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Gijs Bakker Launches Yii in Milan

Yii, the new brand directed by Gijs Bakker, possesses everything that captures the spirit of where the design world is headed - authenticity, skill and a narrative that captures the imagination. Made by only Taiwanese craftspeople and designers, it's already wowing the crowds in Milan.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 14-04-2010

The days leading up to Gijs Bakker’s departure for this year’s Milan Furniture Fair were dominated by nerves. “These are new feelings for me,” he says looking out of his lounge-room window at a huge magnolia tree, which is on the brink of a floral explosion.

The cause of these nerves is his new brand Yii, currently launching in Milan. The brand is the brainchild of the Taiwan Craft Research Institute who asked Bakker to creatively direct. “In the past, Western designers have gone to Asia to have things made, but this is very different,” he says.

And it is only because it is different that Bakker agreed to participate. It all started back in 2006 when the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses a lot of Chinese artifacts that were hidden at the start of communism for fear that they would be destroyed, asked him to art direct a project.  The idea was to have local designers create gifts for the museum shop. “It was only a small project, but I really had to confront a completely different design mentality,” he says.

From there, the Craft Research Institute asked him to extend the project and even start designing for them himself. To this Bakker said no.  Instead, he held a Master Class in Taiwan to select fifteen local designers - a few of whom were Taiwanese students from the IM Masters course he runs at the Design Academy Eindhoven.  

Next, Bakker along with the Craft Research Institute paired designers with local craftspeople and a brand was born.

“Right now we are only using Taiwanese designers,” Bakker says. “It was the same when we launched Droog - we only used Dutch designers at the very beginning so who knows if the same thing might happen.”

The biggest challenge Yii has posed to date for Bakker has been nurturing some sort of understanding between designers and craftspeople, which have always been artistically and intellectually isolated from one another. “They didn’t know about one another and had never professionally met,” he says. “A real divide separates the practices, which was something I found very confronting.”

In Europe we are used to how Catholicism has historically used and (arguably) manipulated art to help communicate its message. But while religious art flourished in the west, in the east it was craft that evolved into an established and respected discipline that was integrally connected to the Buddhist temples, which lay at the very heart and soul of society. In Asia, craft has no connection to design or art.

That’s where Bakker’s expertise came in. With Droog he really emphasized the fusion of all three disciplines and had great success with the work he commissioned from designers like Hella Jongerius and Dick van Hoff who shared that more fused approach.

For Yii the designers (who were mostly younger) held the upper hand in so far as they were allowed to select the craft that best suited their vision, but it was the craftspeople who had the intellectual mettle. “And that went beyond having a superior understanding of their materials,” says Bakker. “They had a better grasp of the local culture and the very specific way Buddhism and Taoism and their associated symbols play out in society.” By this he means how deceptively small details like the position of a dragon’s head can resonate with important meanings.   

Making it to Milan was never a part of Bakker’s original contract or even on his mind, but as the project evolved and more pieces were completed even he was stunned by the quality.  

Now fifteen designers and twenty craftspeople are presenting forty-three products in silver, wood, ceramics, textile, glass and bamboo.  “Bamboo is very important in Taiwan,” says Bakker.  “The climate and soft hills are the ideal environment in which to grow it, but because basket weaving is no longer necessary in temples, the skills are dying out. This is why it is important that we revive such tradition via design.  We can give it a new life.”

One of the most beautiful pieces in the collection is the Cocoon Plan, a woven bamboo chair that is left for five days with silk worms that weave their magic across the surface. “In the past rice growers wore their bamboo hats into the fields and the worms would create silk while the people farmed,” says Bakker.

Another lyrical stand-out is the Brick Plan, a project that pays tribute to the fired bricks the Dutch introduced to the Taiwanese in the seventeenth century when they first colonized the island.  

There is also the ubiquitous Starbucks coffee cup albeit designed with the symbols and legends that define Taiwan’s heritage.

It is all exquisite work, but still Bakker is a bag of nerves. “I know it is good, and I believe in it 400%, but now we have to see what everyone else thinks,” he says.

And so far the reaction is that Yii makes good sense – it’s where design is headed.  Each piece whether in limited edition or mass production possesses a narrative and an authenticity.  It is an approach that convincingly responds to the blank reaction a lot of the smooth and elegant designs of the last decade conjure.

“It is all very skillful and careful work,” Bakker says. “And unlike a lot of the talk about being sustainable, this has real legs.”

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