Find Your Own True Way: An Interview with Gijs Bakker
By: Patrycja Zwierzynska
Gijs Bakker’s career has been a long and prolific one. His award winning designs include jewellery as well as numerous household products. He has taught design for decades, including at the Design Academy Eindhoven, where he was the Head of the Masters Programme between 2000 and 2012, and has been a co-founder of various projects including the groundbreaking Dutch design platform Droog Design.
This past November, Bakker was invited to Toronto to give the keynote address for the 2018 Making and Thinking Symposium, Collaboration 2.0 at Harbourfront Centre. A day after his lecture, he sat down with me to talk about his career and share his very pointed perspective.
Patrycja Zwierzynska: On the theme of collaboration, you mentioned [in your lecture] working with professional photographers [to document your work]. You talked talking about getting people who are experts in their field to contribute to what you do. In the context of your career, how would you say that collaboration has been important?
Gijs Bakker: It was, and collaboration in this sense is a true collaboration because we were not commissioning photographers, we had no money. When we had our show in Amsterdam [at the very beginning of Bakker’s career in the late sixties], it attracted so much attention! So many people got excited about it. In that audience, there was a young but already well known photographer. He came to us and said “May I take pictures of your work”, and we said “Fantastic!”, so he made an editorial for a magazine, got paid for it, and the works that he photographed are still images we use today. So that was a kind of collaboration, not a commission. Both parties had a benefit in participating.
PZ: For emerging makers and designers today, I’m wondering how you recreate that? It seems like getting people excited is a hard thing [to achieve] these days.
GB: You have to be good– you have to be damn good! But what is good? Well, that can be a long story. You need to have a certain topic that you are well concentrated on and [with that] you have the urge in your soul and your body that that’s what you have to do. Nobody can teach you that. I mean, the school is a good thing because you learn a lot, and most of it– it happened with me and also my son– after I had been studying, I realized that what was taught to me was bullshit! It was ok, but it wasn’t what I really wanted. When you have learned something, you gain a counterpoint, where by pushing against your master, you can find your own position. This is absolutely, very important. If you don’t have the urge, you can become a hairdresser, or whatever [instead]. You don’t have to be a jewellery designer, or an artist, not at all. If you have something to say, then ok, but if you don’t– forget the whole thing.
PZ: Is that what drove you? A strong desire to say something?
PZ: And you felt that sense…
GB: From the beginning, well, not completely… After the art school in Amsterdam, I didn’t know exactly what direction I would go. During my exams, I showed a silver coffee service that was seen by a guest professor, who himself was a famous designer and [was] working for a silver factory in the Netherlands. After the exams, he immediately came up to me and said “Please come to work at the factory in the design studio, it would be wonderful”, and I said “No, no, no, this is too quick!” and I told him– keeping the door open– “First I have to study more”. Then I went to Sweden to study at Konstfackskolan for one year. When I came back, he phoned me; I was ready. [From] working at that studio, I learned exactly what my direction shouldn’t be. It should not be in the direction of that company, what they were doing was of no quality. So, again, I found the type of situation where I could really push against what they stood for, and through that, I could find my way. I think it’s important to have challenges, to take on those challenges– although it could be that they are the wrong direction– but, by having that confrontation it makes it easier to say yes or no, to find your own true way. So it isn’t directly that after school, I knew exactly what I was going to do– no, no. It’s trial and error– that’s how you find your way.
PZ: It’s interesting that it was this kind of conflict that moved you…
GB: I needed that. I always needed confrontation to hit me, to understand what I really want.
PZ: Do you think you are successful?
GB: Now I know, of course, but I never thought about success. It had always been a struggle. [It has] always been, every time making things new again, new experiments. Sometimes things are a failure, and some are a success. You balance in between, and that’s how you find your way. Of course now, I’m at an age where I can say yes, I’m very successful, but I can still doubt, sure.
PZ: What was it about jewellery that made you excited? Why was it something that was interesting for you to pursue?
GB: It’s very difficult to say. I think the fact that I fell in love with Emmy [van Leersum], my late wife, was a factor. She was coming to art school from a completely different place [than me]. Her parents thought that as a woman, in those days, the only thing she could do [with an art education] was become a teacher in a children’s school. Where she could draw with the children and find a way for her creativity in that. But her creativity was much bigger . She was always making her own clothes, she didn’t like [commercial] jewellery because it was all very ugly so she said “I make my own clothes, why shouldn’t I make my own jewellery!” She came to art school from that. I came to art school from something else. My father had a garage where I was supposed to become one of the bosses and I said “No, no, no, never, never, never!”, so my brothers did it and the only thing that I had was that I was always drawing and dreaming. After three, four years in the art school, Emmy and I met. After art school I went to work at the silver factory because I was very interested in making products. Emmy went into jewellery, she worked doing repairs for a silver shop. At a certain point she made a silver necklace that was really beautiful, and I think that inspired her. As a kind of first piece, jewellery can be something more than just [a] decorative object. We started to work together, slowly experimenting. I was making objects, jewellery in gold– quite big in size– trying to find the limits of how far I could go but still make it wearable. Emmy did it her way, together with the clothes. Then we exhibited those. We were asked by a gallery– an art gallery– because in those days, fortunately we didn’t have the jewellery gallery. [The concept of] the jewellery gallery is a pain. It’s terrible, it doesn’t work!
The exhibition was in Amsterdam, there our works were seen by the curator of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In those days [the museum] was showing small exhibitions of young, upcoming talent in architecture, in design, or textiles, and in our case, in jewellery. This invitation to show at the museum was perfect because already at that point we had lots of fantasies about what we wanted to make: a real spectacle, a big thing! It was kind of a dream, that invitation. We worked for about half a year. From the outside it looked like it went very easily. It was [actually] a struggle, finding its way, but we knew we really had to go for it, one hundred percent.
PZ: Can you expand on your thoughts about jewellery galleries? What’s the issue?
GB: Ah, yes. I think that the problem is that when jewellery is sold in the art world it’s already a niche. A small thing. If you compare it to other, craft oriented directions, like architecture, or furniture, or even textiles, jewellery is the most difficult, so knowing that and then putting it in a gallery that specializes only in jewellery: that world becomes smaller and smaller. I’m the opposite, I want to make the world as big as possible. When I have ideas, I want to express them to the world. I don’t want to put them in such a little gallery. [In the niche jewellery gallery scenario] you have all those jewellers complaining, sitting together crying about how hard it is, how difficult the world is– why would you do that? You have to find another way.
PZ: Are you saying that jewellers have to diversify their practice; that they have to make something other than jewellery? Or are you saying that, if you are presenting jewellery, that it has to be done in a different way?
GB: That’s what I mean, because not everybody is talented in different subjects; you need to have that talent first, otherwise it doesn’t work. Although, I think that many of the jewellers who have a certain talent, could develop themselves in a broader sense. And why are they not making fashion jewellery: why not? I said yesterday in the lecture], and I really mean it; I hate the term art jewellery. It’s really bullshit, it makes it even more and more restrictive, more limited. In the art world people laugh about this, they don’t take it seriously, it’s a shame.
PZ: I think people in the jewellery world are thinking we need some sort of status, we need to elevate thoughts surrounding what we are doing…
GB: The status you get through the quality of your work. But ok, it’s easy for me to say. We, in the past have tried to avoid the word jewellery, and we [called it] objects to wear. Objects to wear is also my sweater, my bag, my glasses: at the very very end you can’t avoid the word jewellery. You have to live with it, it’s terrible. Still today, when I’m with people from the art world, if they don’t know me or they have a sense that I’m recognized; when they ask what I do, and I say I design jewellery, then the interest is immediately over.
PZ: Can you talk a bit about your project Chi ha paura…?
GB: You can use the short term Chp…? Chi ha paura is Italian for ‘who’s afraid of’.
The idea [of Chp…?] is to get away from the gallery, to get away from the idea that jewellery only deals with fashion. I wanted to have jewellery dealing with design. Design in a sense that [the piece] is really thought out, practical, functional, good to wear, also, it strikes a balance between production and price; that the price is reasonable, affordable. But most importantly that it has strong design, a certain philosophy, a certain mentality. By working with designers who already have a career, and their own signature, the step from a piece of furniture or lighting, to a piece of jewellery is not that big. It’s also easier for the audience to accept. For example, Marc Newson’s ring and bracelet designs [for Chp..?] are very successful because he already had a clientele following his designs in furniture etc., who also wanted to have his jewellery.
Another thing we’ve done [with Chp..?] is to reissue some old designs, in a new edition, to give them a second life. The most successful product, one we sell nearly every day– compared to others, this is very rare– is a wire bracelet [called Triadic] designed by Charles Marks, who is no longer alive. He designed those way back in the sixties. I arranged it with his widow, who was very happy for the design of her late husband to have a second life.
That, in short is my aim with Chp..? To keep it alive, I invite mostly young, emerging designers who I meet by travelling around in the world, to make a piece. I do that together with the design museum in the Netherlands, they invest in it and I do the creative work. As a result, they get all the prototypes– the whole collection is in the museum– while I have the opportunity to test the market, and see which ideas might be successful and what might be produced. Not mass produced, small quantities.
PZ: What do you think makes successful jewellery?
GB: That doesn’t exist. It can exist only in the context of understanding the market that it is meant for. If it is for Chp..?, for my label: it tends to be easy to wear, not too big, attractive design-wise and have a price balance that is perfect, a bit cheap. [The pieces] have to be of high quality, they have to be brilliant ideas but also have to be realized in a brilliant way. It’s quite a lot of work, but [through this process], it can happen that it can become successful. I myself, make maybe one or two jewellery designs a year: poor jewellery design happens when you have to come up with something new everyday; that’s impossible, it’s too much.
PZ: What does this process look like for you? When you have a jewellery project that you are working on, do you work on other things while you are figuring it out? Does it just come when it comes?
GB: Yes… I mean, all those activities, more or less, link together. It means you have to make creative decisions all the time. It’s in the process of the production. When I work with my goldsmith, or my computer designers, I have to feed my ideas to them in a way that I get something [out of the process] that I really want. It’s a way of thinking and organizing, and a way of being with other people. Up until around 1983, I produced everything myself, the jewellery… everything I made. After that, around when Emmy died, slowly, I added more and more assistants.
PZ: Do you think that having the background of knowing how things are made and having actually worked personally with the materials... did that give you a good basis to design things really well?
GB: Yes, absolutely! In the past I have often said “I hate craft” but when combined with concept it can be really great. In my long life I have realized that I’m very fortunate. I have learned and experienced all these different techniques and those gave me an enormous amount of skills. Although I may not practice them anymore, I can easily communicate with people who work for me. From this knowledge, it’s possible to transcend [those] boundaries and get more exciting results.
PZ: I wanted to know if when you first started out in design and in your career, if you had predicted that this is where you would be now? Is this where you saw your career going and how do you feel about all that?
GB: As far as I know and remember, I was never thinking about the career ahead, that I wanted to reach this or that goal, I was only thinking about the next project. But the next project has to be the next step, not an imitation of the past. It has to encourage me to learn and grow. That’s how it works, even now I go on [like this]. It’s really a matter of the criteria that you set for yourself: you are the one who decides if something is good or not good, nobody else... this is your criteria: that level and standard of what you want to reach. This, of course, through my long career, has been increasing enormously. You get more and more critical– which is a good thing– but, as I look back on my youth, it’s a pity. When you are young you have so much energy and power, and stupidity; you move like a bullet and nobody can stop you. When you get older, you have much more balance– you know too much and that can block you– it can be a limitation, one has to live with it.