Smoke

The surfaces of most products we buy are smooth, shiny, and often sensitive. Signs of age serve to decrease rather than increase their value. These seemingly perfect surfaces are symptoms of our society’s growing preference for the new over the old. Aging is viewed
as a negative process.

Designer Maarten Baas has a completely different understanding of ephemerality. He finds new things boring and generic, and believes something special only emerges after an object has been used and signs of age have appeared. So, in 2002, Baas began experimenting with traces of aging. He first developed variousscratching and rubbing techniques to strip objects of their unused aura. He observed how his perception of these objects changed through this process.

These experiments ultimately led him to a brutal technique: treating the surfaces of wooden furniture with fire. His aim was to change the external appearance of the furniture, not to destroy it. Initially he used fire on second-hand furniture from flea markets, but he went one step further in 2004 and set his torch to iconic design objects. Perfect museum pieces were transformed into jet-black objects with porous surfaces which appeared fragile, although he varnished them with epoxy resin after scorching them to ensure they remained usable.


Gerrit Rietveld designed the Zig-Zag chair in 1932. © Vitra Design Museum; Photographer: Hans Jürgen, objektfotograf.ch © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

One object he pulled out of its museal context is Gerrit Rietveld’s famous Zig-Zag chair. Born in Utrecht in 1888, Rietveld was a member of the art collective De Stijl after 1919. This group, founded in the Netherlands, devoted itself to an aesthetic-cultural revolution comparable to the Constructivists in Russia and Bauhaus in Germany. They wanted to change society through formal abstraction, with the universal replacing the individual. They had strict design guidelines, which were intended to allow them to manufacture everyday objects on an industrial scale and sell them at affordable prices.


Maarten Baas modified the chair's surface with fire. © Bas Princen

Following from these visions, the Zig-Zag chair, created in 1932, was originally meant to be formed from a single piece of wood. However, wood’s material properties made it impossible to shape it so radically. Rietveld had to settle for building the chair from four separate wooden boards, held together by triangular wedges, dovetail joints, and brass bolts. But this solution couldn’t be realized on an industrial scale, nor was it affordable.


The scorched Zig-Zag chair is part of Maarten Baas's Smoke series. © Maarten van Houten

The Zig-Zag chair’s societal aims were gradually forgotten. The chair has been produced in expensive cherry wood or ash by the luxury furniture manufacturer Cassina since 1973. Today, it’s an object owned by affluent design lovers, rather than serving as a symbol of a cultural revolution.

When Baas torched this classic design object in 2004, his destruction of its outer shell created much more than a new look for the chair. He draws attention to the vulnerability of the chair’s surface, but also to how its original design aims had been abandoned over time.

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The design community reacted in different ways. Many praised the young designer’s radical act, but Baas’s “disrespectful” treatment of his venerable predecessors also provoked outrage. The emotional response to his design performance reflects our society’s difficulty in dealing with the question of change. Baas doesn’t see himself as a problem solver. Rather, he works as an artist, attempting to change our perceptions with aesthetic tools. So Baas’s burnt versions of design classics like the Zig-Zag chair are an appeal for a more relaxed relationship to the transient nature of things. After all, change is also a force for progress: Room for the new emerges only after the old has been cleared away.

Friedrich von Borries, born in 1974, is an architect. He teaches Design Theory at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg and runs the Projektbüro Friedrich von Borries in Berlin. The relationship between design and social development lies at the heart of his work, which exists in the border zone between urban planning, architecture, design, and art. “As scholars, we try to understand the world. As designers, we try to change it.”