Maarten Baas's Claims to Flame
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2004; Page C02
Irreverence is a perquisite of youth, a rite of passage as each new generation seeks to break free of the past and move society forward. But few young designers are brash enough to destroy their culture in an effort to improve it.
Maarten Baas, a 26-year-old designer from the Netherlands, wields the privilege of dissing history with rare abandon and a blowtorch. A radical even among peers, Baas has made a specialty of burning furniture to a crisp. He injects the porous charred remains with epoxy resin, so each blackened chair or grandfather clock will survive many more lifetimes. So far, two chairs and a chandelier have metamorphosed into limited production. And now an entire collection of icons has been "custom burned."
Last Saturday the designer stood quietly amid the hubbub at the influential Moss design store in SoHo. Early arrivals were getting an eyeful of an installation of his new work, called "Where There's Smoke." The imagery was violent and aggressive. Baas quietly explained his actions as an exploration of the meaning of beauty.
"Why do we want to have the same expression of beauty?" he asked.
It was hard not to gasp at what the young designer had dared to do. Some of the most recognizable designs in furniture history had been torched. Twenty-five of them were set out like an ominous still life on a white laminated stage. Baas had stamped each one with his own name.
Early modern heroes included Antonio Gaudi's 1902 Calvet chair, which had lost part of its curvy back in the conversion to charcoal briquette. Charles Rennie Mackintosh's famous ladderback chair had been torched to within several slats of its life, then finished off with apple-green fabric handmade by Claudy Jongstra, a contemporary Dutch textile designer. For a Dutch design fan, the most irreverent act may have been turning Gerrit Rietveld's "Red and Blue" chair, a 1918 masterpiece, into planes of coal black.
"I think it's quite a respectful approach," Baas said. "I don't want to burn down Rietveld. I always try to make it functional again."
Mid-century masters got their comeuppance. Isamu Noguchi's 1944 free-form coffee table was reduced to just short of ashes, though the wooden base still supported a glass top. A molded plywood LCW chair by Charles and Ray Eames had been charred and then upholstered with black cowhide.
Baas seemed barely more in awe of living mentors. He set fire to the Favela chair, designed two years ago by Fernando and Humberto Campana and made of kindling-size pieces of the pine wood used to build the slums of Rio.
Tejo Remy's chest of salvaged drawers has become an icon of the 1991 collection that propelled the Dutch collaborative Droog Design to worldwide acclaim. Baas flamed only the framework, leaving the 20 vintage drawers in their naturally worn state.
Baas took special care with a design by Ettore Sottsass, founder of the seminal 1980s Memphis movement and mentor to generations of designers. The piece, a room divider called Carlton, was originally covered with brightly colored plastic laminate, with angled shelves at the top suggesting a small man with arms upheld in heroic stance. The whole point of Memphis had been to restore color, pattern and humor to design. Baas toasted the laminated surfaces until all evidence of hue and whimsy had gone up in smoke. But he was careful to control the burn. He allowed a shelf and one arm of the victorious figure to fall. Losing the head would have said more than he intended.
Baas launched himself as a blowtorch designer with a graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven, a Dutch institution that prides itself on a conceptual education. The academy Web site (www.designacademy.nl) invites applications from "independent thinkers who are dedicated and disciplined and who are undaunted by the prospect of potential failure."
Baas remembers pondering time as a dimension that could be stretched, which may be one explanation for adding his name to a work created in an earlier time by someone else. He was disturbed by notions of symmetry as perfection when, as he put it, everyone knows that nature is perfect, but not symmetrical. He does not explain the choice of a blowtorch except to say it became his "sculptor's chisel" -- with a difference.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company