“This shirt he only puts on for the video recordings,” Dirk Wynants winks, pointing to his son Thomas, who is working with two big cameras in a screaming Hawaii shirt. They are set up on the monumental granite counter in the Extremis showroom, which contains tables, umbrellas and sofas with names such as Gargantua, Hopper and Bistroo. In front of the sleek building is a pleasant village street of the Poperingse district of Proven, at the back a spacious terrace and a garden with a view of hop fields. Over the past 25 years, Wynants has built up an international reputation in design furniture from this corner in West Flanders.
Thomas will soon mix the video recordings with live images that will be streamed to new and existing Extremis customers. “At the start of the lockdown in mid-March, we were halfway through our tour along the coasts of the US, including customers of our American distributor Steelcase. That is one of the largest sellers of office furniture in the world, with a turnover of 3 billion euros, with which we have had an exclusive distribution contract for two years. We were at the gates of Los Angeles when the corona virus broke out. San Francisco and Silicon Valley, a gold mine for us, had to follow. We had a good chance of signing a large contract with LinkedIn there. But we must return head over heels. “
- Founded in 1994 by designer Dirk Wynants. De Kempenaar settled in Poperinge in West Flanders “because love brought me there.”
- Turned his company into a world player in design furniture. These were originally intended for the garden, but also found their way to offices, hotels and museums.
- Signed a distribution contract two years ago with the American company Steelcase, the largest distributor of office furniture.
- Turnover: 12 million euros.
- 50 employees.
LinkedIn, the American publicly traded business network site, is said to be yet another top name in Extremis’ prestigious customer portfolio. For years, Google and Apple haven’t been furnishing a single office without sofas or tables from the brand. Large architectural firms, such as the American Gensler, also know their way to Poperinge, where Kempenaar Wynants founded the company in 1994.
His designs can be found in major museums such as the MoMa in New York, and in boutique hotels in Tokyo, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Monaco. Wynants has a chair in furniture design at the Shanghai Institute for Visual Art (SIVA), between major designers from Italian design houses such as Magis, MDF Italia and Minotti.
“I’ve never made crazy jumps, because I’m actually a skater who shuns big risks,” says Wynants. Despite this, Extremis’ turnover has grown by 10 to 25 percent per year in recent years, to 12 million euros at the end of 2019. The first two months of this year also continued to grow by 25 percent. “It promised to be a great year. According to orders now pouring in, our revenue for 2020 will be down 6 percent – an acceptable level. “
But it takes blood, sweat and tears to keep the customers captivated. “We hold a one-hour video conference every night. It is a mix of a live show, in which we tell about the history of my designs, the functionalities of the furniture, and pre-recorded images that make you dream. For example, we want to entice architects, developers and sellers at our dealers to buy or train. “
We were at the gates of Silicon Valley when the corona virus broke out. We had a good chance of signing a large contract with LinkedIn there. But we must return head over heels.
“In recent weeks we have made such a broadcast every night, for between 7 and 50 viewers. This will become a fixed value, even after the crisis. We also made a huge leap in logistics. While we used to require two weeks of production time for some products, we now sometimes do it in 3.5 hours, from order to loading dock. “
Wynants pauses. He looks at the empty coffee cups and then springs straight. “Time for something different,” he says. “Fancy a beer?” He disappears and returns with a 75cl bottle of Tremist, his own beer for which he had the surrounding hop fields constructed. He inspired his Hopper, a sleek version of the classic picnic table, on the typical sloping poles on hop fields.
Does Wynants believe that we will wake up in a new world after Corona? “Afterwards, many will be able to explain perfectly what they should have done in advance. But it is difficult to predict what will follow after this crisis. I don’t think much will change. At the most we will see an accelerated evolution. Take home work. That does not suddenly become the norm. Telework will increase, but at home, in co-working offices and at the head office. People need to work together. Look at students who like to study together. The cafeteria, where fellow employees meet, will become the most important place in the office. “
“But companies hoping to imitate Google’s success by organizing their offices in the same way will return disappointed. Everything starts with the corporate culture: if it is open and full of confidence, the office interior will automatically be open and more playful. “
“I hope we can use the slowdown and reflection of this temporary crisis to tackle a much bigger catastrophe: climate change. That is why I do not understand why we would put 300 million euros in the rescue of Brussels Airlines. Due to the air pollution and noise pollution, we would even have to close down the entire airport of Zaventem and make it a large station for high-speed trains. There is no major city in the world where a major airport is so close to the city center. We have four major international airports – London, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam – one to two hours from Brussels by train. By world standards, the whole of Flanders is one big city. So let us organize the region in this way. ”
Lessons from China
Especially in terms of hygiene, we can learn a lot from the Chinese. We are no longer laughing with their mouth masks.
Wynants makes the comparison with the situation in China, which he knows well from his chair in Shanghai. They stand for two months in their approach to the corona crisis, which can offer us a glimpse into the future. “We can learn a lot from them, especially with regard to hygiene. We are no longer laughing with their mouth masks. They also put disinfectant wipes on the table for the guests, take off their shoes when they come in with friends, and so on. A few months ago, I was still surprised when I saw a Chinese disinfect her smartphone at a trade fair in Cologne. “
“I also don’t understand why we have such a hard time with tracing apps, supposedly because of privacy. We gave up that privacy a long time ago. Moreover, I think that the collective interest should sometimes take precedence over the individual. “
Wynants sees positively for Extremis after the corona crisis. “I expect people to invest more in their home and garden, because these have become even more safe havens during these times. Even if the rat race gets going again, their home will become even more of a refuge, which people want to furnish with care. Although I can only hope that. I have a hug. “