Eppo Dehaes is the general manager of the Brussels branch of Mertens Frames, a custom framing company started in 1995 by Dutch artist Willem Mertens with branches in Amsterdam and Brussels. For the Third Rate Edition of the magazine he spoke to us about the supporting roll of the framer in the art world.
I’ll never forget the first time I had to frame a piece by James Ensor. I studied painting in university and I had read a lot about him and his work in art history, and here I was, responsible for presenting his work. It was so impressive to see it up close and out of its frame. You have to be very careful, of course, and artists, or people who have studied art, tend to be better framers. They tend to have a better feeling for what works and what doesn’t work in terms of presentation – and they’re a lot better at handling the artwork. Generally, our staff used to be clients – artists who came into the shop to get something framed who showed an interest in the framing process and developed a relationship with us. Their goal is usually to become professional artists eventually, and working here means they’re confronted with the world of art. Artist tend to be naturally curious people, too, and the founder of the shop, Pieter Mertens, really likes that. He was naturally curious, and he loved to have long discussions about everything. In the old days, when a client arrived in the shop, we used to sit around and drink coffee (or if it was late, wine) and maybe they would smoke a cigarette and we would discuss art, or music, or something we read in the paper and only after half an hour would we actually start talking about the frame. We were only open three days a week and that meant that there was much more time. Now there’s less time but we still try to keep this slow pace because I know it’s important. Clients appreciate it. A lot of customers who come here love art and they love to talk about it and it’s better if the people they talk to have the background and know a bit about what’s going on in the art world. If a client arrives with an artwork and you’re familiar with the artist, it puts them at ease. The first thing I do when a client comes into the shop, if I haven’t met them before, is I explain to them what we do, what kind of frames we make and what the possibilities are of these frames. We don’t give them coffee anymore because it’s too dangerous for the artwork. A lot of artists appreciate it, but at the same time it’s not that professional to be smoking and drinking around a piece of art or an expensive photograph. I try to find out what the client wants, and I advise them on whether or not there is a better alternative. There are lots of different steps in the making of a frame, and craftsmanship is only one part of it. When you want to make something with your hands, something custom made and not mass-produced, you have to put a lot of effort into it because every little detail counts. Ours is a niche product, but there’s a market for everything. You have the cheapest frames that you can buy in the supermarket and they’re totally crap but there are people who want to buy it because they’re affordable. Everyone wants to frame their wedding photographs to put it on top of the TV. Then you have the next model up, which is maybe only slightly better but it’s still mass produced… and so on. But it’s not the business we are in. There is this whole discussion about whether good craftsmanship is art, but for me good art is something else. I don’t consider a frame a piece of art, or an extension of the artwork. I do consider it very important, but I don’t consider it art. I’m a framer. I see my job as a support role. It’s like being a good butler. It’s someone very important who you don’t see – but if he’s not there, you notice. The job of a framer is to be supportive of the artwork and the frame never becomes more important than the work it frames.
FOOTER: Mertens Frames is a custom framing company started in 1995 by Dutch artist Willem Mertens, with branches in Amsterdam and Brussels. Eppo Dehaes is the general manager of the Brussels shop.