All eyes on Maarten Baas’s new work at Carpenters Workshop

Baas is Back

By Wava Carpenter

For the last ten years, no serious conversation about the state of contemporary design would have been complete without mention of Maarten Baas. Though he’s not yet forty years old, his place in the design world was secured with his 2002 graduation project, Smoke, for Design Academy Eindhoven. Every project he’s created since has managed to reflect not only his own creative path but also the broader design landscape at the time. And his new collection Carapace—currently on view at Carpenters Workshop in New York—is no exception.

Smoke—a collection of iconic design pieces burnt to a beautiful crisp and then lacquered to last—embodied that moment just after the turn of the millennium when the market for collectible, limited-edition design really started to take off, and all the hard-and-fast rules about equating design with mass market and mass production just vaporized.

Then there was Clay, the 2006 collection of seating, tables, and more—all hand-modeled with vibrantly hued clay. The resulting objects had an air of childlike joy, which felt like a prescient symbol for all the possibilities in contemporary design production at the moment—as well as the renewed reverence for the handmade and the unprecedented opportunities that began opening up to to young designers back then.

But just as this boundary-breaking exuberance in design gained a wider audience, many stalwarts of modernist principles amplified their criticisms, decrying it all as elitist and empty. Then, in 2008, Maarten introduced his confrontationally alien-like Chankly Bore collection, for the then-super-brand Established & Sons. It was just a few months before the global financial crash, and even die-hard Baas fans wondered if he’d already grown cynical. Whether or not this was Baas’s perspective, the design world very quickly got a lot tougher for everyone, and many believed cynicism to be an appropriate response.

But all was not lost. Those of us who embraced the new directions of 21st-century design and saw a great soulfulness in all of its experimentation, storytelling, and innovatory craft processes remained committed despite this new skepticism. And Baas rewarded us the following year with Real Time (2009), the loveliest, most poetic series of clocks of this century, in which videos of everyday people enacting repetitive moments mark the minutes that go by. In 2010, Baas was honored with the Design Miami/ Designer of the Year Award . But then we didn’t hear from Baas so much for a while.

In the meantime, the contemporary design world has chugged forward, but not with the jet fuel it had a decade ago. Many contemporary galleries have closed, while new ones have opened—though generally at a more modest scale than what we saw ten years back. The most successful contemporary galleries have actually expanded: Paris’s Galerie Kreo now has a space in London, while Carpenters Workshop, which started in London, can now be found in Paris and New York too. These are exceptions, of course. The business model for limited-edition design as it currently stands works for only a lucky few. But it’s also true that traditional mass production models aren’t working so well anymore either. So young designers today are having to be more thoughtful, even as they are trying a variety of paths simultaneously, pursuing traditional licensing with major and minor brands while engaging in self production, foraying into interior design projects, seeking gallery representation, realizing sponsored installations at international design events, and marketing their work over the internet. Many are joining forces in collaborative efforts to share resources and find strength in numbers. My unofficial polling has concluded that no one feels certain where it’s all going.

Amidst this atmosphere of ongoing change and grueling hustle, Baas remains an important touchstone for the design world. After a few years of lying low, he seems suddenly quite busy. In addition to his latest exhibition at Carpenters, this year he’s also worked on a groovy architectural project in the Netherlands, alongside a chic new cutlery collection for Belgium-based brand Valerie Objects. He’s been named a member of the Dutch Royal Society of the Arts and an official “ambassador” for 2016 Dutch Design Week. At Salone next month, you can catch new work in via Savona and enjoy a retrospective exhibition at Rossana Orlandi’s must-see space, where Orlandi is honoring the tenth anniversary of Baas’s Clay collection.

Though Baas has set his own path—one that could only have been forged in the new millennium—the variety of scales he’s currently engaging calls to mind that old modernist adage: that a designer’s work should address “everything from a city to a spoon.” It seems that going at a slower pace has been highly productive for Baas—a paradigm shift I think we could all get behind.

The new collection at Carpenters, too, seems to underscore this lesson. Carapace comprises generously proportioned storage pieces, chairs, and a desk, all handmade and spot-welded in bronze and steel. The name refers to the shells of turtles and exoskeletons of beetles, and accounts for the armored but exquisite look of the collection. Inside, the pieces contain finely crafted woods, and the chairs sport lux cushions of alpaca and wool. Baas has also revisited his Real Time project for Carapace, this time using himself as the actor inside the clock marking time. For me, the takeaway is that designers today may need to protect themselves from the volatile, unpredictable exterior world, because the poetry is inside. Create an inner oasis for yourself, inside the mind or studio, to do the beautiful work—and remember, slow and steady wins the race.

  • Text 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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