Article from the 2018-08-06, of Caren Schwenke
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Carole Baijing's voice on the other end of the telephone sounds soft and melodic, it reminds me of swishy dresses from the 40s. I have the pleasure of interviewing the fairer half of the Dutch designer duo Scholten & Baijings: Carole speaks with passion about how Scholten & Baijings began, telling of her shared life and work with her husband Stefan Scholten, and of their mutual love of colour.
As soon as we start, Carole lets me know that everything she says is on behalf of both her and her husband. It is their shared story and it can only be truly understood when they're seen as a team. The truth in this shines through as our interview progresses.
When did you discover that you wanted to be a designer?
Stefan was already a designer when I met him, and in meeting Stefan I met design.
I worked as an Assistant Director making commercials for Coca Cola and Citroen, and so it was always about the look and feel of the movie, and for me that's quite similar to the look and feel of spaces and what products you need to have a good environment. So I started in design with Stefan, and we taught at the Design Academy together for five years. We had to stop about 4 years ago because we just don't have time with all of our travelling at the moment: we are based in Amsterdam and travel almost every week! Maybe we'll go back to teaching when we're a bit older.
So it was in meeting your husband that you discovered that design was the route for you?
Yeah, he is a real designer: always sketching wherever he is. Now we have ideas together, and spending 24 hours a day together means they just pop up while we're having breakfast or in the car or travelling, so it's something very natural that came with our collaboration. First we fell in love and then the collaboration started, because I helped him out and it worked. It's not really something that you think of when you first meet someone, "Oh, I'm going to be with you 24 hours a day for the rest of my life!" But it's just very natural and it works.
Scholten & Baijings create a wide range of products - from towels, through porcelain cups to chairs. You don't limit yourselves to a specific product type: are there any other guidelines you work with?
Well it's really the interior that we focus on. We did do a concept car for Mini Cooper, but for us a car is the smallest interior that exists, because everyone always feels very comfortable in their own car. I think that's why car sharing isn't that successful as a concept, because everyone wants to have their own colour, upholstery, music: it feels like a personal space. So, yes, we're all about interior products. We've also started working on electronics, but even there there's always a strong connection with the body: they are products you could use within your home.
For us it feels very logical. It's a wide range of materials and I suppose of products too, but it's all related to the interior.
So you see a relationship between the body and comfort?
Yes. And it's also about how you experience the space – it should feel good. The characteristics of our work; our colour, transparencies, layering and grids: we think all these details add a certain personal value that makes the owners keep the products for longer, because it's about more than just a colour. For example, the new 13Eighty Chair that we designed for HAY is made of plastic, but it feels completely different because we've designed it with 1,380 holes. The holes transform the material into something that really reflects the light and shadow, and it all works together to create space rather than blocking space. We've played with very soft colours for the chair: we think chairs should have a basic colour that fits into any interior and also works as part of the range. So it's really about how this product can survive in different kind of interiors.
Stefan and I and our team – we have so many talented people on board – it is important to all of us that we really want the products that we design. If we don't want to own it ourselves, then we don't bring it to market. We are our own clients in that sense. We always test our own products at home, which I think is an advantage of working in a couple.
How exactly do you approach a new design?
Now, we have the privelege that a lot of clients come to us because they like our handwriting: they like the designs we've already done. So they give us a good brief of what they want, but they also give us a lot of freedom. We always start with a concept and then a sketch, and then after sketching we immediately start making our own models and colours and materials, so we make all these prototypes in cardboard or foam or paper.
How do you do that? You've said previously that you produce your own colours and materials, what do you mean by that?
We'll never use a colour from a jar, we always mix our own colours. When you make your own colours you really get your own colour grammar. It's also important that the colour fits the material, because for example the colours you can use on porcelain are completely different than the colours you can use on wood, or textiles. So we always look at the DNA of our clients and their history and see what they can do. We test the colours that we like and then we start designing with them. Mixing our own colours can be quite difficult, because a lot of our clients work with Pantone colours or with other pre-existing colours. We don't. Because then all of our colours are not quite what we wanted them to be, which means that the end product is completely different from what we wanted. So we really have to convince our clients to work with our colours.
Do you start with colours or materials?
It all comes at the same time. We start with the concept and the sketch, then the material, colour and model comes all at once. Our designs are mostly very minimal because we work with colours, textures and layering. But when it's minimal, it also has to be perfect. That's why we need the models, for example in foam, or in paper, to really feel by hand if the dimensions are human. If you only design on the computer, you have no idea how it feels, how heavy it will be, or if it's too big. Of course it's very tempting to just work on the computer, because it is very time-consuming to make all of the models. It's almost like working as an artist, because we produce exact replicas of what we want the final design to look like, just that it is unusable because it is in plastic rather than glass or porcelain. But we always do it and we're always very happy, because we always find small details that we'd like to change to make it feel more like what we have in mind.
For the materials, if we're designing a textile, we try to make the textile first by making a colour on cardboard and then wrapping thread around it, playing with what kind of colour yarns we need to use when weaving the textile. When making materials we test everything. For example, we made material with small holes for the chair, checking how big the holes need to be and whether we want the holes to go towards the side, but the holes get smaller towards the edge of the chair and they are bigger in the middle. And these are all the small details that you really have to see in reality. So we have a whole library and archive now, full of materials that we have made over the years.
Where do you get your ideas from? Do you have role models that you orientate yourselves on?
No, it's really our life together and all the influences that we get from our travels. Nature is a big inspiration. You never see flowers that are too bright, because they are always perfect as they are. Nature is always in balance, and we try to have that same balance in our designs. We like to use a lot of brighter colours, and colours that look particularly special together. There has to be a harmony and also an edge to make the designs stand out from what's already on the market.
Our new studio is right by the Rijksmuseum and we're close to the Stedelijk and the Van Gogh: I think in our history, being Dutch, we have a lot of big examples of people who work with colour in their own personal way: Mondrian, Lichfield, Van Gogh... so that probably influences us too.
Is it the colours that make your products different from others?
That's part of it, but I think it's all the detail and refinement, the layering and the gradients and grids. The fluorescent colours that we used for the first time in 2005 are still bestsellers today. Nowadays, you see a lot of fluorescent colours in interior design, but back then there were none. And now you see a lot of graphic patterns and gradients: they're everywhere now, but we started using them years ago. We think using a grid gives a certain layer that emphasises the wood underneath, so you see it better through this extra layer. That concept is something that we love to work with, and I think that's what we're known for, now.
Do you have any colour no-gos?
Well we don't use a lot of black, we do like it but for products we mostly think other colours are nicer. We do have a black table and a black chair but it's more a soft black than a hard one: you can see the wood grains of the table or of the legs of the chair. It's so soft that it has a lot of colours in it, a bit of blue, a bit of grey.
Do you have a favourite colour?
I personally love pink! But of course we like all of our colours. We just designed new Colour Plaids for Hay. We made a sketch and sought out yarns, then took the yarns to the textile museum in Tilburg, because we have a textile lab there where you can work as a designer. There you can really try new things, because you can stop the machine for another colour and then stop it again. If we didn't have this machne it would be much more difficult to create textiles: in a factory it costs a lot of time and money to stop the machines. We do need this to make sure the grid is the right size or the colours are the right poppiness, and because textiles are always about yarns that mix, it's really hard to predict what they are going to do and what is going to look good. For a long time we had new colours in our minds but couldn't use them because our current ones were still going so well. But now Hay has asked us to do some new ones and we are really happy with them. It's very important to us that we work with clients who respect that we need more time for our prototypes to get the right results. Colour is extremely hard to produce in mass-production. We also have our own dyeers to colour the yarns. It is really great to work with Hay and put our ideas into motion with them.
Is colour something typically Dutch?
No, I think the strange thing with colour is that... in music you have notes and you can compose your music, but in colour there is not one grammar. Sure, there's Mondrian and Lichfeld and Van Gogh, but I don't think that colour is a Dutch thing. I think there's only a few in the world who are really interested in colour – like Hella Jongerius. But there's not a lot of us I don't think.
We can't help it! We just need it, it's always there in our minds. We see our designs in colour and then we have to see how to make it real.
Your products feature in the portfolios of HAY, Georg Jensen, Karimoku New Standard and other well-known labels. How closely do you work with your labels?
We always work very closely, we think their DNA is very important: where do they come from, what's their history, what's their country's history? For example Denmark has a great history in classical design. I think Hay does a good job of working in democratic design. At first they worked prmarily with furnitre, but now they make everything. On the other hand it's also great for us to work in Japan with Karimoku New Standard and with all their possibilities, for example with wood printing. The quality in Japan is always very high and that's great for us because we love detail. We work with manufactueres in Arita, that's THE porcelain region in Japan, and they produce the Paper Porcelain for HAY. It's great for us to be able to bring different brands together, and to share our knowledge of different places. We think it's interesting to work for smaller brands that are more exclusive but also for brands like HAY that are more mass-produced - they all have their own requests and assignments. Actually we invest the same time and energy into all of tour labels, but for example with Hay we also design the packaging.
You mentioned that you travel a lot, is there a favourite place for you in the world, or do you feel connected to a certain culture, region or landscape?
When we go to Copenhagen it almost feels like home. It's a bit like Amsterdam, there's a lot of cycling, it's not too big, very charming, the weather is similar, and because I'm blonde they always start speaking Danish to me!
Going to Seoul in Korea there are big buildings everywhere and there are mountains, and then you come home and everything feels so small. It's always refreshing to have a change of perspective. And we love Japan, it's almost like our second home. We were in America a lot last year, we worked with Herman Miller on a sofa, and my sister lives in New York. We love all these countries and cities: they all have their own qualities. We are very priveleged to be able to go round the world so often. But sometimes it's just nice to be home.
Do you have any hobbies, or where do you get your energy from?
Our work is really what we love, that's what gives us energy. And we have a three and a half year old son. He's of course our nicest design but with a mind of his own, so that's very special. He's so good for us as designers, too. Through him we see things in more details and aren't in such a rush. That's what children do - they see things everywhere. He's still just exploring the world, what's out there, so that's a very nice balance between all the travelling and professional life and our private life. We've also just moved into our new studio. It's an old monument from 1925 and it has a beautiful outdoor space. We asked the famous landscape designer Piet Oudolf to do our garden. His gardens are very poetic with a lot of grasses, flowers, bees and butterflies. It makes our studio into a second home and it's significant to us that we have such an inspiring environment. We also have a small shop, SHOP/SHOP, Ruysdaelkade 2-4 in Amsterdam – it's probably the smallest shop in Amsterdam.
If you had a message to the world, what would that be?
What we really need now is a lot of love towards each other and respect. I think we should respect each other now more than we ever have before.
Thank you, Carole, for taking the time to let us into your world!
Article from the 2018-08-06, of Caren Schwenke