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By Gabrielle Kennedy

Students were treated to a behind-the-scenes romp through alumnus Maarten Baas’ career last Tuesday night in a packed–out auditorium.  The talk moved beyond a power-point presentation of photo-shopped perfection to a sensitive confession of not always knowing what to do.

Baas, who also teaches first year DAE Contextual Design Masters students, has an oeuvre that is well known to most – check his website at Perhaps less well known is his unpretentious and comfortable take on what, why and how he designs.

Referring to both himself and his DAE students as “self-producing autonomous designers” Baas has mostly focused on limited edition pieces - which is possibly not the safest career ambition for today’s graduate.  But, as he stressed in his presentation, the future is about collaboration and in a way that makes space for all types and perspectives.

After graduating in 2002 with his “Smoke Furniture” Baas went on to use the same technique on iconic designs and even earned access to museum archives to apply his concept to collection pieces.  Groningen Museum, for example, even bought the pieces back as new collections.

“My statement was never about smoke,” Baas says.  “It was about beauty.  Beauty is something you want to keep and not change, but if you look at real beauty it is always in flux, it is always changing like in nature.  Usually nobody wants to interfere with design icons, but the ultimate thing is to touch something that you feel that you shouldn’t.”

It was after the success of the smoke series that Baas found himself at a bit of a loss as to how to develop, or make his next move.   He felt vulnerable.

“I was nervous,” he admits.  “I wanted to move forward, but felt so bound to these pieces.”

Alone on his farm thirty kilometers outside Eindhoven, Baas went deeper into what and why he was designing.  “I started to really focus on my attraction to irrationality,” he says.  “Even thinking back to my student days, irrationality had always worked as a sort of light motif.”

Rationality: 1.The quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic.1.1 The quality of being able to think sensibly or logically. (Oxford English Dictionary)

“For me rationality loses a kind of spontaneity and intuition,” Baas says.  “It is the result if being trained to think a lot about what is right and what is wrong.”

But if you remove that, and indulge in a more naïve way of thinking the results can be equally valid.  “Of course at a school like Design Academy Eindhoven this is not always possible,” Baas points out ironically.  “You are under such pressure to be constantly producing and defending your work.  You always need to talk about why you take every decision.”

Still, it was within the academy that Baas first started experimenting with a sort of embrace of naivity.  He was told by his teachers to design an object that functioned as a different object.  “I did a knuckle that worked as a candlestick, a chair that worked as book shelf,” he says.

“And to be really honest, when I first started making furniture from clay, it was nothing more than just that,” Baas says.  “If I had had a tutor asking more about why clay, all I could say was that it was just about making furniture from clay.  Nothing more.”

And even without savvy reasoning, “Clay Furniture” became a critical success.  From there, Baas was on a roll.  He moved onto his iconic collection of faux-analogue clocks “Real Time”, which now appear in Schiphol Airport and the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam.  The clocks work using twelve hour films that manipulate and reveal the time minute by minute.

Next came a period of relative quiet. Always the Milan stalwart, Baas skipped the important furniture fair and worked off the radar for a few years before bouncing back with the “Baas is in Town” exhibition – a circus environment that both celebrates and criticizes design’s  best and worst characteristics.

“In this exhibition I really explored the irrationality versus spontaneity idea,” says Baas.  “Milan Design Week can be such a circus in so far as everything that makes sounds or shines will get attention.  It is all about having an effect on an audience, which is exactly the opposite of having a more critical eye with solid reasoning.”

Even now Baas feels himself working in between these two extremes.  Perhaps most poignantly expressed by the neon SHOW sign in the “Baas is in Town” exhibition.  The S was broken and flickered on and off turning the message into Show / How.  “Which is where I think I position myself as a designer,” he says.

“I am always doubting though,” Baas continues. “I never know for sure exactly what to do, but artists and designers never know what they are going to make.  If they did, there would be no point in making it.  But I think the one thing at this stage of my career that I am sure about is the importance of spontaneity.  I like to work from a quick sketch.  These always have details that get lost in the production process, in the push for functionality, and in marketing.  There are so many reasons why the initial beauty of an early sketch gets lost.”

For his most recent collection “Close Parity” - a series of massive bronze furniture objects that use counter-weights to function - Baas wanted to force this in an extreme way.  He started with a series of sketches that made almost no sense, or at least seemed physically impossible - they defy gravity, look uneven, or like the are about to topple over.

“The rational mind will think that the pieces can’t stand up,” Baas says.   “It was a challenge to make it all work, to engineer the objects so that they would stay standing.  To me this work represents the ultimate stretch between what is possible in a little doodle and a real scale bronze model.”

For his 2017 “May I Have Your Attention Please” exhibition in Milan, a series of related chairs with irregular forms were presented.   

“Technically it is so difficult to do this,” Baas says, “because the whole industrial system is set up to make everything the same.  It is almost impossible in industry to make every piece unique.”   

On both his own and the discipline’s future, Baas remains optimistic.  “Design really has changed,” he says.  “Now I see it more as a platform where a lot of things can come together.  It is no longer about the next chair or lamp, but rather an opportunity for collaboration between people with ideas, suppliers, and communicators. I no longer want to separate design from art, literature or poetry. Design isn’t any one thing - it is everything at the same time.”

Published: 16-May-2017 13:11


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  • May I Have Your Attention Please

    Maarten Baas

  • May I Have Your Attention Please

    Smoke Furniture © Frank Tielemans

  • May I Have Your Attention Please

    ancestor Hey chair ©Monica Ragazzini

  • May I Have Your Attention Please

    Clay Dining Chair © Maarten Baas

  • May I Have Your Attention Please

    REAL TIME © Tielemans

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