Dutch design team Tejo Remy and Rene Veenhuizen mount first U.S. 'solo' show

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010

When Tejo Remy touched down in Washington last week to install a show of recent work at the new Industry Gallery off H Street NE, crowds were not waiting in welcome for the Dutchman. Paparazzi were in notably short supply. Collectors were not lining up to see and snag his latest creations as they emerged from their crates.

Like Damien Hirst with his stuffed shark or Jeff Koons and his porn paintings, Remy's landmark works from the early 1990s -- a dresser made from old drawers strapped together, a milk-bottle chandelier -- still shape what counts as radical today. The difference between Remy and art stars like Hirst and Koons is that Remy works in avant-garde design. And that's a world where you can make pieces that shake your entire discipline, that end up in all the books and the greatest museums, yet you'll still have close to zero name recognition. Or recognition of any kind.

Almost 20 years after Remy launched the radical idea of recycling-as-fine-design -- he was just a student when he made his dresser and chandelier -- this Washington show turns out to be his first American solo. (It's not quite a solo: Since 2000, all of Remy's works have been done in collaboration with his design partner, René Veenhuizen -- pronounced "VAIN-howzen" -- who has also flown in from their studio in Utrecht.)

It has been two decades since Remy's stunning debut, and this article is the first one in the English-speaking world to try to take his measure.

"We are walking a line: 'Is it art or design?' " Remy says. And they are walking it almost alone.

The value of cheap

Remy is a quiet 49-year-old, tall and slim with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair. His clothes are scruffy -- old jeans, boots, cotton jacket -- but it's a scruffiness that comes with a hint of high-style casual-chic. Veenhuizen, who is 42 and voluble, has a rounder build and a head that's almost shaved, but manages the same look of carefully tended neglect.

Neither was born into art or style. Remy grew up on a farm. ("If you look at cows, they are also a kind of design," having been manipulated through breeding to produce milk, he explains.) Veenhuizen's parents taught gym. ("They were not creative in any way whatsoever," says Veenhuizen.) The pair came together in the mid-1990s as studio mates, and found themselves bouncing ideas off each other "as sparring partners," Remy says. A decade ago they decided to become an official collaborative entity.

Their latest pieces, unveiled for the first time at Industry, are chairs that recall the inflatable vinyl furniture that was big around 1972. That's a surprise, since the pair have always seemed to reject the mod stylings that have swamped their field and built the careers of design slicksters such as Philippe Starck. But come closer to the Dutchmen's new chairs -- or dare to sit on one or to lift it -- and your tender rear end or strained back gives the game away. These chairs did start life as "inflatable" vinyl forms, but the designers inflated each one with 175 pounds of poured concrete, then stripped away the vinyl skins.

"We love to use a cheap material, or a used material, and give it new value," Remy says. The result, in this case, is a lovely series of oppositions and transformations: Soft becomes hard; light becomes heavy; slick and colorful becomes matte and concrete-gray; evanescent and pop-able becomes enduring and unbreakable.

"We want every piece to have its own logic," Veenhuizen explains, "and the shape is the product of that logic." The "look" of an object should derive almost implacably from the choices that underlie it -- from the decision, for instance, to fill vinyl with concrete -- rather than from choices the designers make about how each square inch of each object ought to appear. You could call it "procedural design," but Remy pretends, po-faced (he often is), that it's just about avoiding labor: Making choices, he says, is "very tiring," so instead of designing things, the duo set up rules and preconditions that let their objects design themselves.

Design that hurts

The ultimate goal is an object that stirs the mind, rather than a commodity that can roll off an assembly line. "When someone makes art, they don't think of taking it further," Remy says, so why should designers obsess about mass production? There are more than enough objects out in the world and on their way to our landfills, so there's no imperative to add more, he says. Unique ideas and discomfiting innovations are the things in short supply.

A recent project involves a colorful rug that's hand-built from piles of discarded woolen blankets -- a sure reminder of our overconsumption. They have been cut up and reassembled to evoke a cross section of a brain. Remy and Veenhuizen started making the rugs in 2007 as a commission for an epilepsy center.

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