An interview with Zenza co-founder Karin Willems

I discovered homewares brand Zenza at Maison et Objet this year, and was particularly taken with their lighting. Karin was kind enough to speak to me about how it all happens... Zenza

What’s the most important thing to know about you?

The most important thing to know about me, is that the source from which all my decisions come, are curiosity and hope. Life has so far always treated me with elegance, lots of my dreams came true, so optimism is always my companion. That doesn't mean that I never worry...I am also good at that. It is a combination of characteristics, that pushes me to dare, to try and be careful at the same time.

Describe a really good day and a really bad day in the life of Zenza.

A really good day at Zenza, is when we have a good brainstorm session with the whole team. We are all so different in character and each one of us has his/her point of view. The excitement of knowing that we can get to that next level, if we all will give it our best, is giving me goosebumps!

A really bad day in Zenza is, when our beautiful new items, that we need to show in the fairs of Maison et Objet - Paris, or in Ambiente-Frankfurt , are arriving too late!!! Sometimes strikes, or sea containers that take more days then planned, or custom clearance are our worst nightmares. Actually too late as in " after the fairs" never happened, because we always find ways to get the goods there in time ( so far that worked out!!!) but it takes lots of energy and adrenaline from the whole team to create solutions.


What inspires your ideas?

I am almost ashamed to say, that I can get ideas from everything around me and it is in my mind always and everywhere. It is as if my mind is a search engine for Zenza that never sleeps and is collecting pieces of data non-stop!

I can get inspired by a shape (Egypt, where I live and work is an endless source for that to me, especially in it's architectural shapes) or by a material, or by a texture. Oriental patterns and designs are a never ending inspiration, but we always want to use this old source in a modernised way.

I am saying " we" instead of "I", because the decision of what we will produce and what we will bring to the collection, is really the three of us; Hussein, Yasmina and me.

Describe the process you go though to turn your ideas into products.

First of all, we have to think about who can make this and in which country. We work with India and Egypt mainly at this moment. So we chose India for textiles and Egypt for brass work.

Then the second thing is, to estimate the costs first. Because pricing is very important for a final success or failure in the market. We believe that our products should clearly show that the price is related to the value of the work and the quality of the material.

Then we can start to make contact with the handcrafts men, to sit with them and explain our drawings and ideas. A technical drawing is meaningless, the craftsmen are not used to this. You will have to talk with your hands as well and spent time together in the first day, experimenting together. Then it is sending back and forth samples that are not yet perfect and needs modifications here and there until we are satisfied.


What advice would you give to an aspiring lighting designer?

My way of working and living in Egypt is so different from other people. I followed my instincts and possibilities and try to learn from everything that came on my path. I think everybody has other strong and weak points and is unique. So figure out what are your own unique skills and develop those!

Which three items could you not live without?

I love beautiful things around me, but I am not materialistic at all. Those lovely items are creating a feeling of being home and this feeling is worth gold. But it is very easy for me to let go of things, even if I like them a lot. I know that I will find new things, on one of my trips to India or in a Souk or in Ikea. My need to change is stronger then my need to keep things. I can't live without my family and friends!


What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the fame we have got with Zenza. Fame means that others love what you do. And that is still amazing to feel!

What’s next for you?

Ooooo, your blog is not big enough for all that...! We ( Hussein, my husband and me) made Yasmina our partner a few years ago. She started working as an office manager, but her skills were endless and a nice completion of our own ones. So we feel that we are the perfect team ( and we feel as if we are family, as if our oldest daughter joined the company). And our next step is to open more shops, in Holland and abroad as well. We have one shop, for 15 years now in Amsterdam and we opened a second one a year ago in Maastricht, in the very south of Holland. We are having this inside-joke called " the Zenza Empire", which indicates that the sky is the limit for us and that we enable ourselves to dream high.

But we do things step-by-step, we don't believe we can do too much at the same time without losing our eye for detail and doing it with love. We are not trying to grow big for just being big and prestigious. We want to grow bigger, so we can have more possibilities to create and that will be even more fun!

And, finally, what’s your favourite colour?!