Joep van Lieshout

Joep van Lieshout celebrated twelve and a half years of working with Lensvelt.
A gigantic blue canon was the focal point of the exhibition ‘WWIII’ (World War Three).
A conversation about muscle power, art and oak with mohair.

Joep van Lieshout. fotocredits: James Stokes

Did you design bombs as a kid? ‘Like every other little boy.’

It’s typical of your inquisitive mind. ‘Well, yeah, I would read popular
science magazines like Kijk and De Jonge Onderzoeker. My father was a tinkerer. I get that knack from him.’

Was it this practical, curious inclination that led the artist Joep van Lieshout to start making furniture? ‘My first utilitarian objects were
originally intended for art projects. For The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (an installation at the Walker Arts Centre, Minneapolis) I built a mobile exhibition space and a wooden house. The imaginary occupant of this house was the Unabomber, a pre-2001 terrorist. I
needed a chair for the terrorist. I couldn’t find one at IKEA or at the flea
market, so I made one myself. Inspired by minimalism and the refined
constructions of the Shaker religious movement.’

The Shaker chair was subsequently included in the Moooi collection.
‘Like a loose end that got stuck to art. I’m an artist, not a designer.
At the moment I’m working on New Tribal Labyrinth. It’s a detailed proposal for a
new, self-sufficient world order, with alternative applications of agriculture
and industry. I’m going to reinvent the most essential machines for the blast
furnaces, weaving mills and ceramics factories in this Utopia. They will be
driven by human power. The all-encompassing desire for efficiency and money has
automatized production processes and banished muscle power. The question is
whether that’s healthy.’

Back to old-fashioned manual labour? ‘Labour has become so expensive and
material so cheap that proportions are completely askew. If something breaks
it’s always cheaper to replace it than to repair it. But when it takes a lot of
time to produce steel in an almost medieval way, it becomes as valuable as
silver. By revaluating hard physical labour, I am trying to put industry on a
pedestal again. I am arguing for a better balance between labour and material.’

In the project Slave City you experiment with what happens
when you dispense with ethics altogether. You show how extreme concepts of
efficiency can degenerate into inhumanity. Slave City is a green city in which
everything is recycled, including the inhabitants. Is what you make and design for this kind of installation a derivation of your ideas as an artist?
‘Of course. I work by intuition, by instinct and on my conditions. Without a client to bug me with targets and marketing nonsense.’

In the meantime the AVL Spider, Koker and Cloud Bar, your new designs for Lensvelt, are making money. ‘Oh, but I’m not against applied
art. I just hate trendy design. The pretension of all those colours and silly
shapes. For a presentation at Art Basel I built a long bar in the shape of a
rectum, with an anus as the entrance. Purely functional. Just a blow-up of an
arse would be rather pointless, to be honest.’

Art has to be disturbing; that’s not a requisite for furniture. Does this make the Fertility Lamp and the Body Sofa more sculpture than design? ‘Definitely. You can use them, but you don’t have to.’

Are you mocking the conventions and self-importance of the design world? ‘All the furniture in my home, except for an Eames desk chair, I made myself. I like solid, simple, archetypal things, a
little rough and with attitude. Not computer-designed affectation.’

And those who want that too can turn to Lensvelt?
‘They can. But I’ve also described how to work with polyester yourself. If you’re
good at DIY you can reproduce Atelier Van Lieshout in your own home.’

Though that wouldn’t include a giant blue canon like this. It’s your third by now? ‘We previously built an Austrian canon, with
round feminine shapes, and an ugly Russian canon. The WWIII canon is a modernist,
American variant.’

That canon is a protest? ‘Against the Disneyfication of society.
The world today has been scrubbed up and tidied up. Anything that
doesn’t fit in the perfect picture we hide far away. Even war has turned into a
computer game. We’ve lived 60 years without war in these parts. Unique. We look
for technological solutions for problems. I think we might even come up with
something to deal with those melting polar ice caps. If it all goes wrong, I
think it’s more likely to be a major food crisis, an epidemic or an oil
shortage. We’re living on a knife edge.’

At the Salone del Mobile, where all the big brands promote their prototypes, there’s no hint of this. It must be hell for you. ‘So is this,
you know. I can’t wait to go home. Back to work! I made all the new prototypes
myself. That’s important.’

Jean Prouvé, Charles Eames, Rietveld: are
these names you draw inspiration from?
‘It’s not a bad group: modernists with ideals,
who strived for quality for the masses. In the end, though, their furniture
ended up in the homes of the elite and in museums, not in the working-class
homes they once dreamed of.’

Those workers played cards on heavy dark-brown tables and sat on sofas with busy floral patterns. ‘I remember the parents of my first
girlfriend. They had rather ugly furniture, oak with mohair. Made by an uncle
who was a furniture maker. If it had been put out on the street for collection
I’d have cycled right by. Those people sat on those chairs for 30 years. When
the fabric would wear out they would have the chairs reupholstered. I was
shocked by the price: it was incredibly expensive. But these people were
willing to do it. At the time I thought it was ridiculous. Now I think it’s wonderful.
You can order what everyone acknowledges as good taste out of the catalogue.
But you can also follow your heart. When you value your things like those
people did, that’s when you have taste.’

Joep van Lieshout (b. 1963, Ravenstein),