Why Maarten Baas Burns through History

Maarten Baas, the 25-year-old Dutch designer known for the charred chandelier, table, and armchair he produces for Moooi, created approximately 50 new pieces for a special exhibition May 16–23 at Moss, a design store in New York. In Where There’s Smoke, Baas burned modern, contemporary, and vintage designs ranging from Gaudi’s Calvet armchair (1902) to the Campana brothers’ Favela chair (2002). With the exception of a series of 25 of Rietveld Zig Zag chairs (1934), all the pieces are one-offs. Baas recently spoke to MetropolisMag about the exhibition and the concepts behind his family of Smoke products.

You started Smoke while still a student?
I was a student at the Design Academy of Eindhoven [in the Netherlands]. It was my graduation project there.

I know that [Moss owner] Murray Moss perceived this as an autobiographical project, a way of digesting what had come before you in design. Did you think about the project this way?
You could interpret it as being all the pieces I have seen before, things that are in my mind as a young designer, that are actually fuel for the next steps. You always reform things and give them your own interpretation.

You could say that these things have all influenced me—the classic Carlton cabinet by Sottsass as much as a cheap Ikea chair. Everything becomes a part of my family. The end result is a product made by Maarten Baas. This exhibition is not specifically those items which have inspired me personally. It’s more symbolic.

Previously the pieces you have worked with were familiar styles but not necessarily recognizable pieces. Was it intimidating to burn iconic pieces of design?
Not at all. I see them as products. Time is a dimension. Things have width and depth and height, but time is also one of those dimensions. Sometimes we forget icons are only products; they are not holy. Of course they are icons, but meanwhile they are also a stepping stone for others. That’s why I don’t think it’s difficult to burn them.

How many new pieces have you done for Moss?
In total about 25. About 15 are design classics.

How did you choose them?
I wanted to show a timeline—from very classic stuff, baroque pieces, everything before 1900 until now. So it goes in steps from 1900 to 1950, the 80s, the 90s, until 2003. It sounds almost ironic, but I respect all of these pieces. The original title that has always been at the back of my mind is “Respect.” I burn these pieces, but in more ways it’s a respectful act. I see them as being part of a process, as a source of inspiration. To put them in a glass case where they are icons and can’t be touched anymore—I don’t know if that’s more respectful than burning them. I think to really use them, to do everything to them, to dare to be so rude to them is also respectful. I didn’t do it to degrade them.

I guess when you take a blowtorch to something, you never really know at what point the structural integrity will fail. Did you discover anything about any of the pieces while you were burning them?
Secrets do come out. You see some laminated pieces that aren’t supposed to be laminated. That cabinet of Sottsass’s is just very cheap composite wood. Those kinds of things are nice to show. Sometimes I let it burn and only take care that the structural parts will not be damaged. I extinguish it before it goes too far. I can control it a bit.

Did one turn out to be particularly difficult?
Plywood is always difficult. There were no difficulties that I didn’t expect. Of course the Favela chair by the Campana brothers, with all those little pieces of wood was quite difficult, but I counted on that, so it wasn’t actually difficult. There were no real surprises, at least not at the moment that I was burning the pieces—only in the moments before, as I tried to figure out how to solve things.

What was the first piece you ever burned?
I didn’t start with the most expensive design classic, I have to confess. It was just a cheap piece that I bought second-hand—a normal dining chair. That was just a test for myself. The first real finished one, the armchair upholstered in leather, was the one that Moooi produces now. They started with the project in 2003 in Milan.

Before the Moss exhibition, I would have thought of this work as something that attempts to revitalize or transform shapes and forms that have fallen out of fashion. What were you thinking when you first started the series?
What you say, but I also asked myself, “What actually is decoration, and why are we always striving to make it as perfect as possible—ever more perfect and ever more shiny?” If you have a six-armed chandelier and you burn two arms away, it’s still 100 percent chandelier. There is something missing, but it still works. Also, if you burn away the ornaments on a chair, then it’s still 100 percent a chair. I asked what happens if you remove things like that. Is it less beautiful or is it even more beautiful? What’s the worth of ornament? I wanted to do the opposite of making it more symmetric, more perfect: to try and reverse that thought.

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