Amsterdam-based Gijs Bakker is a globally renowned designer of everything from jewellery and furniture, to household appliances. He’s also the co-founder of the Droog design collective and artistic director of the Taiwan-based HAN Gallery. Bakker’s work is thoughtful and playful, and he knows there’s a whole lot more to a good piece of design than meets the eye.
Ahead of Parallels: Journeys into Contemporary Making, a two-day design and craft love-in at which makers from over the world will converge to talk about the future of design, we catch up with Bakker to ask: why should we talk about design?
Broadsheet: There’s an old phrase that goes: "writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Do you think the same might be said about talking about design?
Gijs Bakker: Could be. But all of my life is thinking and talking about design, so for me, life is constant dancing.
BS: What's there to talk about with such a practical discipline?
GB: It’s not really practical for me. It’s a way of thinking and a way of observing, and a way of looking at objects. It infects all of my life. It started as a child. The only thing I was good at was creating things from clay and drawing. In the late ’50s, I was at art school in Amsterdam. I was 17 years old and going to art school. Can you imagine? I wasn’t from a well-educated family, and was un-cultured. We had to make a choice between different disciplines – fashion, graphics, interior architecture, ceramics … and I ended up with jewellery. But I had no understanding of it. We had to design a ring, but I didn’t really know what a ring was, in that I’d never thought about it as something that had a meaning. From there I realised that what we see as a ring is just a little circular thing for your finger with a little fancy thing on top. So I thought, is this all it is? Or could it be more? That opened my brain. Now when I start a new project, I ask: what is it? Is it necessary? Are we waiting for it? Does it say something about life? And it all started when I designed that ring. And that process is quite contrary to typical industrial design, where the marketing department gives you a clear brief, factoring in design limitations and industrial concerns, and the designer just fills in the gaps.
BS: So most designers don’t have that luxury of thinking in an abstract, artistically driven way…
GB: Well, it’s not a luxury. It’s a luxury to have constant employment. Being freelance and fighting to making a living is no luxury.
BS: Your design work emphasises meaning over aesthetics. What kind of meaning can something like jewellery have?
GB: It can have many kinds of meanings. One of my most recent works is called Plastic Soup, and it’s dealing with global identity and waste. I read an article about the “soup” of plastic waste in the ocean. The plastic straw is one of the most common items in that soup, and it’s a common item that everybody uses. So I used plastic straws, melted together, and coated with gold, to make an item of jewellery. It’s elegant, but look closer and it’s made from plastic straws. The audience then asks, “Why?” And that’s enough. It’s enough to pose a kind of riddle.
BS: A big part of the Parallels program is about the handmade in the age of globalisation. Why are people still interested in handmade?
GB: I hate the idea of the romanticism of the handmade. It’s a false sentiment. On the other hand, we live in a society where architecture and industrial products don’t express anything anymore. They’re clean, mostly white and smooth, and the feeling that they’re objects made by human beings has disappeared. But I don’t like to think that people are looking at my work and are only interested in thinking of my hands making it. That’s only looking at manual skill, not artistry.
The word “handmade” carries a notion of nostalgic longing … for an artist, that doesn’t work. When you have an idea, you need to be able to choose the best way to realise the idea. I recycle old objects, but I also use 3D printing. They’re all valid techniques. With every new technology I try to understand how best to use it, like paints for a painter.
Parallels: Journeys into Contemporary Making runs at NGV this Thursday and Friday. Bakker will be joined by dozens of other designers and craftspeople.