A fascination for gestures – a line, a form, a combination – lies at the heart of the Dutch design-auteur’s practice. Functionality may or may not come later.

By Jeni Porter


How hard is it to design an incense burner? For Aldo Bakker it’s been an object of provocation for some years and he doesn’t even burn incense. The Dutch designer artist is interested in the primal, the everyday, and how a deeply considered, beautifully made object can alter the experience of that ritual. Designing an incense burner to add to a family of ritual objects is, however, more of an interlude in an artistic process that can require years of painstaking refinement to settle on a form and a finish. But he got stuck. “It is almost with shame I would say that I have been busy working with that stupid thing for a couple of years,” says Bakker from his Amsterdam studio. It wasn’t really about the incense burner per se, rather the challenge to make sense of the ritual. “To find the right approach in material, in size, in execution, in colour. How much does it need? It almost doesn’t need anything?”

Whatever he came up with was always too much, not in balance with the subject. Recently, though, he cracked it. “Big news,” he declares. His incense burner, a sheet of metal in a simple drop shape that evolves into a spoon, has the pure elegance and character of everything he does. Most importantly it involves a gesture. The gesture in balance with its function.

“My objects always come out of a fascination for gestures – a line, a form, a combination of things, how they touch each other or how they fall into each other, how they are stacked or puzzled, that’s where it starts. The outcome I permit myself to leave open. Sometimes it’s a glass or a piece of furniture, sometimes it’s a sculpture or even a pavilion.”

Bakker works largely alone in his studio on a canal, an intentionally neutral space full of prototypes for everyday objects that defy perceptions with names like Nose that are functional but sometimes seem too precious to use, and monumental one-off or limited-edition gallery pieces in marble or urushi lacquer. At the same time as trying to crack the code of the incense burner he’s been planning a self-initiated sculpture project for Bad Ischl, in Austria, one of three European Capitals of Culture in 2024. Bakker is exploring new forms he’s named Triad and Head, in bronze, Belgian black stone or kiln-cast glass. He’s also investigating the potential of scaling up B, a gallery piece, to the size of a horse. Autonomous still, although you could climb or even sit on it, muses Bakker holding up a small version of B, “We called this a stool for a while.”

Even with his furniture he never sets out to make something practical. “I often try that but then something else happens,” he says. Cabinet, his latest furniture piece for Karakter, has been in his sketchbook for years but he put it aside because he thought the shape wasn’t sufficiently interesting. Then he started thinking about pedestals like the ones Brancusi made as part of his sculptural work, “annoying intriguing” objects that are made to sit something more complex on top.

Cabinet is about as prosaic as Bakker gets, unadorned spruce and clearly functional. He showed the prototype in his solo exhibition at Licht Gallery in Tokyo last May. Sitting on a dais of concrete slabs, alongside Support, a Bakker classic object in tin, Cabinet held its own in the gallery space. It could equally become part of a household system in various configurations. “Perhaps not,” suggests Bakker, ever the contrarian, that could be “too predictable”. It’s a classic declaration of a design-auteur, who treats their work as a medium of self-expression.


Cabinet by Aldo Bakker


Do the Maths

Easy to survey and executed mercilessly,
Cabinet is a beautiful sum of its parts.

In one reading Cabinet is a straightforward functional piece of furniture that can be used beside a chair or bed for a glass or a book. Made of seven planks of plain spruce in three thicknesses – 1.5 cm, 3 cm and 4.5 cm – joined together as a closed frame times two, it is as honest and simple as anything Aldo Bakker has produced. “A clean cut, a sharp line and that’s it,” he says. And yet, it unravels a beauty within.
“The principle is very simple. It’s a sum of numbers and this difference in size when you put them on top of each other creates the space for the horizontal plank.” The plank in turn makes a squared joint in contrast to mitred corners.

“It’s just equal steps. It’s not so much about the mathematics as it is about being true to the concept. Even if you did not calculate it but did it only by eye, you would still get there and the gesture would be more or less the same.” It is imperative that there are no superfluous details like rounded edges to distract the eye. 

“Cabinet is easy to survey, the execution therefore merciless,” says Bakker of the piece which is being made in Austria where spruce is widely used. To preserve its colour and tactility, the wood is left untreated to age with grace and honesty.

“I have made furniture myself in the past and when you make something like this you have to have the right mindset, where everything is clean and ordered, then you find a rhythm or cadence, and when you are done, that’s it. Stay away. Don’t touch it anymore.”