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“I like to play“

Designer Maarten Baas changes how we look at ephemerality with artistic objects. In an interview with On Display, he discusses time, aesthetic ideals and the importance of doubt.

ON DISPLAY: Maarten Baas, it wasn’t easy to get in touch with you. Now we’re sitting together on a small farm near ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. It seems you like to withdraw.

MAARTEN BAAS: Indeed, I like to be a bit remote from the outside world and not be too imbedded. I don’t want to be pushed by external forces, like expectations from the market or working with 100 employees. If there is no work or a next project, then I shouldn’t force it. I should just sit and wait to see what happens. I surf on the waves of time and let them carry me. Sometimes action is needed, sometimes it is necessary to wait, until I can be productive again.

© Iris Duvekot

OD: Time is an important aspect in your work.

MB: Yes, because it’s not only that I design clocks, which obviously have to do with time, so I’m literally making timepieces. They show us the time that we use during our lifetime. The way I work and the way I plan my life and my career is also very much about time and timing. But not all my work is actually about time—time is just one layer over it. The essence of my work is more about asking questions and doubting.

© Iris Duvekot

OD: In the Smoke series, temporality is, however, just one element, right?

MB: In the beginning, Smoke was about questioning beauty and human values. But it is also about time: If you buy something new, you don’t want it to show that time has passed by. It should look new for the rest of its lifetime, we don’t want to have scratches on it. But real beauty is about constant change—that is why we enjoy nature so much. With Smoke, I thought, okay, let’s play with this idea. Let’s see where I can find a balance between duration and change.

© Iris Duvekot

OD: For the Smoke series, you also turned to classic designs. Was there a theoretical background in your approach?

MB: It was rather intuitive. But I believe that any intuition is grounded in your theoretical knowledge and your practical know-how; they are the context, in which your intuition makes choices. Sometimes I can explain why I made something only after making it.

OD: To burn a design icon could be an act of concealing, but also an act of liberation. What was your intention?

MB: Yes, it can be a kind of relief by saying: We can also accept it after it’s burned. The energy that comes from it gives you a certain fuel to move forward.

© Iris Duvekot

OD: Can you tell us a little bit about Smoke’s production process?

MB: To be honest, I’m not keen on focusing too much on the making of it. For some designers that is very relevant, especially if they work with experimental material or craftsmanship. But for me it’s the other way around: The craftsmanship follows the end result. My way of working is that I want to have a certain end result, and therefore I need the craftsmanship to make it. Therefore it should not be the focus.

© Iris Duvekot

OD: But on the Internet we can find a making-of video, in which you explain and perform how to make a Smoke chair. Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction?

MB: Well, I called my current exhibition in Groningen Hide and Seek, and that’s not totally a coincidence. I want to shake up certain expectations. Like once you can pinpoint what something is, then it has an expectation; like a line it should be following. I don’t want to be pinpointed, and I think also the essence of what I am doing, and what any artist should do, is to not limit the work to simply meet expectations.

© Iris Duvekot

OD: Is your work still design or already art?

MB: I am confronted with that question many times, because I work in the verge of where one meets the other. I often answer: Oh, we can talk about it for hours—or not. People want to put you into boxes; I think that’s frustrating. But I sometimes like to play with it, like: Okay, if you want to put me in a box, then I shake it up a little bit and see what happens then. But finally I just keep on making what I make, and others can categorize it the way they want to categorize it.

© Iris Duvekot

OD: With your objects, are you hoping to move viewers or users to think?

MB: I hope to inspire people, and inspiration can take any form. I don’t have the illusion that once I make one statement that I significantly change things, but I do think that it inspires people to make new steps and to go forward. Everybody reads my work differently. I don’t want to give it a specific direction, because I am not an activist. I like to play. Yeah, that’s my way of doing it. And others can see what they want.

Born in 1978, Maarten Baas is a Dutch designer who explores the boundaries of his discipline with artistic means. Ever since he burned pieces of furniture for his diploma piece at the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2002, he’s garnered attention for this poetic, radical Smoke series.
The interview was conducted by Friedrich von Borries.