‘MAYBE WE’RE JUST A PAIR OF QUACKS’ (Studio Job on beauty – The Utopia Parkway Files, part 6)
‘When it comes to beauty, Nynke and I are experts. But we don’t care for that superficial aspect of beauty. We dig deeper.’ They are a fascinating pair: Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel. Studio Job. Belgo-Dutch. Designers or contemporary artists? The jury is still out on that one. But the fact is: they’ve made their mark. The first ten years of Studio Job are now collected in an impressive monograph: The Book of Job. It was presented in New York, last week, and in Antwerp, yesterday. The perfect occasion to ask Job Smeets for his views on beauty.
Utopia Parkway: How important is the concept of beauty for Studio Job?
Job Smeets: ‘Your eyes immediately put a stamp on everything: beautiful or ugly. That’s unavoidable. But the interesting thing for an artist is not to stay focused on pure aesthetics, on that one layer, but to go and dig deeper. To go further than that first impression or that first thought. To go looking for other meanings and layers.’
‘Beauty is very important for Studio Job in the sense that we try to come up with a caricature of beauty. We are never looking for just a beautiful shape or form. We never ‘create’ the shapes of the objects by Studio Job. We always take shapes or objects that already exist. I like to think of them as ‘icons’. We take those iconic objects and put them in another context, or we present them on another scale, or in a completely different way, by using other materials, for instance.’
‘It’s not our goal to design beautiful objects. Absolutely not. But: sometimes people don’t deserve more than beauty, or kitsch, for that matter. Both concepts are closely linked. In that sense beauty is a nice tool to say something about superficiality. And it is important for us to express that aspect as well. If what you do is supposed to be some sort of mirror, or a three-dimensional diary, than you have to mix beauty in, because superficiality is an important aspect of everyone’s life. And since we’re trying to represent life, we also have to represent superficiality.’
Some of the artists I’ve interviewed so far, view beauty as some kind of lubricant. They use it as tool to communicate other important, difficult issues more easily.
‘Not for us. We don’t do in lubricants. I see beauty as a deficit. It’s superficial. Obtuse. Maybe you can use beauty as a lubricant in art, but not in design. At least not in our kind of design. If we would use beauty as a lubricant than we would be doing things the wrong way. Again: that doesn’t mean that beauty can’t be interesting. A lot of things that are obtuse can be interesting.’
‘Experience. Doing what we do. When we started out we were focusing a lot more on beauty. On aesthetics. We were focusing a lot more on form. As you detach yourself more from that concept of form, you detach yourself more from the concept of beauty. Or: you are able to see beauty as something separate. For us it is just a theme now. A motif.’
‘Even if the objects we design are beautiful, beauty isn’t the key issue. Come to think of it, I dare to say that our objects are more about ugliness. You will probably not believe me when I say this, but I mean it. But we do it in another way than a lot of contemporary artists. They are trying their very best to come up with something really ugly. You could compare that to a pair of designer trousers with a lot of holes in it: they have tried very hard to put those holes in those trousers. Well, a lot of artists and sculptors are doing that too. They are trying very hard to create a work of art that is really ugly or decomposed. But by doing that they admit that they were really focusing on aesthetics.’
‘That’s not how we go about. For Studio Job an object just is an object. If we design a coffeepot, than it has to be the most archetypical coffeepot one could imagine. Which automatically means that you’re not focusing on beauty. Yes: the beauty of iconography. But that is something totally different than beauty as a means to seduce people.’
‘An iconic object can be very beautiful. But that’s not because it looks nice. It is because of the history linked to that iconic object: beauty that comes with history and age; in the same way that a really intelligent person can be beautiful.’
‘Then I would say: all the travels that Nynke and I have made, in 2003. We have visited many private collections and museums. Decorative arts, old masters. The Grünes Gewölbe (Green vault) in Dresden, Neuschwanstein Castle, even the Vatican. Whenever there’s something bizarre to it, or some craziness linked to it, then it can be of an inspiration to us. When it’s over the top, we tend to like it.’
Many of your objects make people smile. And then they get what they are about. How important is humor as a concept for Studio Job?
‘Humour is our way to say: don’t take yourself so seriously. I don’t think much of mankind. We humans think we are fantastic. That irritates me. The human species is really egocentric. We try to perturb that.’
‘You’ll notice that in our work and perhaps that will make you smile. Of course that Robber Baron Jewel Safe of ours is ridiculous: having to turn a red clown nose to open it. But we like that surrealistic aspect. Things don’t have to be too damn serious.’
‘We’ve said in the past that we would like to try and become painters. But I wonder if we would be able to. Because painting is a very self centered thing. We like to add a bizarre aspect to what we create. Yes, we have designed a coffeepot. But our coffeepot is a bronze one and it weighs 1.000 kilograms. It is completely useless, but nevertheless it can make one famous.’
‘Once again: don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying: just create a pile of shit, promote it in the right way and it will get you somewhere. Although it is entirely possible to do that. No, we want to come up with the best, well-chosen icon at the best moment. And that’s quite difficult.’
What if people don’t like your work? What if they call it ugly?
‘A lot of people don’t like our work. It’s very easy to not get what we do. Or to not want to get what we do. Many people think of our work as gaudy. It happened especially in the early days. We get loads of criticism. Even now. Some people say that we are designers for the rich and the famous. That’s not true at all, but we’ve learned to live with those judgments. Even though it is hard to accept sometimes. But in the end we don’t design and create stuff for other people, we create for ourselves.’
‘The Flemish Primitives, even though I know that by saying this, I do them no justice, because I degrade those painters to pure aesthetics. But I have a great esteem for those works. They are an ideal to strive for. A part of The Book Of Job, the Studio Job monogram, is our version of the ancient Book of Job. By the way: William Blake has illustrated the Book Of Job too, in the 19th century. A true classic. We noticed that we had a lot of fun doing that. So yes, the Flemish Primitives come close, if we’re talking about ideal beauty.’
Pick one thing that you think of as ugly, while other people might find it really beautiful?
‘I abhor everything that’s purely capitalistic. Things that are made to enrich people who already have everything. Or that go at the expense of other things. Like fur coats. I know of a company that designs watches that cost 100.000 euro, for people who already have 10 watches. It’s hard for me to see any beauty in that. And even though our work often does look ostentatious, it’s not contributing to that hypercapitalism. It refers to it, but it’s not a contribution to it.’
‘Sure, as an artist you’re always looking for contrasts. But I don’t see it as a dogma. You don’t need that werewolf, per se. But especially with regard to commissions, you do try to look for contrasts. You try to provoke your commissioner. Even if you’re working with a firm such as Swarovski. But it’s a difficult subject. A few years ago I would have immediately agreed to what he says. But now? It’s too easy.’
If it’s not beauty that you’re after, what is it then? What’s at the core of Studio Job’s art?
‘Freedom. Autonomy. Being able to decide for yourself when you are going to do what, where and how, with as few obstacles as possible. In the full knowledge of the fact that life is full of obstacles. The most important one being that in a few years time you won’t be around anymore.’
‘What we do with Studio Job is undeniably some sort of self-portrait. There’s no escaping that. At times it is quite clear, and sometimes it is more abstract. But our work is almost always about freedom. Take the Robber Baron collection for instance: that is really about not being free. The Homework collection is about the freedom that you once had, but which is diminishing as you get older. Because in the end it’s just a countdown, isn’t it?’
‘I sometimes think that Nynke and I are just quacks. We try to become immortal by means of our designs. We feverishly try to design things to become as immortal as we possibly can be. I’m pretty sure that no one is going to cast away a bronze cabinet. It’s an interesting thought that there are going to be quite a few objects by Studio Job on this planet, when Nynke and I will be no longer around. It’s our human way of trying to become immortal, without having to create a golem.’
Job Smeets, interviewed by Hans-Maarten Post, for Utopia Parkway (2010).
More info on Studio Job and plenty of images, here.
Postscript (2016): Studio Job’s first American museum solo exhibition, Museum of Arts And Design, New York, from March 22 through August 21, 2016. Info here.