When the celebrated American tastemaker-cum-retailer Murray Moss opened his Los Angeles store in August 2007, a 1938 Steinway baby grand piano was sold on day two of trading for a cool $155 000 (£92 000). It probably wouldn’t have moved so fast if it hadn’t been fire-sculpted by the Dutch designer Maarten Baas, who started burning, then sealing with resin, existing wooden furniture archetypes for his Smoke series before he graduated from Eindhoven Design Academy in 2002.
The Smoke series (which has included everything from classic armchairs to candelabras to an entire wall of Italian designer Fabio Novembre’s Milanese home) might have put Baas on the map early in his career, but his latest collection for Established & Sons, launched in London last week, proves that Baas, now 30, is not just a prodigy, but a class act.
On the afternoon before an extravagant opening party, Established & Sons managing director Alasdhair Willis was surveying the scene in which the six curious new pieces – which, in look and feel, play on cartoon monsters, Memphis, Play-Doh and more – stood radiantly in the all-white gallery. ‘These are difficult times,’ said Willis, ‘and it’s important to back work that will make a difference. These push what design is and what it can look like.’
Indeed, with their combination of concrete aggregate casings, cast rubber legs, soft latex drawers and felty fronts, the pieces (which are, loosely, drawers, a table and a cupboard/lighting) push the boundary of craft, as well as aesthetics. The collection’s name – The Chankley Bore, after an Edward Lear poem – pushes the notion of sense in general.
Baas rejects any opportunity to rationalise his designs. He chose the collection’s title for its atmospheric sound, and admits that he had to Google words in the poem to see if they were real or Lear. ‘Every word I [use] explaining The Chankley Bore is a word too much,’ he says. ‘There is no real story. All my work comes from intuition.’ The results include a chest shaped like a skull, where the top drawer (in soft orange rubber) goes on for ever, like a long tongue being unfurled. But then, each of the pieces, made in a north London workshop, is full of surprises.
Although Baas once made a production piece – a candle holder, called Knuckle, while still at Eindhoven Design Academy – like many young Dutch designers, he is wedded to the idea of the lyrical, limited-edition piece. This is, in large part, due to the teaching received at the academy itself, though Baas nearly didn’t make it through. His teacher, the revered designer Jurgen Bey, advised him to either give up or try a college in another country after his first disastrous year. ‘So I went off to the Polytecnico in Milan,’ says Baas, ‘and realised that Eindhoven was a tough, but excellent school. Milan was so bad. Eindhoven, because of its reputation, attracts a particular type of person, so the standard is automatically high and everyone inspires each other. There’s nothing mystical about it.’
Upon leaving Eindhoven, designers also receive funding from the Dutch government. ‘You have to invest the larger part, but then they help,’ explains Baas. ‘The harder part is that everyone focuses on Dutch designers as soon as they graduate, and expectations are high.’
Baas, of course, meets them, in spite of his unconventional methods. The minute he left the school, he dispensed with Bey’s teaching. ‘Jurgen is brilliant, but everything is a story that leads to a concept, and I have no story at all,’ he says. Neither does he work on a computer. First, Baas makes a drawing, and then a model in foam, which is sent to the workshop. With the Clay series – conventional pieces distorted by extra legs, or extra length – pieces are made by hand; perfectly crafted and anti-rational.
There are now enough Baas collectors out there to snap up these latest limited-edition pieces. ‘They are real talking points, and, yes, they are destined for collectors,’ concedes Willis. ‘Are we going to make them in other colours? Of course we’re not.If you don’t like orange.’
The Chankley Bore collection is at Established & Sons, Duke Street, London SW1, until 23 January 2009