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Gijs Bakker Retires From Teaching

This month Gijs Bakker - after 25 years with the Design Academy Eindhoven – announced his retirement from the school and his current position as Head of the Master’s programme.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 19-07-2012

Gijs Bakker – already hugely successful as one of Europe’s top jewellery designers – brought more than just skill and success (as the co-founder of Droog) to the academy.  He is the quintessential Renaissance man.

“He is properly cultured,” says designer Joost Grootens who worked under Bakker in the Master’s programme.  “He knows about art, classical music, the latest writing and dance.  Despite his age, he was always relevant and kept abreast of cultural movements.”

Former student Joris Laarman was also touched by Bakker’s character.  “Gijs always looked at the person,” he says. “A student should not be arrogant, nor bad mannered, and if you made a chair on which Gijs couldn’t sit, it wasn’t a chair at all.”

These personal traits came through in the way Bakker probed his students. As a teacher he was admired and sometimes feared for his unwavering commitment to an investigative and conceptual approach to design.  

“A work could look stunning but if it didn’t have a proper concept, the student would have to start again,” says Laarman.  “I guess the most valuable thing I learned from him was that functional objects could become powerful containers of information, transcending beyond their simple presence. Also, useful objects could be like poems. This is still very important in the work I make today.”

Bakker’s expectations were always unapologetically high – students had to produce intelligent and authentic work.  He didn’t want just objects, but work and research that showed the way design sat within a broader political, social, cultural and economic climate.

All the DAE tutors and mentors we spoke with over the past week about Bakker praised not only his intuition, but his uncanny ability to put together the right team.   

“He was very good at stimulating people and putting people together,” says Bart Guldemond, architectonic designer and DAE teacher.  “I think it was the most important thing about working with him because in an art school trust between colleagues is paramount.  You also need a common idea about what you are doing and we had that.  It is what I admired most about him”

“He had a remarkable way of assembling a group of tutors,” adds artist and teacher Barbara Visser.  “Often I wondered why he put certain people together, but then it always turned out well and the chemistry just worked.  I marveled at how he did that.”

Grootens agrees.  “He was always about building an interesting team.  I was an architect doing graphic design but he saw where I could fit.  He wanted people coming at design with different backgrounds, different ideas, different approaches.  He never wanted role models for students to copy.  He wanted students to think for themselves.  He wanted them to learn how to question things and to challenge the concept, the material, the beauty or the functionality of things.”

And once he had his team, Bakker gave them absolute trust.  “This gave us all fuel and space to fill in the gaps with our own ideas,” says jewellery colleague and former DAE mentor Ted Noten.  “And especially in a Master’s programme you need to stay playful so students can better search for their own identity.”

Such exacting demands, however, could also make Bakker quite scary.

 “When we first started with Droog I told Jurgen [Bey] he had to deal with Gijs,” Rianne Makkink admits.  “I was terrified of him … but since working with him more closely at the Design Academy I have come to understand and respect him enormously.  He has an incredible way of thinking.”

“It is true that he can be very critical and sharp,” says Guldemond.  “People were afraid of his comments, but they all knew that when he gave praise he meant it and that was worth working for.”

“Many students fear and love his directness,” adds Visser.  “He can say true and simple things like 'It may be highly intelligent, but why then is it so ugly? I can't bear the look of it.’”

“I think he was scary because he was always fully involved in an idea,” says Grootens.  “Any student could convince him as long as they had thought through their idea completely, but if they hadn’t then he could be harsh.  He hated assumptions, stylish tricks … they are the worst mistakes you can make according to Gijs.”

But the flip side was that when Bakker liked something, his reaction reverberated throughout the corridors.  “I remember giving presentations that ended in an ecstatic rush,” says Laarmans.  “Everyone in the building knew that something great had been made. Gijs and the teachers where always good at expressing their enthusiasm in a way that let the world know.”

Other alumni were equally full of compliments.  “We chose Eindhoven in part due to Bakker and what we knew about Dutch design from Milan,” Simone Farresin of the duo Formafantasma says.

Without Bakker’s flexibility the design sensation might never have been accepted to the school.  “Officially you can not apply together,” says Farresin, “so we issued two identical portfolios bound together.  They had to break it in half to see it as two separate things.  The message was that we are a team and wanted to be accepted into the school as a team.  Gijs understood and accepted that. He trusted us and gave us the possibility.”

Colleagues also speak highly of the way Bakker dealt with differences of opinion; the way he never held a grudge, but embraced disagreement intellectually.  “He was firm and not easy to convince, but he was very open to other opinions,” says Visser.  “He rarely changed his own mind, but nor did he want to surround himself with people who all thought the same.”

“He valued a challenge,” admits Grootens.  “He always acknowledged that differences of opinion were important, which was great because in art school people are too often the same – they dress the same, they think the same.  He never wanted that.”

But this wouldn’t be Dutch design if there wasn’t at least some critical angle.  “I would love to thank him for his intense contribution to Dutch design and of course as a jewellery man,” says Noten.  “The biggest problem with Gijs is that I never found him drunk in the gutter.”

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