In Taiwan, a new brand, Yii, is fusing traditional craft with cutting-edge design. T+L talks to creative director Gijs Bakker. BY LARA DAY
You co-founded the hugely influential Dutch design agency Droog in 1993, and joined Yii when it launched just over a year ago. Why the move?
It was a very logical continuation of my development in design. During that whole period with Droog, it was fascinating to experience that you can create a mentality in design that communicates worldwide, whether you’re exhibiting in Moscow or in New York or in Beijing. Now the next step for me is to work in a completely other culture, another mentality, and it’s a challenge to see if you can continue to work in a certain direction from that basis. It’s a kind of ongoing story.
Yii is the brainchild of the Taiwan Design Center and the National Taiwan Craft Research Institute. What’s behind that collaboration?
The idea was to find out how you can actually bring those two worlds together, the world of design and the world of craft. Craft culture in Taiwan is historically very strong, but also slowly disappearing as craftspeople get older. One of our aims was to see if designers could bring a kind of new life into the world of craft.
Is there a strong design culture in Taiwan?
If I go to the Design Center in Taipei and I look at the results, at the products that are exhibited, it’s always disappointing to see that most of the products are rip-offs of existing trends. I see very few original ideas. Most are look-alikes. It’s a pity because in Taiwan there’s a very strong high-tech industry, which of course gives many opportunities for creating a unique style. When I first went to Japan 30 years ago, they were mainly copying what the rest of the world was doing. But if you go now you see what tremendous developments they’ve had. It started with the Walkman for Sony, and then so many other fantastic instruments and high-tech tools came out. So now Japan has a culture of minimalism, a very cool aesthetic. I still don’t see that in Taiwan.
So what’s holding Taiwanese design back?
One problem is that in Taiwan, craftspeople are considered to be artists. A craftsman is an excellent maker with a highly skilled technique of making, both with technology and materials, but it has nothing to do with art. So the craftsman is communicating his craft, his brilliance. The designer is communicating the use of a product, the environment of a product, the expression of a product that deals with human contact. That creates two different worlds. If the craftsman accepts not to be an artist, but to be a very highly respected craftsman, then those two worlds can work very well together.
Can designers and craftsmen learn from each other?
They can. I had a very nice experience, which I’ve used before in an interview. One of our designers was creating a project where the dragon was sculpted in wood in an object. In his first sketches, he made a drawing of a dragon with the head down. The craftsman saw what he was doing and said, no, no, this is wrong, because the dragon is a sign of happiness, of good fortune, and always has the head up. Now when I’m back in Taiwan I see they have dragons on the roofs of temples, always with their heads up. On the other hand, sometimes designers come up with ideas about working with bamboo, for instance, that a bamboo weaver would never have thought possible. So of course if both are open-minded then you can have exciting confrontations and combinations.
How has Yii developed since its first year?
The projects from last year were mainly inspired by local history, craft history. This year there’s been a small shift and the interest is much more focused on popular street culture. For instance, we have a young designer called Pili, who’s fascinated with what he calls a “street banquette.” Thanks to the climate, people in Taiwan often eat out in the street, they cook in front of their houses, and they mostly use thin plastic throwaway tableware. That inspired Pili to use the archetypal shapes of this plastic tableware and transform them into very delicate porcelain tableware products—a bowl, a cup, a plate.
What brought about that shift?
It happened organically, it’s very funny. No one was ever thinking about the idea of street culture. But while working, I suddenly realized that this is going to be a major topic because this is something that’s of interest to almost all Yii’s designers. Right now I can’t say why or how that happened. Maybe later.
What is your design philosophy?
What I don’t like in design, is that I go all over the world, I give lectures everywhere, and there’s a kind of global aesthetic. Objects look the same all over the world. If you go to Milan, to the furniture fair, you see thousands of new chairs, all looking more or less the same, whether they come from Russia, or from America, or from China. It’s a pity, because all those parts of the world have their own culture, have their own way of expressing their daily lives. It’s my mission, my belief, that this should be expressed in the products that surround us, and that’s one of the goals that keeps me going. It’s really very inspiring for me to see if you can get these very local, particular habits and expressions, and give them a new meaning—but without being nostalgic. I hate nostalgia. It needs to find a kind of abstraction so that it can communicate worldwide but still keep its own identity.
Tell us about some of Yii’s most recent projects.
One project that will be quite spectacular is by Po-ching, and it’s based on the overwhelming amount of scooters you find in the streets, especially in Taipei. Po-ching used this phenomenon and transformed it. He took the reflectors of the scooters, built them into a wall object made from polyester and traditional Chinese lacquer, and gave it a dimmer so you can control the brightness. Another very brilliant designer, Tong Ho, created an object out of the incense sticks. Instead of having straight sticks, it’s now a curved shape that he’s put together in the shape of a lotus flower in a bright color. Of course you can light the incense, but even if you see it as a standing object it’s beautiful, like a miracle.
What’s next for Yii?
We’re planning to open up a shop in Taipei this autumn, but right now the most important thing is attending the Salone de Mobile, at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan. We’ve invited Nendo, from Tokyo, to design the installation, and we’ve also invited them to design a product for the Yii collection—it’s a chair based on the idea of bamboo but made of steel, so in an abstract way, it’s very reflective of the bamboo culture from Taiwan. I also see that Yii has already formed an identity as a brand, and now it will be interesting to gradually invite some foreign designers who are able to add some extra input.
For more on Yii, visit yiidesign.com. To learn more about the brand and Gijs Bakker, see page 60 of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia’s Style and Design issue (March 2011).