Scholten & Baijings: Michael Maharam in conversation with Louise Schouwenberg

Scholten & Baijings was born in 2000 from a clear ambition: Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings wanted to design functional products, collaborate with the best professionals in the world, and create a balance between industrially produced series and experimental projects. Fourteen years later the Dutch designers can look back on an extensive body of work that distinguishes itself by its singular use of color and the exceptionally high quality of workmanship. The designers have won several awards, their designs are part of prestigious collections, and they have worked for a variety of leading international companies, including Maharam, one of their most recent clients. In an excerpted interview from Reproducing Scholten & Baijings (Phaidon, 2015), Louise Schouwenberg interviews Michael Maharam.

Louise Schouwenberg: What made you decide to initiate a book about Scholten & Baijings, a decision that evolved from a small booklet, intended to accompany a specific project, into a monograph?

Michael Maharam: The question of how it all comes together is the one most unanswered. This subject has been of interest for some time and we had previously considered various formats, including a comparative overview of designers working in the present day, and a retrospective of those at the twilight of celebrated careers predicated on materials and techniques that now seem nostalgic contrasted against the new digital standard.

The world certainly doesn’t need another coffee table tome or self-aggrandizing product catalogue thinly disguised as a monograph. As this project evolved from the initial inevitable self-serving agenda to the broader and relevant question of what serves the reader, we returned to the need to document design research.

In the end, we felt the diversity demonstrated in the work of Scholten & Baijings, with their highly defined aesthetic vocabulary overlaid across varied product types, their hands-on approach, and the fact that they were a small office reliant on the distilled thinking of few versus many, would provide the necessary fundamentals for this exercise.

This coupled with our desire to work with Joost Grootens, whose skills at book design enable him to document and portray information in the most elegantly legible and expressive manner, and the photographic documentation of Scheltens and Abbenes, made this project whole.

LS: Why now?

MM: As we are in the midst of developing our first products with Scholten & Baijings and in the process of getting acquainted, the explanatory demands of a new medium (textiles) and the initial rites of courtship create an intensity of dialogue and observation that suits this sort of exploration. It is also interesting to observe the nature of these collaborations as they evolve from the innocence of early idealism to thinking grounded in experience and knowledge of the category, the user and the partner. I cannot say that our mature collaborations run independently, but the first conversations with a new collaborator are often the most meaningful in leading us to challenge the status quo. We devote many hours to discussing the details. Those discussions lead one to ask why things are done a certain way, as new collaborators may not understand our business and are therefore inclined to ask many naive though intelligent questions.

LS: What happens once you know each other?

MM: Over time you gain the benefit of more comfortable and confident dialogue and the spontaneity and rhythm that come with intuitive understanding. At the same time, inquisitiveness and curiosity about a new medium are replaced by expertise, and with this expertise comes a point of view and a resulting vocabulary that defines work stylistically but also can reduce creative agility. This is not to say that a narrowly defined aesthetic vocabulary equals limited creative bandwidth... it is the difference between deep and wide, and we appreciate each.

LS: Do you make mistakes in choosing the designers you get involved with?

MM: I would characterize these as unmet expectations, and both parties can be held accountable and suffer the result. One would like to think that the wisdom of experience would lead to precise knowledge of what is needed from a working relationship. Despite this, chemistry and circumstance can conspire to undermine the best prospects.

Naturally, courtship is the test. Carole and Stefan are bright, charming and funny people. They have an impressive and profound process and are extremely engaged. Their office is fascinating... a little candy shop for the curious eye. Ilse Crawford introduced me to them in Eindhoven at the annual student project presentation, which is an incredible incubator. At the time they were working for MINI and doing a very good job of it, so obviously they had the skills. The Netherlands has such an abundance and diversity of design talent that one cannot help but draw comparisons, and Carole and Stefan stand tall in their own rigorous and modern way. They are clever organizers and excellent makers. Our project was fully conceptualized and produced start to finish as an artisanal one-off, utilizing remnant yarns woven on rented looms, all beautifully photographed and carefully documented in a single edition published specifically for their presentation to us. They even developed and modelled a seating design intended to complement their textiles... a flattering bit of cart before the horse. They understand theatre, and they are very convincing costume designers, set designers and players.

Scholten & Baijings might be described as the Dutch Muji on the basis of the pleasantly universal and useful character of their designs. Importantly, they bring unexpected and striking color to the mix and couple it with a studied approach to pattern. Though one could say that their palette and pattern language is narrow, we find this focus to be a fascinating point of exploration and a great strength.

LS: So you were convinced that Scholten & Baijings would be a valuable addition to the Maharam collection.

MM: We were first attracted to Scholten & Baijings’ palette in combination with their early work in color-blocking, which heralded the extreme success of Phoebe Philo at Céline, who brought this theme to broad public attention.

With every designer and project, the transition from concept to production is the greatest leap. As these textiles would be essentially graphic in nature, we felt a flat construction would be appropriate. With Scholten & Baijings, color was the greater challenge, as we rely upon the sometimes limited yarn banks of the weavers we work with, and the production of new yarn colors can be costly... often with minimums as high as 500 to 1000 pounds, which amounts to miles of a lesser used accent color, or untold amounts of unsold inventory.

Since color dominates the Scholten & Baijings theme, this was a point of great concern. In the end Carole and Stefan built the programme around an existing yarn palette and we did not produce any new yarn colors. In retrospect, we might have invested in a more daring approach to color or a more dimensional construction, but this is all part of the learning experience and guides us as we look ahead. Of course we’re always self-critical... complacency leads nowhere... but this does not mean I think the products are not good. More so, I think the concept of a composed sofa is so perfectly clever in its simplicity that the rest is somewhat secondary, albeit beautiful.

LS: Who’s responsible for a design trajectory?

MM: In the first round, we claim majority responsibility... a crisp brief is the critical foundation of a successful project. The brief can be explicit, poetic, or simply a set of markers. It differs from project to project and reflects the nature of the collaborator and the need. In this case, the designers worked with numerous particulars that we stipulated... a yarn system, a construction, a weaver, and our desire for large-scale color-blocking. Scholten & Baijings brought the concept to the table and coupled it with a composition and a palette. At the beginning the commissioner must take the lead. We have the market knowledge and the product expertise, and we’re paying the bill. In a first effort, our tendency is to want to be part of every decision and to command the situation. In the end you have to take responsibility for this. Thankfully, as the relationship evolves the designers become much more independent. The ultimate hope is that our collaborators generate the ideas, understand and govern the production, and feel a sense of ownership in our mutual success. And then it all becomes a pleasurable dialogue and a partnership.

LS: How critical are you during a process?

MM: Some relationships allow antagonism from the start, though Carole and Stefan are polite and willing to bend and perhaps this is based on the newness of it all. We have no doubt that they will become pleasantly feisty at some point in the future. I’d be concerned if they didn’t... we like a good fight!

LS: In which phase of the courtship are you?

MM: Murray Moss once commented to me that with some people you have a one-night stand, with others you have a romance, and with others still, you have a marriage. Thankfully, Murray and I became an old married couple and it resulted in a lot of good work and a lasting friendship. With Scholten & Baijings it’s a happy romance at the moment. Who knows what the future will bring, but we are hopeful. In general I see a shift in the design world. It seems that the days of the usual suspects are passing. The short list of ‘all-stars’Jasper Morrison, Hella Jongerius, Konstantin Grcicis being supplanted by a far longer list of lesser-known and less monogamous players. Companies and designers seem to be unable to commit themselves to long-term design relationships. It’s project to project, limited attention span, flavour of the month. It’s no longer acceptable for companies to insist that relationships with collaborators be exclusive, and vice versa, as young designers thrive on variety – across media, product categories and geography. Perhaps the bright side of this trend could be a transition away from the collaboration set on a pedestal as a promotional device. Wouldn’t it be ideal if all companies just did thoughtful work with capable people and didn’t tout ‘design’ as some sort of panacea?

Sadly, design patronage does not exist on the same level as it once did. Design is now a managed process led more by managers than by the entrepreneurs who embraced this activity as a cultural cornerstone, a hobby, a passion, a joy, and an investment of themselves and their money in people and things they believed in. To truly be good in the ‘design’ business is to know and appreciate the applied arts; this creates opportunity and lifts the bar universally. Unfortunately, most companies view this as a cost rather than an investment.

LS: Maharam has a rich tradition, a long history and a strong reputation for working with the best designers in the world and producing high-quality products.

MM: I would say we’re focused on finding interesting people to work with. We also insist on working with people we like, people we like to dine with, people with whom we could envision taking holidays. It is very personal, and very much not about grandstanders.

LS: You speak of ‘we’, but isn’t it ‘I’? What is your specific influence within the company?

MM: The ‘I’ is the entrepreneurial ‘I’. I guide an excellent and capable staff of people, the ‘we’ that shapes the product. My role is to ascribe values and define the character of the what, why and how at Maharam. I know my limitations. I want to accomplish many things, but I only have a general feeling for how to do this. My colleagues have expertise, patience and experience that I do not possess. I’m good at conceptualizing and I’m good at critiquing... I know what feels right.

LS: Over the course of time you have had to make many choices and I assume you have had to find the right balance between cultural and historical responsibility and expected economic profit. Can you describe how you accomplish this?

MM: The initial balance starts with the very practical and essential matter of distribution. Without it, the best products remain idealistic dreams. Our good fortune as a company has been our diverse foundation of well-distributed quotidian products in a broad range of prices and subcategories. These are workhorses intended to address the pragmatic everyday needs of our clients and their clients. These products support exploratory and cultural investments... the ‘stars’ that become the public persona of the company despite the fact that they generally account for only a small percentage of sales. On occasion they do strike a chord commercially, but on the whole they are the legacy products we love to love.

In the case of this first project with Scholten & Baijings the investment has been considerable and involves a fair amount of risk... a large collection of costly textiles with a very particular aesthetic and perhaps a limited application and audience. That said, we prefer to introduce a new collaborator to our clientele with a dramatic statement that represents their work archetypally through a strong and clear narrative, and then follow up with products that can be more readily used... in this case, Tones, the third textile we are working on with Scholten & Baijings.

LS: So distribution is one of the key elements for a successful product that balances cultural value and economic profit. What else?

MM: It’s imperative to recognize that the things that we make have to be a point of personal interest and conviction. If one is not committed to exploration in earnest, it becomes evident through careless superficial choices and poorly executed products, which are unconvincing.

The audience is not easily fooled and few companies can stomach the amount of time, energy and money involved in being meticulous and truly interesting over time without a traditional monetary return on investment. We have always viewed association, visibility and risk as the critical means to achieve our version of healthy profitability... they are structural pillars at Maharam, not occasional attention-getting devices.

Forgive the soapbox, but the twentieth century introduced the populace to material aspiration and America led the charge. There is so much junk out there, and the world is not hurting for another product. As this is a contraption of our own making and since most of us have to earn a living, we must create and creating good things that have lasting character and quality is the most hopeful aspiration if we seek to make a better world. The American appetite for variety is enormous and ours has been a dispose-and-replace mentality. Europeans tend to have a greater respect for sustainability and to buy better quality products and to look after them. We have lessons to learn, and it is heartening to see this movement in play.

LS: You are an educator?

MM: To have a set of values that are demonstrated philosophically through a corporate culture and realized physically through the development and presentation of products that seek to transform and elevate the perception of a product category is the noblest objective in business. Just making things to make money is a wasted opportunity on so many levels... it is a shame. The painful inherent obsolescence of personal electronics was made irrelevant by Steve Jobs, perhaps the most successful pedagogue of our generation. It is such a thrill to find a craftsperson, a website, a shop, a company that makes it easy to choose with the knowledge that you are buying something good and smart and believable... something that answers a question and a need convincingly. We aspire to be that company in textiles.

In our industry, Vitra does this with seeming effortlessness. I have been greatly influenced by Rolf Fehlbaum, and by the notion of the European family business tradition with its holistic embrace of all the elements that add up to the fully dimensional definition of being good... one in which the cultural basis of the activity, the product, the presentation, and all the people including the gardener and the chef who cooks for the staff, are regarded with equal esteem as parts of a whole, regardless of rank. Unfathomable as this is becoming in our tightly stretched world, this is the way to run a business in my view.

None of us wants to be associated with work in which we cannot take pride. Though very successful, my father was a practical man generally selling things that were sensible but not particularly inventive. This held no appeal for me or my brother. We were incredibly fortunate to be able to completely reinvent his company without losing financial momentum; pulling the tablecloth out from under while simultaneously resetting the table. It was a difficult thing to do, but we got lucky through the naivety of simply wanting to do what felt right and somehow finding a gap in the market and a place in the hearts of our clientele. Naturally this was also a point of generational transition, but also a reflection of our times and a growing intolerance of the ordinary.

Ultimately we are in the business of narrative. It’s essential that we tell stories that are interesting and that clearly demonstrate the rationale of our decision to realize the work of a chosen designer through an excellent result. The most successful products elicit an immediate visceral understanding from the audience and require no more than a sentence or two of explanation... perhaps biographical details about the designer, the intent of the undertaking, interesting facets of the design or manufacturing process and aspects of functionality. Adjectives hold very little place in our approach... they are subjective superlatives, and subjectivity should be left to the client and not imposed by the salesperson or the company. Our clients know what they like... our job is to create and explain.

Louise Schouwenberg is a design theorist based in Amsterdam.