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The Bad Boy of Dutch Design Lets Loose

Bas van Beek, one of Dutch design’s harshest critics, calls the current state of the industry “a circus,” and “a petit bourgeois farce.” Elitist and anti-democratic, he labels most people involved a moron or an idiot and sees the solution in harsher and more independent criticism.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 19-03-2009

Dutch design is, according to Bas van Beek, stagnant. Not for want of better talent with brighter ideas, but because the industry is emasculated by it’s own anti-intellectual mentality.

The same names, the same references and an output of work that leaves the same grin on the mostly uncritical critic. It’s all gone on for too long.

Van Beek’s point is that the big name Dutch designers are doing nothing original. Rather, they are designing for a bourgeois mentality that itself is hankering for a long-lost era that was decorated with pretty things.

“Designers are fully aware of this new market of wealthy people who desire such status symbols,” he says. “It’s made up mostly of middle-aged women who wanted to be artistic and had ambitions to paint, but gave up to have children … now they want to buy the objects of designers like Hella Jongerius, but what they actually want to buy is her fabricated identity.”

Van Beek’s beef with this is the impact it has on a designer’s work. “It’s such a specific ‘creative’ aesthetic,” he says. “Of course they are all just catering to a market demand, and then pretending they are doing high design. It’s ridiculous.”

And what worsens the predicament is Van Beek’s other pet peeve, the dismal state of intellectual discourse that should be but isn’t harnessing and challenging Dutch design. “It’s full of morons,” is one of his more delicate descriptive statements.

Like in architecture and literature, design can be a prism through which ideas are argued, realized and critiqued. “But architects are much smarter,” he says. “There are a lot of people in that field studying independently of the big firms who can talk and write freely. Design really misses that.”

Design discourse, Van Beek says, moves to the background as whatever trend comes into play. “And right now it is star designers and limited editions,” he says. “The subjective value of the trend is more important than the objective values of the actual products.”

Of the Dutch, Van Beek enjoys the work of Dick van Hoff and the product and packaging design created at Unilever. Internationally, the work of the Bouroullec brothers interests him most.

Van Beek’s renegade stance runs deep. It’s no enfant terrible act for the sake of it. He graduated from the Willem de Kooning Academie in Rotterdam with a 3D scan of his own faeces. “It was a critique on computer generated architecture,” he explains. “Architects said they’d use it [computers] as a tool for new forms, but everyone knew that it was really their erection under their desks generating the shapes.

“So I decided to write down everything I ate for a day and then the following morning I generated architecture, which I scanned in three dimensionally so people could download it themselves.”

Unsurprisingly, the work caused a lot of fuss and it turned Van Beek off design. Instead, he spent a few years doing “a regular person’s job” behind a desk. But being regular was never going to pan out so with some caution he returned to design with some very basic but personal work that focused on pure ideas. “I created some physical objects out of basic concepts,” he says. The objects – chair and table - were bought by the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, a success that inspired him to start his anti-xenophobic, anti-elitist, highly democratic run with his first collection called “Rip-Offs,” which he followed up with “Prequels.”

The first series played around with six different versions of ten vases comprising known and (previously) unique pieces with parts that were interchangeable. Van Beek has described the results as being “Like the tragedy of a cover band.” After that, he moved back a few steps during a residency at the European Ceramic Work Center by creating hybrid forms out of his own moulds joined together with regular hobby moulds. This time, he says, he created “and elevated state of mediocrity.”

Van Beek remains bemused by much of the criticism that his approach to copying and appropriating has ignited. “They say I’m not original, but who really is?” he asks. “The ‘creative’ way to express it is to call it inspiration, but in the end it is the same thing.”

Using Hollywood as an analogy, Van Beek says all Dutch design does, and seems to understand, is romantic comedy. “But there are many more genres,” he says, “Thriller, documentary, drama, bad films and B-films ... I’m just trying to explore those genres. In Hollyood, all genres are accepted and all genres need serious critique to survive. It works like a self-cleansing apparatus.”

With a copy of “Disneyization of Society” sitting by his side, Van Beek continues: “It all comes back to the industry lacking any real and credible critique. There is so much censorship. It is all self-referential, incestuous, and packed with self-congratulations. Even when interesting lectures are organized, it is always the same people there with their same friends and industry people.”

Van Beek strikes down any suggestion that the industry isn't yet ripe for such open attack. “That’s complete nonsense,” he says. “We already had it in Visies op Vormgeving (Views on Design). In that [book] everyone ripped at everyone and had something open and honest to say. It was fantastic.”

Van Beek’s next series, Royal Rip Offs for the Nationaal Glasmuseum Leerdam celebrates all those facets of design he believes in like altering the existing production process rather then inventing a new one. He deplores the idea of setting up independent factories, which he says is nothing better than establishing more sweat shops, which are completely unnecessary given the system and set-ups that already exist.

The push for exclusivity, anti-mass production and limited editions are all, according to Van Beek, a type of neo-colonial exploitation. “Designers that obsess over this think that their approach can save the world, but really it is just this xenophobic longing for the past,” he says. “What my work shows is that you can use existing processes to generate new forms thus devaluing the limited edition.”

“But current Dutch design isn’t all rubbish,” Van Beek concludes magnanimously. “I do have hope.”

Bas Van Beek’s collection for Pols Potten comes out on April 19th.
His Royal Rip Offs exhibition opens in the Nationaal Glasmuseum Leerdam on Match 20.


Images: top page - self-referring self-portrait photography by Ari Versluis 2007, images from Royal Rip-Offs by Pieter Vandermeer 2009.

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