STRANGER THAN FICTION
(written by Louise Schouwenberg, May 2008, translation, Mari Shields)
'In every sense, Joris Laarman’s Bone Chair illustrates the designer’s mission. The chair looks like an organic sculpture, modelled after natural growths. In reality, each of its branches and curves was precisely calculated by a 3-D computer program developed by the automotive industry. In 2004, Laarman watched a film on the Internet about the computer software with which General Motors simulated the ‘intelligent’ growth of bones. Just as the human body produces extra bone in places where it is required and reduces it where less strength is needed, this ingenious program similarly optimizes automobile parts. Laarman decided to ‘design’ a chair bythe same principle. He entered basic data into the program, including the seatarea and the strength required for support, then the computer calculated wherelegs were required and how thick they needed to be. Laarman obviously directedthe process himself, deciding both the directions and the limits of theprocess, but he speaks with great enthusiasm about a new legitimacy of form. Itwas the program, not he, that created both the strong construction and its resulting beauty. By means of a labour-intensive procedure, the virtual modelbecame a small series of chairs produced in aluminium and plastic. These sculptural objects play a delightful game with our sense of perception. Thanks to their natural and elegant language of form, they seem to refer to theaesthetics of Jugendstil and Art Nouveau, yet it is instantly clear that the chairs are contemporary, in both iconography and execution. They give insight, for example, into future possibilities for product design. In time, the translation from virtual model to final result will take place far more effectively through Rapid Prototyping (and even Rapid Manufacturing). With this, any conceivable designcan be produced. And if it were up to Laarman, even houses could be builtaccording to the same principles of calculation. The sky is the limit for a designer hoping to surprise himself and others, and who for the time being at least, tolerates no restrictions to his imagination.
Laarman designed the first version of Bone Chair in 2006, three years after graduating cumlaude from the Design Academy in Eindhoven. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Design Academy turned out relatively high numbers of designers who reached the international spotlight with autonomous work, closely related to fine art. They included Jurgen Bey, Hella Jongerius, Piet Hein Eek, Richard Hutten and, a little later on, Job Smeets. While the first generation of autonomous designers had to fight for their crossovers into fine art with solid concepts and critical reflections in the design context, artistic autonomy became completely self-evident for the graduates who followed. Laarman and his fellow designers, including Maarten Baas, Wieki Somers, Bertjan Pot, Christien Meindertsma, ChrisKabel and Demakersvan, did not want to tread in the footsteps of their predecessors. They sought a new élan, new directions and most of all, more freedom to pursue their own personal fascinations. The function of design, after all, is added value, and this added value can only be achieved through meaningful and iconographically strong images. What the designers of this youngest generation consequently have in common is the individuality with which they approach their profession. No single term can summarize their work. Laarman’s own talent could be describedin a nutshell as a combination of a searching, intelligent spirit and a greatartistic sense for sculpturally aesthetic forms, materials and relationships. Each design is preceded by an ingenious and unconventional creative process. Behind each perfectly executed product lie deeper meanings and poetic narratives. The things themselves are always more than they at first seem to be.
Laarman’s talent was immediately discovered by the international press and such clients as Vitra, Droog Design, Flos and Swarovski. His work is included in the prestigious collections of MoMA and the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in NewYork, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Boymansvan Beuningen in Rotterdam and the FRAC Nord-Pas in Calais, and it quickly won various awards, including the Interior Innovation Award of the IMM fair in Cologne(2004), the Wallpaper Young Designer of the Year Award (2004) and the Elle Decoration Talent of the Year Award (2008). It is no coincidence that Laarman got off to such a dazzling start. His talent was already clear during hisstudent days in Eindhoven, something that is evident in the designs he completed at the time. Laarman claims that as a student, he had already spent five years wrestling with the issue of what he wanted to do in the design field. As a result of all that questioning he never opted for self-evident or easy solutions.
One good example is Ivy, produced for an assignment related to contemporary decadence. While most students approached the theme cautiously and rather literally, Laarman decided to turn the question around. Decorative garlands, of the kind used to embellish the ceilings of palaces and stately houses, became functional through his efforts. In collaboration with a company that manufactures elements for rock climbing, he produced three-dimensional, decorative forms that provideenough grip for someone to journey along the walls and ceilings of for instancethe Princessehof Museum, where the results of the decadence project were exhibited in 2003. Laarman’s project was ambitious, and years later, hiselements still appeal to the imagination. Ivy now hangs on the outside wall of the famous Lloyd design hotel in Amsterdam, and a second version has since been installed in the hallway of anapartment complex in Eindhoven.
Soon thereafter, Laarman took an important step indesigning a large, Rococo-likeradiator for his final exam project at the academy. In terms of style, it resembles the decorative climbing elements, but the original title, Reinventing Functionality (later changed to Heatwave), was significant, as it betrayed the fact that a different legitimacy underlay the form. Radiators work best when they have as large a surface area as possible. Strictly speaking, therefore, today's standard, sober radiators do not follow the functionalist creed of form following function, but are more the result of design preferences. Indirectly, Laarman was able to put his finger on a digression from modernist ideology: for the modernists, soberdesign was apparently also a choice in style, a question of taste.
‘I am always asking myself why things are the way they are. Where that is concerned, I feel more like a researcher than a designer. Most of the time, I begin a commission by studying the function of a design. I am not an artist. I have always really loved the limitations that are inherent to the design of functional objects. Yet at the same time, I do not want to feel restricted. I am a dreamer. I have scores of ideas every day. For inspiration, I dig into semi-scientific publications, search all over the Internet and, slowly but surely, a certain form evolves, in which the data from all the research and my own fantasy find an attractive combination. I want to design products that have meaning, not just attractive shapes. I hate it, for example, when functional objects a redecorated with gimmicks. Every form has to be legitimate, have a reason, and that is certainly true for beauty. This legitimacy can be in its functionality, but it can also be hidden in the technical process of its development. I want to try out today's techniques to rediscover things, create an evolution of my own. Sometimes it seems like science fiction.’
Laarman explained that he once dreamed of becoming aninventor – or an architect. In the end, it was design that he chose, but thisdoes not mean that he will allow his dreams to be curbed. He is currentlyworking on an assignment (in collaboration with Demakersvan) for a projectdeveloper, for a holiday resort in Shanghai. And he is already fantasizing about things that today still seem impossible, such as an airship of his own.What his early fame has primarily brought him is the freedom to test out his boyish dreams in terms of their potential, realistic value.' (LS)