Interview with Kiki van Eijk
Kiki van Eijk is an artist, craftsman and designer who does not follow any trends. She is incredibly versatile, working with fabric, ceramics, glass, metal, wood and other diverse materials with ease and control. In her design she fuses art and craft, knowing she can turn a loose drawing into an object that cannot only be functional but also artistically appealing. When I think about her design it is immediately clear that she is a creator who intuitively knows what is wrong and what is right for each piece.
A graduate of Design Academy Eindhoven, Kiki concentrates primarily on her own collections, but also has worked on projects for, among others, Design Academy Eindhoven, MOOOI, Häagen-Dazs, Bernhardt Design, Forbo Flooring, Venice Projects, Hermès, Nodus, Rijksmuseum and a number of private collectors.
KK: How do you define design?
KvE: First of all, I think design has only existed since the Industrial Revolution, because before that it was artists who would make everything. They would make paintings but they would also do special commissions like a lamp or a chandelier for a church. So for me, in the past artists were also designers. Design is about creating things; it always starts from a concept and some sort of research, and the end result should be something that communicates without having to tell the whole story.
KK: Are you a designer or an artist?
KvE: I always find that a bit of a difficult question because I don’t care what label people use. I just create things. I happened to graduate from the Design Academy but I could just as well have gone to art school. I found the Design Academy more suitable. It’s not that different from an art school, though—only a bit better organized. But before I went to the Design Academy I used to have an atelier where I would paint on canvas and sculpt things.
KK: What is it like to design in Holland? Why is Dutch design so good?
KvE: The most important thing is the mentality. Regardless of what the objects look like, there is a kind of free mentality here. If you look at our history and what the landscape looks like, we always have had this problem with water. We’re below sea level and the land is very flat so we have had to think of inventive ways to cope with and live with this. We never have had natural resources; we had tulips and potatoes but nothing else we could actually export. So we have had to cooperate with others. This is where the polder model comes from. The Dutch always try to find ways to make everybody happy. As for design, in Eindhoven, for example, we had a lot of production companies and they all needed designers. That is why the Design Academy was built, to educate people to design for the companies. What’s nice about Eindhoven is that there is also an industrial area where people literally still have space to be creative.
KK: How does Dutch design affected the way you work, the way you think about design?
KvE: The main thing is the big freedom in Dutch design. Even if you look at DROOG design, which is quite minimalistic and quite dry and maybe a bit strict in a way, it still feels quite free.
KK: Do you consider yourself a responsible designer?
KvE: I always find that a difficult question because in a way everything humans make is bad for nature, it’s something extra. But on the other hand everything I make, I make with honest intention. I spend a lot of time making it and I know people won’t throw it away after two years. They only buy it when they fall in love with it, and they keep it. And if for some reason they don’t want it anymore, they give it away to someone. I hate throwing things away. I use natural materials; I’ve never used plastic, for example. I’m not saying I won’t but if I had to, I would use bio plastic. It’s a difficult question because everything can be made better. But, for example, if I were to design for a mass production company, I would want to know where they produced, the working conditions of employees and what materials they would use. In that sense I think I’m responsible. In general, this is something we need to challenge ourselves on; we all need to take responsibility.
KK: So what would you like to achieve with your design?
KvE: My goal is to produce things that people will buy and want to keep for a lifetime. We can never be sure, but we know that a lot of people buy my work for that reason. Also, I don’t think you have to make things that sell and that everybody can afford. For example Civilized Primitives is a very expensive collection to make and sell, but I found it important to make because there’s a message behind the project and when people see it in a museum or gallery or a fair they can understand it without having to own the pieces.
KK: Your design is quite exclusive and perhaps beyond the reach for most of us. You are a designer but your work is artistic and quite conceptual. Do you think it has the power to change the way people think?
KvE: In general I think nobody can change the way people think. You can inspire people. It is not my intention to teach, although there’s always a hidden message behind my work. It’s more about inspiring people.
KK: Conversation Piece is one of the projects with a strong message.
KvE: It’s a protest against very cheaply and badly made industrial products, but it’s also against very exclusive gallery pieces. It’s about the clash between the two, which are also the two worlds I’m in- between as a designer. You always have to question yourself. No matter if you’re asked to design for industry or a gallery, you have to ask yourself what is the intention behind the work. And this is what I tried to communicate in Conversation Piece.
KK: When you design, what are the key elements you take into account? What is important?
KvE: Intuition, I follow my intuition. Behind it now is a lot of knowledge, and I use that subconsciously. When I use color or different materials, I do so by gut feeling. That is what’s guiding me. And also my experience; I have a lot of experience with different materials, different techniques.
KK: Let’s talk about the transitions you make between different techniques and processes. Tell me about the experimentation and scale models, about making the same objects using different techniques and also about different materials. What are the challenges you face each time you change technique or material?
KvE: Each time you change the technique you have to start from scratch in a way and try things out. When I first did bronze casting, maybe seventeen years ago, I did it myself I learned how to make bronze and aluminum molds myself and how to think in positive and negative shapes. And because I’d had this experience, doing ceramics was much easier. I knew already how to work with positive and negative, and pouring wax into plaster molds is not much different from pouring clay into ceramic molds. And because of that I was not afraid to use materials that I’d never used before.
KK: In your work you draw a lot of inspiration from the past.
KvE: I appreciate the past but at the same time I also appreciate things that are modern. In our house we have weird things we find in antique stores and flee markets, but also very modern pieces. I think in the end it’s all about appreciating the good things in life.
When I was working on Civilized Primitives I was interested in the first products that humankind made, like for example how they started to shape stones to use as knifes; and then they were able to cut the skin of an animal. They were also able to make clothing and fire. And with fire they could cook, so they made a special type of pot that could resist the heat. Similarly, at first they drank from their hands but later they started to use bowls. They had a special type—a special shape—of container to keep water in. That’s how I came to be interested in survival and our basic needs, and how you would construct something if you had no machines, if you were lost in the woods. Now we live in luxury; everything runs automatically. At the same time, if you think about big, natural disasters, about what would happen if we ran out of resources, this makes you aware of our basic needs and what you would need to do if there were no electricity or running water.
KK: You said you collect objects from antique shops and flee markets. What are you looking for in an object?
KvE: I like objects with a human touch, that are handmade.
KK: What value do old techniques and handcrafted objects bring to your work?
KvE: I think they make it more authentic, more genuine. It’s being able to invent things, not only to use the techniques as we know them, but also to experiment with existing techniques and use them in a slightly different way. For example I worked in Murano with master glass blowers. When something is mouth-blown, each piece is authentic and slightly different. In the Floating Frames collection each object in the series is also different; they all become their own characters. And I like that.
KK: How important is it to combine artisan techniques with new technologies? What challenges have you found there?
KvE: It’s not always important to combine them. But it’s interesting and challenging because you can make a bridge between the past and the future, like I did in the project Physical Interactions, the three light sculptures. The sculptures were made by hand in the workshop but there’s high technology inside. When people see those light sculptures they don’t know there’s a lot of technology inside. When they realize they can turn the light on by blowing on a sculpture or can activate the dimmer by covering one part of it with a hand, they start to wonder, to laugh a little, to think about how it was made and how it works technically. This project shows that high-tech, mass-produced products don’t need to look sleek and boring; they really can have an identity of their own.
KK: What are your latest inspirations? What are you working on now?
KvE: I am working for Bisazza, an Italian mosaic company. I am designing flooring and a mosaic wall, and it’s all inspired by nature, by what is growing between the tiles—by weed. I want to show that weed is actually very beautiful if you look closely. Actually, it could be nice for a publication. It’s a big production for a commercial brand but it still has a very genuine feeling. I liked that they were very enthusiastic about the theme, which you could say is not very appealing; but the way we did it, it looks beautiful. It shows the beauty of nature. I’m also working on a new concept for Hermès, a new project in glass, and some new carpet designs. And I’m working for a Dutch brand called Social Label. They’ve invited Dutch designers to design something that can be made in a social workshop that is staffed entirely by disabled people. I’m working on lighting made with leather that is leftover from shoe companies. The people in the workshop will make it all by hand. It’s a lot of work but the nice thing is that there needs to be a lot of work because they need to work on something all the time. Normally if you design something for a brand it should not take too much time because otherwise it will become too expensive to produce; but in this workshop they don’t count the time, they only count the amount of material. They actually want to have something that takes a lot of time and involves many stages in the production process. It’s going to be presented during Dutch Design Week and also next year in Milan. So it’s a very nice project because the people in the workshop, the disabled people, are really proud and they work well together. In addition, I’m also doing a couple of projects for private collectors, so right now I have a good mix of challenges.