The Dutch designer Bas van Beek, best known for his pieces that “reverse engineer” unrealised archival designs, works to revive and improve designs that have been lost to history. His first US exhibition, Shameless at the Wolfsonian-FIU, features works that respond to the Wolfsonian’s vast collection, such as a design for a porcelain coffee service by Frank Lloyd Wright that was never made and a tapestry that amalgamates various gridded patterns by the little-known German designer Wilhelm Poetter. There are also earlier works—such as a series of vases inspired by the tulip vases of the Dutch ceramicist Jan van de Vaart—that were previously included in exhibitions at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Kunstmuseum Den Haag.
The Art Newspaper: What works in the Wolfsonian collection were you drawn to?
Bas van Beek: I have a weakness for teapots and coffee pots, especially those that come in a set—with cups, a sugar pot, a milk jug and maybe a tray. [Wolfsonian-FIU chief curator] Silvia Barisione gave me a book on a past Wolfsonian exhibition, Modern Dutch Design, that contains a drawing of a teapot by the designer J.L. Mathieu Lauweriks that immediately drew my attention. The teapot was never made, so that was the first object I started working on.
What was your research process like?
When I start exploring a collection, I usually have no predetermined plan. I need to develop a somewhat unhealthy obsession with an object before I start working, since it takes a very long time to figure out what the designer or artist intended. A drawing is usually very different from the actual object. In the case of the Lauweriks teapot, it was a combination of awe, irritation and jealousy. I wondered why it was never made—was it too complicated, or too expensive? Was the design so far ahead of its time that it couldn’t be made in the first place? And what was the thinking in creating something so elegant and refined, and why am I not capable of doing that?
You’ve said that the Wolfsonian collection is unique in that it preserves works of “often overlooked cultural value”.
Most museums are occupied with displaying their masterpieces and collecting more of the same renowned designers and artists, and in the process ignore and reject boxes of old sheets of paper with scribbles of unfinished or never-produced designs by people nobody has heard of. It takes a lot of courage to acquire and conserve works like that, since it is a costly operation and most of it will never be exhibited. The reason I moved to Rotterdam was because of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen and its collection. I clearly remember visiting an exhibition where a series of prototypes of Verner Panton’s “S” chair were exhibited next to the mass-produced ones. It gave me a better understanding of the often messy process of development, which takes a bit of the mystery and status away from the intimidating masterpiece. At the same time, it challenges you to start to mess around with plaster clay and glass fibre.
The show includes bronze tiles inspired by Verner Panton and Frank Lloyd Wright. Why those two?
I’ve been researching the work of Frank Lloyd Wright for a decade now, since a curator of the National Glass Museum in Leerdam told me he designed a series of cups and saucers that were never realised. You understand his work better by not seeing it as that of an isolated genius. The work connects to an axis that spans the whole of human civilisation, starting in Egypt, Rome and Mesoamerica to the Gothic cathedral, Richard Wagner, William Morris and Panton, to name a few. From that perspective, you can say that Panton continued Wright’s work but also that of the Colosseum, and then adapted it to his own time. To show that continuation, I fused the designs of the textile blocks with the vacuum forming tiles between the two. In one, I doubled two Panton designs. The Freeman textile block design, upon closer inspection, didn’t follow the lines of the predetermined grid. I fixed it and, in the process, redesigned it; what you see is an “improved” version.
The tapestry 5xWP (2021) you have made is inspired by Poetter, a little-known Modernist designer. Why?
The title refers to the five drawings by Poetter that I found in the collection and fused into one textile pattern. If you look at those patterns separately you slowly start to see the common denominators. He made different designs using different shapes that have similar angles that all repeat in a different manner. You could say they all have a familiar resemblance. That was at least the hunch I had when I started working on it. The relation they have to one another and how it would all connect was still a mystery. Early on, it started to look like the effect of a computer glitch just before your computer dies. How was that possible decades before the invention of the computer? Does the graphics card work in the same way as Poetter’s grid? It leaps into a universal understanding and use of form, crossing boundaries of technology and civilisations. The design is executed in three different versions: mechanically woven in cotton; polyester; and as a handwoven tapestry. Each technique has its own limitations and specific qualities. By showing them next to each other, you experience the possibilities of the design.
• Bas van Beek: Shameless, Wolfsonian-FIU,
Miami Beach, until 24 April 2022