Bertjan Pot: The Man Behind the Masks
The Man Behind the Masks
Fresh from creating daring new work for a major museum show, the Dutch maverick expounds on the merits of imperfect design
Dutch designer BERTJAN POT doesn’t worry these days whether his work looks pretty or polished. What he does care about is that it gets people thinking. “Not every product has to be mass-produced,” he tells Maria Elena Oberti in Rotterdam, where an exhibition showcasing his latest creations – including new versions of his famously outlandish face coverings – took over the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen for the summer. “My designs might make you laugh,” he says, “but they’re also there to say something.”
Bertjan Pot isn’t like most designers. As widely acclaimed for his high-end commercial products (his Random Light for Moooi is now a classic) as his colourful woven-rope masks, he clearly isn’t afraid to toy with expectations and to push the limits of methods and materials. Whatever he’s working on, though, he prefers to keep things simple, eschewing technologies such as 3D printing in favour of techniques like knitting, knotting and weaving. In most cases, Pot starts off by taking something small – a piece of yarn or a bead, for instance – and then follows a sequence of repeated gestures to turn the everyday material into something radically different. You could say he adds the “extra” to the ordinary. Like many of his contemporaries, Pot embraces a handmade aesthetic, but with an intellectual focus. Beauty, in his view, isn’t about perfection; it’s about finding solutions. And design is about engaging the mind as much as the senses. Despite their simple appearance, Pot’s objects often present answers to problems we didn’t know we had. He doesn’t really care about making things look pretty or polished. What matters most to Pot is that they get people thinking. The past two years have marked a significant departure for the designer, who devoted all of 2017 to creating new personal work. The results were on display this summer at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in an exhibition called Hot Glue. Playful as well as profound, the pieces on show offered an intimate glimpse into Pot’s unique approach to design.
What was the thinking behind the exhibition and the name Hot Glue?
I thought a great deal about what I should present at Boijmans. I knew I didn’t want to show old work. The idea of having to dig up and sift through 20 years’ worth of work seemed like a tedious and useless exercise. I decided to use the exhibition as an opportunity to focus my energy on what I enjoy doing most, which is making prototypes. I think the first prototype is often the nicest, because it’s still open and unfinished. If you look closely, a lot of the pieces in the exhibition will have strings of glue hanging from them. The name Hot Glue is a reference to the quick and dirty manner in which [the pieces] were made.
Why was it so important for you to focus on new work?
I wanted the exhibition to look forward, not backward. The exhibition was also a good excuse for me to devote an entire year to making things I normally wouldn’t have time for. When you design a product for a brand, you’re constricted by a brief. You start off with a handful of ideas and then filter them down until you have a product you can take into production. Working on an exhibition has the opposite effect. One idea quickly turns into many until what you have is a room filled with lights.
It’s unusual to see so many prototypes on show by a single designer.
You shouldn’t see them as prototypes. Many of the pieces are finished products. Some of them are sketches that could be turned into industrial products, but others are finished products. Design isn’t always about perfection.
How do you know when a product is finished?
When it has found its destination. Take the light made out of set-square rulers. Basically, it consists of 60 plastic triangles that are glued together to form a lamp. To me, that piece is already what it should be. I might make it a few more times for friends, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s finished.
What makes this particular piece more finished than others?
Even if we could make it 1,000 times over, it’s not something you want to see all that often. At some point the joke wears off. Not every product has to be mass-produced. That said, there are things in the exhibition that are the beginning of an industrial idea. Those will be done once I’ve found a company that wants to produce them using industrial techniques.
You have compared your Tabletop lights to a joke. Are your designs meant to be funny?
I used to get this kind of question a lot, and would be quite insulted by it. Yes, the lights are funny, but they’re also meant to be dead serious. A joke needs an element of truth in order to be funny. It’s the same with my designs. They might make you laugh, but they’re also there to say something.
Your designs often consist of taking everyday objects – like set squares – and turning them on their head. What attracts you to ordinary materials?
I use these things because they happen to be ideal. Take the light I made with all the plastic spoons. I could have made something out of paper or had a mould made to get that same shape. But then I saw a plastic spoon and thought, why don’t I just cut the handle off? I don’t care whether or not people recognize it’s a spoon. That’s not the point. Using these kinds of materials helps me work faster. Plus, it keeps things fun.
How do you decide what to make and what materials to use?
I’m always looking for new ideas and thinking about how I can combine things in a new way. I keep track of all my thoughts on a list in my phone. It consists of random notes like “paste macaroni on LED lights” or “scaffolding structure out of bamboo covered up in rice paper.” Sometimes it’s just a material I’ve seen somewhere that I’d like to explore. I refer back to this list whenever I need inspiration.