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Maarten Baas

The Dutch design wunderkind on putting the human touch to design

by Adrienne So in Design on 31 May 2011

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Dutch designer Maarten Baas deals in the unexpected. "Beauty and ugliness is something that I find interesting," Baas explains. "I have the feeling that our sense for beauty isn't so pure anymore. I sometimes try to shake up the way we see things, to kind of 'reset' it."

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His famous series "Hey, chair, be a bookshelf!" repurposes items from second-hand stores into seemingly precarious arrangements, reinforced by hand-coated polyester. Whimsically stacking old chairs and lamp stands, he fuses the disparate group of items that might've been called "rubbish" in another incarnation together into a unified structure, with piles of CDs and potted plants peeping out at playful angles.

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Even before graduating (he got his degree from Design Academy in Eindhoven in 2002), Baas' unconventional sensibility was getting attention when his design "Knuckle"—a bone-white holder for various sizes of candles—was already being produced. It didn't take long from there for renowned design company Moooi to pick up his "Smoke" series, which was shown at international exhibitions and museums like London's Victoria & Albert, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and at NYC's gallery and design shop Moss, effectively launching his career.

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The particular poetry of these pieces essentially define Baas' aesthetic core. Eschewing conventional notions of aesthetics and preservation, for each of the unique works in the Smoke series, Baas blowtorches the furniture and preserves them with an epoxy coating, giving them a velvety, matte-black finish that belies its charred, primal appeal. Soon after Groninger Museum in Amsterdam commissioned the young designer to transform an entire suite of antique furniture by fire, and NYC's Gramercy Park Hotel commissioned several one-off Smoke works, including a billiard table.

From there Baas began collaborating with Bas den Herder in 2005, and the two founded Studio Baas & den Herder shortly thereafter. The studio now produces Baas' work on a slightly larger scale, though most of the pieces continue to be made by hand according to his own seasonal schedule. "I do industrial design rarely, only if I think the fact that it is industrially made has an added value," he emphasizes. "I prefer not to make anything, rather than another boring, impersonal product. When we make things in our studio, it literally has fingerprints in the product. It's human-scale."

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This hands-on approach translates into otherworldly design that wouldn't look out of place on the set of a Tim Burton film. His 2006 "Clay Furniture" collection is modeled by hand without the use of molds. The dreamlike, vibrantly-colored pieces look as if they've been made by a giant child who pinched the delicate arms and legs thin with awkward fingers. His newest collection, "Plain," takes this concept and remodels it for more everyday use, making it more "resistant to scratches and so on," Baas acknowledges.

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Baas' genius lies in recognizing that that there is more than one kind of beauty. An attractive woman doesn't need to resemble a Titian-haired Aphrodite, so why should a beautiful cabinet have to have perfectly straight lines and ornamental woodwork? "I think the design world is lacking a kind of experimental, expressive part, compared to art, or music, or fashion," said Baas. "But the mainstream of design is still a compilation of greatest hits, rather than a big room for experiments. So if people are experimenting I seriously don't consider that as ugly, but as interesting."

Images by Maarten van Houten

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