One of the Netherlands' best-known designers, Jurgen Bey, does not believe in globalisation. "If you start with the same you will end up with the same so I would rather go in a different direction," says the 43-year-old Rotterdam-based designer.
We have met on a cold, December day in the cafe of London's Royal College of Art (RCA), in the shadow of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Bey's monotone voice is a perfect foil for a mind alive with the unconventional. He is fascinated by the emotional meaning of things and creates new designs exploring their associations.
The RCA is a fertile habitat for Bey, where he has taught as senior tutor for product design since 2006, after being invited by the course director Ron Arad. It is here that Bey teaches two days a week, with the remainder spent at his 'laboratory' near Rotterdam Airport, where he runs Studio Makkink & Bey with his wife, the designer Rianne Makkink.
It was in the late 1990s after graduating from the Academy of Industrial Design in Eindhoven that Bey first found the spotlight with a series of products for Droog, the postmodern Dutch design movement founded in 1993. It was out of Droog's visual gags and lateral thinking that Bey's idiosyncratic style was born.
Bey has always been a passionate believer in craft, which has been rediscovered by a new generation of designers as functionalism loses its appeal. He activated the concept of recycling common furniture items by reawakening them as exotic pieces with new forms, identities and functions.
Bey bestows extraordinary interpretations on ordinary objects. Using a technique employed by aeronautical designers his Kokon furniture was a series of existing chairs and table-chairs wrapped in a tight PVC sheath. As if from the pages of a sci-fi novel the furniture looked as if it was going to burst into strange, alien blossoms. Bey dematerialised the chairs yet cleverly suggested infinite varieties of shape by subverting the idea of an ideal form. The Light Shade Shade was a chandelier sheathed in a polyester cylinder lined with a translucent foil. It's a one way mirror that reflects its environment as well as hiding the chandelier within, which is only revealed when the light is switched on. Bey turns expectations inside out by using old things and tired concepts to make new hybrid ones.
Bey is not driven by an ideology or theory. Even sustainability doesn't really inform his design process. He is not appalled by our throwaway culture fuelled by billions of products, but fascinated by it. For Bey, wanting to create something new seems bizarre because he believes that everything we need already exists in the world around us. A designer simply needs to recognise it and translate it into something people want to use. He has been known to analyse an apparently valueless phenomenon and identify a use for it – one of his works, Vacuum Bag Furniture, used dust to create comfortable furniture.
Bey's Rotterdam studio is filled with chandeliers, sofas, armchairs coated in polyurethane, benches made of hay and stranger design creatures. It is here that he performs experiments on furniture. He compares his role as a designer to scientific research that enables the experience of different realities over and over again. His design objectives are always clear. "If you are not strict at the beginning, at the end you have nothing," he explains. "It is a fight to keep
your ideas clear and clean."
A love for the novels of James Herriot meant that, as a child, Bey wanted to be vet. It was not until he was 18 that he started to think seriously about being a designer.
To understand Bey's work you need to appreciate his sense of humanity, which is not overburdened with virtuosity. Dressing objects in wayward exteriors is an important part of how he designs; he likes to change appearances, alter perceptions about an object and change its place in the world. He creates freak objects by unusual metamophoses.
In June 2008 at a show for Brussels gallery Pierre Bergé & Associés, Bey created 20 pieces of furniture based around 'the making rather than the concept'. The Witness Flat furniture collection was designed for an imaginary show apartment. Furniture included a sofa with hand-sewn cushions, six dining chairs in wood and felt, which at first appear identical but are all different weights, reflecting a belief that things are not always as they appear. The raw materials were
all Dutch, and included various forms of wool and ash, beech and yellow poplar.
Other pieces included a wardrobe and lights made using crate-making techniques. Using odd and ends of these pieces, Bey created pixelated chairs and stools. Fittingly named after the novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince Chair, or Knitted Chair, was built using small blocks that don't fit.
'For me it is a thinking method. It is a model world. So it I was thinking about how you can destroy things into very small parts and then remake things again.'
Bey likes to recycle using old forms and old traditions. "It's all about using ecological materials, the reuse of things – like finding a new world for old things," he continues. "You can slowly develop them into a new thing." His work ethic means that Bey has laid the groundwork for many other designers who have been inspired by him – a position he is comfortable with. "I am better in this in-between [role]," he explains. "I get the ideas and I am happy for people to follow them. I see designs and I say: 'Jesus, we already had it but we never made it commercially'." Bey does not design with a mass market in mind.
Studio Makkink & Bey's designs might be very experimental but they are not enigmatic. Bey does not seek to create puzzles, but rather transform a symbolic ordinary, uniform object into a bold, unique one. Take his Ear Chair, designed for the reception area of a Tilburg Insurance company. It shows how the design of a piece of furniture can influence an interior. The Ear Chairs form the basis of the ambience and influence the way the space is used, yet are comfortable and have small tables integrated into the arm rests. Bey also gives his furniture ordinary purpose and function. "At the end it is all about functionality but how we like to do it is in a very smooth way," he says.
Recently, Bey used pine container boxes to mould together tables and chests of drawers. He even used the concept to create a child's room that starts off small, protective and womb-like but grows with more crates and changes completely what the room originally was. It's the work of a model-maker.
The architecture connection
Ever the design pioneer, Bey has experimented with architecture, which he believes is indissolubly connected with products. Bey's contribution to the Vijverberg VI exhibition in Tytsjerk in October 2008 currently sits in the Dutch countryside. The Strawbale Cabin is a small house made from wood and straw. Inside, a desk and chair sit on top of straw bales.
In 2007, Bey was asked by the ROC professional training school in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands to design a classroom. The result allows children to think beyond the realm of what has been traditionally asked of them. Bey decorated the classroom walls, floor and furniture with images and graphics taken from reference books used at the school. "As soon as you are not looking at your books, you look up and see these things shown in a different landscape, maybe more of a puzzle, maybe more
chaotic, but with the mind you can unscrew them again and make new stories," he tells me.
The RCA's senior tutor for product design is as committed to design education as he is to his studio. Bey believes that design schools now place too much emphasis on the finished product at the expense of the design process itself. He is also concerned about the level of expectation facing young designers today. "When I was a student in Eindhoven, if you had one project, you could live a year on it," he says. "You were faster than your pieces. Now your pieces are faster than you are." Has the design process sped up? "Perhaps. If you watch soccer from 20 years ago, they walk and play the ball differently. It all looks a bit stiff compared with the game today."
It is proof of Bey's versatility that he is working on many projects with other designers as well as architects. Following on from his work designing a villa interior for MVRDV in Eindhoven and a garden for people with Alzheimer's near Utrecht, Bey is currently working with UNStudio's Ben van Berkel on furniture. He currently holds the arts directorship for design company Prooff.
Bey has to leave for a tutorial. As a parting shot, he tells me that amateurism is nothing to be scared of. "I don't feel uncomfortable being an amateur at things," he says, smiling. "I think it's a very good direction."