Q&A: Gijs Bakker
As cofounder of the iconic Dutch collective Droog, industrial designer Gijs Bakker further defined the design identity of his homeland, the Netherlands, as simple and playful, conceptual but clearly realized. He has also brought contemporary jewelry design to the fore, focusing on the principles behind the pieces as opposed to their "handmade virtuosity," Bakker recently acted as artistic director for Yii, a Taiwanese collaborative uniting traditional craft and modern design. Recently he sat down with us to answer a few questions.
Ideal working environment
I live and work in the same building in Amsterdam, which is perfect. The studio is very lively but very concentrated, and I can look out the window onto the Keizersgracht canal.
It always begins with the same questions: What does it bring to the world of design? Does it introduce something new—an idea or approach, a way of using or experiencing? This is very important. Sometimes you go deep into it and then have to admit that it is all nonsense.
And then you’ll just abandon it?
Yes, but it’s not always the end of the story. Sometimes you’ll find it again years later, and restart with a new idea of that subject.
When not designing
The process is constantly going. Even when I take time to relax, think, reflect, and read, it all has to do with work. I love my work. If you take it away, I die.
Best seat in the house
I think they’re all pretty uncomfortable. Every one is a prototype or experiment, but I love them all. They are part of my history.
I wish I had
I have everything I want.
What keeps me busy nowadays is beauty. Not in the traditional sense; it’s finding the right balance between material choice, form, and meaning.
In the past, it was to design a car with Droog, but I think a real commission from honest people is always a dream.
The singer Maria Callas. Her musical interpretations are so unique and strong. She performed in Amsterdam in 1959, but I was still a student at the Academy [Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs] with no money to go see her, unfortunately.
There are too many.
Where do you go to relax?
When springtime starts, the weekends are holy and I go to my island. The location is a secret—but it’s only about 30 km from Amsterdam, and I spend time on the water—swimming, sailing—with no work and no computer. Lots of books, though. Really, reading there is fantastic.
It happens quite often at the gym. When you are completely concentrating on something stupid—like using those machines—it can be very good for the brain, offering a kind of freedom and openness.
The highest compliment I can give to a colleague or a young designer is that their work is very honest.
Do you feel that honesty is a subjective quality? That someone else could look at a work and see something very different?
Nope. No, I don’t think so. I’m very definite about that.
How do you evaluate a work's honesty?
First, it’s an intuition. When I see something that touches me, I start to think. I analyze what is it that attracts me: is it a completely new attitude, technology, way of communication, new movement in material? So it’s also observation, and an analyzation of what I see. Those things play an important role, if it all fits together.
You started your career as a jewelry designer. Do you feel that jewelry is somehow more personal than decorative art or furnishings? That it is somehow more of a reflection of themselves?
It is more intimate, yes. With a painting it’s quite easy because you just hang it on the wall, but it really asks a lot of people to react and to find a position towards a piece of jewelry. You also obviously want to wear it, and that is a challenge. Which is, of course, what I like. I like to challenge my clients. Tease them. But as someone who has trained as a jewelry designer, I always say it is the stupidest subject. You don’t need it! If you have an earthquake, your jewelry won’t help you survive. Because of its relation to the human being, however, it’s possible to imbue it with it deep meaning. And then it’s a very little step from jewelry to product.
Do you feel there is a divide between craft and design?
I see it as one thing, but I have no connection with the traditional craft world, like you have in America and Great Britain. For me is too focused on handmade virtuosity. Everybody else may ask, “Ah, how did you make it?” But that process doesn’t tell me anything. I have no interest in that. The idea, and the concept that is behind it, is what truly matters.
How did you get involved with Yii?
This has been such a fantastic experience. I was first commissioned in 2006 by the National Palace Museum in Taipei to come over and guide a project developing gifts for the museum shop with a group of young designers. Then in April 2009, I got an invitation from the National Craft Institute, together with the National Design Institute of Taiwan, to explore and develop products that would help create an identity for Taiwanese design.
Do you see this cultural take on design as similar to what you started with Droog? How has this process differed from capturing a Dutch identity?
Droog began as a wholly Dutch phenomenon. The first three or four years we only worked with Dutch designers, and even when we started integrating international designers they were all embedded in this Dutch philosophy, with a western European mentality. And that was to be seen in the work: The designs we made in that period all had a similar simplicity with very clear materials used, but all based on a very strong concept. This is my own way of working: first having a good idea, then thinking about how I’m going to realize that. That same attitude can translate to another part of the world and it will be fulfilled in a completely different way. So it will be interesting in perhaps in ten years time, to have an exhibition of Yii and of Droog in perhaps ten years’ time and see how they match and conflict.