Maarten Baas
Back to the future #16

17 May 2013

In response to great demand, we have decided to publish on our site the long and extraordinary interviews that appeared in the print magazine from 2009 to 2011. Forty gripping conversations with the protagonists of contemporary art, design and architecture. Once a week, an appointment not to be missed. A real treat. Today it’s Maarten Baas’s turn.

Klat #03, summer 2009-2010.

In 2004, in a solo exhibition in his New York gallery, Murray Moss presented the works of a young Dutch designer, Maarten Baas. Born in Arnsberg (Germany) in 1987, Baas had graduated two years earlier at the Eindhoven Design Academy with the same project that showcased in Moss’ show. Entitled Where There’s Smoke…, the exhibit displayed the carbonized furniture from the Smoke series. The procedure to create these objects is simple: first you burn the piece of furniture with a burst of flame, and then you coat the charred surface with an epoxy resin. The process is somewhat irreverent and playful: with his primitive and infantile view of the world of objects, for Baas destruction is a means of knowledge. To burn a piece of furniture means to reflect on the perception of beauty – of an archaic-contemporary sort – that has managed to survive a catastrophe: a new conception of temporality of things and of the designer’s work close to that of a performer. The added value to the New York exhibition was that for the occasion Baas not only burned “anonymous” objects, but also twenty-five pieces of iconic designer furniture: from the Calvet chair by Antoni Gaudí to Ettore Sottsass’ Carlton bookshelf, from the LCW chair by Charles and Ray Eames to the Campana brothers’ Favela Chair. Smoke marked the beginning of Baas’ career and to some extent determined the spirit of his forays into the world of art, cinema, music and sport. Since 2005, Baas and his partner Bas den Herder have been working in a farm-studio in the ‘s-Hertogenbosch countryside south of Utrecht. Here is where he created the Clay Furniture series (chairs and furniture produced by Established & Sons, made with a metal skeleton and manually coated in colored clay) and the The Chankley Bore, the limited edition antenna furniture presented in London at the 2008 Frieze art fair, in the Established & Sons stand. Real Time (2009), is another project offering a reflection on time, this time through the use of video. Baas created clocks that mark the passage of time with videos of actions representing it, like the faded face of a man drawing the clock hands, men moving piles of rubbish in the shape of a clock’s minute and hour hand; or the appearance and disappearance of the sections of digital numbers to indicate the correct time. Real Time was also the starting point of Baas’ presentation at the 2010 Salone del Mobile in Milan, where the project was transformed into $ 0,99 (€ 0,75) iPhone application. Baas has changed the rules of the game by transforming into a mass product what was originally designed to be unique. He did so by renting and living for a week in an apartment and hanging an iPhone playing the Real Time video on the front door. He also displayed Shell (a protean sculpture made in steel, wood and copper finishings, for which he was nominated Designer of the Year at the 2009 Design Miami) in the window of an art gallery, next to the apartment and looking out onto the street. The trick is there and you can see it, but this is not the point. The continuous overthrowing of the rules, the free and easy approach, the need to underline that ideas and projects come out naturally and, at the same time, that he couldn’t really care less, are all questionable aspects of his work, that all the same remains an occasion to reflect on the world we live in. Like a wise farmer, Baas looks at consumer society as if it were a Schrebergarten: a portion of the world where you can plant or place whatever you like, from lettuce to garden gnomes.

Maarten Baas, <em>Analog Digital Clock</em> (iPhone application), 2010.

Maarten Baas, Analog Digital Clock (iPhone application), 2010. Photo & courtesy: Studio Maarten Baas.

What about talking about design?

The only times I talk about design is in interviews. I think that talking too much about design and looking for hidden meanings in it is not for me. Design, in my vision, should be something like music: it’s either good or not good. You can talk about music of course, but talking about it doesn’t really hit the spot, right? I feel that with design there should simply be an instant click. And that’s why I am sometimes quite reluctant to talk about design, as if people had no idea and there were something that needed to be explained. I chose to do the Real Time apartment presentation not because I wanted to talk about design, but because what I needed in Milan was a place to stay – hotels are so aseptic and stylish in this city. What I liked about the apartment was that I had a non-design space and just left it the way it was. Every time I am in Milan I think that it’s more important to have a place to sit down in and have a drink, rather than having an exhibition. This year in particular I didn’t want to come up with a new collection. I wanted to develop things that I had already presented. It’s a pity designers are regularly pushed to do something new year after year, this makes the general quality go down: nobody improves their design, because they have to constantly come up with new ideas. I thought that I wanted to see what I had and develop that, rather than the next thing. So, for instance, I made another Smoke Chair for Moooi, and for Skitsch I realized a product that I designed when I was a student (Knuckle, the candleholder for different sized candles, ed). And in Milan, in the apartment I rented, there was the Real Time project on iPhone. I wanted to have the application on the iPhone last year too, but that wasn’t possible because it was quite complicated: but I made it this year. And this is the only product I showed at the Salone: a rented apartment with an iPhone on the entrance door.

How does the Real Time iPhone application work? Is downloading the video for $ 0,99 all I have to do?

Yes, and you get the video of the digital clock. I like the iPhone solution the most, because its typical digital clock layout perfectly fits the device. It really makes sense to have Real Time as an application. When I was working on the project I was thinking of putting it on an even smaller screen, but it was very difficult to find one or to have a suitable one made. iPhone has really always been the ideal medium to get this done. So that’s why I finally did it.

The Real Time project questions time as a concept. Where does the project come from?

I’ve always worked very intuitively and so it is never a matter of me thinking about what kind of object – and in this case what kind of clock – I should make. I look around, explore things that could be interesting for me to develop and the work comes out unconsciously. In Real Time however, there are some layers. For instance, what I like about Real Time are the wipers that go on cleaning forever and ever, all the time. It’s very difficult to say where my work starts. And that’s the reason why I come out with a very unconventional way of working. No one has ever asked me to design a clock, but if someone should ask me to design a clock, I would develop something completely different. Since I am not interested in having boundaries, I keep everything open and came up with a clock to look at like a video. Like Grandfather Clock for instance: I was thinking about how to make a clock with a man inside it and, step by step, I accomplished this project with an actual man inside.

You studied in one of the most radical design schools in the world, the Design Academy Eindhoven, at that time directed by Li Edelkoort. Why did you become a designer? Can you tell me something about your background and how you entered the design world?

I decided to go to the Design Academy when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. I knew I wanted to do something creative – like photography or video works –, but when I discovered the profession of designer I said: “Hey, that could be my job!” The Academy was a hard period for me.

How long does the Academy last?

Officially four years, but it took me six years because I failed many times. I was a very bad student. I also went to the Politecnico in Milan for several months. It was a tough time. I went to the Politecnico because I wanted to refresh my brain: I was too immersed in my work, and in Milan I had the chance to open my mind and look around. After I came back, I started the Smoke series, the work with which I graduated and that brought out my identity.

Maarten Baas, <em>Analog Digital Clock</em> (poster), 2010.

Maarten Baas, Analog Digital Clock (poster), 2010. Courtesy: Studio Maarten Baas.

Did you meet someone in Milan that influenced you particularly or that you like to consider as a teacher?

Not in that period. I later met Fabio Novembre who became a friend of mine. But what struck me at the time was the different approach to design. An opposite approach if compared to that of the Design Academy.

Why opposite?

The whole way of teaching was totally different. At the Academy there’s just ten students around a table. Everything is very casual. There’s a teacher showing the work and manipulating tools and materials. In Milan there are classes with thirty students, and who does the speaking is highly focused on theory and talk issues.

You have been showing in fairs and design galleries since 2002. To what extent has this influenced the way you present your body of work?

It stimulates me to try and ignore the external rules. Opening the door of a private apartment like I did this year is something – as far as I know – that no other designer has ever done before. In any case, I see fairs and the Salone del Mobile in Milan as a kind of playground. I feel that now many people already know my work and my past presentations from previous years, so that allows me to build on my work by just showing a private view of it. In the past editions, at the beginning of my career, I was more “standard” and I used to show my research in a more traditional way: in white spaces with furniture and objects exhibited as if they were on a stage or in a shop. I mean: I could have done something like what you saw here in the previous years, but everyone would have said: “What the hell is he doing!?”
Now that people know my work and the fact that I am always pushing and changing the conventions, I like to play with these elements and try to stretch the border of design. And stretching the border of design means exposing myself and my work to people saying I am not a designer, that I am behaving like an artist and that I take on these positions to see how far I can go. The point for me is not to design a chair that is a functional chair, or a clock that measures time. I approach objects that have a functional aspect with as much freedom as possible in order to let my work be as open as possible.

You mentioned the Smoke series and I would like you to say more about your vision of the future through design. Looking at your body of works, one would first wonder what is your idea of future and its commitments with the past. The Smoke series, with which you established your career, is about burning iconic design pieces by the Campana brothers, Rietveld, Eames and Gaudí. With this work you became part of the same history they belong to by turning objects of industrial design into limited pieces: could you please say a few words about this project?

Well, it’s a good metaphor to see it. It’s like I said about the clock. I never work in terms of network or in terms of historical perspective. I don’t think about history as a starting point. I always do what I think is right and good for that moment. But to some extent it’s true that the history of the past does unconsciously seep into my work. When I started in 2002, after I graduated, the burning theme was an obvious choice for me, and I just thought it was the right moment to do it. However, I never thought of it in a line, as a way of creating an empty space to go on. The funny thing is that after a few years I created the Clay Furniture series. And if you see it in a line, you can perceive Clay Furniture as a kind of fresh, new, young and naïve path. Clay Furniture, in a way, is something that grew out of a burnt land made more fertile by fire. But this has never been a conscious process. But I like the effect. I like the fact that if you look back at these steps, you see a line, a kind of sequence.

The future you evoke with your design is closer to the world of the Flintstones than to a science fiction scenario: a sort of Dystopia rather than an Utopia. And I am thinking about the Clay Furniture series or the Hey, chair… pieces: how much irony is there in your way of looking at an everyday object?

In the end all my projects are a kind of extension of myself. And there’s a lot of fun and irony in my work. I cannot resist making fun of it. That’s what I did this year with the apartment and the iPhone.

Maarten Baas, Where there’s smoke - Children Chair Vintage, 2002.

Maarten Baas, Where there’s smoke – Children Chair Vintage, 2002. Photo: Maarten van Houten. Courtesy: Studio Maarten Baas and Moss Gallery, New York.

You play in between the world of art, which entails the concept of limited edition, and the world of design: you have never produced something in series…

Yes, quite true. Apart from the iPhone application of course!

You’re right. The iPhone Real Time application is your first authentic mass product…

A mass product, right! That’s what I like about it. And again there’s a lot of irony in it because people say: “Oh, your work is so inaccessible, it belongs just to an élite.” And my reply to that is a $ 0,99 product. I mean, I like to mess it up. I like to bring out things that are not in line with what I am supposed to do. I can even imagine that there are collectors that saying: “Oh man! I thought that Real Time was an art object and now you can get it on iPhone.” But I like to kick those asses too, right?! So yes, irony is definitely an issue in my work.

In recent times we are facing a kind of return to the past, searching for a new artisan process that can bring value to modern production: how does your work frame this attitude? What I find fascinating, and at the same time controversial in your work, is the radical way you adopt the readymade gesture with no limitations, and the way you push it through with no regrets. I feel that by doing so you’re ironically referring to the political aspects of Marcel Duchamp’s practice or, at large, to the Dada culture. Am I going too far?

I’ve always made things the way and with the material I thought was right. In terms of materials and technique, I choose everything in the perspective of making a good work. For the Clay Furniture, for instance, what was an important element for me was to make the objects by hand: as they are really made of clay, it wouldn’t make any sense to create a mould and have twenty copies of the same chair, for instance. As they are really made of clay you need to make them by hand, one by one. But I’ve never really planned to have a high or low product. Actually, the fact that I made a lot of limited edition things is not because limited edition is my goal, but because I want to make products that are as beautiful as I can. This is why they turn out to be expensive products in limited edition. However, what I like of my latest product, the Real Time on iPhone, is that it is a mass product that maintains the same quality it would have if it were in a limited edition. The reason why I don’t usually go for mass production is that I don’t want to make concessions on the product. I want to make products that are exactly as they should be. But then, if you can have a product 100% as it should be and still have a million copies of it, I am fine with that too. So I’ve never really made a point of “now I am going to make a mass product,” or “now I am going to make stuff like this or like that.” It totally depends on whatever I want to do from time to time.

Your studio, that you started in 2005 in collaboration with Bas den Herder, has grown in parallel with the scale of your projects. Has it become a factory with many employees, or is it a small scale office mainly focused on sketching ideas that then others finalize? How do you work?

Well, it changes. And it depends on the project, as we mostly work with freelance. But we are about ten people.

Do you draw?

Yes, sometimes I do very quick sketches just to explain how the shape should be. But it’s mostly to give the starting point and then the studio takes it over. And I am always there to guide it. I am always in the studio, but I never make a final design. I am always guiding the process, with all the problems linked to it. This is basically how we work. We follow the process step by step and adjust it as things proceed.

Maarten Baas, Where there’s smoke - Thonet, 2002.

Maarten Baas, Where there’s smoke – Thonet, 2002. Photo: Maarten van Houten. Courtesy: Studio Maarten Baas and Moss Gallery, New York.

After the Smoke series, you came across a series of leading design galleries, Murray Moss and Established & Sons, who gave you the opportunity to develop your research as a pure artist: organizing solo shows, producing limited editions of your works, publishing books and representing you at fairs and in gallery shops. And recently, in 2008, you started a collaboration with Contrasts Gallery, in Shanghai. How and to what extent have these relationships changed your production process?

I started working with Moss in New York, in 2004, with a solo show of the Smoke series. Moss is the most important gallery I’ve worked with and they’ve always been very helpful and supportive with me. With Contrasts it was an important collaboration. They asked me to use their techniques. Pearl Lam, founder of Contrasts, invited me to make products with Chinese producers. Basically the idea was to improve their traditional techniques that they could not push any further. So they asked new western designers to do something with their local practices. I chose to work with wood and to make a chair with local artists and artisans. Using wood I challenged woodcarvers from Shanghai to realize extraordinary works using their techniques and creating a cross-over between western design and the traditional Chinese techniques. This experience led to Chinese Objects Object (Camphorwood) and Plastic Chair in Wood (Elm wood).

The non interpretational attitude of your work, that resists being confined into a corner and is kept as open as possible, is another part of your performance-orientated approach to design. You will maybe trash this frame immediately, but I feel it’s a crucial aspect, that turns your research into something playing diabolically with the blurring difference between art and design. Are you familiar with people of the art world that you feel relevant for your life? I said life because I feel your sensibility mainly relates to visual arts and, in a way, artistic process is something dealing with art and life.

Yes, a kind of… I have a couple of Dutch artists in my studio. But in general, I believe that when you think of an artist you think of someone making paintings, sculptures or installations. But even someone who works as a plumber can be considered an artist in his way of living his life. One of my best friends has a kind of artist’s approach to life, but he has never made an art piece. He lives in the mountains and manages a refuge overlooking ski runs… So this kind of people are not artists in a traditional way, but nonetheless are very influential in my life in terms of how I make the objects I design. So, I wouldn’t talk about an influence by proper artists but rather by people that have free minds. Like my sister for example, to whom I am very close: she practices holistic massage and is very much into the spiritual world. She is not someone you could define as an artist but she definitely is a very open minded person.

Maarten Baas, Where there’s smoke - Favela, 2002.

Maarten Baas, Where there’s smoke – Favela, 2002. Photo: Maarten van Houten. Courtesy: Studio Maarten Baas and Moss Gallery, New York.

There are masters of art that are not trained as artists and that’s sometimes how a successful story begins: just think of Richard Serra, for example. In relation to what Dan Graham calls “Oldenburg’s (and other Pop artists’) reduction of fine art to quasifunctional (or non functional) décor [that] appears also in the early work of Minimal artist Dan Flavin,” I believe we could affirm that your work expresses a sort of tension towards what is considered a ruin or modernist debris. I am thinking not only about your works, but also about your use of language and graphic fonts. I think these features fit in what is quite a trend in design nowadays, that of a search for a new artisan process that can bring value to modern times in a sort of return to the past. In particular, I refer to the titles of your works (often sorts of puns that echo poems and literature), to the cartoony font in your website and to the signature you stamp on your pieces. Why did you chose these elements?

Because I liked them. And actually, what happened was that while making the website I realized that I had never worked with the computer. I have of course used the computer as a tool, but I had never thought of designing for the computer itself. And not because I am against computers, it just was something I had never thought of. So while working on the website, out of my mind comes the idea that I like to cut out letters; so we cut them out, took pictures of them and used them for the font. It’s a sort of high tech thing, but I like the fact that it’s so manual. Even the way I design is manual, as I am not able to use any 3D program. Nowadays every designer works in 3D maps, but I don’t know how to do it. It isn’t a conscious choice to work in this way, but it has always been a very obvious choice to create things the way I like them and to see how I can put them into a technological world. Of course, I am aware that there are other websites of the same kind, but mine is not a reaction to something. It’s just that I think how easy it could be cutting out letters and proceeding in this way, but then in the end things always turn out to be very difficult to realize. However, the starting point is: “Hey, I like it!” That’s what happened with the clock: a simple idea to start with that becomes disastrous to realize. But you have to keep going and stick to the original plan.

Maarten Baas, Clay Furniture, 2006.

Maarten Baas, Clay Furniture, 2006. Photo: Maarten van Houten. Courtesy: Studio Maarten Baas.

Do you have a daily routine or any rituals in the office?

Nine o’clock. I mean, we are very nine to five. Every morning we are there at nine. We have a coffee and then the day starts. The rest of the day is never the same because we always work with different teams. We need one moment in the morning to see each other and know who’s in the house. But this is really the only ritual we have.

How was your experience in Miami where you presented the Shell project and were nominated Designer of the Year?

I am still very proud of it and it definitely was a great experience. It was a very nice moment for me because I did so much work in the last years. I bought a new studio (which is a farm), for example. Many things were happening at the time and Miami was the peak of everything that could happen. This appreciation was to me a way of looking back at my work – something I had never done before – and understanding what kind of job we had done during these few years. I was prepared to face a skeptical audience because of my age, but things didn’t go that way and nobody questioned the kind of work that won the prize.

This is maybe also linked to the fact that Miami is a city where there is a sort of natural coexistence between ugliness and beauty. This is true for many cities, but for Miami in particular, I believe. There’s an excess of both. Is the perception of beauty an issue in your work?

Yes. That’s one of the main issues I work with: what is beautiful and why do we consider it to be so. This also refers to the question of why we have to explain what beauty is instead of enjoying it without words. I am very interested in all these kind of things. Smoke was a way of reacting to these issues: why do we want to keep everything we have? Why do we say: “That’s the most beautiful thing, ever”? In nature everything changes, so why can’t we accept change in our piece of furniture or in whatever object we have, and want things to remain as they are? Even Clay Furniture is about the reception of beauty. People always call it “imperfect design,” but it depends on what you consider imperfect. So yes, questioning beauty is totally a recurrent issue in my work.

Which is again a matter of “real time.”

Oh yes.

Maarten Baas, Chinese Objects Object, 2008.

Maarten Baas, Chinese Objects Object, 2008. Courtesy: Contrasts Gallery, Shanghai.

Maarten Baas, Hey, chair, be a bookshelf, 2005.

Maarten Baas, Hey, chair, be a bookshelf, 2005. Photo: Maarten van Houten. Courtesy: Studio Maarten Baas.

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