Interview: Jeļena Solovjova
Title photo: Renārs Matvejs
For over a decade now, Alberto Cavalli has promoted quality handcrafted objects and the crafts sector both in Italy and globally. Since 2007, he has led the organisation Fondasione Cologni dei Mestieri d’Arte in Milan, and has devoted the past three years to the development of the Michelangelo Foundation for Creativity and Craftsmanship in Geneva. Last year, the Michelangelo Foundation organised its first international exhibition Homo Faber in Venice, which was dedicated to contemporary crafts experiments and comprehensively underlined that handicrafts and mastery of craftsmanship in Europe are not dying values, but rather a progressive and visionary professional direction for the younger generation.
Recently, Alberto Cavalli visited Latvia, where he took part in the MAD International Design Summer School. This is the fourth year that MAD has attracted young people from all over Europe to Sigulda, giving them the chance of expand their knowledge of design and craftsmanship through practical work and creative experiments.
If we consider the history of design, public attitudes towards craftsmanship have varied. During the 19th century, intellectuals headed by William Morris argued that craftsmanship was the only salvation for humanity from the Industrial Revolution. In turn, 20th century modernists focused on the process of mass production, while postmodernists reverted to extolling handicrafts. Where are now? What is the role of craftsmanship in our lives?
Every time, mankind encounters significant changes that result in human skills being replaced by machinery, a counter revolution occurs which once again highlights the importance of handicrafts. William Morris’ arguments were rooted in the philosophy of John Ruskin, who wrote in the book Seven Lamps of Architecture that, "Every time a woman or man is used as a machine, they turn into stupid devices." A machine will always be more precise than a person, therefore there is no point in our replicating its operation, but we must use it for our benefit. In his 1919 manifesto, Walter Gropius addressed his contemporaries, "Architects, painters – we must all return to craftsmanship," thus implying that the artisan’s vision is the foundation for everything. These days, we are experiencing a new technological revolution. There is no need to stress that technology will destroy many professions or that a lack of jobs has always caused social unrest. This is the reason why interest in craftsmanship is rapidly reviving. Young designers, architects and artists view craftsmanship with renewed interest, and, in my opinion, this is a positive signal. Even if young people themselves do not become artisans, they will know how to collaborate with masters [of their craft], how to evaluate their work, where to find a good craftsman and how to start a productive dialogue with one. Technology is increasingly propelling us towards a life of solitude, where we can do everything independently using a smartphone. Craftsmanship is the counter revolution – yearning for social interaction and the need to look at the heart of human needs.
How can we recognise a skilful artisan and quality craftsmanship?
A skilful craftsman is never a contractor, but always an interpreter – he has the ability to interpret a designer’s ideas in accordance with his experience and knowledge. A true master is always gratified by what he creates. There are so many craftsmen, who despite their venerable age, head to their workshop every day, because this is their life. They feel fulfilled doing their work, and this is a beautiful insight to pass on to a new generation, which is seemingly often a bit lost.
What are the most significant trends in craftsmanship right now?
One important trend is the development of sustainable thinking within society. Craftsmanship is more sustainable than many other types of production, because since ancient times craftsmen have known not to use more material than necessary. An artisan is acutely aware that the best quality materials are often found in an environment that must be cared for, therefore protection of nature and respect for available resources are self-explanatory to him. These questions are also becoming increasingly important for clients.
Another trend is the development of a culture of creation in craftsmanship. This can include the use of technology and new materials. A skilful craftsman will always be open to experiments, because the degree of risk is small and he can afford it. Sometimes, a craftsman has to be encouraged to experiment, and this is the designer’s task, whereas the craftsman draws the designer’s attention to technical aspects. It seems that once again we are returning to Plato. His literary heritage is constructed in the form of dialogues, and authentic knowledge is always nurtured through conversation.
Returning to the Bauhaus Manifesto – nowadays, do boundaries exist between craftsmanship and design, and are they necessary?
Both concepts have a different definition. Of course, there are cases when the designer is also a craftsman or an artisan who practices design, but if we are talking about education or defining oneself, there are significant differences. In Italy, the designer most commonly subscribes to the definition formulated by the Italian Industrial Design Association (ADI), and, in my opinion, it is quite precise. This definition states that – design is a creative process based on culture. It is a process, because design has a start, conclusion and result. It is "based on culture", because the designer is aware of the cultural background against which he works, while the "creative" emphasises that the process demand innovation from the designer. A good artisan collaborates in the phase of developing the design process, not repeating that which has already been accomplished, but experimenting with material and finding inspiration for the process of innovation.
At the Polytechnic University of Milan, you teach a subject with the title of Italian beauty. What is this subject about?
In this subject, we try to educate students about the DNA of Italian beauty. We try to decode the genetic code that forms the paradigm of this beauty and analyse whether it only applies to the past or whether it will also have a place in the future. Every lecture is dedicated to one element of beauty, which is analysed from a cultural, artistic and historical perspective.
We only conduct one lecture in the university’s premises, the rest take place in Milan’s churches, theatres, museums and workshops. Students are encouraged to experience the presence of beauty in the most diverse aspects of life and appreciate this process, because sometimes all they need is a little self-confidence. I encourage them to look at themselves. Michelangelo is no different to us. We all have an identical heart, the same hands, we have not experienced genetic mutation; we are made of the same elements as Raphael, Tintoretto or Tiepolo. They, of course, were extremely gifted people, but talent must be nurtured, and that is what is sometimes missing, – opportunities to develop one’s gifts. We expect our young people to be able to be immediately successful in everything, but who has succeeded in this regard? We should encourage the younger generation to be aware that beauty and skills require time, culture and belief.
When Italian experienced a wave of international popularity during the 1950s, traditions of craftsmanship played an important role in the creation and development of the brand Made in Italy. What do your students think about the interaction of craftsmanship and design in the 21st century?
Italian industrial design has always been closely connected to craftsmanship. Interestingly, many people know icons of Italian design and who designed them, but only a few know that all these designers – Castiglioni, Sotsass and Bellini – collaborated with skilful craftsmen and prototype maker. The most sought after prototype master was Giovanni Saki – a woodwork expert, who made prototypes of industrial products from wood. He was so skilful that he often improved the initial design, because as befits a good artisan, he was not a contractor but rather a talented interpreter. Although primarily the result of industrial design is the fruit of the designer’s work, it is also an attestation to the mastery of the prototype designer.
Today, looking at what’s going on at the Milanese fair Salone del mobile, I am confident that the role of craftsmanship is only increasing. One must admit that there are cases, when craftsmanship is used as a marketing instrument, but this only goes to show that a work crafted by hand has become more highly appreciated. Only a couple of decades ago, the presence of craftsmanship in the international design process was hardly likely to be thought of as an added value. During the nineties, conversations mostly revolved around the concepts of "fancy living", "sensibility", "technology-driven", etc.
Today, you will find the presence of craftsman ship almost everywhere. Even coffee is “crafted” these days, whatever this is supposed to mean. The term craftsmanship has been re-evaluated. For the second year in a row, as part of the Milan Fair, the Michelangelo Foundation is organising a fair entitled Doppia Firma (double signature in Italian), inviting designers to create experimental collaboration projects with craftsmen. Interest among designers is huge.
Castiglioni, Sotsass and Bellini – all the aforementioned Italian designers were educated as architects. Design has recently only emerged in Italy as an autonomous industry. Can one sense the difference?
Yes, one can sense it, but one has to look at the matter from a broader perspective, also analysing decorative art. During the 19th century, decorative art was a separate discipline taught in art institutions, but over the course of time, architectural schools took over this field, including it, for example, in the façade decoration course programme. During the past century, decorative art and architecture have grown apart.
In Italy, for example, architecture is a very technical profession. Its representatives also have significant knowledge of the history of art and style, but primarily the architect will always be the one capable of designing a building, which is why his understanding of technical engineering solutions must be all the more robust. The first design faculty was founded in Italy in the 1990s, and this was an appropriate time to continue to develop this field as a separate university discipline.
A pertinent question is what will happen to decorative art. Today, the designer is schooled in various matters, but only a few universities continue to analyse how to include decorative art in the design process, and those that do do this continue to treat decorative arts with a certain resistance. It is as if we were still in thrall to Adolf Loos’ essay Ornament and Crime. Just as Martin Luther once expunged decorations from churches, in the modern era this duty was undertaken by Loos. It is about time we outgrew this, because every time we lose something from our field of vision, it never returns. Currently, we must be extremely cautious, because there are so many disciplines related to decorative art and craftsmanship which are on the verge of extinction.
How can we safeguard these traditions?
Understanding of territory is fundamental to the process of allocating values. What associations are evoked within you when you read "Made in Italy", "Made in France" or "Made in Latvia"? Is this is only geographic identification? Or is it the case, possibly, that you are prepared to pay more for that which incorporates cultural value? We see a quality suit and relate it to Italy, but would you buy an expensive watch made in Italy? I think you would rather trust the Swiss. Toyota is a huge car company, but would you contemplate the idea of buying a Ferrari model made at a Toyota plant? I’m not so sure.
People want a thing to express the value of territory, but unfortunately oftentimes traditions are either are cast aside or related to ethnography. I have no objections to ethnography is so far as it is within the boundaries of folklore, but if we want to give traditions new value, we must be able to protect and present them in the correct way, preserving authenticity, emphasising their originality and inviting talented young people to work with them.
One must help to ensure that local traditions are relevant and sustainable. The world is developing, the number of tourists continues to grow, and there are more and more people, who are only seeking one thing while travelling – authenticity. High quality craftsmanship is the best type of attesting to the authenticity of place. If we talk about the preservation of traditions, what Rihards Funts is doing in Latvia organising the MAD International Summer School is a smart experiment. He encourages international artists to work with local craftsmen not because this has anything to do with ethnic traditions, but because it is genuinely interesting for young designers.
Please tell us more about your experience at the MAD Design Summer School in Sigulda.
28 students from different countries participated in the project. They worked in five thematic directions, executing their ideas in various materials: in wood, peat, clay and metal, etc. When Rihards introduced me to the summer school’s theme "transhumanism", I was worried, because I thought that the participants would talk about futuristic devices, but I was really pleasantly surprised when I saw the students’ accomplishments. Maybe not so much by the objects themselves, although overall they were interesting, but mainly because all the groups of participants offered a powerful opinion about what transhumanism really means.
All the groups focused on absolutely human values. For example, special devices were developed that helped […listeners] to listen to the sound of the universe. The universe is silent, but it is extremely human to listen to and try to understand something that you can’t really hear.
The work of another group was dedicated to new means of feeding yourself, accenting that we must not only feed our body, but also relationships and the humanity in us. The third group worked on the subject "life after death ", explaining death as a lack of action and inviting exhibition visitors to take action. The fourth group studied the idea of communication. Its participants developed a mobile changing structure, which symbolised our mutual connection and the fact that our goal is to increase balance not tension within this structure.
The fifth group talked about giving back to nature and empathy for that which is around us. It was interesting to observe how, upon encountering these matters of global importance, young designers worked on creating not only form, but primarily meaning. This is what I told these young people in my lecture, “Authentic beauty is always meaningful. If you don’t understand the meaning of something, you’re losing part of the beauty."
The Michelangelo Foundation that you’re the head of in Geneva also organises a summer school. Please tell me more about the goals of this international organisation and its role in consolidating the importance of craftsmanship globally.
The Michelangelo Foundation in Geneva was created at the initiative of its founders Johann Rupert and Franco Cologni. It was named in honour of Michelangelo, because for everyone his name his symbolises outstanding art and skilful craftsmanship and also because Michelangelo was acutely aware of the value of his signature.
The foundation was founded in 2016, and we have accomplished a lot during the past three years. We have founded an international collaboration network with other likeminded institutions, which we invite to share their experience in order to foster uniform understanding of quality craftsmanship. Currently, there are over 70 institutions in various places around Europe, which are concerned with the preservation of applied art and craftsmanship at various levels. We have published the book The Master’s Touch which collates 11 criteria for determining excellence in craftsmanship.
This year, we started the summer school programme, offering 50 students from all over Europe the chance to visit different countries to acquire specific craft skills typical of the region. The number of the applications for this project was notable. I think that the main reason for its popularity was the Homo Faber exhibition which took place for the first time in Venice. The event lasted for 17 days and it was attended by almost 70,000 people. Currently, we are organising the 2020 Homo Faber exhibition which will once again be held in Venice and this time will last for a month.
Another important future project is an online platform, which will help to find the best craftsmen in various places around Europe. Let’s start with masters, continue with schools and places, where it is possible to acquire an authentic experience of craftsmanship in different countries, etc.
What can craftsmanship offer the future? What global and local challenges can it help to resolve?
I don’t know whether it can help actually resolve them, but the meaningful culture of craftsmanship can make a significant contribution to improving every person’s life, because, in my opinion, regardless of what we do for a living, we can either be craftsmen or courtesan. A craftsman is someone who believes in the beauty that arises if you do something that makes you happy. Someone who believes in the rights of those around him and in justice, and who yearns for the freedom to express himself in the best possible way. In turn, a courtesan is happy to use the work of others and resists changes.
Regardless of whether you are a plumber or the Pope, you always possess the freedom to choose to do your job in accordance with the disposition of an artisan or a courtesan. The skilful work of a craftsman is a lifestyle example that can strengthen freedom of expression and preservation of the democratic values that we believe in.■
Saša Štucin, Nicholas Gardner Studio Soft Baroque
Interview: Sergej Timofejev
Title photo: Rihards Funts
The Soft Baroque art duo makes objects we could not have imagined before that, changing our perception of the actual non-materiality of image
They explain in one of their interviews: ‘We come from different backgrounds. Nicholas from traditional furniture making and [Saša] from visual art, which works really well for us. Nicholas is the hands and [Saša is] the eyes, but we share the same body that thinks alike. [They] bring different skills to the table, yet [they] are interested in the same ideas (although [Saša] often draws things that wouldn’t hold together in real life).’
Meanwhile the website of the Copenhagen Etage Projects, the art gallery representing them, says: ‘The design duo Soft Baroque blur the boundaries between acceptable furniture typologies and conceptual representative objects. Trained in furniture and graphic design respectively, they explore objecthood and the perception of materiality in the age of digital image cultures.’
What does it mean? Perhaps that Saša Štucin and Nicholas Gardner are two of the most interesting artists of today, subtly working with the ways in which our reality is changing and attempting to a certain extent to influence these changes. They are doing it with the help of completely ordinary things ‒ tables, chairs, benches. These objects are shown at galleries, museums (from V&A in London to Depot Basel) and design forums, but at the same time they can also be found at somebody’s home or in a luxury store. In most cases, they can be used to do the things they are normally intended for, and yet first and foremost they excite our imagination and question the ‘permitted boundaries’ that we attribute to objects. Can a mirror be a cloud of aromatic mist? Can a hat be a miniature fountain or a waterfall? What do we see when we look at a silk fabric on which the visual surface of marble or granite has been printed?
Speaking about future is becoming less and less popular in our world, because the actual reality is so fluid and mutable that it is very difficult to understand, which of the things in it are just for today and which ones will roll over to tomorrow. And it is on this thin line, this visual nerve of the contemporary age, undoubtedly, hugely influenced by digital consumption of information, that the majority of their objects, a combination of avant-garde design and conceptual art, are based. It is a certain litmus paper for the contenporary age and our visual understanding of it.
Thanks to a brilliant stroke of luck, there was an opportunity to invite Saša Štucin and Nicholas Gardner to visit Latvian in mid-August, namely, one of the country’s most beautiful locations, Sigulda, home to MAD, the annual summer school of design. Set right next door to Sigulda Castle, a huge transparent pavilion hosted an international team of students, young artists an designers, all of them busy moulding, chiselling, glueing and constructing something. Soft Baroque presented a talk and closely worked with the students on their projects. We met with Saša and Nicholas on the eve of the last day of the summer school, when projects were all nearing their completion, and there was time to sit down in an open-air café in the park, a few dozen metres from the pavilion, and talk.
Saša is from Slovenia, Nicholas ‒ from Australia… And you met in London?
Nicholas: We were fellow students at the Royal College of Arts, except we worked in different directions. Initially we started doing things together, realising all sorts of small-scale ideas, making separate projects. Saša was more interested in 3D objects and a distinctly sculptural, installation-related approach, whereas I was focusing more on the practical side of things. And in this difference of interests a very important conceptual rift was present: all our works feature a certain contradiction… or somehow oppose the mainstream. In any case, we simply started working together. And the name Soft Baroque was something like a pseudonym, something like a term for a fake style trend, which was how we imagined ourselves. As if it were a powerful artistic movement with almost religious followers; after all, modernism also used to be something like a religion. On the other hand, there is this allusion to soft power, to software as opposed to hardware, a hint of the new technologies. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, while at the same time harmoniously speaking of our time, of what it is like.
Saša: Yes, we do like this kind of contradictions and juxtapositions which may initially seem alogical. But when you think about it, some kind of different meaning seems to emerge. Many of our works are close to this in spirit. And it can sometimes be a very simple, pure and exquisite object, but there is always something more behind it.
It is more or less clear regarding the ‘soft’ part, but which elements of baroque do you find so appealing that you decided to use this word in the name of your project?
N: I think that we are interested in how decoration, ornaments, unusual surfaces or materials can give a different value to an object. Today, in this consumerist era, much closer in spirit to baroque than anything ever before, there is this stamp of artificiality on any product, granting them a higher status. In London, for instance, laminate flooring is very popular; it is, essentially, plastic, covered with a very thin layer of decorative plywood, made to look like old wood. And so this very common laminate acquires value and cultural significance. It is also a sort of cultural capital, although a very cheap and superficial association working here, of course. I think that, in our time, we invest more means into adding this decorative aspect to everything in the world than into the actual production of things.
S: I also like baroque as a metaphor. After all, if you look at the history of art, baroque is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted of its periods. Many, without giving it another thought, would define the trend of baroque a something over-the-top, something too decorative; but if you look deeper, it is almost the opposite. Baroque is very theatrical, with some dreary notes…
S: Yes, grotesque. And I like it a lot. Even if baroque was used in the functions of the church and some sort of social framework of the time, there was still this internal creepiness present in it. Like it was with Bellini and Caravaggio ‒ in all of their works, commissioned by someone, there is some grotesque, there is a powerful expression of their own ideas. And that is my kind of art. I am saying all this to make the point that baroque is being totally misinterpreted…
We recently published an interview with a group of artists from Russia, AES + F, and they said we were living in an era of neo-baroque. What they meant was a total general visuality and combination of styles from previous eras, which today are used only as visual decorative elements.
N: We have also thought and spoken quite a lot about ‒ in a sense ‒ the death of style trends and movements, for instance, in design. We no longer move form one idea to another; it is more like a multiplication of styles. In this sense, the world is so full, so rich in content ‒ good or bad. There is such an incredible variety of styles and tastes that, even there is some agglomeration taking place at some spots, on the whole it is very much scattered.
And there is this thirst for something that excites or attracts attention, dynamic or convincing in its own way, and, at the same time, craving our attention in its own way. We love to play with it in our works, for instance, make something very dynamic or optically strange. And at first glance we think ‒ yes, that’s classy. But for us it is also about objects needing to be more and more provocative, screaming at us, demanding our attention, securing it with increasingly devilish means. And we play with it, and, to an extent, also critique the things that are gong on. We often take some tasteless things and replay them on a more artistic level.
Is something new, the very idea of something new possible in this world, where there is already so much of everything? Or can we reach it only through hybridisation of what already exists?
S: Of course, we often work with something familiar and customary, adding a completely alien element to achieve something new… But we also think a lot about our world as an opportunity for new manners of behaviour and customs to emerge; we try to imagine new types of personality or some new needs.
We have series of works where we deal with the idea of recontextualising the landscape of domestic environment. For instance, we made a mirrot with a moisturiser on the back and perforated surface, so that the result was something like a cloud of fog, and the cloud is also perfumed at that. Sp when you look in this mirror, expecting to see a clear reflection of yours, you are wrapped in fog instead. We sort of contradict the normal function of a mirror, creating a new type of personality that will go on using this object in a completely different way.
N: I think that your question could be answered by saying that we aren’t looking for anything like the perfect solution. We try to question the various functional structures that already exist. For instance, everybody has a sofa at home, everybody has a table, and if we change this familiar landscape of the domestic environment, it can, in its turn, influence the way we behave in this space. So in a sense, we act like traditional industrial designers do ‒ we think about functions, materials, about how this or that thing is perceived in human culture. But we also have another programme of action ‒ disrupt or destroy this traditional, not necessarily traditional but existing form and functionality. You cannot always hope for success here; sometimes we just throw things into it and look how they are doing. And sometimes it works.
On the other hand, in our time, we all need more understanding ‒ what is it that we let into our lives, what are we investing in, what sense does it all make? And the thing that we do ‒ we sort of try and make the muscle responsible for that work; we try to not let it become lazy by constantly exercising it. What does this object mean and what is its meaning in the existing consumerist society? And the whole thing is not about some sort of imaginary scenarios; it is about things that happen in the world around us.
S: With its Amazon Prime, Alibaba and Ebay. That’s reality, too.
Something like a muscle for responsibility for objects…
S: Yes… Nick is already tired of what I’m saying. But I often treat our objects like pets, understand, because they are silent. But they do not blend with everything, like an IKEA table. They are by their nature quite determined statements. And I see them as something like companions, like some sort of half-living creatures with quite a dominant existence. It is like that cat you have at home ‒ someone who lives by your side.
S: Perhaps… In any case, they do have an aura of sorts. (Laughs.)
How did you manage to achieve a situation that your objects are at art museums and galleries, and at the same time ‒ at places like Balenciaga luxury stores?
S: I think that we gave to thank the few people from the previous generation who promoted this idea, and we, in our turn, also are expanding space for the next generations. When we started, the very idea of showing designer objects at a gallery was still somewhat weird and uncustomary. And many people did not take it seriously, particularly fine art people. But now it has already become more familiar; increasingly more people are taking interest in these things that are ‘between’ the usual formats. Initially I felt very uncomfortable when people asked me, for instance ‒ ‘Who are you, a designer or an artist?’ As if I really had to choose between the two. As if you could not be both at the same time. But our works do not fit within the parameters of design. It would be very problematic to mass-produce them; they are handmade, and because of the way we make them, they cannot be produced as an edition of a thousand. These things are unique.
At that, I do not see myself as a pure artist. In my practice, I don’t so much make statements about myself as comment on my environment.
N: Perhaps we could describe ourselves as artists who create works about the design industry and the consumerist culture. That is, of course, also a very cheesy description.
S: Nevertheless, it places ourselves into this position of in-between, somewhere in the middle.
N: You could say that we are artists, but our means of expression, our medium is functional objects. Instead of canvases and paint, we use furniture objects and similar things…
And the same object can be not out of place at a gallery…
S: …and at somebody’s home, and at a Balenciaga store.
You work with various materials, some of them quite futuristic or recycled…
N: Yes, we sometimes also use recycled plastic, but generally what we like more is the idea that materials with some sort of established identity of their own suddenly end up used in a completely different manner. For instance, carbon fibre ‒ it has this very masculine connotation to it, it is all about the ultimate high performance. But we add a non-systemic chaotic note to it ‒ we combine it with something that would not normally be associated with it, like bamboo or pearls. Masculine carbon fibre with feminine beautiful pearls and bamboo ‒ a sort of pseudo-eco-friendly material.
These three materials can actually co-exist perfectly well in someone’s home: the pearls ‒ among jewellery, bamboo ‒ in the shape of a table, carbon fibre ‒ as a kayak or skis. But when you combine them within a single object, it speaks of a different value system that you put into it.
S: Оf symbolic value. And we often also like to emphasise this contrast, to enhance it. When there is such a diversity of materials all around you, there is always this relentless curiosity eating at you, this desire to try something else. But, like Nick says, we use these materials as our language. We live and work in London, and you can find anything you want there. At the same time, we are very far away from natural sources of material. If we lived here [in Sigulda], we would probably work with what is around. In this sense, there is not a lot to lean on in London. Everything has been in one way or another brought from somewhere.
But you are both also from two very different corners of the world, both quite distant from London, and each of them has its own special background and its specific materiality. How do you combine them in your works?
S: We have been living in London for nine years. Of course, we go back home all the time; I go to Slovenia and Nick goes to Australia. But we have nevertheless already settled down in this in-between universe where we take something from one place and from another.
N: Perhaps your background was more image-related than mine.
S: But that has not that much to do with the fact that I am from Slovenia… Although it was in Slovenia that I graduated from the local Academy of Art, where I dealt with images, of course, and Nick went to furniture-making classes back in Australia. So we really are coming from different areas in a sense.
N: But that also led to us working with images as a material, using 3-D. We even made furniture from them. And I generally like this idea of image as a new material.
S: Yes, we make prints of marble surfaces and glue them on plastic, and then we build structures that look like real marble. And then the question arises of which part is image in this and which ‒ materiality?
N: It is generally a very large part of out visual landscape, all these giant banners, and it is mostly advertising, of course. But even in a small greengrocer’s, for instance, they would rather glue an image of a huge tomato or a strawberry than simply leave it clear. Or you could mention the scaffolding wraps used in London to shield buildings under construction. Developers print out these life-size images of interiors on these covers, as if on the outside of the upcoming buildings, to advertise the interior, in other words, what is going to be inside.
The visual landscape is increasingly acquiring high resolution features. Representations, photographs, images occupy an increasingly large part of the landscape surrounding us. And we wanted to use this trend as raw material. To start building something out of it.
S: The image becomes three-dimensional; you can bend it or twist it. There is certain poetry to it, and some very powerful symbolism. It is a cross between our interests and our previous life experiences ‒ mine, which is more image-related, and Nick’s, more involving material objects.
I like that many of your works are, in some sense, futuristic and yet simultaneously also contain a sizeable dose of irony about the ‘futurisation’ of everything in the world. I totally loved your description of the Superbench, which, in keeping with the concept, does not feature either USB chargers or a WiFi hotspot: ‘Being super is being ideologically pure but somewhat irrational with an element of fantasy.’
S: I think that it is a good description of everything that we do. I do not recall the particular text anymore but the project was quite entertaining.
What do you think about elements of future in our reality? In which direction are they taking us?
N: I think that, more likely, we are reflecting in this sense about a not very distant and foreseeable future, reacting in our characteristic manner to what we see. We generally hate statements of the ‘this way is the right one, that way is the wrong one’ type. We don’t think that fake materials or plastic are necessarily wrong. The whole thing is so much more complex and complicated. Rather, we create certain areas where an observer may feel inclined to start questioning our visual culture, our object culture. At that, our objects are of limited edition; they are not mass produced, otherwise our responsibility would be completely different, we would think of them in a completely different way.
S: I agree with you. Of course, my personal view of the future is somewhat more pessimistic, but perhaps I should blame my Eastern European background for that. (Laughs.) In any case, in our joint projects we really do ask more questions than offer answers regarding the rightness or wrongness of this or that scenario.
N: It also has to do with style and aesthetics. Even at universities, they much more often talk about the functionality of objects, about the amount of time they will manage to save us, about what nature-friendly materials they are made of, than about the ways in which we view objects, in which we associate ourselves with objects in culture, why one object seems more valuable than another to us and what happens in our minds when we make this type of judgement. And it is not at all easy to make judgements about aesthetics and style, because everybody has their own opinion about that. These things are more difficult to recognise and analyse. But when people look at an art blog of some sort, that is exactly what they do pay attention to. They do not read descriptions, they decide at once that ‘this is cool and this is not’. We do live in a very visual world…
S: Our latest exhibition is, to some extent, a reaction to that sort of thing. To the fact that art projects appear in out field of vision as images, as pictures ‒ on Instagram or elsewhere. We try to move away from the flat image, to make it three-dimensional. And even after all that, most people still get their impression of what we have made via pictures, via images.
It is like an impenetrable wall.
S: Exactly, everything bounces back from it with the same kind of frustration. And we made an attempt to play on that in our show at the Copenhagen Etage Projects, the gallery that represents us. We thought about the fact, for instance, that when photos of whatever are published, they are placed against a grey or white background ‒ on which they have, essentially, zero context. They simply exist on this infinite background. And they are placed next to other things, which also exist on the same background, and it is, in a way, a whole universe of weightless images.
And that is why we asked an architect friend of ours to create some sort of ‘artificial environments’ for us. And we printed them in life-size. And arranged our objects on them. And it looked like rendering when you photographed them. So they did not even look like something real.
That is a sort of commentary on the whole situation. Why are we making objects if they become pictures, images anyway? We could have simply used rendering.
N: We take a white cube of an art gallery, furnish it with artificial 2-D interior on which we then exhibit our 3-D objects.
It looks like perceiving something as a material object is becoming a real luxury in our world. A luxury product. And so your works are a reaction not to the way we make things but to the way in which we think about them?
What projects are you busy with right now?
N: We are making a few things for the upcoming London Design Festival (the festival took place on September 16th and 17th – ed.), for an exhibition we are mounting with a few other people ‒ we will be showing masks. And some furniture as well. We are also showing a few of our things in Los Angeles; the opening was literally yesterday. Some other things are just in the development stage as yet…
S: There are a few more research-related projects as well. We were offered by a publisher from Milan to take part in a project on the subject of function/disfunction.
N: The publication, due for release later in the year, will be dedicated to the kind of knickknacks that are sold on the streets, sold to tourists. How these things are sold and who sells them. And which functions are more important for them ‒ do they have to appeal to children, does there necessarily be some kind of catch…
S: It also deals with the subject of forced (because of wars or politics) migration. And again an interesting link between two seemingly unrelated subjects: these weird cheesy little things made in China, and the life stories of the people who sell them.
N: And the whole thing is taking place on some sort of beach in Italy.
S: We are researching it, but we’re also thinking about creating some sort of object which we could also introduce into this ‘street market’ and then observe how this thing would survive in this world.
Could you tell about the masks you are making for the design festival? It is, after all, a very current thing: people increasingly often choose to redesign themselves not with the help of plastic surgery but with that sort of objects…
N: We are very interested in all sorts of cosmetic masks you put on your face like gel ‒ very weird objects. We would like to swap the liquid in them with some kind of more off-the-wall ingredient. That’s one idea. Another one has to do with an old sketch of ours ‒ a system that would transform a person into a fountain. It is a kind of hat with water running down the peak, and the water forms something like a veil in front of your face. Around the neck there is a receptacle that collects the water, and then a pump makes it go back again.
S: As if there were a waterfall in front of your face. We only have a sketch of this idea; we haven’t made the actual thing as yet. So that’s something we can try and do.
This presents so many opportunities and variations on the theme of recognition vs secrecy. Being open or hiding away. Being recognised not by your face but by your image.
S: These days, when the selfie culture is so ubiquitous, it is a very timely idea.
In this case, my final question will be this one: if you were to make a mask for yourselves, what would it be like?
S: Yes, not an easy question; we have so many different ideas. Of course, I really like the waterfall. But when I was a student, my friends and I had this idea of a cloud-hat that would wrap you in some kind of mist when you put it on. So you’re walking, and this train of foggy cloudiness is trailing behind you. I find the idea of a human cloud very appealing; as a child, I used to draw people sitting on clouds a lot. I like it as a metaphor ‒ living on a cloud…
N: What I would make… Perhaps something like the lasers in laser pointers, for instance, and they would come out right from…
S: …the pores of the face? (Laughs.)
N: …around your face, so that no-one could see you. No-one could look at your face, or they would be blinded. (Laughs.) But that’s more like a weapon of attack, not a means of defence. Something like: ‘Don’t look at me, or I will start shining lasers at you!’
S: We will let you know what we did in the end…
It’s a deal!
P.S. As Arterritory.com found out, this Autumn was quite busy for Soft Baroque. “[For London Design Festival] we’ve made two armchairs and vase from aluminium (see below). Using a standard 40x80 mm aluminium box section we constructed a simple armchair. The anodised aluminium members, reminiscent of 2x4 timber, has sections graphically cut away revealing the hollow structure. It is a technical replica of a rustic primitive construction.
Regarding the mask. We started to work on the Waterfall cap, but we’ve ran out of time, so we will finish it for another show in January. We ended up presenting some sort of “pillow” mask. We also made some tests of trying to make glitter/shine Instagram filter in IRL mask version, but it will have to wait for another mask show:)» Stay tuned!■
Sophie Mensen, Oskar Peet Studio OS ∆ OOS
Interview: Kristīne Budže
Title photo: Studio OS ∆ OOS
An interview with Dutch designers Oskar Peet and Sophie Mensen from os ∆ oos studio
The Keystone chair is composed of three unjoined parts. It is held together by gravity and the weight of each part. The chair’s backrest is made of concrete, the middle part is made of rubber, but the seat itself is an arc of heavy ceramic. Keystone’s visual presentation is not dictated by plays on form and lines, but through experimentation with materials whose weight creates a functional piece of furniture. The LED lamp Mono-Lights is constructed of connecting tubes made of silicon composite material; this allows the lamp to be bended into various configurations as it becomes more of a sculptural object than a utilitarian lamp.
These are two examples of products created by the Dutch designer duo known as os ∆ oos – Oskar Peet from Canada and Sophie Mensen from the Netherlands, both graduates of Design Academy Eindhoven. They like to position os ∆ oos as a design studio for contemporary objects rather than a furniture design company. In the summer of 2017, Peet and Mensen were lecturers and workshop instructors at the MAD International Summer School of Design in Sigulda, Latvia. The following conversation with the designers took place on a summer evening at Krimulda Manor.
Peet: Latvia surprised me. I didn’t expect that I would like it as much as I do. I’m surprised that everything here is so well organized. Everywhere the grass is mowed and it’s so quiet. Living in the Netherlands, we’re used to people living much more compactly. I don’t know what it would be like to work as a designer here because there are so few people and there definitely are problems with the infrastructure. But I grew up in Canada, which is also not a densely populated country. In a sense, in Latvia I feel much like in Canada. People focus more on life’s basic needs in countries like these. That’s not bad, because everything is simpler. I’m surprised how well the students and craftsmen speak English here. In Italy or Spain, for instance, it would be practically impossible to speak with the local craftsmen in English.
How did you come to Eindhoven from Canada?
P: In Canada I studied engineering, and at first I though I would continue my studies in engineering in the Netherlands; but then I decided to switch my studies to design. Nevertheless, the knowledge of how things work, how they are constructed, is very useful in my work as a designer.
Mensen: Especially since constructions are not my strong side.
After graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven, you founded os ∆ oos and decided to stay in Eindhoven…
M: This decision was basically made by the city itself, its environment of design and entrepreneurship. We’re used to the fact that in Eindhoven everything is “right around the corner” – producers, other designers and entrepreneurs – which is why it’s easier to realize your ideas and receive consulting, suggestions, and help. We rent a studio space together with two other design offices.
P: In Eindhoven both the cost of living and the cost of producing are somehow lower. It’s possible to realize many things here cheaper than in London or some other world metropolis. The cost of running a new and small design studio is an important factor.
Eindhoven is swiftly changing. Not too long ago the former Philips factory building, which stands in the center of the city, was in ruins. Well, it wasn’t exactly in ruins, but it had stood empty for years. Back then it was a “no-go” area with a high fence around the factory park.
M: When we went to school we held secret parties there.
P: And now the Philips factory park has changed beyond recognition. It was the first place in Eindhoven that was specially earmarked for cultural interests. The Philips park quickly developed, and now it’s the most fashionable place in the city – it was the first place with 3D printers and stylish cafés and ice-cream shops. It’s become the city’s creative center. This creative and fashionable “bug” is somehow spreading throughout the city. For the first time ever, Eindhoven is becoming a stylish and fashionable city. Eindhoven has always been linked to design and production, but it was never seen as a fashionable place to live. Now the situation has changed, and it’s becoming increasingly more pleasant to live there...and even harder to leave it.
M: We’ve thought about moving somewhere else, but there have never been enough good reasons to do it, so we’ve stayed in Eindhoven.
P: Why leave Eindhoven if life is becoming increasingly better? We know many designers who moved to Amsterdam or London but have now moved back to Eindhoven.
Have you also retained a connection to Design Academy Eindhoven?
M: We don’t have a direct link to the Academy, but mentally we still feel really close and we follow along with what’s happening at the school, how it’s evolving. Of course, Design Academy Eindhoven has made this a design city and enforces this image. Wherever we go, and we do travel a lot, everyone has heard of Eindhoven and associates it with design.
P: In any case, we don’t have to be ashamed of where we come from. There have been big changes going on at Design Academy Eindhoven lately, however. I even have a hard time imagining what the Academy is like now because many of the school’s staff and teachers, who worked there for decades and were instrumental in creating its character, are now gone. I know many of the new teachers personally because they’re not much older than us. That also means that they don’t have much more experience than we do, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing for the school. Of course, it’s new blood, but taking in so much new blood at once…
You mentioned that after finishing your studies, you had a black-hole-like feeling – you had to, once again, look for the meaning in design and working in design.
M: Yes, that was a hard time. We really had the feeling that everything that could be done in design had been done. It wasn’t easy transitioning to the real world from the school environment, where you were always supported.
P: At the Academy we had almost all of the possible equipment available to us, as well as a safety net of teachers who helped us solve problems. After finishing school, we felt as if we were thrust out into the open without any shelter. Now I think that it would’ve been smarter to have established our own studio while still studying. We should have gotten together with other students and bought a car for joint use – then I wouldn’t have had to haul by bicycle the materials necessary for making our projects. I was hauling heavy loads by bike – distances of six kilometers or more – and I almost ruined my back. Yeah, it wasn’t easy creating a network and coming up with tricks to solve problems. After you finish school, you don’t have the necessary infrastructure, not even your dad’s garage with some tools. My father is in Canada, but Sophie’s father is a doctor and doesn’t even have a garage like that.
M: At the Academy, we could make a model in a fully equiped workshop and then develop the idea further. Once you’re done with school, you don’t have a workshop like that, and it’s much harder to put together a portfolio of your work.
P: I must admit, however, that I’m not proud of my final project for school. My best work definitely came after graduating from the Academy. We flourished as designers once we had our own studio. I can’t even tell you why. Before we founded os ∆ oos, I worked at Scholten & Baijings. They are really good designers, but I really didn’t learn anything there that would help me out later as an independent designer. I was given an assignment, and I did it; i.e., I came up with design suggestions which the studio heads reworked and presented to their clients. I didn’t have any contact with the design clients. I didn’t know how to talk to them. I got feedback only through the studio heads – they would tell me only about one percent of what the client had said, and then instructed me on how to proceed. It’s hard to explain why we opened up as designers only once we had our own studio. On top of that, in the Netherlands I still had the language barrier for a long time. I kept asking Sophie to call the tradesmen in my place.
M: The manufacturers, of course, have their own slang in which they speak; if you don’t know the language and you’re an outsider, it’s hard to understand. Sometimes even I don’t understand.
P: We were lucky in that the first project by os ∆ oos was a success. It just clicked: “Hey, we’re going to be professionals! Let’s go!”
Does having your works exhibited in Rosanna Orlandi gallery in Milan, and in art and design fairs, help your studio’s business?
M: Yes, Rosanna Orlandi is an exception among design galleries. She allows the first floor of her gallery be filled with the work of new designers, saying: “Let’s see what happens.” Another way this Milan gallery differs from others is that it not only accepts works from designers and tries to sell them, but it also allows the designers themselves to be in the gallery while their works are on exhibit and meet with people. During Milan’s international furnishing accessories exhibition I Saloni [now called Salone del Mobile. Milano – ed.], Rosanna Orlandi gallery is one of the city’s hot spots and teeming with people. We were there every day and formed our own network of contacts.
P: Yes; exhibiting at Rosanna Orlandi was very crucial in this sense because before that, we were just young designers who didn’t know anybody.
Maarten Baas once said that he was very disillusioned about the fact that, even after having received wide media coverage, he was still short of orders and money. It seems that your work has also been covered everywhere, such as in Domus, Wallpaper, Dezzen, and elsewhere.
P: We can agree with what Baas said because, from the outside, the grass in the design field looks much greener than it actually is. The fact that magazines and social media are writing about you doesn’t mean that your pockets are bursting with cash.
M: The thing is, you have to keep reinvesting money back into the studio. As soon as you receive funds from a project, you have to invest it into the next project. Breaking even isn’t easy. It’s nice to see articles written about you, but they don’t put food on the table. And they don’t always contain the truth.
P: There are a lot of myths about the life of designers. We know only of a few colleagues who are very well off. It’s not an easy choice to make to be a designer, and we’re not focusing on the business aspect, either.
What has your observation been – do many designers give up and quit the profession?
M: I think we’re in a lucky generation because there are a lot of talented designers among us who are establishing their own studios.
P: Of course, we’ve also seen design studios close down. The reasons are many and varied, but it’s usually due to financial issues.
What’s going on in Dutch design? It seems that the post-Droog Design era has arrived. Do you feel the absence of the kind of support that Droog Design used to ensure Dutch designers with?
M: They had a rather strict screening process, and Droog Design only supported a certain way of creating design.
P: I think that we’ve been really lucky that in the Netherlands, both the state and NGOs understand how important it is to support design, to promote its popularity, and not only within the Netherlands but internationally as well. We have good opportunities for securing support for smaller projects. The state also provides support during your studies so that you can concentrate only on your studies and you don’t have to work. This support is one of the reasons that Dutch design is so highly valued in the world.
M: The Dutch have always been merchants on a broad scale and have always tried to reach all corners of the globe.
But what defines Dutch design as such?
P: The Dutch are very good at pairing the mundane with the unusual, as well as at using technologies. The Dutch have always expanded the possibilities of technology. All around us there are so many experiments with 3D printing, laser cutting, and various other hybrid technologies. Industry gladly invests time and finances towards working with designers. They’re not constrained and they gladly do things that are outside of their usual skill sets. That’s linked to the Dutch people’s openness towards different ideas, varying viewpoints, and experiments. The Netherlands are currently trying to implement an electronic train ticketing system that would do away with printed tickets. Everything will be digital and done with wireless internet payment systems. I believe this is linked to the Dutch always wanting to improve their lives. They never settle into complacency.
At a time when it seems that all of the important advances are taking place in technology design, what attracts you to object design?
M: The quality of the materials, their tactility and materialness, simplicity, and the many possible techniques in which materials can be worked.
P: In all honesty, at Design Academy Eindhoven, little attention was given to digital design. More emphasis was placed on learning how to make something with your own hands. Yes, materiality is our foundation, and that is reflected in os ∆ oos studio’s works. Perhaps if we had had a different kind of education, we’d use more digital technologies, but we’re fine with the situation and can manage without them. For us, the starting point with each thing is the concept, and only after that do we look for the best suitable material for executing it. We don’t work in the sense that someone, for instance, requests that we make something from wood, and only then do we start thinking what we could make with this wood.
If function was the foundation of everything before, has it now been replaced with concept?
M: Before, when all functional basic needs of people had not yet been met, the functionality of things, and especially the discovery of a new function, was primary.
P: Coming up with our own concepts allows us to offer something new to the world. Otherwise, it seems that everything has already been done. There are design studios that are interested in the aesthetics of things. The main thing for them is that their studio’s creations are beautiful. There are design studios who are concerned with having a complete portfolio, and who make sure that they’re not missing a model for a table or chair. We try to find a theme that interests us, that speaks to us, and then we build the concept around that by using the materials and technologies available today. We’re not interested in creating something that could have also been made 200 years ago. That’s why our portfolio doesn’t have a single wooden chair, because a good wooden chair could already be made a hundred years ago.
It seems as if your works are more of a study on the function of an object, instead of simply easy-to-use products.
P: We play with both sides of the design coin. We like to work with design galleries and reflect on certain themes, but it’s also nice when manufacturers search us out and invite us to make a product for them. Of course, working with a manufacturer is a compromise. You have to give up certain things so that what you come up with can be put into production.
M: As designers we’re not oriented on business, but it’s interesting to see how commercial businesses work. It’s nice that they respect us, and that we take their needs into account and can then offer them something of quality.
This brings to mind the life story of Belgian designer Maarten van Severen. His misfortune began the moment his works – which he usually finished to perfection in his studio – were commissioned to be manufactured by Vitra. Having something mass produced, even if by such a high-standard manufacturer like Vitra, means making compromises. How do you find the middle ground with that? You also have very high standards in the craftsmanship of your objects.
P: As yet, we don’t have much experience with creative businesses. We’ve only gotten as far as creating a prototype which will be brought into production. Only then will we see the results.
M: We’re lucky that we can work with design galleries and execute our ideas one hundred percent as we wish. When working with manufacturers, admittedly, you can’t do things only the way that seems best to you; you have to take into account the manufacturer’s needs and wishes.
P: When we make something for ourselves, then we’re still naive enough to think that if we like it, then someone else will like it too. You can’t exactly work that way with commissions. But I think that when you work with others, a lot of creative sparks fly. Staying in our studio forever and making everything ourselves is too dangerous. I wouldn’t advise others to stay in an environment in which you control absolutely everything.■
Anny Wang, Tim Söderström Studio Wang & Söderström
Interview: Veronika Viļuma
Title photo: Lauris Aizupietis
Wang & Söderström is a fresh creative studio in Copenhagen, founded by two charismatic recent graduates from Sweden — spatial and furniture designer Anny Wang and architect Tim Söderström. In their work, they mostly focus on an exploration of digital and physical spaces that results in unusual illustrations, bright animations, art and design objects. Despite their relatively short work experience, they have already worked with global clients such as «The New York Times», «Nike», «Apartamento Magazine», «Frame Publishers», and others.
Anny Wang and Tim Söderström visited Latvia this summer to participate in the second MAD International Summer School of Design in Sigulda, which gathered designers, artists, craftsmen and scientists to work together and was devoted to the topic of biorevolution. Until September 10, the works created during the summer school are on display at the exhibition in Sigulda castle.
Meanwhile, in the end of August, the founders of «Wang & Söderström» revealed another ambitious collaboration. This time it is a campaign for Swedish streetwear store «Sneakersnstuff», for which «adidas Originals» have released a new, exclusively designed EQT silhouette. In the studio’s campaign, its authors reveal the materials of the product in a very playful way, once again demonstrating the unique set of skills and aesthetics that they themselves call their own universe. Soon, «Wang & Söderström» will open their solo exhibition in Stockholm.
How did you end up at MAD Summer School and what did you do here?
A: We didn’t know about the school until we received an invitation to participate. Then we got interested in its concept. Also, the location is extremely nice! And we have never tutored before, so we decided that this would be an exciting experience. Each tutor had a group of around six students and a theme to work on, such as tools, energy, food… We got tools.
What is your own education and how did you both start to work together?
T: I moved from Sweden to Copenhagen to study architecture and in graduated from the university in 2015.
A: I studied spatial and furniture design in Gothenburg. We met in a bar, became a couple and found out that we like working together as well.
T: It is also important that we can be so honest with each other. You know that you won’t hurt anyone’s feelings because you have a different opinion. Of course, our thoughts about a particular project can vary, but to work together you have to share a common vision, have a similar mindset.
How would you describe your studio? How do you want to present yourselves?
T: For now, it’s us two in the studio. Since last September, we have our own space and we are working full time on «Wang & Söderström» projects. That was our first goal.
A: We use 3D software, technologies and various materials to create, as we call them, unexpected experiences. They can be commercial campaigns, but just as well installations, spatial solutions, and objects or illustrations or music videos.
T: We really respect professionals who are masters in their fields, but we ourselves don’t have any borders. To be honest, I don’t think that we are experts in anything, although we are quite good at 3D technologies, which are our main tool. They are very diverse and can help us to create both furniture and animations. We wanted to create kind of a universe which is in a way just ours. It can be applied to our objects and you can see it in pictures as well.
A: The most interesting part of doing what we do is that we stretch boundaries and understanding of what is art, it can be combined with craft or design. We are very interested in this borderline between physical and digital and how it interacts with our senses.
T: To come back to goals, we want to make our universe even stronger. In the future we want to work with masters, kind of like we are doing at the school now when we meet masters of different techniques. And as we grow bigger, I hope we will be able to work with furniture designers and come to them with our ideas.
Do you do everything together or are your responsibilities somehow divided?
A: We have different strengths and what we are better in, so we can complement each other. Since Tim is an architect, he is very good at scale, he has a good eye on how to portray the room. We usually use space for our objects, it helps to tell the story and evokes imagination. But Tim is also very good in animations and a super fast learner.
T: And Anny is very good at combining colours and materials. Like some painters, she just knows what colours should be next to each other, how matt goes together with glossy, so the work gets stronger.
Your works are mostly created digitally, but their aesthetics tend to be hyperrealistic. How would you describe the relationship between these two worlds in your work?
A: About 95% works you can see on our website are digital. Only recently we touched the field of physical objects and installations. That’s how we like to work. We are playing with very familiar things and then we add something that is a bit weird to twist the mind a bit.
T: We don’t want to be realistic. We rather are somewhere between realistic and surreal.
Can you tell us a bit more about some of your work to better illustrate what you are saying? It seems that «Physlab» is one of the first and noticeable projects?
A: Yes, it was one of the first that started to define our studio and in which we really explored the relationship between digital and physical. The starting point in this series was always a physical force like wind or squeeze. Then we applied it in the digital environment and in a way let it to design the outcome. The physical world is so familiar to us and it is interesting to bring it into this very surreal environment. The perspective changes, you look at the work and you are not sure about what you see. This project is an ongoing exploration for ourselves but we also share it with others.
T: It is important that this is media created to be seen on the internet. It doesn’t really stand on its own. But when you are not that focused, these works draw your attention, because they’re not like everything else.
Given that the specifics of your work theoretically allow you to work from anywhere, you still have your own studio space in Copenhagen. How important is the place for you?
T: When we founded our own studio, we became more open in a way. We have met many new creative people, photographers and others that have helped us and we can help them.
A: There are so many creatives in Copenhagen, which is very inspiring. The creative vibe is more important than we think.
T: For us having our own workspace is very important. Since we work a lot in front of the computer, we didn’t want to do that at home, where work could take too much of our time. We wanted to take that trip to work.
A: Now we are more in the studio than in home. (Laughs) It’s convenient that we can invite clients there, organise meetings. In theory, we, of course, could sit in the woods or anywhere else.
T: Sometime in the future, we could move temporarily to some big city in Asia like Seoul or Tokyo. Not only to escape the cold in Copenhagen but also to meet new people in another city.
A: Or to Barcelona.
You work on both self–initiated and commercial projects. Does the approach differ in these two cases?
A: Since we are a start–up in some way, we have been lucky that the commissions are rolling in. That, of course, gives us money, but most of the projects are also very fun to work on. They give us the opportunity to use our design skills and find solutions to other’s problems not only our own, to work with clients. Usually, we also get quite enough creative freedom. It is because we have this creative universe, our style. Clients want our touch on the project. But then again personal projects are very important to us. It’s where we can get a bit crazier and explore things that we couldn’t try otherwise.
Despite the fact that you are a new studio, you have worked with many well–known brands. How did you manage to do that?
A: Since the very beginnings, we have always published our work on social media. It’s simple as that, actually. In last few years Instagram especially has boomed. It is a great tool for creatives to show almost all their portfolio. The first clients approached us saying: «We saw your work on Instagram.» Now it’s becoming more traditional, through the recommendations of someone else… Instagram has also given us many networking opportunities but not only job–wise. We’ve got a lot of friends from there as well.
T: The commissioned projects also become more and more relevant to what we are doing. Maybe because some time has passed and it is now clearer. One year can seem not so much but it is if you think in internet years! (Laughs)
What has been the most challenging, most complex project so far?
A: I guess, the installation «Blip Blub Hub» for the project «SPACE10». We received a request from «SPACE10» and «ArtRebels». «ArtRebels» is an organisation that works with art projects and events. This summer, they organised a conference combining it with music, art installations. The topic was future living, co–existence, digital empowerment… We created an installation for this event and it was the first time we got to do something in such big scale in physical form. It took some time to adjust to the situation where you have to build something with your hands, but it went really well at the end. But what’s super great about it, we went to that event, of course, and we have never experienced people reacting to your art when you can see the people. We have had smaller exhibitions, but this was very engaging, it was more than just looking at something. It reminded us that it is something completely different when you can touch it and speak about it.
T: This project gave us the opportunity to use our education, build constructions. I think in a long run we want to create more physical works in parallel with the digital ones.■
Interview: Veronika Viļuma
Title photo: Publicity photo
Jānis Straupe’s objects can make us rethink everything we know about furniture design. Among his works is A Chair within a Chair, The Double Table, the one with a tilted surface top, The Sharp Chair, which is included in the collection of the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, and the internationally recognized cabinet The Beetle. For the master himself the biggest joy is a chance to challenge — his colleagues and gravitation.
The great woodworker’s workshop in Vecmīlgrāvis is where he does two types of projects: one is exclusive commissions, furniture, and interior objects; the other is his personal creative pursuits: installations, tables, chairs, chests of drawers, etc., inspired by surrealism and made with the precision of a mathematician. During our conversation Straupe recalls what he once heard from restorers: medieval craftsmen believed God saw everything, including the inside of every work, so it also had to be done with care. This sort of perfectionism is what describes Straupe’s work, but what drives him is his own maximalism.
In interviews and descriptions of your works, you are sometimes called an artist or a designer or a woodworker. Which name seems most appropriate to you?
These names do no good. Once I went to a museum in Rūjiena and the guide asked everyone what their professions were. I said I was an artist, to which she said, yes, yes, everyone’s an artist in Riga! I am not a woodcarver who carves ornaments. Rather, I am a wood sculptor, but this is also not how I think about myself, because it is associated with elves and gnomes in the Tērvete park, and I am not doing this. At the same time, the word designer is so widely used. We could stay with the artist.
How did you choose wood as your material?
It was strange. I tried to get into the School of Applied Arts, but got right below the line. In order not to lose a year I was offered to go to the sculpturing and woodcarving department. I did and after four years I was preparing for the entry exams in the Academy of Art to study painting. I studied under Ivars Poikāns. I still had a month until the exams, so I got a job at the Māksla art factory and it was where I later did my graduation work — lathed dishes. And stayed there for 15 years, unexpectedly. I graduated from the school of life, not the academy.
Do your craftsmanship skills come from the experience at the School of Applied Arts?
The time when Imants Žūriņš used to teach there was my biggest luck in life. School laid foundations for all my knowledge and skills. There was a harmony of grey and earth tones, clarity of form, pedantic accuracy. The great Finnish designers, especially Alvar Aalto, were highly respected. Then I went to Māksla factory, which was where the cream of the Artists’ Union would gather, and I understood I wanted to prove myself. I was an apprentice, and the masters would test me: they would send me for vodka, make me unload wooden planks; the first 6 months I would be making little boxes. But I was so eager to show myself that I didn’t even notice it until I was knee-deep in it all. I was excited. I still am. My skills are my advantage. I have commissioned others to do my prototypes; I explained every detail, and yet others couldn’t make it the way I wanted it.
Are you still passing on your craft? Do you have apprentices?
I have students from the School; sometimes they make their final projects here. I sit on their juries. I’ve come to realize I can’t hire an experienced professional. It doesn’t work, because they are stubborn and rigid. To hire people with just the basic knowledge, I can shape them and in five years have something out of it. I work with one old master, Ivars Krūmiņš, with whom we’ve been together a long time. Each morning we begin with pretty nasty arguments. If they heard us they’d think it’s the last time we work together, but this is how we decide on the technique. Everything is thought through to detail. The craft is where it all begins. One can’t afford to think only about form; you have to know details so that a chair that you make lasts. My other advantage — or is it the other way round? — is that I only work with wood. I said it already twenty years ago when I first opened my workshop.
Over the years, haven’t you had an urge to change something, use a different material, find a new trade?
I use other materials as much as the particular project calls for. I have a passion, which is painting, but it’s a different story. One can paint anything, but it’s different from wood. However, when I make my wooden objects, I almost see them as paintings. When the interior designer Viesturs Vilks came to me with another crazy drawing of his, we would have a conversation like this: «Again you’ve drawn something that’s impossible to build», to which he replied: «I can’t draw anything you can’t build.» Of course I like praise, but mostly because I like challenging my fellows. When a colleague of mine, a skilled professional, can’t figure out how I did something, it is the best feeling!
When you work on a commissioned project, how do you find a balance between your personal standards and taste and the customer’s desires?
My work with the customer involves educating him. I try to explain my point of view to the customer. I say, okay, I can do this and you’ll like it, but then you’ll have some architect friends over and you’ll tell them Straupe made this piece of crap for you. It’s not fair. I have a great experience with this and if I feel we won’t be able to come to a mutual agreement, the money will not play a big role here. The big role is whether the work is interesting. With any commission — sometimes even without the customer knowing it — I add something to the work. Once we were building a kitchen set with a massive table and chairs. I said we’d sort the handles out later. I had this idea that the door of the cabinet should fold away like a sheet of paper. The fact that I could realize the idea brought joy to my heart. An already–agreed budget is no obstacle to me.
How do you see the general situation of craftsmanship in Latvia?
I think my trade is fine. Aldis Circenis and Jānis Rauza keep the standards very high; everything’s been perfected; we are no backwater. Speaking of smaller workshops, I am more critical. There are those who build houses to the riches of Jūrmala, but often there is one problem: their work contributes little to art. They just copy and paste from magazines instead of thinking what is best for the particular thing.
The Beetle cabinet has been especially praised, but I read the idea behind it was born long ago. How did it happen?
I drew The Beetle more than 10 years ago when it was an unrealized sketch for an exhibition. Later there was a person who wanted to work with me and partially fund me to make it. He said it was a cool idea and gave me money; that was all I needed. At first, I was sure it could be done, but then I made a model and my confidence deflated. I was very angry. Because to make a sculpture is not simple, but to make an object that functions as a cabinet — that involved some trailblazing. I wanted the doors to open like a beetle opens its wings — like the doors of a Ferrari. But it all went nowhere and in the end, nothing opened at all. It takes great concentration; AutoCAD is of no help; I must make a 1:1 drawing; each item has to be made in clay. It sometimes takes up to a year to go from an idea to starting work, but when I begin the meter starts rolling. The process mustn’t drag on because it costs money and the workshop has to be earning. The Beetle took three months; it was a very intensive but interesting process. Initially, we made the top part; we hired a woodcarver, but then the door wouldn’t open. I sawed it to pieces. The next morning we started from scratch. This merciless perfectionism sets in. I am not paid for that, but I do care what I show publicly and call mine.
How did The Beetle end up in London?
I had this manager Ieva Andžāne work for me, and she did a research on which foreign galleries exhibit unique design, and she sent out some information. Jeff Salmon of London’s Decoratum gallery responded. He said it looked very well in pictures, but wanted to make sure so is the quality. We sent several works, and he said they were perfect. Later, after their request, we sent The Beetle, which stayed in their showcase for six months. It was incredible! Then it was also taken up by 1stdibs, which is supposed to be prestigious. The next gallery, interested in a collaboration is in Paris.
Which of your works has brought the most satisfaction to you?
I like Cress, a chest of drawers that looks like a perfect cube from outside. It goes with the current trend to be very ascetic. But I like things sophisticated, so inside I made the drawers round–shaped. My first serious project, The Sharp Chair, also means a lot to me. I have it on a poster that says, «Furniture that catches the eye».
Also, there is a project left unfulfilled: a large tilted pendulum. Imagine a wide runner of impressive proportions, 20 meters long, with water containers on each end; when the water is being pumped from one side to the other, the runner sways. Being in a room with it, one should feel like one’s head begins to swim; the room’s perspective alters. I wanted to make it in the National Library, but the process stalled. I run on grandiosity. There is also an idea of an art project: a tunnel with many doors. When you enter the first room, the door behind you shuts, and you can’t go back, just like it is in life.
What happens to the ideas that you really wished but did not come to realize?
I look for ways to realize my ideas. If it hits a wall, I simply finish the model and put it away until better times. It’s a compromise because it’s impossible to do nothing. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a playground — I want to play, but I’m bored with old toys and want new ones. I want things I’ve created to go somewhere; it also motivates me, and in this way, space appears for new ideas.■
Interview: Evelīna Ozola
Title photo: Northmen
An expert in both carpentry and filming, and having a great intuition when it comes to marketing, Jēkabs Dimiters is a real 21st-century carpenter. Four years ago he founded a brand called John Neeman Tools and began producing workman’s tools that soon became widely recognized throughout the world for their high quality and an image of a mysterious team of craftsmen behind Jēkabs’ photographs and short films. In 2017, the brand changed its name to Northmen, a guild of northern master craftsmen that unites some of the best northern European bladesmiths, carpenters, woodworkers, toolmakers, woodcarvers, bowyers, leather workers, watchmakers, and jewelers.
After ten years in advertising and the film business, Jēkabs realized that the job lacked a concrete substance that he could hold on to. He wished to do a job that would make something essential, something that he could leave to his children. The idea to make tools came with practical necessity: having begun building his own wooden house, the chisels he had turned out to be too small for the job.
Together with local blacksmiths, he made replicas of historic carpenter tools, which were then deemed attractive enough to be sold on their own, and this was how the brand John Neeman Tools (now — Northmen) was born. The brand’s Vidzeme craftsmen use carefully selected materials from around the world to make the best quality tools: Latvian oak and elm, Karelian birch, steel from Japan, Sweden, Germany, and Russia; an oak that spent millennia buried in English swamplands, black and hard as a rock. Over time the production was expanded to include kitchen and hunting knives, leather bags and belts, bows, and even watches. To have a Northmen branded tool customers are happy to spend as long as one year on a waiting list.
What is the daily routine of Northmen?
We don’t share one place; each one has his own workshop. There are four smiths with assistants, three leatherworkers, and three woodworkers. There are also others who come to help when needed. Also, there is a bowmaker and a jeweler who is now working on the first prototypes of watches, while people are already filling up pre-order lists. Actually we have pre-order lists for everything we make. We warn people they’ll have to wait; that there is a long waiting list. You tell them they’ll have to wait for a year, but then they write to you after a week asking when they can have their order. We make an effort to explain everything politely and patiently. Because of this, we had to hire a person who sits in his ranch in Nashville, Tennessee, replying to the mass of emails we get every day. 90 percent of orders come from the US. We send a little to England; Latvians also shop with us occasionally. We’ve sent to Kazakhstan, South Africa, Japan, New Zealand. We’ve developed a wide range of models and products; as soon we come up with something new, it appears on our website right away. If people have a great choice to choose from, you can be sure they will order something. Of course, there are specific items that are only rarely ordered, like the bark remover. If such is ordered, we know they want to build a log house. Hunting and kitchen knives are popular gifts. We are sure to have a workload for two years in advance. I think it’s the only way for a craftsman to survive in the 21st century and be sure someone will need the thing he makes. I feel sorry for craftsmen who weave, spin, make clay pots for a whole year, then go to a fair, and if that year the business happens to be slow they leave with sad faces and cars still full of stuff. If they’re lucky, they can sell off everything, but it is still a great risk. All we make is already sold. I think modern craftsmanship should be like this.
How did you manage to build such a stable demand?
With a story, definitely. Without a story, a tool is just a piece of metal, wood, or leather. Without a person behind it, it is a cold and lifeless object. When I left advertising, I took with me my camera and the skills I had acquired filming and editing. I came up with an idea to make a story about each tool, both as an ad as well as a tribute to this particular thing, the knowledge behind it. Stories build respect for the craftsman and his creation. Of course, it’s a film, an ad; the work is harder in real life. The way we see ourselves is that we are not what the story is about; we let the work, its quality, tell the story. Self-promotion ruins everything; you can’t do it. Therefore our films don’t have a single spoken word, only action, or as they say, a powerful demonstration. English and American marketing gurus did an analysis of our marketing strategy, which cost me exactly nothing. I approach it as a game; as if I were a fisherman – I make a new net, a new video, throw it out on Youtube and watch how many orders I get by the next morning. (Laughs) I have studied neither marketing nor economics; I follow my instinct. I haven’t gone to any crafts schools; I built my own wooden house after spending one summer with a professional, working, learning how to put one beam against another. Knowledge comes to you, as does the experience. Mistakes are a great teachers. The more you do, the less you go wrong. You build confidence and learn to do everything more smoothly.
Are you passing on what you have learned yourself?
We have many applications from abroad; we receive emails every day. In our high-tech age, people miss things made by hand. People grow to love it, leave everything else. A boy calls from Australia, “Hello, I am twelve, I don’t want to go to school anymore; I have money for the ticket and I’m not returning home”. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to hire these people, but not now. I know what it means when you are working in a workshop and they constantly come to ask how this or that is done. You can’t work. You have to choose whether you want to be a craftsman or a teacher. I think it’s going to get there eventually, but not now.
How did you yourself become involved with crafts and carpentry?
You can say I grew up in Riga open-air museum. I actually felt a little sad I’d been born a hundred years too late because I became fascinated by the architecture I saw there. In a way, this emotional experience has been following me ever since. I have a feeling I want to go back there, go deep into it. I’m not even a folklorist, nor am I a history fetishist; I take what time offers, but I like all those old things, the smell in the buildings, the ancient lifestyle, proportions, constructions, roof angles. It makes me sad there’s no unified approach to country architecture in Latvia – it’s all because of the Soviet times. In Sweden or Norway, in each village there are certain shades they are allowed to paint their buildings in. Latvians should live in simple rectangular houses similar to the one I built for myself.
In what way would it be better?
I am not against new forms or proportions; I’m talking here about country architecture in general. It would be good if each region complied with its own historic proportions, retaining its general atmosphere. As these buildings get older, they seem to have been growing out the earth, blending with the landscape. But what can I do? All I can do is leave a house the way I like it in its own landscape.
Why is it important for you to work with hands?
First of all, it’s because it brings satisfaction; it calms me down. It’s meditation. So much is now made mechanically that working with hands is just an instinctual necessity. Hands are our God-given machine. When you see how much hands can do it is sometimes hard to believe. At the end of the month, you look at what you’ve achieved, and you can’t believe it’s possible! Secondly, you invest a part of yourself in the work. Buying an item from a craftsman who made it, you by a part of his life, his time, experience, vision. Things talk; they tell the craftsman’s story. It’s like my great grandfather’s cupboard: when I look at it I think about how he planed, sawed, prepared the joining parts. My great grandfather continues to live through it, though not in it.
Do you care about what happens to your products after they’re sold?
Of course, I’m happier if a tool carries our craft further. It’s like a chain reaction: the smith forges, the carpenter builds, and a family lives a happy life. And the story goes on. There were men who wrote to us saying they were about to embark on a large project in Denmark; they have just ordered carpenter’s chisels and are going to build a historic Viking longhouse – they’re going to be doing everything by hand and in oak. Knowing what they’re about to do, we prepared and shipped everything in three days just because it inspired me and made me happy to help. There was a man in Australia who’d built a house from cypress. The cypress is the hardest conifer there is. “Your chisels needed no sharpening,” is a good reference. Or when a knife goes to a keen hunter who then says he could skin five deer without it needing sharpening. There are also people who inquire about distribution rights. We make no such deals. Of course there are also people who ask for advice on how to choose the best presentation board because they want to put the ax above a fireplace – so that they can look at it before going to bed. There are all kinds of people.
What do you call what you do, design or craft?
Design is where it all begins; then comes the craft. In the beginning, there are lines. Each product has a design and a material, and the craft brings it together. I call myself neither a designer nor an artist. I grew up among bohemian artists who used to annoy me and still do. I also can’t stand words like ‘entrepreneurship’ or ‘business’. I would call myself a carpenter. I like making tools; it’s how I earn my living. With what we earn we feed ten families; each family has two children. We’re a fellowship, or as they used to say, a guild of craftsmen. We’ve established a sort of platform for the lost world of the crafts. We’ve taken the upward-downward direction.
Speaking of platforms for crafts, how can modern technologies help Latvian craftsmen?
They don’t know how to get their clay pot over to Alaska. It’s not going to be the case that the craftsman is going to sit in his workshop and someone from Alaska will call him because they have heard that they make great pots somewhere near Līgatne. There should be a general platform where we could show what we can do. The old craftsmen need someone who could make a video about them and help them so that someone else would watch it, like it and want to buy it. Completely different thinking is needed a different sales approach. It’s called marketing, international communication; whatever it is, but it must do so that a person after seeing a picture and never having touched the thing would be willing to pay big money and wait in hope and faith that his purchase is going to arrive exactly what he imagined it. If Latvia had a plan how to prevent the crafts industry from going bust, we could make it happen.■
Interview: Veronika Viļuma
Title photo: Lauris Aizupietis
The work of Rihards Vidzickis is a perfect merger of seemingly different industries — craftsmanship, science and tourism. Having studied the nuances of woodcraft for a lengthy period of time, he then went on to study for a doctoral degree in Engineering from the Riga Technical university. At the same time, Rihards set up the Vienkoči Park in Ligatne, with the Woodcraft Museum as its central object. Rihards talks about wood, and particularly solid wood pieces, with great enthusiasm, but he also has something to say about craftsmanship and its relationship with design in a broader sense.
The idea of creating a Woodcraft Museum came to Rihards in 1999, when after graduating from the Riga Secondary School of Crafts, Faculty of Woodwork, Rihards began his studies at the Riga Technical University. In this Rihards was supported by his father, a wood craftsman himself, who not only encouraged his son’s interest but had also gathered a solid collection of pieces to start an exposition. The nearly ten–hectare wide territory under the name of Vienkoči Park has been open for visitors for over 10 years. When we visit Rihards on a snowy winter day together with the photographer, he is showing off his museum collection and tells us that autumn is usually the high season at Vienkoči Park. At the same time seasons don’t play as big a role in his work as weather conditions. Rihards is observing a natural rhythm. If it is snowing or raining outside, he works indoors. If not, he is sawing and carving outside. The master’s signature pieces are made of one–piece wood — log boats, kneading troughs and other bowls. Although this seems very niche, Rihards is not lacking in clients. He is one of the «Northmen» craftsman guild members, and the majority of pieces he creates are commissioned from abroad.
You mentioned in one of your interviews that the popularity of woodcraft is growing all over the world. How would you explain this and why is wood still so important to people as a material?
It is difficult to give you one specific answer. As a material wood has been well known historically, it is all around us in nature and it is pleasant to work with. In southern countries, stone materials are used quite a lot, for stone is cooler and more suitable for a hotter climate. Wood is also not as readily available, yet it is still being used. Wood works well as a thermal insulator — on a cold winter day we can sit down on a wooden bench without getting cold and equally it does not heat up during summer. It is suitable for all climates — this is one of the reasons for its popularity. Moreover, it is a natural material. Nobody would want to sit at a plastic table at home!
When it comes to the growing popularity of woodcraft… that is quite fascinating indeed! In woodcraft, you would always go for the best possible quality. And now industrial production has taken quality up to the point that it is no longer attractive. We sometimes look at a wooden object and can no longer distinguish it from plastic. For today manufacturing of plastic is so advanced, it can imitate nearly anything. You have wooden windows, but only an expert can tell if this is actual wood, judging from specifics and wood joints. You cannot tell anything by touch.
Objects made by a craftsman have their own character and texture which comes from his hands. They tell their own story — the object is made by a particular master or a group of masters in a particular workshop at a certain point in time. The customer senses a stronger link, which allows acting upon customers’ wishes. This is where a partnership emerges between a master and a client. These would be my reasons for the increasing demand for craftsmanship.
How did you decide to work with single–piece wood? What are their specific features?
Ever since childhood I’ve enjoyed the Ethnographic Open–Air Museum and all of its historical exhibits. I thought there was something mystical and intriguing about log boats. Vilnis Kazāks, the ex–president of the Latvian Chamber of Crafts, who was my lecturer at the university, was keen on log boats. Because of him, I made my first log boat and that’s how it all started. The name of the park grew out of this interest. Essentially one–piece wood crafting means making objects fully or largely made out of a single piece of wood. It is both an interesting and a time–consuming process. Everything is made out of green, wet wood, which dries during the work process. Green wood is not as hard and much easier to work with. Bread kneading troughs are made of linden and aspen trees and other bowls are made from other leaf trees. I have recently started making more use of bird–cherry trees, the texture of which is similar to rowan trees. All of the bowls, except for the kneading trough, are treated with natural materials, mostly bee products. I make my own propolis tincture, wax and linseed oil. Now I am slowly developing the technology of treating wood by burning it.
How are your works purchased and by whom?
I am one of the craftsmen in the «Northmen» guild — the majority of bowls are ordered via our website. Commissions usually come in from abroad, mostly from the US, where people have an interest in all kinds of pieces. The last bowls I made travelled to France. Sooner or later all of the bowls find a home. Many kneading troughs are sold here in Latvia — they are used for both bread baking and decoration. During the tourist season, we have visitors who stop by and buy something. Some bowls go to Latvian restaurants for professional use. We have good partnerships with the restaurants «Restorāns 3» and «Trīs Pavāru restorāns», who give us constant feedback as well. I find feedback important, for it allows me to improve technology and finish, and to know how the bowl is being used. I test things out quite a lot — I once kept pickled beets in a bowl for 24 hours. Nothing happened. What I am saying is, you need to know how to look after a wooden bowl for it to serve you well. I am no longer attending fairs and I do not take up private commissions like furniture. I cannot work in all possible directions.
What gives you more pleasure — the work process or its results?
Those are moments when I am creating something new. The very process until I come to its result. Of course, if it happens to be a success, I am most certainly pleased. Even when you think something similar has been done before, the difference lies in the very nuances. The deeper you go into this field, the more important role is played by nuances and the process of revealing them. Professional growth, in my opinion, is a normal process. For instance, I had been working with wood for a long period of time before I started making single–piece wooden bowls a few years ago. It took one and a half years for me to realize I had grown to the point that I truly understood this field. And even then, there is not a moment I can fully say — here, this is it. There is always something new, something to improve or to discover.
How do you see craftsmanship in Latvia today and what is your take on its future?
Something is not right with craftsmanship these days. Neither the educational institutions nor state policy is particularly oriented towards its development. The Riga Secondary School of Crafts, where I graduated from the Faculty of Woodwork, is now renamed Riga Art and Media College. What often happens today is everyone becomes some sort of «designer», but the very essence on which design objects, materials and functionality is based, is something completely alien to them. They are focused on the visual aspects, but the foundations are missing.
What characterises high–level craftsmanship? The wood products, the little items you can widely see at fairs and at souvenir shops, in my opinion, give the wrong impression about this industry.
The cornerstone of craftsmanship is skills. You can gain them from a craftsman or learn them from your own mistakes. At craft schools, the teachers are largely craftsmen, too. When you outgrow your teacher (and every good craftsman should outgrow his own teacher at some point), the next level is to start learning from your own mistakes, for you have already learnt from those of others.
You have a doctoral degree in Engineering. What gave you the motivation to pursue a scientific career next to your practical work?
My main motivation was the very process of finding something out. And scientific activity coincided with the path I had already chosen (in 2012 Vidzickis defended his doctoral thesis «Cutting Technology of Objects for the Outdoor Environment» — V.V.). Had my doctoral degree been done in a completely different field, I would not have gone this far. My colleagues are just the same. Part of them became professors, but I don’t need that. I manage my own institution, while still being in partnership with the university.
Is working with students your way of keeping future generations interested in craftsmanship?
Passing your knowledge on is important. I used to work with students more when my everyday was spent at the Riga Technical University. Now I get more visitors who are interested in all things related to wood. What they will do with this knowledge and skills, remains to be seen. For instance, there is a doctoral student from the Riga Technical University, who started studying hand carving tools during her Master’s studies. She visits me, tries these tools out in practice. She is not going to make single–piece wood objects, but she wants to get to know woodcraft through its tools. We have a large problem with terminology in Latvia — there are old words and foreign words, and there are lots of tools that do not have a Latvian name at all, or if they do, they are completely wrong.
Last summer I became involved with MAD (International Summer School of Design MAD — V.V.), I was consulting students who had chosen to work with solid wood. As far as it was possible, our ideas were successful. Working with single-piece wood requires specific tools, which is quite expensive. And depending on what you are making, a wide range of tools are required. I do have such tools that I got from Jēkabs (Jēkabs Dimiters — craftsman, founder of the «Northmen» guild — V.V.), which were custom–made to meet my needs.
You have been involved in the organization of World Wood Days. Could you please tell us more about this event?
World Wood Days is a regular international event, which typically takes place in countries with deep roots in craftsmanship. It started out in Tanzania, then came China, Turkey and Nepal. Last year the World Wood Days were held in Los Angeles. Americans are crazy — on a hobby level, their craftsmanship is really advanced. People may be doing something completely different professionally, and spend their free time working with wood at a very advanced level. This year the World Wood Days are taking place in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. This event brings together woodcutters and craftsmen from all over the world. Each country has its own specifics — Africans focus more on sculpture, China has the full spectrum from sculpture to furniture. Four years ago, I visited the World Wood Days in China, the organizers of which called to hold regional events. This is why the World Wood Days have now been taking place at the Vienkoči Park for three years in a row, and this has become a tradition for the students. The environment is very suitable for this, except maybe for the weather conditions — the World Wood Days are held in March.
Vienkoči Park features the very first sand–bag house in Latvia. How did this idea to build one come about?
This idea was born in 2008 in a group of some likeminded craftsmen. Before that, we used to gather in a nearby log house from Latgale, but we wanted something slightly bigger. The basic idea was to build it from natural and recycled materials. The foundations are made of fodder sacks filled with sand and clay. We used glass bottles and ad banners for hydro isolation. We wanted to build a house in a style that nobody else had attempted before in Latvia. Now there are a few similar cases, but the ones who made them would come to visit here first. When we were building this, there was only one other person in Latvia who was making a house from straw bales.
There is a lot of talk about the saving of resources and sustainability as something contemporary design should focus on. What is your take on that?
Rational use of resources is very important. For example, when I create bowls I try to make use of all the suitable material and produce as little surplus as possible. I also use what is left over. Since wood is a renewable natural resource, I can choose what to do with the parts I don’t need. One option is to leave them in the forest to rot, other — to use them as firewood. The shavings are great for compost. In the Vienkoči Park and in my private life I pay a great attention to recycling. At the same time, my approach isn’t too extreme. I believe that everything should be done reasonably. In my opinion, many issues related to environmental pollution and global warming are exaggerated.
How big a role in your broad scope of activity is given to tourism?
I may have put more emphasis on tourism at the beginning, but the Latvian market is very small. It is nice to see more and more people from abroad here. Every now and then we get people who are seriously interested in what we do. For instance, last summer we had a visitor from a ship museum in the Netherlands, who was interested in log–boats. Tourism goes hand in hand with everything else I am doing. In any case, it means not only recreation but research. I let people learn more about woodworking, the history of Ligatne surroundings, its nature and green thinking. Being a wood craftsman, I am engaged in the preservation of skills — the immaterial cultural heritage. I have created a kind of triangle for myself — craftsmanship, science and tourism. In my view, these three form the very core of what I do.■
Mieke Meijer, Roy Letterlé Studio Mieke Meijer
Interview: Kristīne Budže
Title photo: Rihards Funts
Young designers, including ourselves, are living in times when the creative flight is much more limited. We cannot say that only sky is the limit, say Mieke Meijer and Roy Letterlé, founders of the Dutch design studio Studio Mieke Meijer. Last summer they were giving lectures at the international design summer school MAD in Sigulda, Latvia.
Studio Mieke Meijer belongs to the new generation of Dutch designers. Lead designer Mieke Meijer graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven, and her approach to design further develops characteristic traits of this school. At Studio Mieke Meijer they don’t wait for customers, they carry out their own projects. Mieke Meijer and her partner Roy Letterlé work on their designs in their studio in Eindhoven. Available in small series or limited editions; functionality of their designs is sometimes on the side-lines. Studio Mieke Meijer works with European design galleries and architectural firms. Besides the design, the company is dedicated to development of a new material – recycled newspaper which resembles wood and is known as NewspaperWood. Designers encourage their colleagues to use the new material and hope that one day it will be used extensively, for example, in ceiling finishings.
Last summer both of you were giving lectures at the design summer school MAD, and you are also lecturers at the Design Academy Eindhoven. Why is it interesting for practicing designers to be a part of a teaching faculty?
M: As a designer you live in your own bubble – in your workshop, focusing on yourself, I would even say – you are very selfish. If you are a teacher, you are focusing on students and their interests, thinking how to guide them through the study process, trying to discover their talent, convince them of that and inspire. Yes, I have the feeling that by teaching I am doing something good for the community, something that has a greater social outcome than work in my studio.
Roy, you left your teaching job to join Mieke and run the design studio together.
R: Mieke is a professional designer. I am an autodidact in design, I studied civil engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology. I have been a lecturer at several universities and besides running our studio I still work at the Utrecht University teaching Master’s degree program in Interior Architecture.
It seems to be the trend in modern day education – that after graduation young designers often become teachers themselves.
R: I think it’s good that faculty teachers at universities are a mix of both experienced professionals and young talents. I have noticed that students often decide to continue their Master's studies so that they can work as lecturers. Obviously, for young designers a teaching job is also a source of regular income, but experienced and recognized designers can earn much more in their studios. Also, there is no such school where you could learn how to be a design instructor. Teaching design is about sharing your practical experience.
M: At Design Academy Eindhoven almost all the lecturers are also practicing designers or work elsewhere besides the teaching. This means that the teachers have different points of view on design, and this is interesting for students. But because I don’t have pedagogical education, I lack the knowledge on how to help students. Design studies are intense, and students often suffer from excessive stress and tension.
Some time ago, there was a discussion on social media between art critics and practicing architects about who could and should evaluate architecture.
M: Theorists experience design a little differently, looking from a different angle.
R: The role of art scientists, design theorists and critics is to place designers' work in the context of historical and contemporary events, which in turn is not the role of designers. Their function is to create, the task of the critics – to observe and to analyse.
M: Designers can’t easily see their own creations in a wider historical, social and aesthetic context.
R: It could happen that an architect designs a building that he and his colleagues consider formally very good, but critics can rightly point out that it lacks, for example, social output. They notice things that practicing professionals don’t notice. I think that, for example, art has no right to exist only for itself. Art is there for critique – it is seen and appreciated by someone. And architecture without evaluation is just an expression of architect’s and customer’s egos, which is not a sustainable way of doing things.
Do you read design critiques?
R: Critics only write about five percent of the design that is on the top of the top. The rest usually remains outside the circle of critical analysis. At best, there are published descriptions of our works. There is a difference between simply describing the designers’ works and really analysing them.
It is popular among Latvian architects to differentiate that only five percent of what’s built is architecture, the rest is everyday construction. Can it be separated that way in design as well?
R: I don’t agree. In my opinion, one hundred percent of what’s built is architecture. I think there can only be good or bad architecture, no matter what function it is built for. A supermarket and a factory building also have a form, a visual shape that matches or does not match its function. Regarding design it is exactly the same. Otherwise we could say that industrial design is not a design at all.
The generation of British designer Jasper Morrison has always emphasised that their dream is to create mass-produced industrial design products for everyone. Designers of the new generation do not aspire to that. What’s changed?
R: Jasper Morrison, Philippe Starck – they are the generation of superstar designers. They are from different times – before the economic crisis. Their careers were developing in prosperous conditions. Young designers, including ourselves, are living in times when creative flight is much more limited. We cannot say that only the sky is our limit. We need to spend more time on survival, and it also changes the ideals. Our dream isn’t to be the next Morrison or Starck. We want to do something significant, not to be famous.
The new generation of designers has lost the illusion of creating products suitable for everyone? Are they aware that design items will be exclusive?
M: Of course, we are also facing this problem. It is not our goal to create expensive items, but if you live and work in the Netherlands and try to create something with your own hands, the final product will not be cheap. Mass production is the only way to create something cheap, but I think it's neither modern nor sustainable. Nowadays, there is less need for things. People are looking for new experiences rather than new things.
R: Nowadays, almost every major European city has its own design school. Currently, there are many more designers than in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Back then, design was a new profession. Starck and his contemporaries were pioneers of design, and there was no great rivalry between them. Manufacturers themselves were looking for them for collaboration. Nowadays, there are so many designers that they cannot possibly all be employed only in industrial design. We have to find a way to survive, and we are more realistic. If any of us had the opportunity to reproduce our design in millions, we would all go for it. It is not that it is our choice to make each item in only five copies.
Would you also want your things to be produced in millions of copies?
M: Of course. We know some examples on how designers collaborate with IKEA. The manufacturer sets his requirements and an ultimatum – do it this way or we'll let you go. All designers agree to compromise.
R: Designers want to influence the world. You cannot do it while sitting in the countryside and making beautiful items. You can only influence the world by creating items that are made in millions of copies and that make the lives of as many people a little better. To get this opportunity, designers are willing to agree to a lot and to accept a lot. Of course, given that the production process does not pose a threat to the environment and the factories do not exploit the workers.
You make your own design items. Doesn’t that limit you? You can’t be such skilled craftsmen with all the materials and in all techniques.
M: Yes, starting point for our work is often the resources available to us. When we established the studio, all we had was a ceramic kiln. We made everything that could be fired in this kiln. When we earned some money, we invested in new technologies and equipment, new materials. Now we have a well-equipped workshop, which we are continuously improving.
R: In my opinion, this is a question of specialization and comprehensiveness. We specialize in making things, but in what and how to make, we are wide-ranging. We have ceramic items, items made of glass, wood, metal and plastic. We do not prioritize material. The key is that it matches the idea.
M: If you're a craftsman working with one type of material or using a single technique, it's hard to break out of the conventional way of using your skills.
R: But, of course, specialization gives your work depth and strength you cannot achieve if you are diversified.
M: It seems to me that our studio works might be lacking this depth. I hope it will come with time and experience.
R: There is another thing – we are afraid of a white sheet of paper, afraid to begin something in complete emptiness. Sometimes you hear that a white page is the most beautiful thing, because it contains everything that will appear. For us, emptiness and white pages are the craziest thing. We need a starting point, an anchor to hold on to. For a long time, we were trying to overcome this fear and create items starting with an empty page. Now we don’t torment ourselves anymore. We have come to realise that we should take forms that already exist in the world and give them new functions. We are not creating new forms, we assume that they already exist. We only design new functions for them. This principle is often used by architects in the reconstruction of historical buildings.
You have mentioned that you are working between design and architecture.
R: Yes, our furniture is often based on architectural designs. In a way, in our work we continue to play out aesthetics that have been played out elsewhere. Our work is continuation of something already existing.
M: Every designer should position themselves, state where they are on the map in the world of design. We feel good in the liminal field between product design and architecture. Recently we made a staircase for a private house. Stairs are usually a transit zone, but in this case, the homeowner chose to transform it into a place where one could spend some time. However, we did not call this staircase a staircase, but a piece of furniture that can be stepped on. If it was called a staircase, we would have to coordinate the design with many rules and regulations.
R: We design everything except buildings. We are very inspired by the architectural environment, the way how architects work, the constructive principles of buildings. We do the same, only on a smaller scale.
M: To us, the relationship between objects and space is very important. I think this is the next step for our work – not only be inspired by architecture, but interact with it.
Why did you decide to stay in Eindhoven after your studies?
M: In Eindhoven designers have a comfortable working environment – the rental of the workshop is not expensive, there are many like-minded colleagues around. The city still bears the legacy of Philips. There are many subcontractors who have previously collaborated with Philips and are still capable of producing a wide range of things.
R: Companies here are used to designers coming to them and asking silly questions. In Eindhoven companies are open for cooperation. It is a tradition. If I came to a manufacturer elsewhere with just an idea I want to try out, besides, I wouldn’t have any money, most places would reject me, but in Eindhoven such weirdos are commonplace, and companies gladly participate in experiments. Here entrepreneurs understand the added value of design.
M: There is a reason they say – if you want to see what will be shown next year at Milan Design Week, go this year to Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven.
R: It is usual that at Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven designers display prototypes, unfinished projects to test reaction of the public, to get a feedback. Working in Eindhoven is also good in that sense that here you are surrounded by colleagues who are stronger, more talented and better than you. That way you aspire to them and they pull you up with their traction. Being a designer in the middle of nowhere is much more difficult.■
Interview: Veronika Viļuma
Title photo: Studio Germans Ermičs
Amsterdam–based Latvian designer Germans Ermičs has gained international recognition with his glass furniture, which reveals his nuanced sense of colour and fresh perspective. In the three years of managing his own design studio, Germans has successfully taken part in the most prominent design weeks of Europe and has worked on interior projects around the world. His work is followed by the world’s leading design media. In 2017, «Wallpaper» magazine nominated Germans for the Next Generation Designer of the Year Award, while this year his Ombré chair was listed as one of the best works in the category «Best in Glass» in the «Wallpaper Design Awards 2018».
You are best known for designing glass furniture and other glass objects. Why did you choose this material specifically?
It all started out with my graduation work at the Design Academy Eindhoven and has also to do with me still collaborating with the same glass manufacturer, which I have a close working relationship with. Glass and colour are media through which I implement my ideas on optical illusions, on playing with spaces. Yet my ambition is not to be a glass designer — I think it’s important not to be stamped and forever recognised only as a colour or a glass person. It is logical that people have seen a lot of it in my work. It’s only been three years, I’m new to this profession. I am now working with natural stone, marble and onyx. This is age–long and incredibly beautiful material. I am trying to understand how I could gain new value from nature by simultaneously paying respect to it. So I experiment with various manufacturing processes. Hoping that in a year’s time I can create new work with other materials.
How important is it for the result of experiments to be aesthetically pleasing?
Beauty is not what I am focusing on. I am interested in the material in the first place. If it is beautiful, you don’t even need to do much. I choose very simple forms and constructions just so I don’t damage the material in any way. I am also trying to find the cleanest and I most comprehensible way of using colour. It is not merely a décor that I pick out once the objects are finished. In the «Shaping Colour» series I wanted to give colour the central role. I am fascinated by colour transitions and I always try to look for something magical in the material. We all know what glass is like — it is cold, industrial and transparent. My intention is to work with materiality to change people’s perceptions. Once I have achieved this, people are surprised and they ask me what kind of material this is. It is more of a conceptual approach: it certainly pleases me that the end result is tasteful and appealing, but it is not the first thing I think of.
Can you tell us a bit more about the techniques you use in your coloured glass works?
This is a special kind of printing technology. It all starts with colour that is printed on paper by applying a very thin layer of ink. Then through heat and pressure, it is transferred onto a special transparent film, which is then laminated thus merging between two layers of glass and becoming almost invisible. This is a lengthy and expensive process, which is why the series are limited and available only in selected spots.
In Latvia, people know you as the co–creator and art director of «Veto Magazine». How did your interest in graphic design transferred into product design?
We created «Veto» with friends Jānis Volkinšteins and the editor Zane Volkinšteine with whom we shared a vision of a new kind of magazine. It was then and also during my studies that I was not yet sure about my career direction, so I pursued my interest in graphic design. I have now found a balance, which is a compromise between graphic and product design. I would graphically experiment with form, colour and material. It’s kind of a hybrid of disciplines that allows me to work in more than one field at a time.
Where did you study design?
At first, I studied industrial design at Riga Technical University, Faculty of Transport and Mechanical Engineering, but soon realised it wasn’t for me because the programme was more about mechanics, technical stuff than about design as a creative process. So I passed my first exams and six months later I was off to Krabbesholm Højskole in Denmark, a school for future design, architecture and art students that would prepare them for admissions to university. I spent a whole year there, during which I met inspiring people and found more about the opportunities of design education. After that, I lived in Copenhagen for a year doing an internship at this great design studio «Rasmus Koch Studio». Their primary focus was on working with cultural institutions. It was a valuable experience that changed my perception of graphic design. When I moved to Eindhoven in 2007, I was one of the first students from Latvia. Before me, there was Māra Skujeniece, who later became my tutor. At first, I thought I would do something graphical but soon realised the Academy had lots more to offer, so I chose the furniture and interior design department «Man and Living», which no longer exists due to a reorganisation of the departments.
Please tell us more about what you gained from your studies and internship in Denmark. Such boarding schools are not very common in Latvia…
The concept of folk high schools is fairly developed in Denmark, and they are largely based in the interests of future students. After secondary school, people take a gap year to come to terms with their interests and it is also an opportunity to work on the portfolio, which is mandatory for further studies. These were high–level studies, except we were not graded — this was just to prepare ourselves. The best thing was to get to know great people who would support you. I still follow what my friends from there are doing, sometimes our paths cross in the professional field, projects and exhibitions. Of course, we had many parties as well. It was a very fun year.
How did you come to create your own studio? And what is it like?
Before graduating from the Academy I had an internship in «Studio Robert Stadler» which was a useful experience and gave me a small insight on managing a studio. After that, it took me about three years to decide to work for myself. I spent a year in Latvia — it seemed I can finally come back, so I tried to come to terms what it is I could do here, how I could grow — either start my own studio or find a job. But I changed my mind, moved to Amsterdam and spent two years in interior design, which gave me a steady income flow and an experience in various types of clients and projects in Europe, USA, China. The scale is completely different from that I could afford in the beginning of my own studio when you have no money, no clients and nobody knows who you are. In Autumn 2014, I started my own studio («Studio Germans Ermičs» — V.V.), which is located in the creative space «Krux Amsterdam» in the industrial harbour area of Amsterdam East. We are a small but diverse community that consists of artists, designers, craftsmen. We have various workstations, tools and, most importantly, an atmosphere that gives an incentive to work. It was important for me to be in an environment where I can talk to people. We share not only our experiences but also the tools — everyone has brought something in and we all get to use these items. Sometimes we have dinner or bigger events together, our place is quite well–known in the city. We will however soon be moving, for in Amsterdam, just like in many other big cities is exposed to gentrification.
Do you work alone in your studio?
Yes, and currently I am in a situation where I need to expand my studio. It has mostly due to the increase in the amount and diversity of projects, which is, of course, great and challenges me professionally. I work with experts from many fields on daily basis — manufacturers, craftsmen and companies. It is a network I am trying to broaden to implement my projects.
To what extent have you worked on creating your own brand?
From the very beginning, I tried to search and develop a personal approach to the work process and I still continue to do that. When experimenting and developing a new material you create a unique niche you can grow in when creating new projects. Of course, the way how you communicate about your work is also very important. All of this naturally contributes to the creation of a personal brand. Many of my university mates have their own studios — this is unique to the Netherlands — that you can afford to be an independent designer and be successful by doing what you love.
What does everyday life look like in your studio, what kind of projects do you normally work on?
It might sound boring but it is communication that takes up the majority of my day — I spend it writing e–mails. The design phase is not the longest or the most complicated. The biggest challenge is to organise everything. The next step is to then work with journalists, publications, social networking, but it all contributes to the recognition of the studio and works. Speaking of projects, usually those are custom orders from designers and architects that include my objects or materials in their projects. There are also shops and galleries for which I produce small series of glass furniture or mirrors. The third part are projects I initiate myself and participation in exhibitions several times a year. This helps communicate to others what it is that I do and helps me establish contacts. I believe that the online world plays a big role, but if you create physical objects, they need to be shown physically. Photography is important as well — your work will be showcased for a week, but you need to communicate about it for another year.
How do you choose design fairs and events in which you take part?
These things change as I grow professionally. At first it was important for me to finish the Academy and to take part in my graduation showcase. Next I wanted to be in Milan Design Week, because I knew this would be the most important platform for design. Of course Milan is enormous, there are millions of places for showcasing your work, but I was lucky because my work was chosen by Rossana Orlandi. Thousands of people come to her gallery each year to see emerging talents or just to enjoy an afternoon in her wonderful garden. Many of my contacts come from this place. In 2015, I was a part of «Dutch Invertuals» — each year the collective organises a design exhibition in Eindhoven as part of Dutch Design Week and later also at Salone del Mobile in Milan. Based on a given concept, designers create work just for this exhibition. The result is impressive and this expo receives quite a lot of attention. Last year, I also took part in the Design Parade in Hyeres, a prestigious design festival in Southern France, and got in the shortlist of ten designers. Young designers should really think about what or who they will be associated with, not just succumb to inertia. I participated in the exhibition «Sight Unseen Offsite» in New York. «Sight Unseen» is a much visited design blog with quite a big influence in North America. This was a wonderful experience, a dynamic and fresh place for exhibitors.
You have often worked with architects and interior designers. Could you please tell us more about these collaborations?
I am willing to collaborate with other professionals, because that allows to change the scale and context. It is important that this is new experience to which it would be very difficult to come by working alone. In collaboration with Miami architecture studio «Rene Gonzalez Architect» I created a unique collection of glass samples based in the colours of the sea and the sky in Miami. My first work from this collection was a 4m long glass table, which was presented at a private residence during «Art Basel». Our collaboration continues — I have just started to work on the new «Alchemist» concept store in a «Herzog & de Meuron» building in Miami. I have had similar collaborations with the Belgian architect Glenn Sestig – I took part in interior creation for the Raf Simons store in Dover Street Market, London. I am currently still working on another project — a restaurant in Mexico by Francisco Elias, which will open in late summer. This is the largest and most challenging collaboration I have had so far — a tremendous façade and the whole interior is made of glass.
It seems like you do everything with a purpose and know very well what you want to get out of it. Where do you want to see yourself, say, in a couple of years time?
It is difficult to predict my direction — there are things you want to do, but you don’t yet know how to get there, what steps to take to get to collaborate with particular brands or architects. At the same time, if you are active as a designer, you create a new project each year, talk about it, take part in exhibitions, you have high–quality photographs, you work with the press, then it is only logical for a design studio to develop, attract more attention and get involved in more interesting projects. Of course the work needs to be good enough for people to become interested.
How can you know that your work is good enough?
You never know (laughs). You are told. All you can do is try to do the best to your ability and be authentic, and people will notice that.■
Interview: Veronika Viļuma
Title photo: Lauris Aizupietis
Respect for proper skilled handwork, sincere wholeheartedness and an ongoing lively interest for his trade — characteristics that come to mind just after the first few words spoken to the blacksmith Andris Ščeglovs. For more than a decade, he is the master at the historical forge of Turaida, where he forges various things metal, ranging from souvenirs of his own design and interior items to forgings that are crucial for the restoration of important historical buildings. Andris believes that craftsmanship will not disappear, but the craftsmen themselves have to think about the ways how to adapt to the modern pace of life and how to communicate with the public. For several years he has been taking part in the activities of the MAD International Summer School of Design, and he is always happy to introduce any enthusiastic visitors to the work of a blacksmith.
How would you describe the current state of craftsmanship in Latvia?
Sometimes it seems that crafts are if not exactly besmirched, then pushed aside. Indeed, the craftsmen have to compete with supermarkets, which have all kinds of interior things on offer. Not many people are willing to buy an item that is ten times more expensive and made by a craftsman. However, there are still people who appreciate the craftsman's work. Sometimes I joke that I give the customer a little finger, and he takes the whole hand. I have had many occasions when I come to the site during the building process, make a lantern or something for the fireplace, the client is satisfied and calls me again in a year, and this time he wants me to make a gate or, let’s say, a lantern pole. And so, for decades I have been coming to the same people. Then you get the feeling that the craftsman's work is still appreciated.
This day and age is not the most forgiving time for the craftmanship, but I believe that it will not die out and will carry on. However, craftsmen themselves also have to think hard in order to keep up the pace, they have to use a bit more modern techniques, they need to cooperate with each other to make the work go faster. I myself have had larger objects that were made by three blacksmith workshops working together.
Maybe one of the possible future developments for the craftmanship would be becoming a hobby for those who do something entirely else in their everyday life…
A guy who previously worked with me and is now living in the States told me that there are many people there who have forging as a hobby. A person has a garage, perhaps with a Ferrari in it, but right next to it there is a mini-forge, where he can make, for example, a poker. Maybe it would take him three days, but he would do it himself. There it is truly a pastime, such as mushroom picking or fishing for us over here.
Nowadays many people feel that they are becoming stiff. Doctors explain about the importance of being active, but so many jobs these days are sedentary, and besides people drive to get there, without seeing or hearing what is happening around them. In the forge I am always active, I am physically working. I get home — we have an old house in the countryside — and continue to work there, I dig or make something out of wood. My resting time is with a spade and a rake.
How interested in blacksmithing are people in Latvia, and what would be a good start for those who want to get into it?
The interest is not that great. There are some enthusiasts, for example, guys who are interested in the medieval times. They like swords, daggers, knives. Sometimes they say straight away — we want to make a sword. I reply that a sword is a blacksmith’s masterpiece. One has to start with a nail, with something small.
First you have to find a master and just give it a try. It happens that beginners lose their eagerness pretty soon, because you need to be armed with great patience, if you are serious about blacksmithing. You must know that you will not succeed by the first or the third try, and it is not the kind of work where you see results very quickly. Patience, some creativity and physical strength — all of that must come together, and then there will be results.
What encouraged you to become a blacksmith?
I did quite a lot of things before that. At first, I studied to become a builder; I can nail together a birds’ house and also something bigger, but when I graduated from the technical school, it was still in Soviet times and at the very beginning of state independence, there was a lot of chaos. When I tell about my previous occupations, many people express disbelief. I have worked as a seamster, I have grated horseradish, been a glass installer. In the early 1990s I caught the iron «bug». A small impulse came when I worked as a welder’s assistant in Straupe gardening centre, I could weld iron, and fold something very primitive. At that time in Straupe I met my current wife, whose father turned out to be a blacksmith. So, one could say that I married into blacksmithing. I worked for my father-in-law for seven years, but then I felt the need to be by myself, free as a bird.
What is the nature of your work and how would you describe your creative handwriting?
There are different types of smiths. There are goldsmiths and silversmiths who work with finer tools, there are blacksmiths who specialise in weapons and tools, and are perfectly familiar with hardening and tempering processes, there are horse shoers, coppersmiths, they have a different working process. For comparison, I usually say that if you learn to skate, you cannot be a hockey player, a figure skater, and a speed skater in one person. I'm a blacksmith, I work with black metal, the kind that a piece of magnet sticks to. And my style is heavy, robust, I like incorporating big rivets, pegs. Among my pieces you wouldn’t find a lot of «lacework» and ornamental details, but occasionally I make something finer, such as a weather vane. We, blacksmiths, recognize each other's work by style. From the outside all that metalwork may seem the same, but when I walk around in Riga and see a flower box or something, I know if the blacksmith is from Mārupe, Tukums, or Bauska. At the Open-air museum market, when we walk around and talk to each other, other blacksmiths have also told me that they have seen my works in this or that place.
Are you passing your knowledge on, do you have any apprentices?
In the past, blacksmiths worked in pairs — an apprentice and a master. The apprentice worked the bellows and used the big hammer; the master would oversee the works. I manage by myself; I am more of a freelancer. This way I am also fully responsible for what I have made. I can't blame the apprentice or assume that the master is never wrong. I do get trainees occasionally, mostly guys from the technical schools who are learning design and metalworking. Sometimes they work here for a couple of weeks and say that in this short time in the smithy they learned more than at school in a whole year. It is a pleasure to hear that; it is also the reason why I participate in summer camps and work with pupils who are interested in crafts. I won’t take the trade secrets to the clouds, I am sharing. The museum has involved me in the project «Meet Your Master», where I usually get to know like-minded people, talk to them. Such activities are much needed.
How did your collaboration with MAD International Summer School of Design begin?
Rihards [organiser of MAD, designer Rihards Funts] was already working together with various craftsmen, he found me as well, and an interesting collaboration was formed, lasting already for a few years.
In summer, MAD participants spend several days in the smithy. The first day is the research day — they explore the possibilities; I explain what can be made here. Then for a couple of days they «brew», thinking about the common project, and then they go on working, some go to woodwork- or leather-craftsmen, some come to the forge. Usually there are more girls than guys that come to the smithy, especially in the last year. The biggest surprise to me is when they say that they can weld, they weld everything themselves, then they go outside and smooth the welds with a flexi-sander. I almost have to get out the way. The ideas are also interesting, and there are things I can learn from the young people.
How did you start working in the forge of Turaida Museum Reserve? What are the benefits, in your experience, working at this special place?
I've been the tenant of this smithy since the spring of 1998. It was whitewashed clean then, there was nothing here, together with the museum we built a forging furnace that serves to this day. Over the time, I have accumulated quite a lot of tools, collected and self-made. To an unknowing eye they might seem like insignificant pieces of metal on the shelves, but each and every one of them is used for something particular.
The fact that I work right at the smithy of Turaida Museum Reserve gives me a greater sense of responsibility and discipline. This forge is more public than others, and it does not allow you to slack. If 99 days out of a hundred will be exemplary, and one day something goes wrong, the word will spread about that day. Disreputable news travel hundred times faster. You have to think about self-presentation.
How did you manage to be in such a stable demand? Do you think about the ways of advertising?
Work finds me; I have not spent a single day with idle hands. Wintertime is a bit quieter, but in the summer — I can't even answer all the phone calls. We, craftsmen, were saying that advertising is either for those who are doing really great, or for those who are on the verge of bankruptcy and are really desperate. For those in the middle it is not necessary.
You are making things on order and to your own designs, working on restoration projects... What kind of work do you find most rewarding?
Orders could be divided into different categories. There are times when a client comes with an architect's or artist's drawing, and the item has to be made exactly like that. When adapting to the architects’ and designers’ vision, it has happened that I had to make things that I didn’t agree with as a master, but tastes differ. In the end, maybe it turns out that they really fit in that particular place. Sometimes I offer my own version. However, these works made according to a picture are usually colder. It gives me a better feeling, if I create something myself, a special clothes hanger, or a fire pit poker with a special handle. The idea is in the head, and then one day I come to work and decide to finally make the thing that is constantly on my mind. In my work, I have never created two completely identical things. I am pleased when a person is after maybe something small, comes into the smithy and says — «wow!». That «wow» for me is half the pay. Or, when I go somewhere in Latvia and see — there is my flagpole holder! I've always said — if someone wants to do this job just for the sake of money, then it's better not to do it. In the first place for me is the work itself and the result.■
Interview: Vents Vīnbergs
Title photo: Ivars Burtnieks
Xiamyra Daal is concept developer at the Open Wetlab of Waag Society. She coordinates the bio workshops, and guides the Open Wetlab activities, where she shares her fascination and enthusiasm for biology with everybody. Xiamyra studied Biomedical Sciences in Leiden during which she gained her laboratory experience. Xiamyra loves to make things herself. She believes that educated citizens can already support a lot of their basic needs without relying on what big industries deliver to their nearest supermarket.
You were trained as a biologist. What was your way towards the field of design?
I am currently working in the Waag Society. It is an institute for Arts, Science and Technology, based in Amsterdam. We explore new technologies there, but we do not do it in a merely physical way. We are doing it mostly by giving workshops, and the idea behind this is, that we are trying to bridge the gap between society and science. We want every individual to be able to understand the world around them and to be able to adapt themselves to their everyday needs. Our Open Wetlab is one of the first of a kind in Europe, and it has been operating for 11 years already. Our lab enables people to do research in a biology field. It may stay in a level of hobby, but there are also artists and designers who want to learn more about biological materials, let’s say, algae or bacteria for their work. They may, as well, go to some scientific institutes, but it is often not possible there to do the research they need. So we offer a space for them to explore and experiment for their own work or individual development, and they in turn help our Society to develop new technologies. That’s the kind of practice we facilitate in our Society.
So your task there is to educate and assist the artists.
No, not only that. Within the Wetlab we facilitate the work of artists and designers, there is an artist residence back in Amsterdam, but besides that we do lectures, conferences and small workshops elsewhere, like in a summer school here. And we also do courses, that can last up to 10 weeks. And people who take the courses may be very different. One day workshops are mostly for the general public. But people who have already a deeper interest in the biology topics come to 10 week course to really dive in and do some hard core stuff. The biggest project, that we are currently a part of, is the EU financed Do-It-Together Science, with which we are travelling throughout Europe and which is much more aimed at everyone, who is at least a little bit interested in science. Together we build science instruments, explain the scientific facts behing the folk remedies, etcetera. In a way, it is a reason why I am here, in your summer school now.
You mentioned folk remedies. That reminds me of the traditional food production at home - yeast, the use of bacteria and fungi in the dairy products, herbal medicine, etc. It’s a centuries old knowledge, that was probably obtained intuitively. Can we say that, what you provide is the scientific understanding of these practices and that the design comes in handy to reinvent these remedies for contemporary use?
Yes, we have a great interest in folk remedies. And one of the reasons we took them to explore, is that in the big cities, where you get your food from the supermarket, the relation with the natural source is gone. I think, it is good to know, where your food comes from and how it is produced. This awareness is important for people to make better decisions for what to buy and what to eat. Maybe, in Eastern Europe the tradition of folk remedies is still living, and not that much in the West. Maybe I should tell you about the building we are in, back in Amsterdam. It is the second oldest building in what was a part of the city wall, and it was a weigh house, as well as a guild house. And we consider our laboratories to still be a kind of a guild, but in more contemporary way. We still want to do crafts. But we also maintain the old crafts. It is especially so in our textile lab, but also in the Wetlab. Like with the yogurt production or with algae - those processes are not new, the are all old traditions, and we are bringing them back to the society. Now we realize, that all the big farming industry is probably not the best way and that is some cases it would be better to return to more traditional farming. Thus we are researching how traditional crafts can be combined with the contemporary technologies.
Do you talk about the farming, that can be performed in a small urban dweller’s apartment, on its balcony or windowsill?
Yes, precisely. In a way it is the vertical farming. You use the space in your apartment or the roof surface as a garden. Those kinds of things.
I am myself very interested in the effects of art and design on the understanding of the world. Tell me how these disciplines affect your projects.
I come with the science background. In the world there is already a tradition of bioart and biodesign - artists using the principles of biology in their work. And there is well established ways, how artists involve scientists in their projects. And I truly think, that it can work vice versa - art and design can be useful in scientific process. The scientists are used to work with a certain methods, but somebody with a completely different background may look at these processes in a different way. And designers may sometimes see that a certain process or a certain machine may be used differently of for other purposes, and that is very valuable in the science. Such creativity may push the development of the scientific techniques and even make new techniques. A look from outside creates synergy, and sparks and fireworks. I am really a fan of interdisciplinary work.
Another aspect of such collaboration - you will probably agree - is the communication design or the art of communicating ideas with the general public. There is even a profession - a science educator. Can you call yourself one?
Maybe not yet no, but that is my goal and my dream. Ever since I was a student. I am really into the biological sciences, I am amazed by how living organisms and cells work in a microbiological level. And I want to share this astonishment with really everybody. My personal goal is to spread the word and to get it out. You probably know the feeling - the thing you love you want to share with the whole world. So, yes, I would like to be a science educator.
What are your tasks here, at the summer school of design in Sigulda?
We are several tutors here, and I together with my colleague have a group of six students. We started of with a small workshop by building an algae reactor, which was an introduction in a biology field. And thus within the following week we will guide our students in creating their own product, a product or a machine that is functional both from the biological and the design perspectives, and that correspond to the theme of the summer school.
A concept of a machine or an actual working machine?
You see, the design brief of this summer school is, that we are now farmers without land. The food and energy problems are growing in the world and we have to look for the alternatives. Each of the six groups approaches it in a different way, and our group got the topic of energy. So we need to create a system or a tool, or a machine around this energy topic. And our idea is that if we look at the current industrial cycle of food production, it consumes a lot of energy. Firstly, with the growing, then processing, then marketing, distribution and trade. And in each stage there is a transportation problem. And it is clear, that in order to save energy we have to make this cycle smaller. You can grow some basic items of food as an individual, at home or in small communities, where the distance from your garden and the table is small. We are considering a mechanism, that can provide a practical interaction between the machine, crops or any other source of nutrition, and the human being who needs it for their consumption. And this interaction between a man and the edible plant can rise an awareness of food production and more respect towards the food itself. A popular analogy from a different field might be a small autonomous wind generator at home versus consumption of fossil energy and a connection to a large corporate power network.
There are a lot of ways using and saving the world resources. I think, that governments have a big say in solving the food problem, because they can make rules and restrictions. But the awareness of an individual is no less important to change people’s habits. You know, there is a lot of research in alternative nutrition resources - GMO, in vitro meat or the meat grown in the labs, insects, of course, as a source of food, and so on. But it is really hard to promote it if people do not understand how it is being produced. There is still a problem of the price, buying organic products is expensive, but people tend not to choose the products which they do not understand. So, scientists are looking for the alternatives and governments should be involved in funding the awareness campaigns. This also is not a new concept - our institute exists for 23 years already, and we are financed by the EU and the Amsterdam municipality. And there is a big network of such institutions around Europe. And as you said, designers can contribute a lot in rising this awareness.
Do you have any time left to engage in everyday scientific research?
I would love to, but I don’t at the moment. I do have started to set up a little biolab at home. But, you see, there are four different levels of biology labs. Because bacteria or species you are working with can be harmless, but some are dangerous for the health or even lethal. The first level of biolab is actually a kind of a specialised kitchen. And you can still do research in the level that is available for students in universities. And at home or in your garage you can work with algae, experiment with brewing and fermenting. Producing your own paper and use bacteria to colour and dye fabrics. There are a lot of opportunities if you are really interested in DIY ideology.■
Interview: Anda Boluža
Title photo: Ivars Burtnieks
Claude Oprea is a permaculture designer and artist who has been in London for almost twenty years and has currently started projects in India. His plant installations have been presented at the Glastonbury and BoomTown Fair festivals in the UK, and Claude has participated in the work of London’s team for bio design project Biomodd by developing computer and plant collaboration models (the heat generated by computers during operation, is being forwarded to plants), has studied plant communication forms by documenting sounds, created by different plants.
The conversation with Claude Oprea is accompanied by a frightening premonition caused by climate change data and the threat of genetically modified food. There is no single answer to the question of where the world moves, and permaculture is just one way of thinking about the future and getting ready for it. Claude Oprea is optimistic and believes that every problem embraces its solution. Everything is in the heads and hands of the people themselves – plant a tree, set up a garden! There is a joke that permaculture methods suit lazy people, because designers and gardeners are acting not against the nature, but in compliance with it. This changes the general perceptions of a carefully kept lawn, which is, in the permaculture sense, an absolutely unnatural arrangement, as well as of an ecological design that, as it turns out, is easily compatible with modern technology. In Latvia, sometimes it seems that design definitely is expensive, it is strictly distinguishable from art, because its main purpose is functional and practical objects. In the world, in turn, the design can be also critical, supported by elusive future scenarios, saved only on paper, and not necessarily embodied in design objects.
You are a permaculture designer. Please tell us a little more about this practice!
Permaculture is a design discipline based on careful observation and reproduction of natural systems. Design is created, for example, as a imitation of a forest, in line with the principles of its growth and existence. Plants are planted in such a way that instead of competing, they cooperate and help each other. Each plant has its place in a diverse natural system that can renew itself, without human intervention. Contrary to monoculture fields, in permaculture dense forests and gardens with a great variety of plants and species do not deplete soil, but on the contrary - it improves and enriches it. There is a principle of giving and taking, cyclical exchange of substances in a forest, where the rich soil is formed of tiny broken branches, leaves, remains created by animals, insects and other living creatures - they create soil, while the soil feeds plants. Care for healthy soil is the basis of permaculture. Jeff Loton, an inspirational representative of permaculture, compares contemporary agriculture with mines when all the benefits are taken from the soil, but nothing is returned, and even worse - fertilizers and pesticides make harm to it.
Why did you decide to launch a large-scale, permaculture-based project in India?
When travelling around India, I realized that it was not possible to buy clean, non-treated vegetables and fruits anywhere, and I learned that since the mid-1990s more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide. They still use pesticides that are banned in Europe and America. The crisis in Indian agriculture is not a fictitious problem, it is a real hardship that affects poor people every day and I cannot sit aside. The project, which I have started, is intended for cultivation of food forests. In order to show benefits to farmers arising from the implementation of the principles of permaculture, I have set up two types of fields: one is a traditional monoculture field, and the other is a field with a variety of plants planted well known in the world, such as the so-called three sisters - pumpkins, corn and beans, which in various ways facilitates each other's growth. Farmers have the opportunity to see how much healthier and more durable are the plants grown together. Monoculture fields can be destroyed by one factor - a pest, too much sun or heat, insufficient moisture. The variety of plants, in turn, provides that, under unfavourable conditions, one or two plant species may fail to give harvest, but some other species will certainly yield a harvest.
My goal is to introduce to the farmers safe methods of growing of food plants, to encourage them to care for the environment and to think about the health of their children, to encourage them to hold authority in their hands and to become more independent from large corporations such as Monsanto (the largest GM agriculture developer in India). There are no pure seeds available in India, so we have also started a seed bank project.
There are many unresolved issues in the world's big cities, like London, where you live.
Yes, London has a lot of problems. Although it is one of the greenest cities in the world, nearly 10,000 people die each year due to air pollution. I have been teaching several classes for children - they have no idea where tomatoes come from. They do not recognize them as plants, because they are used to see them only in supermarkets packed in plastic. I've started open gardens in London, I have been working with partisan gardening (guerilla gardening), I have been doing vertical plantations, but my heart has been broken regularly, because life span in such a big city is short. I got tired of planting trees, I want to let trees be trees, not miniatures. Problems in London have to be solved along with the change of paradigm. People should be aware that the choices they make as consumers also affect farmers in India, these are related processes. The society has to be educated to shop more carefully, people to be encouraged the purchase locally grown products. Consumers have to be aware of the value of products, not only to look at the packaging of the product, but to read the label and know where it comes from. Britain is currently facing a political crisis, people are dissatisfied and angry. In India people still own their own land, it is poisoned and degraded, but it can be improved with environmentally-friendly solutions. But people in London have also to be aware of their needs and organize their own communities and interest groups, rather than rely on government activities. Among the deceived and disappointed people more popular become such initiatives like transition towns or permaculture. A lot of significant changes were caused by Occupy movement. Social links, cooperation with each other are important in urban environment.
Future scenarios are different, all equally complex. The number of people is growing, the amount of needed food increases along. Some scenarios foresee that the food will become more artificial, but naturally grown tomatoes will be expensive.
That’s true, it is already expensive at this moment.
Probably, only rich people will be able to afford the gardens.
London is characterized by gardens set up at the historic row houses, a fantastic place in an urban environment. If the inhabitants of the houses in one of the streets decide to grow plants and trees that would yield a harvest, and then exchange the vegetables or fruits they have produced, a diverse range of locally based products would be gained. It would certainly not be a completely self-sufficient system, but it would change the perception of what can be done by working together. After the war, the famous central parks in London were divided into parcels to enable people to grow food. Nowadays, more and more people are using innovative gardening practices and places in urban environment, and the garden is, perhaps, only the pretext to be together, the most important benefit is cooperation.
People should be encouraged for new opportunities and ideas, an example shown to them. There are so many recyclable things in London - you can arrange an apartment from all that is found on one street. Once I set up a small garden in the backyard of the parking lot, and planted plants in various boxes and drawers found around. Although this small oasis, in the midst of asphalt and masonry, I had intended for bees and other live creatures, it also became a favourite place for neighbours where to have a cup of coffee.
I am generating ideas that others can use freely. Schools and universities still have a competition spirit, students compete for who is better or who is the first. In my opinion, such an education model is outdated, instead the potential for cooperation should be identified. No one owns anything.
How do you provide your living?
I do many things, this is one of the principles of permaculture - do not have all the eggs in one basket. Moreover, my basic needs are quite simple, it is shelter and food. We are limited to supposing that money is the only source of energy, but there are other forms of capital. I am fortunate enough to get everything I need in exchange with other people.
Is your position political?
Definitely. Everything I do is a political message. I criticize the large corporations that are harming the environment, I work to prevent the effects of their activities, I encourage people to act themselves in the situation with very limited resources.
Do you have an opinion on American and French position on environmental issues?
The only country I appreciate in this respect is Bhutan. Bhutan absorbs more carbon dioxide than consumes. They have introduced restrictions on consumption and the gross domestic product had been replaced by the idea of national common sense of happiness. It is a tiny country in the Himalayas that views the environment as a source of sustainability. Nature is not used more than it is necessary, it is protected. The Bhutan model shows that it is possible for the world as well. If we cannot avoid environmental impact, at least we can try to influence it positively.
The smart edible forest installation by permaculturist and artist Claudiu Oprea invites us to explore ideas around ensuring food security for future generations.
Using the forest as a teacher to inform his design, Claudiu curated a selection of local or near local species of edible and medicinal plants, shrubs and trees using the multi storey stacking functions found in our natural forests. Large trees offer shelter and protection for smaller trees, followed by shrubs, smaller bushes, taller herbs and finally ground cover plants and bulbs. This results in a diverse food producing system that produces an abundance of different foods and medicines in a very small space. One layer of vines growing up trees is missing from this design determined by space limitations.
In a metre square we have 17 different species, each filling a niche habitat and all working together to create a healthy community of plants and humans. The model can be scaled up and applied to large pieces of land as well as in in urban environments where space is limited, as illustrated by the installation. List of plants used in the installation. Apple tree, sea buckthorn, red and black currant, thyme, spearmint, peppermint, echinacea, calendula, wild and traditional strawberries, paprika, chilly, celery, garlic chives of two types and the local favourite cidonijas, a wild cousin of the quince.■
Interview: Paula Lūse
Title photo: Rihards Funts
Karina Vissonova is a one-man band. To wit, she: has a PhD in Design with a focus on Sustainable Design from the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (2016); is a product developer, design researcher, and creative thinker with over 20 years of experience; she has managed and collaborated in game-changing Research & Development, education, community development and multidisciplinary design projects, all of which have involved working with a wide range of businesses, producers of goods, architects, engineers, designers and entrepreneurs. In April 2018, she founded the Institute of Advanced Design Studies, a non-profit in Budapest, Hungary that offers advanced education in design for post-graduates. With a full study programme starting in 2020, it is a one-year multidisciplinary, theme-based course where students examine how scientific and technological discoveries can be best applied to benefit humanity and the environment.
Another of her present occupations (‘alongside her husband’, as she states on her website) is running their winery, its vineyards, and a home restaurant. They created their winery in 2014, in western Hungary by Lake Balaton. Vissonova is also a practicing permaculture gardener and grows the vegetables and herbs for their restaurant herself.
At the closing end of this past summer, Vissonova was invited to lecture at the MAD International Summer School of Design 2018, which was held at Sigulda Castle in Latvia. Arterritory took advantage of Vissonova’s visit to talk to her about what is sustainable design and what it entails, as well as what other special interests she’s involved with besides her professional design activities.
I looked at your website in preparation for our meeting and I saw that you’ve written a lot about what sustainable design means. Given that the word ‘sustainable’ is defined as able to be maintained at a certain rate or level, with ‘rate’ referring to time, what is the length or range of time that is being assumed when we talk about ‘sustainable design’? And are there any time limits?
We evaluate sustainable design by looking at its side effects. The more attention we give to the side effects of design – or rather, to the minimising of side effects – the greater the design’s sustainability. As Western-thinking individuals, we believe that sustainable design is created so that it will deliver desired results in the future – whether that is tomorrow, after several years, or decades from now. Sustainable design does not have such an expiration date or time limits. The more side effects design produces, the more unsustainable it is.
Taking into account that you’ve been working in this field for more than 20 years, how has sustainable design has changed in that time frame?
A noticeable change is that people are more aware of ecology. For example, an ever-increasing number of people no longer use plastic shopping bags. There are visible efforts to move towards so-called ‘green energy’, albeit these efforts may not be all that clear-cut. On one hand, we’re protecting the earth by using alternatives to oil and coal, but we are still ripping minerals and precious metals out of that same earth. We don’t know how much is left or what the consequences will be; we don’t even talk about it. I’ve read that the world’s reserves of silver will run out in twenty years.
I recently saw a very curious invention – replacement of plastic bottles with edible water balloons. By using new materials, are we creating new kinds of pollutants with unknowable consequences? Something new is being created, but is it indisputably better for us, better for the planet?
Exactly. I’ve always been a rather abstract thinker and so I see the act of human invention as machinery. We busy our selves with inventing, moving forward; we do not use plastics any longer but come up with new solutions, yet nevertheless involving massive production processes. Unimaginable numbers of things are being created and much of it is not even necessary. We are human beings, we are emotional entities – we suffer and we love. We must conceive that we as emotional beings are capable of being happy without the help of things. We need more love, more touch, smiles and as importantly – to be warm, dry, fed and healthy. Then, of course, arises the question of what kind of resources are required for a human to be healthy. Who might control this? Can people be restricted or not? I recognise that a growing number of people are using the ‘exclusive opportunity’ to go on holiday to natural places – without telephones or technology – in order to undergo a kind of digital detoxification. If such a behaviour is increasing, it shows to me that human perceptions are changing afterall and there is the desire to return to oneselves as emotional beings.
I was watching a science programme on the creation of the Earth – about the Big Bang and how Earth was formed due to a mistake. Do you think that sustainable design solutions often come about from unwitting accidents or mistakes?
Thank you for that question – it hits the nail right on the head. We had been following a notion that design is an ultimately effective process with absolute solutions: a designer sat down, thought, invented and then put into production something that everyone accepted, used and deemed necessary. Now we face side effects of earlier designs and understand that, perhaps, it all wasn’t really that necessary. We are a sort of social experiment – we accept things without knowing what they are. Speaking about chaos, a human being is a human being – he or she is both bad and good, tired and happy - chaos is what defines us. We are emotional beings and what we create we create in a setting of chaos. Inspiration hits and new materials are invented. I think that absolutely everything happens as a result of some mistake. That may sound a bit radical, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that everything is a mistake. I do think, however, that we need to remind ourselves of our human qualities; and that everything we create in the world ought to be created conscientiously, caring for what is beautiful every day.
Except that due to technologies, we are as if mechanising everything. To be able to not use technologies for a week is, as you said, an exclusive opportunity, yet whether it will become a norm is questionable. Even virtual reality has become so life-like that at times it is hard to discern the real from the artificial. I don’t think that sustainable design should become like that, because it is taking us away from what makes us human.
Yes, that is true, but let me tell you about an interesting project. Have you heard about The Venus Project? A group of Canadian scientists, led by late Jacque Fresco, have developed a unique international project for a future civilisation on Earth – one that provides a fresh and alternative vision of a new society and environment, which has no element of civilisation’s previous social systems. Modern technologies play a huge role in this project. This project proposes that we can live in total happiness and prosperity by having technologies and robots doing everything – we just have to create a goal. Of course, it sounds utopian – no one will have to work and there will be no commerce or exchange, because if everyone has everything, there is no reason to barter. It’s an interesting theory. I’m not saying that it may work; I’d like to study it more and see whether it is even feasible. I’ve begun working on a book in which a separate chapter will deal with this subject.
The other extreme to this techno-centrism is absolute biocentrism (which can also be called eco-fascism), meaning that humans are locked out of natural environments. In this approach all living things have inherent value – they are not a resource for humans to use. Which approach is right and which wrong?
When did you become aware of yourself as a conscious, thinking being?
Long ago, in childhood. I asked all sorts of questions that no one would answer for me. In first grade, I wished that my future self would create a bomb that would blow up everything that is artificial, materialistic, only humans would be left. That’s a rather strange idea for a child to come up with, don’t you think? I was a biophilic child already then and as an adult, I realised, I can make my thoughts useful in more practical ways.
Was design the platform on which you wanted to develop your thinking?
Yes, the philosophy of design. When I was in business school in Copenhagen, we had a course in innovation – market sociology and the philosophy of technology. I was really taken with these ideas – the variety of ways in which product development can be analysed and thought about. I somewhat believe that my unusual way of thinking is the base for the successes in my professional life.
Why did you choose to study in Denmark?
Love took me there.
Did things turn out well?
No, we separated immediately. But then again, it is where I met my current husband. From that point of view, I would have to say that everything did indeed turn out well [smiles].
I read that you and your husband have a vineyard.
Yes, in Hungary, in the country’s volcanic hill region on the northwest shore of Lake Balaton. High-quality wines are produced in this region. We fell in love with Saint George Mountain, but not because of the gorgeous views (even though they are stunning) but because it is such a unique place. If someone told me that the place has some sort of special energy fields or esoteric mysticism , I would absolutely believe them. We decided that we wanted to do something additional in life, so why not make wine? [Smiles]
Is the upkeep of vineyards linked to a presence of sustainable design?
I think it is. Even if only to understand how farming works. I also do gardening. When thinking about the garden and the vineyard, one has to think further than just a few years into the future. For instance, we have a 25- to 30-year plan for our vines – how they will develop, how they will look, what side effects will we face. We also have our own restaurant, where you also have to think about these matters.
You’ve established an institute of design in Hungary. What sets your school apart from other sustainable design schools and ways of thinking?
The idea for an institute of design came to me nine years ago. The basic idea was to create an educational platform engaging several disciplines. I wanted to create a course where after graduation, the student – be it an engineer, philosopher, designer, businessperson, etc. – can work to create a better situation for others. We are a non-profit organisation, everything we earn is put back into education. We’re different from others in that we don’t concentrate on problem solving but more on creating the kind of environment that stimulates methods of thinking.
What is it like to be always thinking?
[Laughs] Good question. Would be easier if I were alone in the world. But I have a husband and responsibilities. Sometimes, I feel I don’t have any space in my mind for more thoughts, but apparently it is an inexhaustible resource. My mind is full of thoughts, feelings and ideas. I often feel tired of life. I am happy, but I am also tired. [Smiles]
What helps you ‘switch off’ the thinking process?
A good wine. [Laughs]
That could actually lead to even more thinking.
It can. But after tension-filled days and weeks, I truly enjoy to gaze in a distance, at the stars...with a glass of good wine, and simply be. I’m slowly learning to do that. To not potter around, or busy myself with something, but to simply sit and gaze.
Is there any subject that has nothing to do with design?
Yes – love, family, nature. But, of course, that can be stretched like a rubber band because everything that has a practical end result can be likened to design. Design is both the process and the result. There can be a process that doesn’t end with a concrete result or object, but it still is design.
What gives you a feeling of gratification?
Writing puts me in my element. I’m not saying I’m a great writer, but I do get a sense of gratification if I can verbalise my thoughts and put them down in writing.
You’re active in so many fields – winemaking, you teach and give talks, you write research papers, you run a restaurant… What is the first thing you say when someone asks what it is that you do?
[Thinks.] A very substantial question. I think that anybody can say that they are everything; everyone answers according to the context of the moment. Today I’m simply a woman, at other times I’m simply a gardener. Maybe you could say I do not ascribe to being a ‘one-trick-pony’. Perhaps one doesn’t need to answer this question, we may sometimes accept that diversity and chaos is the norm. Everything happens as it does in this world. As for myself, I merely adapt to one platform or another.
There’s a theory that for one to have a clear and healthy state of mind, there are three things that should be done every day. Firstly, everyone needs physical activity and good-quality food; secondly, one needs to solve puzzles or exercise the brain; and thirdly, one must create beauty. Everything that you do – be it at home, at work, wherever – must be done with love and so that the end results are beautiful. If the results are not beautiful and made with love, you might as well just sit back and do nothing. That perhaps is also a good closing sentence.
It is indeed – thanks for talking to me.
Thank you. It was a joy, and thank you for the questions!■
Interview: Veronika Viļuma
Title photo: Rihards Funts
In his creative work young Latvian designer Mārcis Ziemiņš combines a contemporary approach with traditional values that shows both in the materials he uses and the way he thinks. The Smallest Sauna on Earth, a graduation project at the Eindhoven Design Academy, is his most renowned work.
Mārcis Ziemiņš doesn’t avoid hard work and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. On the contrary — he would rather split stones, saw wood or test seaweed than spend time in front of a computer screen. Besides personal projects, the versatile designer creates scenography and design objects for sophisticated gastronomic performances where he, despite the etiquette, not only invites others to «play» with their food, but also himself toys around with brave and playful ideas.
A couple of years ago you graduated from the Eindhoven Design Academy, one of the best design schools in Europe. Why did you choose to study there and what have you gained from it?
I was working as a graphic designer at several advertising agencies and a printing house, but as the financial crisis was approaching the workload decreased, so I began searching where to study. At first my aim was Central Saint Martins in London, but at that time my portfolio wasn’t strong enough and my application was rejected. When designer Germans Ermičs, an acquaintance of mine, encouraged me to apply for studies in Eindhoven, I dedicated a whole year to build up a portfolio. I thought up the briefs and realised them myself. In the first year, I tried out everything the school had to offer, and in the second year I chose the «Man and Living» department. Primarily I wanted to challenge myself, because it is one of the hardest departments; secondly, I began to understand more and more that I want to spend more time living instead of working on the computer. If I have to make a poster, I prefer to create something, for example, on the wall and then take a photo of it. I want the physical work to come before the digital, so that vectors on the computer wouldn’t be the starting point.
«Man and Living» paid a great attention to material studies and did it in a very contemporary manner. However, it wasn’t enough to have just a strong concept — to present one’s idea, it had to be elaborated. I find this approach very beneficial. Of course, the studies opened up a new view of the world — when there are people from 12 different countries in one class you are able to see what a girl from Singapore does, how she works and thinks. Or guys from Amsterdam, Berlin, USA… It opened something in me, I could see where I stand, what I am capable of. I understood that Latvians are a hard working people, but the competition and the global scale are also large. To be honest, rules are the same everywhere — if you create high–quality work, you receive recognition. To know the right people in the right place at the right time is also important.
Internship is a compulsory part of the studies. Tell us about yours!
I didn’t want to do my internship in Holland, as after three years there I felt I needed more diversity. I went to India, which was my first choice, but the plan fell apart, I didn’t find myself where I wanted. Then I got in touch with Julia Lohmann from Hamburg — she works with seaweed in a very experimental, conceptual way. I was attracted to her approach to work, her sense of humour and that she had received a six–month artist’s residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a city where I had wanted to live for some time already. In the beginning, I did everything an intern must do, there was a lot of material tests. We used a wide, about six meters long algae from Japan which expanded and shrank depending on the moisture; it was very peculiar. Julia is concerned with how to use it as a leather substitute, she laminates, sews the algae. She tests the limits of the material. As in the beginning there were only two of us, she trusted me and we made decisions together. At the end of the residence I wanted to build a room from this seaweed, that one would be able to enter, but it was too complicated. So we created an irregularly shaped sea creature to introduce a wider audience to the features of the material.
It seems the best–known work so far is your graduation project — the Smallest Sauna on Earth, which was also praised in media. How did you come up with the idea?
In the third study year the whole class wanted to travel somewhere together, but no one was eager to take the initiative. So I invited them to Latvia to visit my buddy in countryside who had an old neglected sauna, which we decided to renovate. We were more than ten students, two tutors, a bath master who had knowledge about medicinal plants and two craftsmen who had knowledge of such buildings. As we all finally were able to enjoy the freedom of the countryside, we had a lot of leisure time and didn’t accomplish much — we changed the roof, levelled the floor and cleaned up everything. Nothing big, but that was the beginning of my idea.
Usually everyone has to stay in Eindhoven when working on graduation project, but I wanted to be in Latvia and told the tutors that I will continue to renovate that sauna. I had many thoughts — it wouldn’t be a traditional Latvian sauna as we know it, but more like a play with the very definition of it, its architecture, the use of plants, the ritual… Once a month I flew to Eindhoven to report on my project, but the Academy didn’t accept it.
It wouldn’t be easy to present it during the Dutch Design Week…
I had various ideas how to show it, including installations. Still the concept of the Smallest Sauna on Earth partly arose because of my inner protest and spite — if renovation works of an old sauna in the Latvian countryside don’t qualify as a graduation project, I will bring you a sauna so small that it can be put on a table. The tutors liked the idea, both conceptually and visually and in terms of the materials. It basically operates as an air freshener — with herbal tea slowly dripping on hot stones, the Smallest Sauna on Earth emits a meditative atmosphere. I also wanted to portray how fragile the sauna tradition is, but those who are not familiar with it were intrigued. At the Design Week one boy simply sat in front of it for about half an hour. It is a meditative object.
How do you see the future development of the Sauna, do you plan to put it into production?
Dutch Design Week gave the necessary boost. Designboom was first to publish the article about the Smallest Sauna on Earth, followed by other design media and blogs. An agency serving the Lufthansa airline asked if they can put the information about the Sauna in their in–flight magazine for business clients. It was published there alongside some expensive diamond bicycle, and my price was 500 euros. Initially, I had no intention of selling it, it was a one–off thing, but then I started to receive requests from people who wanted to buy the Smallest Sauna on Earth. So I made and sold about 12–13 of them. After that I understood that doing all the work by myself I couldn’t reach the necessary quality. Although I continued to accept the requests, I replied that they have to wait until I message them myself. Now I have found a serious manufacturer here in Latvia that produces various metal objects for export. The stainless steel parts for the Sauna will be produced there and coppered afterwards. Processing stone isn’t a problem in Latvia. I hope that this will bring the result to the next level.
What do you think is the target audience for this object?
The product isn’t cheap, it is something between art and design and is usually chosen for the feeling it provides, not for its functionality. However, if we think about air fresheners that are available on the market — electrical ones with unknown liquid inside… When I moved into an apartment in Jūrmala two years ago, the previous owner had used them and I couldn’t get rid of the aroma for half a year. So far the Smallest Sauna hasn’t been particularly advertised and the sales aren’t big, yet there have been requests from medical institutions, spas. I have thought about going to Japan, because they have similar understanding of aesthetics. In Scandinavia, Germany as well.
Since 2013 you have come up with some very unusual ideas when creating design solutions for the Untamed Dinner gastronomic performances organised by Gundega Skudriņa. It seems that in order to really surprise the attendees, you have to be very open to various experiments yourself. How is it still possible to create something fresh, unprecedented?
All depends on the project, because the concept comes first. For example, the main idea of Design +/- Meal was that each one of us is alone, and only together we can accomplish something. Using it as a motto, the theme «one isn’t an eater» occurred. On one side of the table ten people ate using forks that were welded together, there was also one long napkin on their laps. They had to feed each other, to play checkers. In the beginning, the room could only be entered when many door handles were pressed at the same time. When I see a space, an idea pops into my head, let’s say, to attach stars to the ceiling that come down later, while Gundega suggests that we could also put a dessert in them. Ideas come when you ask questions. I am very pleased that colleagues trust me, even though there have been quite many errors. However, if you don’t fail, you don’t learn either.
Do you have a favourite material?
For a while I was obsessed with a variety of natural materials. In Latvia it is easy because you can achieve a great effect without spending too much money. It wouldn’t be so simple in London, it’s not possible there to go into a forest and cut down a tree. I’m also fascinated by various transparent plastics, latex, foam rubber. In winter we organized a meal in a transparent tent deep in the woods. I wanted a blizzard in it and it turned out that foam plastic is the lightest snow–like material, better than feathers. Each idea has its own material.
You have worked in the fields of graphic design and set design, created various objects and installations… Which form of creative expression do you prefer?
That is a tough question. Clearly I don’t like to spend much time working on the computer. I enjoy the process from the moment when an idea springs into my mind until its implementation. The closer the result is to the original idea, the more professional you are.■