Minimalism equals good taste. For nearly a century, such was the design credo of the Western world. But let’s face it: the world has changed a great deal since.
Writer Anneke Bokern
Suddenly, countries that never had much of an influence on the international design scene are developing into major markets. “People here want golden faucets”, an architect friend working in Shanghai once told me. “They’ve had to live with state-administered simplicity for more than two generations. Now they finally have a choice, and they’re not interested in minimal things anymore. They want lots of gold, ornaments, luxury.” Of course one could simply dismiss this as the proverbial bad taste that comes with new money – if it didn’t coincide with a newfound predilection for exuberance amongst designers in Europe. No matter whether the new markets in the east have had a liberating effect on design or vice versa: for a growing number of designers, less is a bore, and the new clientele is a welcome reason for going opulent. “People in countries like China and Russia haven’t gone through a hundred years of Bauhaus. They see with different eyes. They’re freer”, Dutch designer Marcel Wanders, one of the most famous exponents of anti-minimalism, explains. “I’ve always tried to steer clear of so-called good taste, and I love kitsch. Style is an invention of the insecure.” But Wanders wouldn’t be so successful if mere kitsch was all he produced. The trick is to balance sugariness with a dose of recalcitrance. Designers play with decoration, bringing together historic ornaments with rough-and-ready materials or traditional crafts with subversive imagery, trying to fathom the borders between maximalism and tackiness. In 2005 Amsterdam-based Studio Tjep presented its project Destructive Deco, which was in fact an experiment on ‘How deco can you go?’ On a simple veneer lampshade, three pattern layers were laser-etched successively. The laser burned the material, so during the second processing it started to cut into the lamp. Tjep presented the three stages of the lamp in an exhibition. While the first lamp simply featured a floral pattern, the second version was partly perforated. The third one was the most cut-up, the most decorated, and – due to the costly operation time of the high-end laser – also the most expensive. Nevertheless, visitors of the exhibition preferred the second lamp, signalling that more isn’t always better, but some ornamentation can’t hurt.
Layering is a characteristic strategy in the work of studio Tjep, led by Frank Tjepkema. “Our style emerges when we go into detail”, Tjepkema says. “We like to work with structures, tactility and decoration. If there’s a certain richness to a design, I’m happy.” Although this richness often takes quite modern shapes, Tjep also like to create über-decorated works once in a while, such as the Chair of Textures. The chair, made of several cut-through layers of metal, looks like an oversized piece of jewellery. With two fat butterflies sitting on the backrest and flames licking up one of the legs – “to add some drama”, as Tjepkema explains – it probably deserves to be called saccharine. Like a lot of Tjepkema’s work, however, it has to be seen within the context of design history. “This is so radically different from what was ‘de bon ton’ in the architectural world for decades and decades: a modernist approach to design in which a sense of detail, crafts and symbolic quality made place for unappealing, depressive functionalism”, he says.
He certainly isn’t alone in advocating this approach, which basically backlashes against the tired paradigm of form following function. But while Tjepkema is rather anti-dogmatic – jumping twinkle-toed from pieces with intricate fairy-tale decoration to very slick, even minimalist objects and back –, others take maximalism a step further. Five years ago, Dutchman Tord Boontje became famous for re-introducing floral ornaments into design. When his flower patterns faced the threat of a shift from trademark to fad, he left them behind, but anti-minimalism still pervades his design philosophy. “My education at the Design Academy in Eindhoven and at the Royal College in London was very much influenced by Bauhaus-ideals”, he recounts. “When designing something in those schools, one never used ornamentation or decoration. But why not? I had the feeling that something was missing in our world. Whenever I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum and saw old embroidery, wood carvings or jewellery, I got really enthusiastic.” Accordingly, Boontje doesn’t only employ a lot of decoration in his work, but also plays with historic references. With L’Armoire, for instance, he created a piece of furniture that looks like something that escaped from a David Cronenberg movie. Besides being just as outrageously curvaceous as it is expensive, the cabinet, made of Dalbergia and Padouk wood and hand-sawn Cocobolo veneer, contains an intricate mechanism, which has to be discovered in order to open its drawers. In essence, it’s a rococo cabinet on steroids.
The question is, of course, whether something as extraordinary as this, created completely by hand, can still be classified as design, or whether it’s rather applied art. After all, didn’t Adolf Loos write in his legendary 1908 pamphlet Ornament and Crime that “ornament is nothing but wasted manpower”? Loos, however, lived in a time when machines were barely capable of bending a steel tube, whereas today they can produce remarkably detailed ornaments at the push of a button. A piece of furniture like L’Armoire probably has Loos rolling in his grave, but quite a few of Boontje’s objects, although no less ornamental, are machine-made, wasting no manpower apart from the designer’s. Studded with dainty flowers and insects, and resembling an 18th century still life painting more than a piece of technical equipment, Boontje’s Allegro-Crescendo speakers are the products of a rapid prototyping machine. “I like to compare this to William Morris‘ work”, Boontje says. “During the industrial revolution, factory workers lived in terrible conditions, just like today’s sweatshops. William Morris tried to produce things on a smaller scale and re-introduce craft, in order to achieve higher quality and also to improve the workers’ lives. I try to use new technology in order to re-introduce a higher level of detail into products.”
Besides this quest for quality, meaning and beauty in design objects, another factor pushing the trend towards opulence in design are clients. In recent years, more and more companies that used to be regarded as makers of ultra-traditional, even kitschy products want to work with designers, from crystal glass producer Swarovski to Spanish porcelain figurine maker Lladró. The latter even hired Spanish-born, London-based designer Jaime Hayon as creative director, resulting in several collections of figurines, including the aptly named Re-Deco series. Hayon is probably the first designer to find an appropriate appellation for his over-the-top, colourful and decidedly anti-ascetic style, calling it “Mediterranean digital baroque”. Recently, he designed the interior of the Fabergé Salon in Geneva, where he combined pseudo-traditional round shapes, chandeliers with elegant lampshades and room-high curtains with neutral, silvery colours, creating a space that looks like an updated version of a 1950s Hollywood interior. The only things missing were Cary Grant and Doris Day in his and hers silk dressing gowns.
“Believe me – it’s much more addictive to love kitsch than it is to love minimalism”, Hayon says. In contrast with Boontje, he doesn’t take his task too seriously, but sees himself as a kind of court jester. In fact, opulent design is at its most digestible when it has a slightly subversive undertone, like a hint of lemon in cream sauce. In Hayon’s work, it comes in the shape of gaudy colours, clown’s faces and Pinocchio noses. In the work of Antwerp-based Studio Job, founded by Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel, recalcitrance is more literally present – most of all in the imagery. The successful couple creates shamelessly unpractical objects, which often appear kitsch at first sight, but turn out to be rife with a dark, contemporary iconography at closer inspection. For Dutch ceramics manufacturer Royal Tichelaar, they made the Pyramid of Makkum, a surrealist tower of, well, things. How else can one sum up a fence, a pipe, a high-rise coffee pot with filter, a kettle – and gold-coloured steam? A closer look at the blue-and-white decoration reveals an even more idiosyncratic mix of cloverleaves, spoons, syringes, flowers, crucifixes, kitchen utensils, band-aids and safety pins. In a similar way, their Industry furniture feature images of hummingbirds, sea horses, dragonflies, skeletons, tanks, helicopters, hand grenades, gasmasks and fighter planes.
In the case of Studio Job, the question isn’t just whether their works belong to the realm of design or applied arts, but sculpture also comes into play. Hardly anyone would ever dream of hanging their coat in the Industry closet, just like no one would use one of the Wonderlamps – a series of oversized cast bronze torches, pots, buckets and pipes, fitted with blobby mouth-blown crystal bulbs – to light their living room. Yet while Studio Job’s critics might claim it’s all just expensive trumpery, fans of their objects profess that the pair has crossed-over into the world of art. A few years ago at the high-end fair Design Miami Basel, sheikhs and their wives were roaming around their works with longing looks in their eyes. Ironically, what they were gazing at was a project called Robber Baron: five bronze objects representing factories with golden smoke coming out of their chimneys, with a 500 000 Euros pricetag, which according to the designers “tell the story of the excesses of American nineteenth century tycoons and the current oligarchs from Russia”. Kitsch, design or art? Maybe it’s time somebody came up with an entirely new category.