Wieki Somers and Bertjan Pot -Part two | icon 054 | December 2007

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Words Anna Bates

Pot has just opened a present from Wieki Somers. It’s an old gourd, a form he’s previously used in his work. There’s a brief silence – I sense he might be disappointed, but he shakes it around a bit and gives Somers a hug.

We sit down, preparing to tuck into a lunch of cheese and honey sandwiches. “I always thought if you’re going to be a designer, you should make practical stuff – stuff with plugs,” Pot says. “But I’m just not very good at that. I’m better at making pretty things, rather than very useful things.”

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It’s a refreshingly honest statement. Pot’s work is not about adding functional value. In fact, he takes his profession very literally – “vormgever”, the Dutch word for designer, means “shape giver”. His practice is one of aesthetics – it’s a treatment of surfaces and patterns. But instead of layering or printing, he works with the raw material and makes this the centre of attention. His best-known piece, Random Light, is a huge ball made by placing fibreglass strands across a balloon (and then deflating it). Hanging “pointlessly” around an exposed bulb providing no actual shade, it is purely decorative.

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Pot explains that all his work falls into two categories. There are skins that form the structure of an object, such as the Random Light, and similarly made carbon fibre chairs. Then there are the decorative skins – such as Slim table, a steel frame covered in wood laminate, and a chair covered seamlessly in felt. In each case, the skin is the most important part of the product. Even where the skin is merely decorative in function, he designs the structure of the object around it.

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Pot started out at Design Academy Eindhoven in 1992 doing the “Man and Wellbeing” course, and his practice was also a rebellion against the concept-obsessed academy. But he quickly realised he didn’t fit in, and left to join the “Man and Identity” course. “I found it limiting to start with a story,” says Pot. He graduated with a lampshade made by sucking a resin-drenched knit over a cluster of balloons. “On the Man and Identity course things could look and feel good – and that was fine,” he says, positively. “The stories and stuff that gives value to a product could come afterwards.”

Despite being a labourer of surfaces, it isn’t his aim to just make pieces that look pleasing. In contrast to other designers who trade heavily on aesthetics, Pot dislikes products that are “decorative for the sake of being decorative”.

He is currently exhibiting a second-hand rug customised with strips of coloured tape in a museum. “It’s duct tape on carpet,” says Pot. “When you say it out loud, it hurts a bit.”

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The rug currently takes pride of place at the entrance of Pot’s studio. Brightly coloured and incredibly messy, his workspace makes his partnership with decoration very apparent. Patterned fabrics explode from bags and a huge carbon coiled shell with the word “ass” emblazoned on it covers up junk in the middle. Pot, tall and fair, is wearing a torn, washed out T-shirt and jeans. He speaks slowly, in an understated way and punctuates his sentences with self-mocking laughter that gets more frequent as the interview goes on.

“I find the best way of designing is playing around here and trying stuff. Most of it never gets to be anything,” Pot says, eyeing shelves stacked with kitsch and half-finished ideas. “It just ends up there.” While Somers thinks more carefully about a product, experimenting with techniques until she gradually builds an object, Pot shoots off ideas at the click of a finger. He is far more impulsive, a trait Somers says she envies. Pot has seen a number of his pieces go into production with big manufacturers such as Moooi, Arco, Pallucio and Montis, and he says his talent lies in knowing what an object should be early in the design process – who to pitch it to, or whether it should even be completed. But he is quick to point out the disadvantages of his process. “It excludes a lot,” he says. “In that way I’m jealous of Wieki. She doesn’t exclude anything until the last moment. Sometimes she works on projects that I originally didn’t think were worth it – I’ll never forget the first time she told me about her bath boat – I said, ‘Really?’ But it turned out to be a really nice piece.”

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Pot has suffered for his impulsive design process, he tells me, recalling a product he sent to Moooi. Called Balls, he says dryly, the legs of the table reference baroque decoration, but painted in blue it also gives a cheeky nod to a children’s counting game. He sent a sketch off to Moooi and when he finally saw the table, it was painted in bronze and white – giving it a nouveau riche feel. The piece felt empty: “It didn’t have enough of my time in it,” he says.

Pot’s approach to designing a piece of furniture for Arco was more considered. He decided to exploit the company’s technique of covering steel products in wooden veneer, to create the ultimate piece of minimalism. The 2m-long, 4cm-thin table would be impossible to make in wood: “I wouldn’t have gotten away with the approach at school,” Pot says. But what might be seen as dishonest by the academy is honest to his process. “It’s like the steel is the structure and the wood is the upholstery.”

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Making sellable design has made Pot very successful. But without market constraints his approach might be more experimental. He says his favourite designs involve the use of found objects – turning scrap into something beautiful. But it is an idea he has struggled to move out of the gallery context where such pieces generally reside. “I was working for an Italian company,” he says. “They just kept rejecting ideas because they didn’t look valuable enough. ‘We can never ask money for a light that is made out of cartons and steel,’ they say. I think there’s beauty in everything – it’s almost a pop art thought – if you put it in a museum, you can say this is actually a very beautiful thing.”

Read Part One

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