Bas Den Herder brings designers’ ideas to life, and he loves his work

Happiness in the Making

By Wava Carpenter

Bas den Herder has secretly been at the center of international design culture for years—ever since Maarten Baas wowed the world in 2004 with his Where There’s Smoke collection. While Maarten had the ideas, Bas was behind the scenes overseeing production and developing the technical side of their collaboration, which continued through succeeding collections such as Clay, Sculpt, Real Time, and Haphazard Harmony. Bas is still making Maarten’s work all these years later.

In 2012, Bas launched Den Herder Production House (DHPH) as an outlet for producing designs for other studios, including Bertjan Pot, Fabian Dumas, Nightshop, and gt2P. Working from his farm-workshop in the Dutch countryside, he seeks out unusual, spirited designs that can benefit from his technical expertise and hands-on approach, often when other producers fail to find a way to make the designs viable.

Bas talks with Wava Carpenter about the enjoyment he finds in his work.


Wava Carpenter: Having watched your work over the years, it seems you have a natural ability to understand design ideas and to bring them to life. How would you describe your relationship with designers?

Bas den Herder: Basically, I would say that I am technical. I love technique and figuring out how to make things. I just love the whole process. It almost doesn’t matter what it is. I mean, I don’t like to make senseless things. But if a design makes sense to me, then I love to figure out the best way to make it.

I want to get the most out of it technically, aesthetically, and production-wise. And that kind of scratches, kind of massages, what the designer wants, as well. The designer wants someone on the opposite side of the table who understands him, who respects his aesthetic, and who can find techniques to make the design the best it can be.

WC: And what motivates your approach the most – materials, aesthetics? Are you also looking for efficiencies and finding ways to make the design more cost effective?

BdH: Yeah, it’s all those factors. I think about the making process like a DJ’s mixing board—where you can set the high tones, low tones, and distortion—where you work to find the best mix. Because aesthetically the design can be really beautiful, but if it’s overly expensive to make, it’s going to die. Or if there is a really simple, cheap way to make it, but it looks ugly, then it’s going to die. So you have to think about all of these parameters and decide what’s optimal. Once you have that, you’re pretty much there.

A lot of technical companies don’t have this perspective, because they have limited techniques. They do whatever technique they do, and they aren’t flexible toward the aesthetic requirements. And the designer will say, “Yeah, I understand, but that’s not what I want it to look like.” And then the guy says, “Yeah, but when you use this technique, that’s what you get.” So the designer asks, “Do you have another technique?” and the answer is often “no.” DHPH has a very different relationship with the designers.

WC: Have you always worked with your hands? Were you always making things, even as child, or did this inclination develop later?

BdH: Definitely! I was always making stuff when I was small. Lego was my first love. And I am still in love with that stuff. Bikes were another early obsession—learning to fix them, changing the wheels. And then playing with electricity. My parents were always finding me working on something when I was supposed to be in bed. I still have a kind of passion.

WC: Did your parents encourage you?

BdH: Yeah, yeah. I wasn’t very keen on school, but I was always making stuff. My dad suggested that I do vocational studies, because that was where I could build and work with my hands. He knew that would make me happy. When we went to an open-house day for a vocational school, I saw all of the welding machines and thought, “This is going to be fun.”

So I learned welding and metalwork, and eventually became a mechanical engineer—and then I went to university to study educational science, specializing in machine instruction, on-the-job learning, and teamwork psychology.

I think about the making process like a DJ’s mixing board – where you can set the high tones, low tones, and distortion – where you work to find the best mix. WC: So you are actually well trained to run a production house, to show people how to make things, and to organize a company around making?

BdH: I am educated enough. [laughs] There’s a big difference between reality and books…

WC: So who was the first designer you worked for?

BdH: I worked for Piet Hein Eek between 2000 and 2004. I was just working in his metal shop—all kinds of aluminum and steel work. It was good; I learned a lot there.

WC: Like what?

BdH: Well, I learned there’s a lot more to it than just thinking about a nice product and making it. There’s a whole story behind the production time: a product has to be made in so many hours otherwise it’s not feasible, because it won’t sell above a certain price. And I learned about consequences: my ass got whooped when I didn’t come in on time or when something went wrong with production. But mostly, I learned the pleasure of creating something that didn’t exist before. It’s a brilliant chain from idea, to making, to the thing being in someone’s home.

WC: Was Maarten [Baas] the first designer that you worked with in a more collaborative way, where you helped to figure out the best production techniques?

BdH: Yeah, definitely. We started in 2004. We met by chance through a mutual friend who told me that Maarten was looking for help. Maarten, at the time, was preparing to make the Where There’s Smoke series for Murray Moss in New York, and he needed someone to burn all this furniture. It sounded like fun to me. I went to meet Maarten, and we seemed like a good match. He walked me through the intricate preservation techniques involved, and then I burned a chair. I was good at it, so I did more. And things grew from there. I totally smoked for a whole year, and did the woodwork around the project, and developed some technical things. I’ve really enjoyed working with Maarten, because his design language is so unique.

WC: How would you describe Maarten’s design language? Can you put it into words? It’s hard, right?

BdH: Yeah, it’s hard, but I guess I would say it’s very spontaneous. I think it’s naïve in a way, and it’s very… How do you say? Concerned and well thought out. I mean, it’s amazing that you can make something that looks so simple, even though it’s not. I think that’s really powerful; that you can create something where everything that is essential is there, and everything that’s not essential is not there. And shape-wise, it always has a kind of character. Different from what you’re familiar with. There are not many products that come out of a mold that make my heart beat. Maarten’s work has spirit.

WC: Definitely! So tell me a little bit about your workspace on the farm in the country. You moved there in 2009? Why did you choose that location?

BdH: The other studio that Maarten and I had in Eindhoven was going to be demolished, so we were looking for something different. And it has always been a dream of mine to live in the countryside. I like the contrast between the high momentum inside the studio and the slow, grounded pace outside. I like to work super hard—and then take the dog for a beautiful walk by the river. This helps to keep things in harmony, to keep things in perspective.

WC: So you live and work in the same place?

BdH: I live in the old farmhouse here, and the rest is all studio, workshop, and storage.

WC: Was the farm in good shape when you moved in?

BdH: Well, it was not in bad shape. You could still put your cows in the barn and the shit would flow where it needed to go. But it wasn’t ready to be used as a workshop. There was hardly any electricity; there were no proper floors; there was no heating or insulation. Basically it was just ready to store cows and tools; that was it. We spent a few years redoing it.

WC: Until last year, you only worked with Maarten. How did you start working with other designers?

BdH: It all happened pretty organically. I met Fabien [Dumas] a while back, and he showed me his Tools Light, and I really liked the idea of making a lamp out of rulers. We sort of spoke the same language. He had the prototype, but couldn’t find a producer. I told him, “This thing is too cool not to be made,” and we figured it out from there. The same thing happened with Bertjan [Pot] and his Downstairs Light. Once I had these two projects plus the ongoing production of Maarten’s work, I decided to take the DHPH concept to Milan [for Salone del Mobile] in 2012. Since then, I’ve added projects by Max Lipsey, Nightshop, and gt2P.

WC: What kinds of projects are you attracted to?

BdH: I like designs that are very direct. I think it’s amazing when there’s nothing between you and the thing—that what you see is what you get. Like, if you look at Maarten’s Clay Chairs, all you see is the clay. It’s direct, but then it’s also hard to put into a box. There’s not a box of burned furniture; there’s not a box of ladders that hang upside down with carnival lights on them, or an inside-out disco ball light. They’re all kind of obvious, and then again they’re just not obvious at all. 

And I think Real Time is really powerful as well. The concept of making a functional clock using the approach of a filmmaker is just so beautiful. What other clock makes you want to look at it for an hour? It’s amazing that a designer can come up with ideas like this. And I get to experiment with materials and techniques to bring them into reality.

WC: It sounds like you really enjoy what you do.

BdH: I totally love all the work that I make. I think the reason why the DHPH collection holds together as a collection is because I believe all these things are beautiful and worth making. They all add something to what’s out there. Why in life surround yourself with ugly stuff, when you can surround yourself with beautiful things, things that have spirit? Good design, for me, means that every time you look at a thing, it does something to you. It only gets better over time. It sticks with you.

I think you just have to make something that’s so utterly beautiful, that no one will ever throw it away. That’s the most sustainable thing you can do. It’s the same for your own energy. If you are going to spend your time making something, make something that’s different, that’s layered, that’s adding something to the world.

WC: In addition to producing these product collections, you also receive commissions for site-specific installations and custom one-offs. Is that right?

BdH: Yeah, we really encourage people to come to us with their ideas, whether it’s a designer who has a new design or a customer who wants a special version of what we do. We’ve created custom stuff for homes, shops, institutions, and events all over the world—Tokyo, New York, Miami, Saõ Paulo. I work with Maarten to translate some of his design ideas to architecture. I’m excited to see what comes out of this.

One project I hope to do one day is to build and install a series of gt2P’s Vilu Light in an office, so that 30 different versions of the light would go over 30 workstations. The design is reproductive, produced by an algorithm, and each one is unique. They look like islands rising out of the sea. Each person in the office could have his own shape and identity.

WC: Speaking of identity, what’s up with the wooden clogs you seem to wear all the time?

BdH: [laughs] Well, I guess I started wearing them when a neighbor was cleaning out his shed. No one else wanted them, so I decided to take them. It turns out that they are great against cold feet, which I have a lot. Plus, they are really comfortable and really inexpensive. So they are definitely practical. The wooden shoes also play into my dream of farming and living outdoors. Over the years, people started recognizing me for wearing them. Like, “Hey, there’s Maarten and the guy with the clogs.” I guess it’s pretty funny, but they make me happy. That’s my main motivation.

  • Introduction & Interview by

    • Wava Carpenter

      Wava Carpenter

      After studying Design History, Wava has worn many hats in support of design culture: teaching design studies, curating exhibitions, overseeing commissions, organizing talks, writing articles—all of which informs her work now as Pamono’s Editor-in-Chief.

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