edition. However, it can also happen that the same concept is developed for a brand, and different choices need to be made to produce it on a mass scale. This may involve making other choices for detailing and materialization, for example. The challenge is to remain true to the original concept in such situations. In my personal projects, the starting point is always conceptual, with the emphasis on the gesture and appearance of the product. That’s why I often refer to them not as ‘products’ but as ‘pieces’ or ‘objects.’ Every design choice is dedicated to telling the story as clearly as possible, where ‘cheap,’ ‘convenient,’ or ‘easy to produce’ are not criteria. More often, it becomes the opposite.”  

Sphaera table

This April at Salone del Mobile you can see Jesse Visser speak with Rick Tegelaar and Rive Roshan during a presentation titled ’Solidified’ in the district of Isola in Milan.

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