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Aldo Bakker Penetrates some of the Problems Confronting Dutch design

“I like to perceive of design as philosophy, but in three dimensions,” he says with an unexpected cameo performance from Marcel Wanders. “The populism gets too much and there is so much more going on than what you see in the magazines.”

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 09-04-2009

There is a saying in Dutch, “Doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg.” In essence it means don’t try too hard to be above or different from what’s deemed normal because normal is weird enough. It’s a mentality that infiltrates and informs almost everything Dutch, and one that goes a long way to understanding what has come to be known as Dutch design.

Doe normaal can lead to very well-thought-out, clear and sober design,” says Aldo Bakker whose “Porcelain Tableware” series will be exhibited this month in Milan. “But there is of course a negative side too. I think it is an approach that fails to show the real character of things. In a way it is a type of shy design, but that would imply something delicate, which it usually isn’t. Maybe it is best to describe it as fear ... an urge to tell only a very straightforward story in case anything more complicated isn’t understood.”

It’s not the approach Bakker himself takes. A firm believer in beauty, he has said that design too rooted in concept does not produce the best shapes. He has won accolades for his early furniture and work with glassware.

“To me, creation should be about beauty,” he says. “You need to be struck by something that makes you feel beyond what’s normal. I like to perceive of design as philosophy, but in three dimensions because, really, the populism gets too much. There is so much more going on than what you see in the magazines.”

At this point in the conversation the crowded terrace at the IJsbreker café in Amsterdam turns to face an almighty rev as it comes around the bend. It’s Marcel Wanders, dressed in requisite black suit, open neck white shirt and pearl. He cruises past the crowd in the Bisazza tiled automobile that he presented last year in Milan.

“Extraordinary,” Bakker says smiling.

Back on track, Bakker links Holland’s doe normaal to its Calvinistic roots. “The biggest problem is that at the moment, the sort of design this way of thinking is creating is just a style, and every style has a limit,” he says. “I think the limit has come and gone.”

Instead, Bakker aligns himself with the burgeoning and somewhat contentious label, autonomous design. Earlier this year, during Object Rotterdam, an exhibition which showcased the latest in autonomous design, a design debate focusing on Droog asked the speakers to comment on what autonomous design was. The stage stayed silent.

“I’m skeptical of design groups,” Bakker, who participated in the Object Rotterdam exhibition, begins cautiously. “I don’t think group mentality is good for design. I’d rather watch one designer experiment and grow than the results of a group effort.”

Autonomous design is a term used more in the art than design world. “It isn't really allowed in design because design is so confined by rules,” Bakker says. “A design has to have a function, which automatically puts the designer in a serving position.”

And a designer in a serving position is not playing an autonomous role.

“I treasure this phenomenon of autonomous design,” Bakker says. “It is crucial to reach new and original things.”

What this all points to of course is the old debate of whether or not design can be art. “My thinking and my products are somewhere in between,” Bakker says. “I don’t even dare to say if they are more art or design. I like to stretch the limits of function to the point where you start questioning and perhaps even developing new functions.”

On top of that, Bakker doesn't feel function can ever be very simply defined. “It depends on the context,” he says. “How we live, how we handle things …. If you look closely, function is very much covered in the field of art, which is where this debate gets interesting.”

The core of Bakkers’ most recent designs is an experiment in striking new balances between humans and the objects that surround them. And while every designer starts a project with a question about function, Bakkers is usually more philosophical.

“Creation is about finding a purpose to base your instinctive feelings in,” he says. “If a designer really takes the effort, I think he or she can come close to the complexity of a human being. By that I mean the product reaching its independence, breaking loose from any specific time period and assuming a position on earth alongside with humanity. We should somehow give expression to the fact that we add and change.”

Which all touches on the issue of what’s limiting contemporary Dutch design. Following instincts, giving basic feelings a place inside of things all run counter to the doe normaal mentality that drives the approach and style of what many top-name Dutch designers are creating today.

“I think when it gets scary, the Dutch don't do so well,” Bakker says. “When it comes to being really naked and confronting what we really feel. When you don’t do that then you are designing things that feel hollow, in a way, you are just designing pollution.”

“Porcelain Tableware” (distributed by Thomas Eyck) is a series Bakker started working on back in 2005 after jewelry artist, Dinie Besems, invited him to create a silver piece of any shape and function with the only stipulation that it be 10 x 10 cm. “I wanted to make one object that had no additional pieces, like a lid,” he says. “But at the same time it had to be able to take care of the oil.”

The result, a lyrical and fluid object that plays with the beauty created by the gloss oil leaves on silver received a positive but sober reaction. “Probably because it was so expensive,” Bakker says.

To extend his reach, Bakker decided to try the same shape plus some additional objects in porcelain, a material that he had always been interested in. “But it wasn’t until I met the right craftsman, the amazing Frans Ottink, who is producing the collection, from Amersfoort, that it really became possible.

The collection includes a salt cellar, oil and vinegar flasks, oil platter, milk jug and water carafe.

Aldo Bakker is the son of renowned designer Gijs Bakker and jewelry designer, Emmy van Leersum (1930 – 1984).

Images: by Erik & Petra Hesmerg

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