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Jurgen Bey

Industrial/Product Designer (1965 -)


Dutch designer, JURGEN BEY, began his studies at the Design Academy Eindhoven between 1984-1989 and subsequently taught there for six years next to running his own designstudio. Bey soon attracted media attention through his early collaborative projects within the Droog collective such as Treetrunk Bench (1999) and Gardening Bench (1999) – works that catapulted the designer onto the world stage. In 2002 Bey set up 'Studio Makkink & Bey together with Architect Rianne Makkink.

Bey’s work is often mistakenly aligned with a rigorous environmental agenda due to his interest in using recycled or ‘found’ objects. However, the designer explains that he doesn’t set out to investigate environmentally sensitive solutions through his work. Instead, his interest lies in pursuing a ‘layered’ and conceptual approach to design and discovering delight in the hidden qualities of the world we live within.

Here, Bey speaks to the Design Museum about the origins of his practice, the Studio’s commitment to a research-based working methodology and his vision for the future of design.

© Design Museum 2008

Q. The beginning of your career was integrally linked with the Droog Design founded by Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker. The collective eventually became an internationally known ‘trade mark’ for innovative Dutch design. Looking back retrospectively, how do you feel about that association?

A. At the time Droog was more like a ‘brand’ so it was slightly different than today’s reality because they didn’t have their own product label as yet – that came later. So their talent was specifically in curating and ‘showing’ products and working collaboratively with designers to really develop this aspect of their work.

Later on they began to commission designers to design a prototype in response to a brief and then they would choose one of the designs to develop into a project. So, in the beginning of a designers’s career it was a very good arrangement because you could work on your own with your work and develop your conceptual thinking and yet still have a supportive network to produce a limited range of products.

The good thing about working within the Droog collective was you were exposed to many different ways and perspectives. The ethos at that time was that Droog was about ‘showing’ rather than ‘selling’ Dutch design so you were always encouraged to pursue solo projects also in order to progress forward. Then at a certain point, it was time to concentrate solely on my own work rather than within the collective and so, when that time arrived, I opened my own studio with a like-minded people as collaborators.

Q. Were there any disadvantages to the global popularity of Droog and Bart Lootsma’s SuperDutch publication? Did you feel that the publicity had the potential to create a simplistic stereotype of the ideas that Dutch designers were pursuing in their work?

A. No, I didn’t see a real danger in Droog’s collective popularity as it seemed to indicate that the public obviously wanted to see the material being produced and responded well to it. I also believe that if you commit to keeping to your own track and conceptual ideology, then you will develop as a designer. Economically, it can also be very good way to work that allows an access to options that you wouldn’t have as an individual designer.

Q. There’s a strong tradition within the disciplines of fine art and architecture for critical discourse and yet critique is still a relatively new investment within the design sector. What role do you see institutions such as the Design Museum and other international dedicated design galleries playing in order to encourage critique?

A. If we want to grow and encourage the culture of critique in design then we have to derive further insight through an investment in research – designers can learn from this process. It’s also important to create a culture for specialised design writers and curators then the discipline is more layered and can properly communicate the work.

I’m always being asked the question: “What is Dutch design?? Yet, I don’t feel it’s my task to evaluate this aspect. I produce my work and it’s up to others to categorise it and bring a layered perspective to the evaluation. I welcome the opportunity to grow through critique and when someone connects my work to something that I haven’t thought of previously then it gives me the opportunity to learn and apply a new perspective and theory to my work and the work of others.

Art historians have been discussing these kinds of critical issues for many years and also within architectural design. Perhaps the design community has been waiting to develop our own way of critically appraising design and I think it will be interesting to see which institutions internationally actively engage and support the growth and development of design critique.

Q. What’s your assessment of the recent ‘design/art’ or ‘limited edition’ movement? Do you feel it provides opportunities for designers or is it just a marketing-driven exercise?

A. It’s interesting what’s happening at the moment with the increased availability of ‘limited editions’ of design work. It is an attractive idea for designers because it creates a space in-between design and manufacturing where they can sell the ‘prototyping’ of a product in which they have invested a lot of time, research and money in researching.

I do find it strange that the media seem to have jumped on the opportunity from a negative perspective rather than putting the limited edition movement within some kind of historical context. For example, in the past, artisans were routinely commissioned to make objects for kings and queens that were ‘limited’ and therefore more expensive so it’s not a new concept. So I feel that it’s important that the movement is given the chance to show how designers might use an acceptance of limited edition to invest in developing their own ‘house style’ and craftsmanship.

I think the media and institutions such as the Design Museum have the task and responsibility to bring the issue into perspective and then have a layered discourse around the topic. I would like to see support for the positives inherent within the potential of the movement rather than all saying it’s terrible and unnecessarily expensive without any kind of constructive criticism.

Q. Looking back at your collective projects it seems there is a desire by the media to categorise the work as a rejection of mass consumption and an embracement of sustainability through the use of found objects rather than some of the more esoteric themes such as a sense of whimsy and a preoccupation with revealing hidden qualities and emotional values. Do you find this representation frustrating at times?

A. Many of the works I have designed, such as the Tree Trunk bench 1999 and the Extrusion Bench 1999, that use existing materials are seen and used as examples of ‘environmentally sensitive’ design. However, I believe that if you infuse your work with many different layers then it can be read in a disparate range of ways. I never actually think in terms of ‘environmentally sensitive’ when I design – these things are just part of you and definitely not a specific solution to an issue. Actually, I think that in 50 years we will probably look back and laugh about this so-called ‘re-use’ phenomena because while it’s a nice try, it’s not a solution. Most of the time it takes more energy to re-use than to design new objects and we’re so conditioned through fashion to desire what’s ‘new’. So, in fact, I think that as a society we need to be much more inventive in order to be truly environmental.

Of course, it’s important that all designers keep striving to push environmental agenda in design. However, I see that more as the result of being part of a cultivated society rather than anything else.

Q. Do you see yourself and your work process as embracing digital technologies or do you feel there is an underlying tension between the digital realm and the notion of craftsmanship?

A. Well, we work with computers but I wouldn’t term our process of working within a digital framework, as such. We work with physical models and collages also.

However, I think that just by being immersed within an increasingly digital world your perspective as a designer changes and you think differently – you’ve seen what is possible with computer technologies and it’s like a new language that you can’t help but reference in your work.

For instance, we developed a concept for a ‘Slow Car’ (2007) for Vitra that revolved around the idea that it would be like a desk that you can drive – a kind of extremely small car or paradoxically, a very large desk.

We designed it with a window that is very deep and therefore, your view is very limited. So if you drive it your view is actually like a computer view – you know it instinctively from experiencing computer games. And if you need a different aspect then you have to move your ‘view’ – it feels like being within a computer. So, although it is real, the experience feels virtual. I enjoy this aspect of exploring and juxtaposing the real and digital worlds.

Q. Can you describe your recent collaboration with, Marti Guixe, Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne for the exhibition ‘Designing Critical Design’ at Z33 gallery in Belgium (2007). What was successful about the exhibition for you?

Firstly, it’s exciting when a curator or gallery gives you the podium to show your work and a critical framework to work within. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with Fiona and Anthony because, although I know them well, we’d never had the opportunity to work together previously. And, finally, the experience underwrote my belief in the advantages of having a curated appraisal of my work – I feel that I learn a lot when a critical collaborator sees something in my work that I may not have considered and wants to communicate that difference within another forum such as an exhibition.

Q. Can you briefly describe two of the pivotal projects of the studio and why they have influenced the direction of your practice?

From the early days of the practice, the ‘Skin’ projects that were initiated with the ‘Kokon’ or Cocoon series (1999) were very important for the studio because from this conceptual base we received commissions from museums and a significant project to design a catwalk and back wall for Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2004 summer collection. Economically, the series sold well and that’s important as it provides an income for other research work within the studio.

More recently, we have enjoyed the experience of working directly with an architect for a purpose-designed fitout. For example, we recently designed the Ear Chair specifically for the Interpolis group (2002). The concept started off with a preoccupation to design a piece of furniture that was totally engaged with the architecture it would sit within rather than just making or choosing an existing product that could be used anywhere. We questioned: “How can the working environment change and what kinds of opportunities are available within that environment?? We wanted to reverse the process of waiting and reacting to what client’s may or may not want from us and shift to a proactive state where we asked ourselves: “What does the world want from us and how can we change our working environments to improve them?’ So in that sense, the project was very important to us because it generated a change of our state of mind – to one where we created scenarios and then designed products that responded to the particular situation.

Q. Can you describe a project that has been inspired by another cultural perspective?

The ‘Vacuum Bag Furniture' (2005) came directly out of an invitation to go on a study trip with a group of architects to India. The experience really opened up my mind to the perception of other cultures and the inherent opportunities and quality of pursuing a concept rather a ‘piece’ or product.

During the trip we had a meeting with an urbanist who did a presentation on the city of Savalas and invited responses from the Dutch architects and urban planners for the future of the city. I just felt it was so rude to come into another culture and make suggestions to such different problems and qualities than we were used to within our own context.

So from my individual experience of Savalas, I explored the city’s overwhelming greyness and dusty atmosphere and I thought there must be a quality within this that people embrace and live with. I don’t believe that things are only there to be difficult – there must be an inherent quality that develops.

So I started to think and write about what might be the qualities of dust and how one might find it and use it. Perhaps, if one was able to do this then dust could become the ‘new gold’ and those who had the most dust would become the richest. It would turn the world upside down just by saying it’s not gold or oil anymore – dust is the most precious. So this more conceptual way of thinking of started things off and culminated in the project being shown at the Z33 Gallery.

Q. Can you describe how you envisage the work of the studio developing in the future in terms of research and production?

A. Our most recent projects have shown us that we’d like to continue to work with architects and other collaborators to develop products for specific situations rather than speculative products. I feel that this is a very important direction for the studio as it gives us the freedom to develop a project for a specific location and then evaluate its relevance for development for further applications. I also believe that the future for design should be embedded in an investment in public space. We have put so much energy put into the private domain but I really feel that it is vital for our collective future that we invest more into shared resources and creating products that add value to public spaces, especially in urban environments.

FURTHER READING:

Visit Jurgen Bey’s website jurgenbey.nl

© Design Museum 2008

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