“We might not fit in with the Belgians’ idea of design,” Smeets tells me. “Belgian design is often strict and minimalist, function is very present, and it’s sometimes more related to interior design or architecture.”
In contrast, Smeets and Tynagel combine art and design in a way that can be best described as the decorative arts, using materials as diverse as bronze, stained glass, iron and ceramic. Form does play a part, but the couple are playing with that idea rather than necessarily creating usable objects. Rules and slogans such as “form follows function” and “less is more” are duly dispensed with. As they put it, referring to the famous essay by Austrian architect Adolf Loos: “If ornament is a crime, we are design criminals. For sure.”
The design criminals, who work under the name Studio Job, opened their gallery last month with a collection of nine works they made between 2006 and 2009, brought together for the first time and appropriately entitled The Birth.
“We wanted to create an exhibition space that’s nearly perfect, and I think we’ve done that,” says Smeets, the Belgian half of the Belgian-Dutch duo who met at the Design Academy Eindhoven in the 1990s. “It’s more like a temple for us. It’s somewhere to come and sit down, somewhere sacred.”
Split onto two levels, the gallery’s plain, white walls are like an empty canvas against which the works can be carefully placed. Any traces of the site’s original use as a cigar factory are long gone. It’s now open, contemplative.
Perhaps this should be no surprise for a couple who, although belonging to no religion, love visiting churches. They enjoy the vast space inside, the colours and light of stained glass and the fact that a few hundred years ago they were so “crazy and expressive” in their creations.
“When we visit new cities, we always have a list of churches to visit,” Tynagel says, whose list of favourites includes Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. “In three days, we might visit, say, 30 churches.” The couple are such fans of stained glass windows that they designed one for their home: it depicts a portrait of themselves and acts as the divide between their living space and their workshops.
Two stained-glass windows are also at the heart of the new exhibition. One of them, “The Birth”, is circular and has the Madonna and child at its centre. At first glance it looks like a traditional rose window found in a Catholic church. But look more closely, and you see that the traditional religious icon is surrounded by images from today’s world, such as test tubes and rockets. The other window is “The Crucifixion”, where similar images, ranging from nuclear plants and bombs to diamonds and four-leaf clovers, surround the central image of Jesus on the cross.
“We want to create our own contemporary landscape,” Smeets says, making a comparison with the Flemish Primitives and other artists in bygone centuries who took historical events as their theme and then placed them in a contemporary context.
“Their objects tell us more about their time than the work’s theme,” asserts Smeets. “When Rubens looked at his world, he saw beautiful forests, but we see this.”
It is this landscape that unites many of the couple’s seemingly distinct pieces. Whether it is a bronze cabinet carved with rockets, tools and insects or a ceramic pyramid with swastikas, skull and bones painted by hand, the designers’ pieces almost always depict aspects of modern society.
Acting as a bridge between “The Birth” and “The Crucifixion” are two dinner services with the title “The Last Supper”, one of ceramic, the other a larger sculpture of the same set made from corroded foundry iron.
The seed for this idea was planted on a trip to Moscow in the summer of 2008. Rummaging around a small flea market, they found a white ceramic dinner service, whose chunky form and thick round edges appealed to them. When they picked up the cups and plates and looked underneath, they found they were all stamped with the Nazi swastika. Possible connections started to form in their minds: they consider religion to be a form of propaganda and so hit upon the idea of combining the Nazi china and religion.
“There has to be a reason to come to a shape,” Smeets says. “We always search for the perfect form.”
Over the next few months, the couple set to work designing the hand-painted ceramic set, whose shape is directly inspired from the Nazi pieces, and the monumental iron sculpture whose surface looks like a coating of cocoa powder. That finish was in fact “a present from nature; we left the iron out in the rain to achieve this effect,” says Tynagel. Her partner adds: “Yes, it’s nice to use nature as your servant.”
With the brightly coloured “Crucifixion” mounted up on a frame and the iron sculpture of “The Last Supper” placed in front of it, it becomes almost like an altar: the two working in perfect harmony.
“We can exhibit however we want,” Smeets says, looking round the gallery with a smile. “We have created our own castle.”
Until 19 March
Begijnenvest 8, Antwerp