Gijs Bakker - The Straw is the Symbol of Our Age

Interview  /  Artists   History
Published: 21.06.2015
Gijs Bakker - The Straw is the Symbol of Our Age.
Karolina Vrankova
Edited by:
Triple Parade
Edited at:
Edited on:
Gijs Bakker. Brooch: Liberty, 1998. Silver. A brooch for Madeleine Albright. Gijs Bakker
Brooch: Liberty, 1998
A brooch for Madeleine Albright
© By the author. Read Copyright.

World renowned designer Gijs Bakker talks to Czech writer Karolína Vrankova about his view on conceptual jewellery, roads to success and the future of design in this interview for TRIPLE PARADE 2015.
Interview in English and Chinese first published in book TRIPLE PARADE 2015,

Forty years ago he redefined jewelry after creating designs with artificial material and aluminum. Twenty years ago he founded Droog design, a group which was among the first to start making fun of luxurious design. Dutch designer Gijs Bakker, who’s always been a step ahead of the crowd, predicts that in the future everyone will make their own things at home. Robots will take care of the rest.
Before Christmas, Gijs Bakker doesn’t go shopping.

During the pre-Christmas consumption craze, the average Czech will spend about five thousand crowns on gifts, meaning they’ll be being buying quite a lot! As a designer, how do you view this enormous production of new products before Christmas?
I think that it’s completely foolish. Of course this isn’t a good answer. On the one hand, the problem is that there is a well-developed system in place that forces people to spend money. On the other hand, there are many people who are completely oblivious to this system. They have no idea that they’re being manipulated. In the Netherlands Christmas isn’t even supposed to be a big deal. Our main holiday is Sinterklass, celebrated on the fifth of December. Kids only get marzipan, traditional cookies, and a Santa Claus poem from Sinterklass. We try to keep this tradition alive at home and adults have a spending limit of five euro per gift. I always say that I’m not a consumer but a user. This is also the title of a chapter in a book I’ve written called A Handbook of Sustainability. The main difference between a consumer and user is that a consumer is the victim of marketing and commercials, something he obviously shouldn’t want to become.
So-called presents are often extremely ugly objects. As a designer, do you feel any responsibility?
He who proposes it should feel responsibility. I think that designers take note of the ecological impact of manufacturing, particularly plastic, and reflect greatly on their products. I can give you an example, my sponge for washing dishes. I was given an assignment from Hema, a Dutch store with household items and groceries, basing its reputation on being humble and friendly. I decided that I would do something cheap and wasn’t going to invest a lot of money on a mold. Molds are extremely expensive, making it necessary to sell a lot of the product to make up for the cost. This also means that people are sold a lot of the product without any consideration of whether or not they need it. So I just used steel wool and made a handle from a wire. It was primitive and functional. This is a rather old example, but with it I want to illustrate that I think a designer should consider things responsibly, so as not to support the consumer in people.

 Gijs Bakker, Sponge for Washing Dishes, 1996
Steel, foam. Production for Droog Design

Plastic is your area of interest, you also created a design for a bracelet of gold coated straws. The title of the piece, “Plastic Soup”, is inspired by the plastic swimming in the ocean. What did you mean exactly with this title? 
For me the straw symbolizes the entire problem of plastic. You use it for just a few minutes, throw it away, and then as garbage it lasts longer than one person’s lifetime. I’m no priest to be preaching about what’s right. My work is to make jewelry and seduce customers with them. Either way I can still include some food for thought.  
Whose going to wear this conceptual jewelry? 
Obviously it isn’t for everybody. It costs 1,500 euro because it’s coated with rather valuable gold. It’s for the kind of person who will answer yes to the question, “Am I going to spend this much money on a bunch of gold coated straws?” This must be a very particular type of person.
What kind of person? 
For the most part its people who are interested in art, literature, and who think about plastic and its life-cycle and can’t forget about it. I have one friend who bought it and says that it’s a great conversation topic. Lots of people notice the bracelet. When they compliment it my friend shows them the inner side where you can see the straws. This always gets a debate going.

Gijs Bakker. Bracelet: “Plastic Soup”
Gold covered straws. From CHP

What kind of things do you have at home? 

I’m very lucky to have my own house on a canal in the center of Amsterdam. In the front there’s a studio, in the back an old house with four floors, and all of this is just for me. I created a space which I like, with things that I like. They are stories from my life and from the lives of others. These are things I bought or traded. For example, I have a couple of prototypes of different experimental chairs, they’re not very comfortable, but it’s a piece of history. All things have their own special spiritual weight, given to them by their creators and users. This weight is the only aspect that interests me in things.
Nowadays many young Czech designers are dealing with the question of how designers from a small country can make their way in the world. You were able to succeed right off the bat twice, first in the sixties when you caught people’s attention with your jewelry and in the nineties as a co-designer for the label Droog. How did you pull it off? 
Yes, it’s true that being famous in the Netherlands is probably like being famous in Prague. Still, this doesn’t mean much. In the year 1967 my wife, Emmy Van Leersum, and I had a jewelry exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum. It was great, but we kept asking ourselves: Who actually knows about the Netherlands and the Stedelijk Museum? The way to make yourself known is really very simple, and it’s something that my gallerist told me back in the seventies: If a person feels they have something to say, they need to leave their comfort zone and set out on an adventure somewhere else. With this in mind we packed up our portfolio with big aluminum necklaces and went to Paris. There we sort of just went, “Uh.” Then we went to London, where at the time there was a great deal of the avant-garde in fashion and pop music. We liked it there and right away we started having success.
With Droog Design it was similar. When my colleague, Renny Ramakers, and I organized an exhibition of young Dutch designers we didn’t stay with them in Amsterdam. Instead we went to Milan to the Salone del Mobile market, where everyone whose interested in design always is. The first two days only Dutch people came around. The third day Italian designer and theorist Andrea Branzi came. He liked what he saw and that was enough, word got out and the fourth day it was packed.
After that Droog Design started to exhibit regularly and discovered a couple of Dutch designers who are well-known today. How did Dutch design get to be so significant? 
I think that it all started somewhere in the beginning of the seventies. Back then we had a very socialistic political regime. This meant that there were a lot of state restrictions for designers and graphic designers on street signs, furniture, everything imaginable. As a result an awareness about style and taste developed in people. Another thing is the crisis in the fifties with apartments where you had to wait several years to get a place. This prompted a lot of new construction and the state invited quality designers for social housing. State housing was so interesting that it almost became a tourist attraction. This also resulted in people today having a sense for quality in ordinary things, a sense that’s pretty deeply rooted in our society and politics. There’s also one more reason, and that’s that in the Netherlands there’s always been a high level of education in architecture, graphic design, and art. Without this kind of public, one capable of understanding and processing provocation, neither Droog nor the phenomenon of Dutch design would have ever happened.
The Netherlands, and mainly Amsterdam, were an extremely liberal and open society during Droog Design’s formation. Has this influenced your designs? 
We’re a small nation, because of this we always wanted to know about everything first. In the eighties and nineties we were still very curious about new culture and art. We were able to create independently because everyone understood us. Unfortunately, this open-minded mentality disappeared somewhere along the way. Around the beginning of the second millennium the first populist work pages appeared. With this there came a shock and the previous open-mindedness completely disappeared. If someone is perceptive, they can really feel this in the air. The time of an open society, where everyone was welcomed, homosexuals, Muslims, homosexual Muslims…is a time I can only recollect with nostalgia. It’s all influenced by the upcoming generation, people who are around sixteen years old and who grew up in a globally oriented, consumption driven, and very restrictive Netherlands. This in turn influences their work and their conception of the world.
In the year 1968 you first visited Czechoslovakia where you participated in the jewelry symposium in Jablonec nad Nisou. Do you remember what impression this made on you? 
I remember this very clearly. Prague was black, dirty, and mysterious. Baroque and Art Nouveau was everywhere, but you couldn’t see any of it because communist slogans were hung from everything. That time I was there with my wife and we went out to a restaurant with beautiful Art Deco, but in horrible condition. There were also dirty curtains and tables set into a row, the whole place was rather bare. I still remember the waitresses, those beasts! They had white orthopedic shoes with open toes and a wedge on the heel. They wore white socks and had bare legs. Whenever I wanted to ask something they just said “no” right away. I was afraid of them, they were so dominating. This was my first impression of Prague.
 Do you remember what restaurant it was? 
I don’t remember exactly. Now when I see the Hotel Evropa I think that it might have been there. It was definitely somewhere in the center. We arrived there with our own Renault, and when we drove into the communist zone they ransacked our entire car, even looking underneath with a mirror. There were armed police everywhere. It was all very adventurous. After that we went to Jablonec, to the area of Czech glass industry. There it was totally different, people were pleasant, welcoming us kindly, and we met with the jeweler Vaclav Cigler. That was a nice experience. In Prague it was all so violent and black, in the countryside there were pleasant people who were really passionate about their work. Czech jewelers were, at that time, really progressive. I remember seeing a necklace made from safety pins at the symposium! There were a lot of other things there as well, I saw a lot continuing along the lines of Cubism, it was all very avant-garde and modern.
What did you bring to the exhibition? 
We didn’t even call it jewelry but “wearable objects.” What I brought was an enormous object made from aluminum or steel. We didn’t want to be pretentious, so one bracelet which looked like a pipe from rock was called “Pipe Bracelet". Communist Czechoslovakia was a completely different world and we wondered if our things would speak to anyone. Yet everyone understood without us saying a word.
Do you still have Czech friends? 
I started meeting with Cigler later. He had a hard time because he refused to work for the communists. His kids couldn’t go to university, he was really put under surveillance. When my wife wanted to invite him for a jewelry exhibition he didn’t get permission, so I ended up making his piece myself according to his drawing. We also met some other young artists, a few of them our age. He was really a progressive, promising jeweler who made beautiful things. When we saw each other a few years later we found out that to survive he had to make statues expressing the joy of work and things like that for the communists. We were saddened and shocked by this, realizing how demoralizing life in communism is.
What did the economic crisis do to worldwide design?
When the crisis peaked, I told my students that I envied them being able to start their careers in the middle of an economic crisis. For me it’s a great opportunity to think of things differently and find new possibilities. Then when the crisis retreats, you’re ready for new growth. With Droog Design it was similar, we started during a very bad economic time. Nevertheless I still said that it’s good, that when the economy grows, we’ll grow along with it. That’s exactly what happened and we got carried up along with the economic growth that occurred in later years.
What are these new possibilities for designers? Do you know of some? 
The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) bought a couple of guns made using 3D print. I think this was really wise of them, because this is precisely the future of design. No machines, just a printer…and you have guns! Not long ago I read a book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution from Chris Anderson, who is a great visionary and ex-chief editor of the magazine Wired. He talks about the production of desks, individual production, and how in the future trading will be a lot more important than buying things for money, which is characteristic of capitalism. I also believe this is how it’s going to be.
3D printing is very expensive. This doesn’t seem like an answer to the economic crisis.  
It’s expensive now, but that’s changing very fast. Twelve years ago when I wanted to print a necklace, I had to go to Belgium to a university, and it was still very primitive. Now I can print a complex product in pure gold. I’m waiting for the future when 3D printing is going to be a basic household item. You’ll need to organize a kid’s party and you’ll print your own cups with pictures. Next to the printer you’ll have a shredder where you’ll toss out the old and get new, usable material. That’s how it’s going to be, I’m certain of it…but I could be wrong.
What about biotechnology which comes up with new material? 
For twenty-five years I taught and led the master program at the academy in Eindhoven. Two years ago I left, but I’d still like to be there, mostly because I’d like to hire some fresh young professors and establish a department dedicated only to working with new technological areas, such as biotechnology. It’s important to constantly be aware of what’s happening in society.
From which country would these fresh professors be? Where is design developing the fastest? 
I work a lot in Asia now, I run workshops for designers in Taiwan and not long ago I worked with some young men from Beijing. I really liked them. They are so…alive. They’re interested, they have energy, they’re open to new ideas. In Europe I haven’t seen anything like that, in America it’s hopefully a little different. In Asia there’s such a hunger for new things and opportunities. I’m always enthusiastic about working there. In China there’s a lot of people who have money and want to diversify their lives, they want attractive products. Since there’s a lot of these people, it pays off to do something for them. Young Chinese designers are given a lot of opportunities and they become independent very quickly. At the same time hand-made objects have gotten more expensive, so the government is trying to make sure that the level of production in China rises and things are given a greater value. Cheap production becomes obsolete. In this case I hope robots will move back to Europe.
Despite new technology, there’s also talk about returning “back to the roots.” 
Yes, I see a huge need for slowing down and more thoughtfulness, so that things are made that really suit the needs of people. In the younger generation there are designers working in this way. They go back to handmade production and old craft quality.
That’s how your son, Aldo Bakker, works. His objects are lyrical, serious and very carefully crafted. How does he view your irony and sense of humor? 
He never liked Droog Design, even if he was happy that it employed me and kept me off his back. I thought it was weird, but I understand it more now. As I get older, I understand seriousness and the need to take things slow more.

English translation by Ewelina Chiu.