Plastic Fantastic

March 13, 2017

Inspired by ancient obelisks, the sculptural Menhir collection by jewellery designers Boris de Beijer and Benedikt Fischer turns light into precious works of art, as Maria Elena Oberti discovers.

I think it’s safe to say that, when it comes to the world of interiors and design, lighting is our crown jewel. Lights do more than just illuminate, they supply that special touch, the sparkle that makes a room truly outshine the rest. Evidently, we’re not the only ones to think so. For Dutch-Austrian team Boris de De Beijer and Benedikt Fischer, both graduates of Amsterdam’s Rietveld School of Art & Design, jewellery and lighting design go hand in hand. With studios in Amsterdam and Haarlem, the young designers met during their studies at the academy, where they each earned degrees in jewellery design. The shift from jewellery to lighting came gradually, and, as I come to learn, somewhat by chance. I climbed aboard the SS Rotterdam earlier this January to meet the duo at the Object Rotterdam fair, where their aptly titled Menhir collection of decorative floor lamps was on show. Following a dazzling tour of the lights on display, we make our way to the ship’s luxurious Captain Lounge, where we get to talking about beginnings, lighting design, materials and much more.

“I guess it all started when I was fourteen, with jewellery,” says the softly-spoken Fischer. After attending a technical school for youths in his native country Austria, Fischer started his first job working for a high-end jeweller in Vienna.

“It was the kind of place where you had to ring a bell to get in,” he recalls. “It was very different to the sort of thing I do now. After a while,though, I felt the need to do something a bit different, so I looked at schools that offered a more artistic approach to jewellery design.”

After deliberating between schools in Germany and The Netherlands, he settled on Amsterdam’s Rietveld School of Art & Design.

“I was familiar with the work that was coming out of the school and always really liked the kind of materials they used and their conceptual approach to design,” Fischer tells me. 

“I didn’t know what to do for a really long time” confesses De Beijer. After a few years of soul searching, he too eventually ‘found’ himself in art school, and like Fischer, at the Rietveld School of Art & Design in Amsterdam.

“I ended up taking this one-year orientation program at the academy, and it was during that period that I discovered jewellery design” De Beijer says. “The decision to study art was in part inspired by my father, who is himself an artist. He’s always been really into materials and techniques, so I grew familiar to this way of working.”

After a year of studying the ins and outs of the art world, the time eventually came to select a specialisation. “The jewellery course was really in line with what I saw my dad doing at his studio. It was far more technical than the other courses they had on offer, and it was also really free in that you could choose how far to delve into things. It felt like a perfect fit, so I signed up!”

The decision to study jewellery design eventually led De Beijer to another defining discovery, one that would ultimately serve as the foundation for the sculptural Menhir series. “At some point, almost by accident, I started experimenting with plastic and resin,” he says. “It was for a school project that didn’t go so well at first. Even still, I really liked what you could do with the material, so I kept experimenting with it and applying it to my work.”

After graduating from the academy in 2011, the young designers – both in their early thirties – went their separate ways. De Beijer remained in Holland, whereas Fischer moved to neighbouring Germany. Even when apart, the two friends remained extremely close. “I always admired Benedikt’s work,” says De Beijer. “We’ve always had a dialogue going. Even before working together, we were constantly sharing and discussing our projects and ideas. We thought about working together for a long time, but somehow never quite came around to it.”

“We were just waiting for the right moment,” adds Fischer. That moment finally came in 2015 in the form of a conversation. “It was actually Benedikt’s idea to make a light,” De Beijer says. “I’d been working on a material, similar to the one we used for this project, for a really long time, and Benedikt knew all about it. At the time, the sculptures I was making were much smaller in scale. I would occasionally hold them up against the light and see this colourful effect, what you see now with the lights, but hadn’t really thought too much about it. One day Benedikt came to me and asked ‘Why don’t you put a light behind it? I was like, yeah, that makes a lot of sense!”

They both laugh… “So, we decided to try it out,” he adds. By that point, Fischer had already made his return to The Netherlands, and was working on some of his own personal projects, most of which were still in jewellery.

“I’d say our roles were really equal thoughout the qhole process,” says Fischer. “Of course we each have our skills, but from a design and decision-making perspective, we were making them together.

“Benedikt was better at things like making the scale models and taking care of the finer details,” adds De De Beijer. “Where as I was better at handling the power tools. He goes on to underscore the way in which the collaboration both expanded and enriched his work. “I went from working on a really small scale to taking a more applied approach,” he says, referring to his earlier sculptures. “We started making more conscious decisions about things, like what colours to mix, as well as what materials were used and where to put them. Everything you see in the lights is an object that we designed and made ourselves.

“In most cases, we actually had to make individual moulds for them. One of the earlier lights, for example, was supposed to resemble a kind of tundra. It sounds a bit tacky, now that I say it aloud, but the basic idea was to create a sort of frozen landscape, with the colours and kind of rocks you might find in nature. We collected 20 stones and made moulds from them and then casted the stones in resin. It suddenly all became a very conscious choice, how we made and put the lamps together.”

The move from jewellery to lighting design proved to be a fluid, if not intuitive, experience. “There are a lot of similarities between the two,” says Fischer. “In that they’re both applied. You make them for a specific reason, be it for a body or a home.There are specific guidelines and practical elements that require you to master certain techniques, which is the same with jewellery design.”

“Our technical background in jewellery design taught us to be very precise” adds De Beijer. “We spent days perfecting the lamps, trying to get things just right. I think that’s a trick you inherit from jewellery design.”

Inspired by the monoliths and obelisks that enchant people worldwide, the Menhir luminaries have a monumental, almost mystical quality to them. When seen in concert, the effect is like that of stepping into an ancient temple, only that instead of marble or stone, the monuments are built on colour and light.

“These monolithic structures have a really strong presence,” says De Beijer. “They don’t serve a particular purpose per se, except to impress. We wanted to create that same effect with the lights.”

Clearly adding to each lamp’s allure is its soft, ethereal glow. Concealed in each is a fluorescent tube, chosen for its gentle homogeneous light. “We weren’t so technical in the beginning about the solutions for the light itself, so the fluorescent light made sense,” continues De Beijer. “Ultimately, though, it depends on what people want. It could be that someone wants it to be dimmable, for example. For now at least, the lights are more sculptural than functional.”

As I soon learn, a tremendous amount of work goes into sculpting each lamp. Though careful not to reveal too much, the duo agrees to shed a light on their process with a few basic steps: “It’s all about timing,” adds De Beijer. “The raw material is liquid; it comes in two cans, one of which you add colour to. Once you mix the two components together, they get really hot, and then there’s this one magical moment, when the two liquids collide and become solid.”

Once set, the resin blocks still need to be cut, filled and polished. The polishing itself can take an entire day. “It doesn’t look like anything much at first,” he continues. “You have this big, massive block. It’s almost boring to look at; it’s only when you start cutting it open that you see what’s inside.” “It’s a great moment,” adds Fischer. “It’s almost like cracking open a rock and finding a fossil.” “The process took us approximately a month to get right,” says De Beijer.

“We’re getting a bit faster now, but we had to figure out a lot in the beginning, especially the more technical parts,” adds Fischer. One of the biggest challenges for the pair was finding someone to take on the laborious task of cutting the solid resin blocks into workable pieces, something they couldn’t do themselves.

“Nobody wanted to help us at first because it’s quite a specific task, and it’s also pretty bad for the saw blazes,” says De Beijer. Yet with time, and a bit of persistence, they found someone in Amsterdam with the right skills and tools for the job.

“It’s all about knowing the resin material,” he continues. “The fumes are pretty toxic though, so it’s not something you want to do everyday.”

It’s almost impossible to talk plastic without talking sustainability. Could there be a new purpose for my plastic refuse? I ask. “We used plastic trash for one of our earlier models,” De Beijer tells me, adding that they used rubbish – stuff they had lying around – out of convenience more than for recycling purposes. “It would be nice, of course, but recycling isn’t really our goal” he continues. “It’s not that we wouldn’t want to, it’s just that it’s not always possible, especially when you take a more curated approach to the design” adds Fischer. “There are a lot of different types of plastics, and they don’t always react well together. That said, we’re definitely looking at ways to develop things further. I could see us making it into a larger collection. It’s a very versatile material, so there are a lot of different directions we could go in.”

When it comes to planning for the future, each is excited by the prospect of diving deeper into unknown. “Where do I see myself in the future? I’d like to be rich and famous, that’s for sure” says De Beijer. We all laugh… He takes a sip of coffee and resumes to answer the question, this time in a more serious tone: “I’d really like to maintain my current level of freedom, and keep maneuvering between different disciplines. I like the idea of not belonging to just one. That said, sometimes it can be a bit problematic because, for example, galleries might not know where to place you or understand where you stand.”

Fischer sees no problem in that. “I’m definitely open to new adventures,” he says. “I think it’s very human, to have these different dimensions. In terms of our work together, though, we don’t have any specific plans in the pipeline, but we’d certainly like to keep collaborating. We have a lot of ideas in mind that we’d love to bring into fruition.”