words Alex Wiltshire
“Yes, I’m paying, because rich magazines and museums won’t do it – and I’m the struggling artist!” It’s 11pm on a cold late October night in Utrecht. The last Eurostar back to London left hours ago, I have no credit card or cash and Job Smeets of Studio Job is angry that no one else has offered to pay for dinner.
Earlier that day, the plan sounded simple: meet at Studio Job’s studio in Antwerp, drive to Utrecht to see their design for an exhibition about Vikings, then drive back to Brussels to catch that train. But Utrecht was further away than we thought …
Studio Job is Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel, a young Belgian/Dutch couple whose idiosyncratic work sits in the grey area between art and design. The pair’s Rock Furniture, a range of cast aluminium seating with a baroque, crystalline form, for Milanese manufacturer Dilmos, stood out at Milan this year. They also showed Insects, an unsettling two-tone pattern of bugs printed on wall coverings, tiles and fabrics.
Their design for the Centraal Museum is quite unlike anything you’d expect from an archaeology exhibition. It uses a similar graphic approach to Insects, with the walls and floors in each room covered in a different pattern. A room entirely decorated in blood splats (with Scandinavian death metal blaring) is about the violent image of Vikings, while a room covered in brand logos inspired by Vikings depicts their legacy in the modern world.
Sitting at a petrol station on the way to Utrecht while Smeets fills their thirsty Jeep 4x4, Tynagel explains why the Centraal Museum took them on: “To get a lot of visitors! I think it was brave of them. It needed another dimension because there’s not much of the Vikings left so to fill a room you need something else.”
Smeets met Tynagel at a party in 1996, the year after he graduated from his masters design course at Design Academy Eindhoven. He set up the studio in 1998 and Tynagel joined in 2000 when she graduated from her undergraduate Design Academy course in graphic design. They moved to Belgium, Smeets’ country of birth, in part to avoid being perceived as one of the Droog generation of Dutch designers.
Back on the road, it becomes clear that they don’t really like the design world: “I find that it’s more stupid than stupid, the whole design thing – it’s horrible,” says Smeets.
Older than Tynagel by seven years, Smeets assumes the spokesperson role in the partnership, as well as the driver’s seat. While Tynagel displays a quiet discomfort at being interviewed, Smeets clearly enjoys a platform from which he can be outspoken.
“Everyone knows that designers are not the smartest people in the world, otherwise they would become artists or something,” he says. The question of whether they are artists or designers is a common one and he fields it smoothly. “I think that’s for other people to decide,” he says. “Maybe sometimes we are designers and maybe sometimes we are architects. Sometimes just man and wife, sometimes just artists.”
Smeets is careful not to label their work. “It could be art, could be nothing, it could be in between.” He feels that he couldn’t possibly judge it. But art is the aspiration; Smeets’ slightly design-disparaging distinction between artistic and design thinking goes that an artist looks at how to hold water and a designer makes another cup. “I hope that our work is a little bit artistic because otherwise it would be a little bit boring, it wouldn’t show anything, it wouldn’t be expressive,” he says.
But he does concede that their design education has made them think as designers. “It’s a bit of a struggle,” he says. “You want to be as less a designer as possible but still you are. Always the base of our creation lies in the fact that we ask ourselves what the function is. That’s what design is all about.”
A common criticism levelled at Studio Job, especially early on, was that they were “‘trying to make bad art”, a criticism that Smeets and Tynagel found dispiriting. “Some people are strong and believe in themselves so that they can say ‘fuck you’, but I’m not that way. I’m insecure enough,” says Smeets.
On the flipside of making bad art they were also criticised for making functionless design. Yet much of their work plays with the notion of functionality. Their Craft range of common implements like hammers, clocks and plates are cast in bronze so thick they become almost useless.
We turn onto a narrow street; Smeets drives somewhat fiercely, with foot-to-floor acceleration and abrupt gear changes. “Functionality is not a thing that we consciously avoid, it’s a thing that we try to get into a sort of abstract form,” he says. “Because if you do that it might be that you discover a new dimension in design or a new way for yourself.”
In work like Craft there is actually an underlying pragmatism – the objects are apparently functionless except that for Studio Job the real function is to make people think about what, for instance, a plate really is. And it’s this rationality that makes their work more like design than art. “The fact that it’s already normal to discuss something more than function in design is special,” says Smeets. “In that way you can say that abstraction in design was discovered in the 2000s.”
An example of a Studio Job flight of fancy also being a good design solution is the 2000/1 Cocoon project, a series of pods in a school for children with learning disabilities. The pods, which contain kitchen and storage facilities, combine the practical needs of the staff and the children’s fantasies of space ships and Disney.
Studio Job’s approach seems to be ideal for children – they have just designed a kind of triumphal arch for the yard of a primary school in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Covered in a pattern made up of fairytale imagery, it looks slightly sinister. Smeets likens it to a witch’s gingerbread house. Its monolithic form is meant to evoke fascistic symbolism, but at 3.5m high, the structure is on the children’s scale. The fairytale images, the dictatorial triumphal arch and the miniature scale allow it to take on different meanings depending on the perspective.
Actually, most of Studio Job’s work is made for museums and galleries. “Everyone says you have to work with a producer, you have to earn royalties, otherwise you won’t earn a dime in design. But that’s not true,” says Smeets. But he admits that they are in the fortunate, and rare, position to be able to afford a spacious studio, set in a courtyard in central Antwerp, and several staff. “The museum market is very small, but it’s our best market because they’re the only clients that buy our pieces and put them in the public atmosphere.”
Is there a reason why they rarely make mass-produced objects? “Most of the time mass-produced objects have a lot of limits – you’re not free to do what you’re thinking,” says Tynagel.
“Producers make mass productions. We are not producers,” says Smeets. “Designers are hailed when they make thousands of the same thing. But artists are hailed when they make a unique thing. I think the amount of copies has nothing to do with the creative value of the piece.”
Smeets explains his theory that at the beginning of industrial mass design there was a social urge to supply households with modern functional goods to make them more comfortable. But now he says that industrial production is more driven by commercial concerns. “It’s why I hate IKEA,” he says, with his foot to the floor as we accelerate up a slip road and onto the motorway. “They say that they’re doing a social thing by giving the opportunity for everybody to have good design in their home but they’ve transformed that now so that every time you buy a new chair you put the old one outside.” A lorry tries to turn into our lane as we pass and Smeets pounds the horn. “What are these people doing?!” he shouts.
The longevity of their work is central to Studio Job. “We are making new antiques,” says Smeets. “People realise that they can buy a chair from IKEA for $50 or they can buy one from us for $15,000 but they know that our chair they can give to their children and they’ll never put it on the streets. And that’s why I’m proud of myself and I hope we can accomplish that.”
We arrive at the Centraal Museum and look over the construction of the Viking exhibition. The photo shoot begins, the time to leave for Brussels comes and goes and the evening draws in quickly, so we go to dinner at a small, busy restaurant around the corner from the exhibition. Sitting at the table before his outburst, Smeets says that he taught at Design Academy Eindhoven for a few months but couldn’t continue because he felt he was lying when he had to tell students that being a designer was valuable.
It’s an indication of where Smeets’ self image really lies that is confirmed when he declares themselves “struggling artists” during his angry rant. The long journey back to Antwerp is silent and tense. Though it’s 1am when we return to the studio, I pass up the offer to stay the night and make my way back to Brussels.
Vikings! is at Centraal Museum, Utrecht, until April 2005