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“Emmy + Gijs + Aldo”

We sit down to chat with Aldo Bakker about his group exhibition with his parents, his latest work in wood, neutralism at the Design Academy and what motivates him to design at all.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 20-01-2011

Aldo Bakker is on what might be described as a design high. Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, a French ceramic company, has invited him to freely collaborate, and his “Copper Collection” has been purchased by the Zuiderzeemuseum where “Emmy + Gijs + Aldo” runs till May.  It is the first time the work of Aldo’s mother, Emmy van Leersum has been exhibited alongside her husband's and son’s.  Van Leersum passed away in 1984 after battling cancer.

“It was the first and last time,” says Aldo Bakker who is clearly conflicted about blurring the boundary he has worked hard to erect between his parent’s fame and his own career.  “I have a real double feeling about it.  I love my parents and I am interested in their work as designers, but agreeing to this exhibition was difficult and I often wondered if it was a wise thing to do.”

It’s the clichéd story of the talented son following in the footsteps of his successful father that bores Bakker.  “It’s what journalists want to write about, but it has nothing to do with my work,” he says.

In the end, Bakker decided it was better to be given the opportunity to control how his work is compared and associated with his parent’s and agreed to the exhibition.  It was curated by Jan Boelen.  “It is interesting because although I delved into my mother’s work early in my career, now I see it in a whole new light,” he says.  “I understand it differently.”

“Emmy + Gijs + Aldo” has been well received, but Bakker is disappointed with the reviews.  “It’s just words," he says.  "They never really ask the hard questions or challenge designers and curators about why certain decisions were made.  They don’t ask about why one object was included and not another, for example.”

Even after the opening, Bakker was still not sure he had done the right thing but got straight back to work on his latest project - a chair made from five pieces of wood -  a seat and four legs, one of which is used as a backrest. “It really works,” he says. “The backrest is thin but offers comfort.   It acts like a spine between your shoulder blades.”

Time is running out, and Bakker is  consumed by perfecting details like the thickness of the legs.  He plans to present the piece at Object Rotterdam in February and then again in Milan in April along with additional pieces in the series. “I feel like I have reached a stage in my career where I can better deal with all the properties of wood,” he says.  “It’s not just about construction.  I have studied a lot of drawings and come to appreciate the differences in weight, colour and smell.  I feel ready to give into the emotions I feel when working with it and making the most of that sensorial approach."

In 2009 Bakker was experimenting with urushi – a refined and complex Japanese lacquer.  “It is expensive and the end result is very delicate,” he explains.  “This new project starts out  simply, but I plan to add layers over time.  Eventually I will have the original affordable pieces and also more complex and expensive ones." 

Not that Bakker’s designs are ever about price or any other objective concern inspiring or informing the industry.  “For me, it is only ever about the moment of creation,” he says.  

That’s a position that doesn’t sit well with a lot of current design education and the push for the inclusion of more theory.  Bakker, who teaches at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Bachelor's and Master’s programme, doesn't see anything positive about neutrality.  “I see being neutral as being nowhere," he says.  "Being neutral doesn’t count.  I think there are a lot of ways and fashions to approach design and yes neutrality is one of them, but that never allows a designer to evolve emotionally."

This one sentence explains a lot about Bakker’s designs and is certainly what distinguishes his work from not just his parent’s but what in the 90s came to be known as “Dutch Design”.  To him, there is always a brutal honesty not between himself and a concept, but between himself and an immediate moment.   “It doesn’t need a system or an ism or a trend,” he says.  “At that one moment, my energy and knowledge and personal feelings combine to create a feeling - an instinct - and it is only ever that which controls my decisions.”

Even the way Bakker talks about design differs from many of his Dutch contemporaries. “When I teach and work, I am often thinking about the real reason why I design,” he says.  “There has to be a convincing motivation whatever that is.  Personally, I don't do it to save the world, so people can sit more comfortably, or so liquid can be contained by a vessel.  There has to be a deeper urge.”

For Bakker that urge is abstract – it is about being struck by beauty, and trying to grab and then regrab the subliminal sense that beauty brings him.  It is about translating something very personal into something concrete  without losing any of the honesty.

“Emmy + Gijs + Aldo” runs at the Zuiderzeemuseum until May 11th 2011.

Images: main Aldo Bakker's designs on exhibition at the Zuiderzeemuseum (by Erik and Petra Hesmerg).  Small from top, Aldo Bakker and his watering can (by Erik and Petra Hesmerg). Gijs Bakker (by Yoshiaki Tsutsui) and his glasses.  Emmy van Leersum and her armband with vertical indents. A sketch from Aldo Bakker's new chair from wood.

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