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Jewellery Must be Shamelessly Curious

His mind, his Princess and the crippling insecurity he felt after discovering that another artist was was working on the same idea as he was - Ted Noten opens a packet of cigarettes and settles down for an afternoon of conversation.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 13-05-2009

A necklace within a necklace - Princess, the dead mouse in a pearl necklace that catapulted Ted Noten to design fame, looks set to be reunited with her creator after thirteen years.

Last month documentary filmmaker Simone de Vries approached the enfant terrible of Dutch design about making a film on the piece. Two weeks later, by chance and via a New York art fair, princess’ location was traced.

Noten looks starry eyed at the prospect of once again seeing the dead mouse that launched his career as one of the Netherland’s most important and ground-breaking conceptual jewellery designers.

For Noten, Princess (who was the result of a commission to reinvent the pearl necklace) was the first time he had created something that successfully brought together everything he stood for as a designer. “She fused intuition, consciousness, form and function,” he says of the mouse. “I trusted myself and it just happened.”

His feelings for the marsupial run deep, but while Noten has always loved the paradox of Princess - that a woman wears jewels to get attention, but it is the dead mouse that attracts the compliments, not the wearer - his relationship with her was initially fraught with much angst.

Around the time that Noten started with the idea of casting dead animals in acrylic, on the other side of the North Sea, Damien Hirst was shooting to Rock-star fame with a similar idea.

“To be honest I went completely crazy,” says Noten when he first heard of Hirst’s work. “I was angry and screaming. Of course there are big differences - different scales, different materials. I cast in acrylic and he was using alcohol, his was more purely autonomous and I was making mine functional, but clearly there was something in our heads that must have been the same.

“Actually, I was really f***ed off,” he continues. “I was just, like, shit. He has a bigger network, a bigger platform and will obviously get all the attention and credit.

“Then I became paralyzed. For six months I did nothing until I decided to just get on with it. It was my idea … and funnily enough, the markets started to want more of what I was doing so I just kept with the idea until I got bored with it.”

Ted Noten’s base concern is his intuition. The son of a brick factory owner, it was always expected that he’d one day take over the company.

“But it just didn’t feel right,” he says lighting his first of many cigarettes with a blowtorch. “My intuition told me that the industry would soon collapse and five years later it did.”

As a teenager, Noten had never heard of design. “The word wasn’t even in my vocabulary,” he admits.

So instead of heading to any sort of fancy design academy, Noten finished school and took a plane to the United States where he hitchhiked from coast to coast. “With Jack Kerouac and LSD in my brains.”

It’s a past that goes somewhere to explaining his hybrid jewellery much of which parodies human vice with a twist of black humour. His studio in Oud West, Amsterdam, is jammed with knickknacks ranging from phalluses to antique i-macs, Barbie dolls and strips of fox fur.

Noten’s work is not the sort that comes packaged with neat and tidy concept descriptions and cleverly written anecdotes that drag the absurd back into the realms of reality. And while what he does might be described as typically Dutch, it always contains a deeper, more political element.

His latest work, “Haunted by Thirty Six Women” is inspired by a trip to the Hokusai museum in Tokyo. There, Noten first saw the Japanese wood-block artist’s “Thirty Six Views of Mt Fuji”, a series of images depicting the mountain during its different moods.

“What struck me was how delicate but strong his vision was,” Noten says of Hokusai. “He spent a lifetime inspired by Mt Fuji, but every view, every vision is different. I thought it would be great to work like that, but what would be my theme?”

Flipping through books, Noten was struck by the number of feminine archetypes. “The bitch, the girl-next-door, the suffragette,” he says.

After compiling lists of hundreds of different types, Noten started narrowing them down to 36. Then, he started on the task of subjectively interpreting his vision of each type.

First he makes a life-size sculptures of his idea using collected and existing objects – tires, rings, dolls, implements, pieces of fabric, tools. “It’s one hundred percent intuition,” he says. “I can’t even really explain the narrative.”

Next, he uses a 3D printing machine to scan the sculptures and print them in micro renditions that can be used as pieces of jewelry. “A laser moves through a liquid nylon material hardening just the designed shape,” he explains of the technique.

Still in the early stages of the project, Noten’s earliest works in the series have already been exhibited in Rotterdam and Amsterdam and will soon move to London. In the meantime, he is busy at work on the next types - the hysteric and the ball-breaker.

But before any of this design fame happened, Noten had to get back form the US and discover his passion. When he first got back, he worked at his father’s brick factory. “I guess it was then that I started to notice craft,” he says of the experience. “And making bricks really is beautiful - there is a rhythm to the production and each block is different …. The only thing I got really sick of was the other brick-layers. All they ever spoke about were Mercedes Benz cars.”

In search of more interesting colleagues to while away his days with, Noten ended up in a trainee nursing programme in a psychiatric hospital. “It was fascinating,” he says. “I hope nothing like that ever happens to me, but it was an extraordinary experience. It is obviously very creative when a person’s system doesn’t work in a normal way.”

After four years, however, Noten couldn’t take it anymore. “Strapping a human being down and giving them shots to calm their fits was really hard,” he says. “It was the one part of the job I found too much.”

So he left and traveled to Greece where he met a guy on a street making and selling jewellery. “The moment I saw him using his hands to create, something happened,” Noten says. “The guy noticed my fascination and offered to teach me how to do it. Three days later I was next to him on the street selling my first pieces of jewellery attached to pieces of velvet.”

After that, Noten returned to Holland and enrolled in the Academy for Applied Arts in Maastricht, where he stayed until he felt that his physical and mental skills were about evenly matched.

“I think that that was really important,” he says. “Most people have the ideas, the stuff in their head, but they start on computers and never really acquire the mechanical skills. I was lucky like that.” He later studied at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam.

A big believer in how the blueprint of youth fuels so much of one’s adult life, Noten relishes his later start and is known (and loved) for his generosity with students. “Whatever you do, there are always things that come back to you later as inspiration,” he says. “And my biggest advice to young people is to never worry about what they are doing now, it is the way that they are doing it that matters. When you are 18, you don’t need to know what you want to do because everything you do will generate new ways of looking at things.”

As tangible proof he points out one of his most celebrated pieces - the chopped up pieces of the Mercedes Benz car styled into individual decorative brooches. “It’s a very socialistic idea,” Noten, who now drives a Volvo, says. “Everyone has the right to own a Mercedes, or even just a part of one.”

It was the car project that landed him an association with Droog Design, an era that Noten talks about with obvious caution.

“I think there was a period when highly conceptual work was a trend,” he says. “But concepts have always been in my head. I have never consciously tried to feed into a trend. On the contrary, I’m afraid to even go to a museum for fear of losing my identity. It’s impossible to avoid being influenced by things that you see so I just never see too much.”

It wasn’t too far into his career that Noten’s biggest enemy, his mind, started to meddle with his progress. “Mostly I like my mind,” he says. “That part that is creative and has ideas and fantasies and hallucinations. What I don’t like is the doubting and the aesthetic decisions … Stuff like this,” he says pointing to a corner where his Amsterdam gallerist has spent twenty minutes trying to get a straight answer out of him regarding how an installation should be displayed in an upcoming London show: on a piece of white paper, or straight onto a bare wooden box.

“What do you think?” he asks rolling his eyes and lighting up yet another cigarette.

“I just like to follow my intuition,” he goes on to say. “It is always the truest way, but I think that is difficult in Western cultures. As a kid you have intuition, but once you hit school, you lose it. It's impossible to maintain in the type of society we live in.”

One of Noten’s more controversial designs was the pair of ingestible gold wedding rings. “They were a reaction against everyone saying that they were getting married, saying it was the most important day of their lives, but then choosing to express it in exactly the same way as everyone else,” he says. “It’s something that I just never understood.”

Aside from the obvious accusation that his point was a more sinister commentary on the shittier side of matrimony (Noten has never been married), the “rings”, he says, are more a kamikaze way of proving real dedication. “But the clients chickened out,” he admits. They never bought them and instead the Stedelijk Museum purchased the pair of gold nuggets for their own collection.

Not, however, before Noten gave them a test run. “Of course I had to try it out,” he laughs.

On Dutch design and how it has been branded, Noten thinks that what started as a huge advantage, soon started to work against the Netherlands. “It all became too gimmicky,” he says. “Too predictable and easy.

“I like designers who are not chasing after what people want,” he continues. “They are just doing their own thing.” That’s Noten’s own spin on the slippery Autonomous design issue that design.nl covered here and here.

“Now everyone is screaming about craft,” he concludes. “Two years ago it was all about the limited edition. I just ignore it all so in that sense I am not very commercial. I just make my pieces and at some stage start thinking that it would be great if someone wanted to buy them.”

Noten’s current solo exhibition in the Galerie Rob Koudijs runs until May 23rd.

Images: The Pig bracelet from the Haunted series, small from top - various works in acrylic, the red Mercedes Benz project, collage sculptures and nylon prototypes from the Haunted series.

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