A selection of the ‘Extrapolations and Anachronisms’ exhibit at VIVID Galerie Rotterdam, presented by Era Design Studio Apartment Gallery, Via Palermo 5, Milan
Photography Ilco Kemmere
Since his graduation in 1998 Bas Van Beek (1974, Nijmegen) has been very outspoken about developments in Dutch design and the creative industry in the Netherlands. Moreover he has been the subject of controversy in recent years due to his lectures and public presentations in which he has criticized his fellow colleagues. Van Beek strongly insists on accepting and embracing design as a means of individual expression for new aesthetic and psychological dimensions. His works often combine appropriations of historically iconic designs or never realized design studies with appropriations and redesigns inspired by popular culture such as B-movies and theme parks. These subjects offer Van Beek the possibility of questioning the interrelation between the real and artificial world as well as the values we tend to formalize according to subjective understandings of what is real and what is fake. In other words, how does the real world relate to the artificial world as seen in the expressions of popular culture? In line with this question, he analyses how and to what extent our everyday life is determined by the icons of the artificial world.
His practice evolves out of his search for the historicization and contextualization of objects. Often an existing object forms the starting point for his work; for example, a Tulip vase from the seventies by the Dutch designer and ceramicist Jan van der Vaart or a tea set from his favorite Disney film Alice in Wonderland. These research studies often result in new designs that question the function and the meaning of the objects relative to their new contexts, just as he did with Basney, his series of tea-sets inspired by Disney films. In this case, Van Beek studied how he could design and conceptualize, in line with Disney’s aesthetics, a properly functioning and crafted ceramic tea set that could be produced in China. Having accomplished this design, he questions why Disney chooses to sell cheap plastic trinkets in their theme park shops rather than designing tea sets that can be produced for the same purpose of (selling their properties and mediating their products by all means). In essence, why does the artificial tea set remain a mock-up instead being designed into a real object?
Van Beek’s method has also allowed him to study the theme of copying across a range of disciplines and in terms of its effects on design and the shape of things. For instance, he examined the repercussions of copying in relation to the film industry, where copying has transformed the field in significant ways. The act of copying has changed the means of production and mediation; for instance, with the advent of illegal copies of footage at various stages of distribution. Van Beek examined how the first online copies – often made by amateurs who smuggled a camera into the cinema and filmed a movie before putting it online – changed the way we perceive the image and, in that sense, transformed the quality and the narrative of a film. He noted that while these incidents resulted in terrible copies, they also caused the audience to become part of the scene: for example when you witness someone sliding back and forth in their seat or walking in or out of the frame. In light of this development, he produced the series Rip-Offs, where he designed “bad” copies of famous design classics. These designs are consciously poor copies of design classics, which result in new assembled design and therefore new meaning.
Van Beek finds it remarkable that many designers do not reveal their sources at all – even if sometimes their influences are obvious. Designers pretend to be innovative and original while refusing criticism. Unlike his colleagues, Van Beek counts on criticism. According to him, if you take your sources as literally as he does in series such as the Rip-Offs, you can count on receiving harsh criticism. Consequently, one of the fundamental principles of his work is the absence of originality and the lack of novelty. He often takes a critical position within the Dutch design discourse, while acutely aware that his position and criticism is not always appreciated. This critical stance is not only intended to stir controversy, but is also a way for Van Beek to learn from the foundations on which his projects are built. In other words, the use of design classics and other existing sources also enable him to learn from his predecessors by decomposing and reconstructing these objects. Nevertheless, his work by no means merely copies their work carelessly. Van Beek elicits the advantages of the copying process by considering production methods and new technological equipment that give him the opportunity to study the objects carefully and consequently adjust the designs when necessary.
This exhibition features many 3-D printed remakes of well-known and less familiar design classics. Just as in previous series, Van Beek hacks the work of other designers. In this process he makes use of 3-D CAD computer drawings to study with meticulous care the outside shape of the object and, in contrast to the original designers, also the inside of the object. In addition, all the other details such compounds, edges and handles are analyzed. This way of working leads to 3-D designs that ensure an understanding and grasp of the interior and the exterior of the design up to one-thousandth of a millimeter. However, this does not mean that he is dictated by the object itself. He will reconsider certain design choices if the result of his study of the object is inconclusive or if he finds it necessary to fabricate new objects by combining a design classic with one of his own designs, as he did with the tulip vase by Jan van der Vaart. Similar to Jan van der Vaart, who sought to design beyond cultural and technical limits and revolutionize the domain of crafts by producing in series instead of unicas, Van Beek is also inclined to push the boundaries.
Van Beek has noticed that most designers, as well as design courses, mainly deal with the 1% design Utopia as shown at fairs and lifestyle and design magazines. Unfortunately becoming the next Ray Eames still seems to be the highest achievable goal for most designers and design students. In defiance of this development, he taught his students at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy to focus on the other 99 % of the designed world.
It is far more logical and constructive to work with factories in China and become acquainted with mass production lines rather than stubbornly keeping up with the 1% design Utopia. It is surprising that opportunities to collaborate with similar factories or companies in China are declined. According to Van Beek, it is arrogant and ignorant to disregard the reality of mass production and mass consumption of our contemporary society if one considers the beneficial results of such collaborations in terms of social, economical and technical value. He strongly encourages designers to engage and collaborate with craftsmen and factories in China. In this manner, designers can create an infrastructure where skills and knowledge can be obtained and developed, and in doing so, can contribute to the Chinese industry as well as the Western market. According to Van Beek, it is about time that we start to ask where, how and under what circumstances our products have been produced, similar to those interrogations in the fashion industry.
In the drawings featured in the exhibition, Van Beek has reversed the path of digitizing analogue objects and has placed the digitized objects in a drawn landscape. He refers with this method to the drawings of Etorre Sottsass. The objects receive an architectural scale and dimension, which disconnects them from their context and gives them a new meaning. The anonymous landscapes provide an analogue context for the digital designs, closing the circle of the design process once again.