words Marcus Fairs
The battered white Mercedes van turns off the highway and enters a small, shabby industrial estate outside the small southern Dutch town of Eindhoven. A grand piano stands on waste ground in front of a lock-up unit. A blowtorch and a jerry-can of petrol lie ready.
Maarten Baas jumps down from the driver’s seat of the van while we pile out of the passenger door and gather round the piano. Its keys, strings and hammers have been removed and it is ready for smoking.
Baas is just 26 years old and only graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven two years ago, but already his “Smoke” project has brought him worldwide attention, including a solo show at Moss, New York’s most influential design showroom, and a production deal with leading Dutch manufacturer Moooi.
Technically, Smoke is very simple: Baas takes existing wooden objects, scorches them with a blowtorch, impregnates and seals the charred surfaces with epoxy and then resells them through galleries (the Mint gallery in London lists one of his carver chairs at £2,300).
Private clients are now lining up to get their chattels expensively singed: Milanese architect Fabio Novembre has asked Baas to burn an entire timber wall in his new house, while the grand piano, Baas’ largest smoking to date, is a private commission for Li Edelkoort, the influential trend-forecaster and chair of Design Academy Eindhoven.
Before setting light to the piano – we agree to wait until dusk, when the photos will be more dramatic – Baas takes us into the freezing lock-up, which he shares with a crazy-looking car resprayer who resembles a fugitive from a Freak Brothers comic and who claims to be called Zack Lee (“Zack Lee what you want, Zack Lee when you want it,” he cackles) to see his latest large-scale project: he is burning a collection of antiques belonging to the Groningen Museum.
The museum has given Baas several dozen period pieces to work on for an exhibition. The un-smoked pieces – bureaus, wardrobes and lots of dining chairs – stand on one side (“they’re not the masterpieces of course; they’re other pieces they had but couldn’t exhibit”) while the completed items – including a chaise longue, a chest of drawers and a commode – are lined up on the other.
They look at first glance as if they’ve been salvaged from an inferno at a stately home, yet each has a lustrous lacquer finish and a shiny metal plaque bearing Baas’ name, so there is a boxfresh quality to them too. “For me, Smoke is just a reinterpretation of existing furniture,” Baas says. “It meant I didn’t need to design my own furniture.”
Smoke has its roots in a conceptual project he embarked on while at college. “I was thinking about beauty and perfection,” he explains. “When we talk about perfection [in design] we normally think about things that are smooth and symmetrical.
“Yet we call nature perfect, although a landscape of rocks is not smooth and symmetric at all. How come we like that as well? If you have a scratch on your car you want to polish it away. But don’t scratches make a product richer? Or if something breaks off, isn’t this new shape also a perfect shape? As an answer to these kind of questions I started to do the opposite of polishing; the opposite of striving to keep the original condition [of existing objects].”
He experimented with crushing, melting and soaking items of furniture, and even tried throwing them off his balcony, before he settled on burning them. He perfected the technique in his garden, using the blowtorch to singe the surface of the timber and then quickly extinguishing it with water to prevent the flames taking hold. “At first I didn’t realise that if there is smoke, there is still fire,” he laughs. “I’d go off and make a coffee and come back and there’d be nothing left.”
His graduation project consisted of a collection of smoked pieces, including some cheap Ikea chairs and second-hand baroque-style pieces bought on the internet.
“The baroque symbolised my idea the most,” he says. “There is so much ornament on a baroque chair that is not necessary. Is that ornament less beautiful when half of it has burnt away, or is it more beautiful?”
The graduation show caused a sensation and Baas’ career immediately took off. His friend, designer Bertjan Pot, thought Moooi might be interested in manufacturing his pieces and suggested he show them to the firm’s creative director, Marcel Wanders. “So I made my van like a small gallery, drove to Amsterdam, stopped at his door and said what do you think?”
Baas’ leather-upholstered armchair and chandelier were launched by Moooi in 2003. They are both now mass-produced in the Philippines, where craftsmen first make copies of the ornate originals and then burn them. One of the characteristics of Baas’ original chandelier was that one of its wooden arms had been burned to a charred stump: the Moooi pieces faithfully reproduce this. “I actually don’t know how it happens,” he admits. “Maybe they even don’t make that arm at all.”
Last May, New York retailer Murray Moss commissioned Baas to burn 25 of the most famous pieces of 20th-century design for an exhibition at his SoHo store. Mackintosh’s ladderback chair, Noguchi’s free-form coffee table and a Memphis Carlton room divider were among the icons subjected to Baas’ blowtorch.
The project could be interpreted as a ritualistic subversion of design history; it could just as easily be dismissed as a gimmick. But Baas is so disarmingly unpretentious that such readings seem pointless. He’s always being asked whether it’s design or art, he says. “It’s an important question and it’s also important for me to say that I don’t think it’s important. I don’t care. It’s my thing and people can like it or not.”
Relaxed and confident, but not cocky in the way many Dutch designers are, Baas seems happier talking about the practicalities of setting fire to design classics than the cultural significance of the act.
“The [Campana Brothers’] Favela chair was quite a hard one,” he says. “It’s very light wood and it catches fire easily. I found out that it’s really only a very simple chipboard chair with lots of pieces nailed onto it. Whereas plywood chairs, like the Eames, are made of all these thin pieces of veneer, so after burning one piece it peels off and there’s a new piece of wood underneath.”
By now, the lock-up is filled with evening gloom and icon’s photographer suggests it is time to start burning. So we go outside where Baas, with a total lack of ceremony, pours petrol over the shell of the piano and then directs a blast of flame at it from his blowtorch.
The piano is momentarily engulfed in an orange fireball, but this quickly subsides leaving a few stubborn flames licking around where the keyboard used to be. Bas den Herder, who is Baas’ assistant and who wears authentic Dutch clogs, puts these out with a water spray. The piano appears to have survived the ordeal almost unscathed.
We repeat the process perhaps a dozen times until the photographer is happy and the piano has taken on a permanent blackness. It still requires a couple more hours of careful torching and multiple coats of laborious epoxy (which den Herder will apply) before it can be reassembled and returned to Li Edelkoort. But our work is done and, as den Herder wheels the piano back into the lock-up, we climb into Baas’ white van so he can take us back to the station. As we drive through the dark Eindhoven suburbs, we ask Baas whether he’s worried about being typecast as the guy who burns things. “I see them as products and I can make as many as I want,” he replies. “I want to keep on doing it my whole career.”