With a major retrospective now on show at MAD Brussels, Spanish designer Jaime Hayon tells Dezeen how his "serious fun" style has helped him jump between fine art and industrial design in this interview.
Hayon started his career as an artist trying to prove he could also work as a designer, but said it is now often the other way around.
He believes the key to doing both is developing a uniquely recognisable style.
"I believe that if you have a concept and a style, you can do anything you want," he told Dezeen.
"If I'm making an oil painting or I'm making an object, I don't make a division in my brain. The world makes a division for my work, not me."
Hayon's signature style is set in a world of fantasy characters and creatures. These are expressed in free-flowing lines and vivid colours.
Examples of this in Nuevo Nouveau include the now-familiar Green Chicken rocking horse, the yeti-like Happy Susto vases and a series of huge tapestries that look like decorated masks.
"I'm building characters from out of my imagination," Hayon said.
"The forms, the organic elements, the colour – that has all become a language that people now recognise."
Despite the playful aesthetic, Hayon said there is meaning or function in everything he produces.
"I play with serious fun," he said. "It's serious because it's made by the best artisans and manufacturers, but it's also trying to be nice to you."
He points to a recent design for Danish brand &Tradition, the stainless-steel Momento Jug, as an example.
"To me, it's a character," he said. "It looks like a pelican."
"But it's also a very serious industrial design object," he continued. "We made so many prototypes to get the right balance, so it never spills a drop of water."
Nuevo Nouveau marks the first time Hayon's work has been shown in Belgium.
The exhibition forms part of a city-wide programme of events marking the 130th anniversary of the art nouveau movement, which is believed to have been founded in Brussels.
MAD Brussels' creative director Dieter Van Den Storm said that Hayon's approach, particularly its combination of art and design, is akin to the spirit of art nouveau.
"We were looking for somebody who would embody the essence of the art nouveau movement today," Van Den Storm told Dezeen.
"Jaime Hayon is that kind of designer. From sketches and paintings to furniture and accessories, but also unique pieces, interior design and installations, it is hard to imagine everything in this exhibition comes from one designer/artist."
Hayon set up his studio in 2001. One of his most successful early projects was Mediterranean Digital Baroque, a limited-edition series of characterful cactus-inspired totems created for David Gill Galleries.
He said that, back then, he was struggling to be taken seriously as a designer.
"I was getting featured in art magazines, but I was frustrated because I wanted to create products," he said.
A turning point came when he began collaborating with Spanish brand BD Barcelona. In 2006, they unveiled the Showtime furniture collection, with pieces including the popular Multileg tables and cabinets.
"People said I was a clown," Hayon reflected. "But I made a serious point. The collection was a success and after that, big companies wanted to work with me."
"There were always two sides to me," he added. "I dressed up and did a lot of crazy shit. I wanted to have fun but, at the same time, there was a discipline."
This discipline, according to Hayon, is an obsession with detail and craft.
Despite working across all kinds of materials – the list includes glass, ceramics, wood, textiles, metal and plastic – his ambition is always to be as inventive as possible.
"I try to use classic materials but give them a twist," he suggested.
Hayon hopes the exhibition will help people understand him better.
His favourite room in the show is a small gallery between two larger rooms. It contains 20 glass objects, including the animal-inspired Faunacrystopolis crystal vases, displayed opposite a painting that features the same colours and characters.
"In that moment, you understand who I am," Hayon said.
"I am someone who sees everything as an opportunity to make something unique and special," he explained.
"In every space I create, whether it's The Standard Hotel in Bangkok or a little house in the Mediterranean, every detail is an excuse to experiment and go crazy."
The photography is by Sam Gilbert.
Nuevo Nouveau is on show at MAD Brussels in Belgium from 22 September 2023 until 27 January 2024. See Dezeen Events Guide for more architecture and design events around the world.