Words Anna Bates
Somers is 31 years old and already counts Jean Paul Gaultier and Princess Maxima of the Netherlands among her customers. All her work combines three principles: “Function, content, and my love of materials. Only all three can make a product, otherwise I cannot be satisfied.” Rather than labouring over a drawing board, each piece earns the right to exist only after a series of experiments have taken place. Her work includes a muffin-shaped stool created by a chemical reaction and a collection of furniture that looks like it’s come out of the freezer.
Somers took the heavily conceptual “Man and Living” course at Design Academy Eindhoven in 1995. She was supposed to be dreaming up new social narratives, but instead she spent her time in a lab mixing chemicals together to see what happened. “It was a reaction against what I learned at the academy,” she says. “I like to be surprised. I don’t like to sketch designs.”
The designer’s process involves going to the root of the material, either to get inspiration or find out how it can be used to serve a function. For example, her degree project, Muffin, was made by mixing two drops of polyurethane in half a plastic barrel. As the chemicals foam, the material spills over the barrel creating a muffin-shaped pouf. “I don’t like to work from a clear concept, I like to work intuitively – so you react more with the materials, you see them growing,” she says. “I’m fascinated by processes, and the unexpected shapes you can get. Every time I make an experiment I analyse how the properties and qualities can be used to make a product.” She is currently working with a liquid that solidifies very quickly, giving it an appearance similar to ice. Simply by pouring it out and sticking some legs in it, she created the Frozen Stools.
Despite her materials-obsessed approach, Somers has a dreaminess that comes across in her work. We’re sitting in her studio, which is bright and uncluttered and has a nautical theme that is, she says, completely accidental. “I think I must’ve been a sailor in a previous life.” Fishing nets hang from the ceiling, and bits of coral sit on shelves alongside a tiny bath in the shape of a boat – a miniature prototype of her most famous design, Bathboat. “It’s designed to make you feel like you’re floating away,” says Somers.
The piece was a progression of her ceramic bath shaped like a rubber dinghy, exhibited at the Cologne furniture fair as part of fellow Rotterdam designer Joris Laarman’s Ideal House exhibition. “We have big discussions about this piece,” she says. “Laarman loves it. I don’t like it because you can’t take a bath in it. It’s too low. In fact,” she giggles, “it’s not comfortable at all.” She adds with a hint of displeasure that it’s just a one-off art piece for now. The wooden Bathboat is more successful, but it is so labour intensive to make that only 30 exist. Somers is cautious of the new limited-editions market. “I would never design a limited edition just because I could make money with it,” she says. “I hate that.”
Although Somers decries the idea of conceptual design, her work often has a strong narrative, most apparent in pieces such as High Tea Pot, which combines a porcelain pig’s skull with a tea cosy made of water rat fur. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s her best-selling piece, and the rat fur is no doubt denting the vermin population that’s eating her nation’s dykes. “I’m helping save Holland”, she jokes.
Somers is endlessly curious about ordinary vessels such as teapots, vases and baths. “I always look for the potential in everyday objects. I want to design pieces that deserve to be cherished, and stir people’s imagination.” She has just returned from a trip to China, and is currently completing a series of projects inspired by objects she saw while walking around Beijing. For one project she is casting chairs that she found on the street in aluminium. “People have to make their own chairs – when they break, they fix them using different materials. I realised I couldn’t design something better than this. By casting the stools I’m making an ode to the makers and the chairs.”
While casting the stool, the original hand-made piece burns away. The very life Somers was inspired by turns to ashes, and the stools become martyr-like objects. But although the work could fall into the “slum chic” label, she is careful in her approach. It might be violent in process, but her message is honest: “It’s China copied by the Dutch,” she says, turning the usual preconception on its head.
We are interrupted by the doorbell. It’s Joris Laarman and he’s come round to collect something. Although he lives nearby, he realises he has never actually been inside Somers’ studio, but knows it very well from photographs in magazines. In fact this group of Rotterdam-based designers, including Laarman and the Demakersvan trio, is so well published they keep up with each other’s work through the media.
It’s now three o’clock and time to go to Pot’s for lunch. Somers hasn’t seen him since her trip to China, so she walks with us along the canal to his studio to give him a present.
Read Part Two