words Justin McGuirk
Jurgen Bey lives and works in what looks like an aeroplane hangar.
He and his employees eat their meals in an old yellow caravan and they buy their food from a grocery bus that drives right into the studio. You get the sense that Bey could happily never leave the building. Here he presides over a universe of old sofas and chandeliers, armchairs coated in polyurethane, benches made of hay, hybrid table-chairs and odd knick-knacks. It is part factory and part flea market. But he could be kicked out at any time.
“As soon as someone comes who wants to rent it we have to go within two weeks,” explains Bey.
It’s a precarious situation for one of the Netherlands’ best-known designers to be in, but like so many other designers in Rotterdam, he is exploiting the city’s anti-squat legislation, which allows creatives to keep industrial spaces warm for a nominal rent until a more commercial tenant comes along. After two years here, though, Bey has finally bought himself another “laboratory” outside the city in case he gets turfed out.
Forty-one-year-old Bey (whose name is spelt Beij in his passport) made his name in the late 1990s with a series of products for Droog Design. His Tree Trunk Bench – a tree trunk with three bronze chair backs plugged into it – epitomised what might
now be called the Droog School. It took traditional furniture and subverted your expectations of it with a visual gag. In this case, the joke was nature literally sprouting culture.
In many ways, Bey is the father of the current tendency to appropriate objects and turn them into different objects. He ought to be better known.
“Jurgen has been very important for Droog, he collaborated with us from the very beginning,” says Droog Design’s co-founder Renny Ramakers. “He sees beauty in very common things. I never forget a talk by him starting with an interior [belonging to] a farmer and his wife. Both were sitting at the table. All the objects surrounding them are considered to be ugly or at least not interesting. He was praising the beauty of this interior, struck by the humanity of it and with a sigh: ‘I wish that one time I am able to design such an environment.’”
Tall and rumpled-looking, Bey wears a serious face but has a kind, patient way about him. You feel like there ought to be sawdust in his hair and paint drips on his clothes. He speaks in a soporific drone but he has a mind that is alive to unconventional possibilities. Influenced by the James Herriot stories on television, he started out wanting to be a vet. Somewhat haphazardly, he ended up at the Design Academy Eindhoven. “I was really interested in animals. It just happened that friends of mine did the academy and I went there and saw it and thought, ‘Oh, that’s also nice.’” But design was not completely new to him; he used to make his own clothes in school and briefly considered going into fashion. This is a slightly incongruous revelation.
Bey’s key works – the bench, the Light Shade Shade and the Kokon furniture – were all conceived in one particularly inspired year, 1999. The Light Shade Shade, a chandelier sheathed in a polyester cylinder, is another jibe at our expectations. The cylinder is lined with a translucent foil – “It’s what they use for interrogations,” says Bey, referring to its use in two-way mirrors – so that it looks like a sleek piece of modernism until you switch the light on.
This preference for using old things to make new ones is not the result of an ideology – Bey is not bothered about sustainability or worried about bringing more things into the world – it’s a methodology. “I don’t like to start on a white field. What I like best is if things can grow in a new situation, so that’s the reason why I start with existing things. But I’m very glad that not everybody does it because that would be horrible – then you would only have old things.”
The studio is full of old things. At one point, describing how modernism is finally starting to grow on him, Bey says, “All this oldness of things makes it almost like walking in an antique shop.” And that is rather what the studio is like, except that it is also like a laboratory where Bey performs vivisection on furniture. There’s a table implanted with a wood-burning stove (“the ultimate winter table”), a chair and a table grafted together and two stacking chairs mummified into one with masking tape. These hybrids are Bey’s way of thinking out loud. “It’s a way of sketching, combining things,” he says. “You put things together, you change it a little, until you feel like, okay, this is a good piece.”
This process spawned the Kokon (literally, cocoon) furniture, which acquired a certain notoriety in London when it was used in the self-consciously designer restaurant Sketch. In this series, chairs and table-chairs are covered with a pliable PVC skin that makes them look as though they are about to burst through a chrysalis – like something from the chair version of Revenge of the Body Snatchers.
Covering objects – disguising them in some way – is a prominent theme in Bey’s work. He sees it as a bit like dressing up people. “I like to look at things a little as if they were human. Like, how would you deal with them?”
Naturally, recalling Bey’s veterinary ambitions, there are parallels with animals too. In a diatribe against the uniformity of globalisation, he holds up nature’s paragons of anomaly: the Galapagos Islands, the giraffe’s neck (“Jesus, that’s a totally new possibility”). Bey’s studio is less a Galapagos Island than the design world’s Island of Dr Moreau, where forms that we are all too familiar with are mutated into unexpected breeds. Bey is a tinkerer. He picks objects – for their symbolism, or for some homely quality that he appreciates – and transforms them. He is not so much solving puzzles as creating them.
The latest object taking shape in Bey’s studio is a chair for a prison. The prototype consists of two stacking chairs fused together and then shortened at the legs. But the chairs are stacked slightly crooked rather than flush with each other. They can’t be regimented into neat rows, which reflects some sympathy with the prisoners but also the way we habitually use chairs. “You sit on a chair never as it’s made: you can sit like this or you can also sit like this,” says Bey, shifting around in his seat.
“At the end you have a chair that’s never right and always right – a really stubborn chair.”
Bey is currently fusing together tables and chests of drawers with cheap, pine packing boxes. The largest, most elaborate piece is conceived as a sleeping room for a young child. “Instead of making a big room that he can sleep in and then filling it with stuff, you have it as small as possible and then as you grow you get more crates and you build a mountain of all the crates, so the shape of the room will also change totally.” This sounds rather far-fetched. However, Bey is clearly not thinking about this in practical, adult terms but, rather, with a child’s imagination, and an innate feel for the protection offered by small spaces.
The box is the cheapest kind available, but it has been sandblasted smooth and painted with birds – a work of craft. There is something amateurish about Bey’s practice – something of the garden shed hobbyist or beachcomber – and he is very conscious of it. There is definitely a resistance to the idea of the “product”. The original Light Shade Shades all contained different, hand-picked chandeliers, but when it was put into manufacture by Moooi, the chandeliers had to be the same. “The first time I saw them in a fair, there were so many but it was like Baywatch in that they have only the blonde girls and the big boobs,” says Bey, and although he claims to be very pleased with the result, this comparison says it all. Bey’s whole working method is based on turning an idea into countless unique iterations.
Though he comes across as the detached experimenter, happily shut up in his laboratory, Bey is as versatile an international operator as one expects of designers these days. Aside from his own products, he is designing an interior for a villa by MVRDV in Eindhoven and a garden for people with Alzheimers near Utrecht; Ron Arad has asked him to teach at London’s Royal College of Art starting in September and he is being tipped to succeed Arad as head of Design Products at the school; and he is currently art director of Italian furniture maker Pallucco. But he remains resolutely Dutch. “I don’t believe in global design,” he says. “I believe that where you are born, where your roots are, makes you.”