Fred Baier. The Right Angle. October 2011. Travelling Exhibition
Setting the scene
I’m here in the study, while the rest of the family are watching telly, trying to picture who you are and what you might want to know about me. You’ll be all sorts of people with a myriad of reasons for coming to this page and it’s a daunting task trying to second-guess what you might want to know.
If you could experience a day in my life it would start slowly. No blaring insistent alarm clock (except for an occasional unwelcome early appointment) Lucy will have brought me tea which will have gone cold, but I’ll still drink it after tuning in to radio 4. If Woman’s Hour is already on air, I’m late and must try and get a wiggle on but usually its ok and I’m out of the bungalow (with a sun-ray front door I made because that’s what it needed) by 10. It’s a short walk to the studio down a breathtakingly beautiful green tunnel of Holly, Box and Sweet Chestnut and as like as not Matt and Alex will already be there getting on. In all a 300-yard commute with a smattering of greetings to locals then I dive in to the day’s events.
We are running a highly principled outfit (no kitchensdoorsorwindows) and it’s tight. No silver spoon in this biography. Our output is almost exclusively to commission but we do manage to produce one or two speculative pieces as we go. Money comes from two main directions, private customers and public commissions. Occasionally something we’ve made speculatively will sell. That’s a bonus.
Luckily, ‘cos I’ve been around for so long now, almost without exception everyone wants a taste of Fred Baier in what I produce for them so there’s not too much compromising. There is, however, always an element of pleasing the customer and I’m happy with that because it’s in my nature to want to please and make people like me.
There are distractions throughout the day. People are always popping in to see wa’s happenin’, borrow something, get advice, sell us stuff, or just to say hello and have a cuppa. We take it in turns to provide the lunch.
You probably don’t want to know all this but it’s important to understand that Fred Baier world is a lifestyle not merely a business. It’s also important that everyone who gets involved feels the feel good factor and gets on the good foot. They understand that there is enough time to get things right. There’s no rush. I always encourage my employees to join in my quest to explore and contribute their thoughts while they gain expertise in ideas, design and manufacturing. All this is to enhance their experience and help with their own longer-term goal, which is usually establishing their own practices. Tim Wells, Gareth Neal, Rachel Hutchison, Mike Wainwright and other past studio assistants have gone on to pursue independently successful careers in contemporary furniture. All of them certainly helped me with mine.
While we’re on that tack, the most important person is Lucy. She put her budding sculptor’s career on the slow burner in order to bring up our girls. Now she’s back full on and our house has gone crazy coping with two career lifestyles and all the people and activity that that brings. Fun though.
What’s it all about?
Currently this is my mantra.
I make pieces that are intended as pioneering furniture statements rather than products. They are observations and thoughts about my time and chosen field. I try to be an expert in all aspects of my creativity. My work is a way of life not just something I do for a living. I’m an explorer more than a designer. An adventurer in search of knowledge, understanding, ability and anything that might help to expand my envelope of possibility. I use whatever materials are appropriate for the project in hand although the studio is set up for woodworking, which was my starting point.
My teacher had said that If I added value to my woodworking I would do a lot better than just being a maker doing other peoples bidding, and that gem of advice has eventually led me to become “collectable”. Earlier this year the V&A purchased a piece for their forthcoming exhibition on Postmodernism. Currently I am artist in residence for the House of Lords making pieces for their Works of Art collection.
There. A bit of boasting and a vague idea of why. For the yummy mummy who’s just popped into the gallery before meeting a mate for coffee that probably all sounds fine but I am aware that lots of people do find it difficult to slot me in to any particular pigeon hole. I also worry that students see what I do as a career opportunity for themselves. It has been for me but it is precarious for many, and there’s a swathe of peers who struggle and moan about its pitfalls. You can read more of what I think about this on my website in MAKING IT BETTER Having a VISION and dealing with REALITY – Fred’s advice to budding artist craftsmen featuring The adventures of Captain Veneer.
For my degree I opted for a Master of Art rather than a Master of Design and was intent on selling my work as art through galleries rather than going into industry - the only other furniture design career opportunity then available. But as I plotted, a group of philanthropic bourgeoisie were getting together to launch what eventually became the Crafts Council. There was something in the air that they were trying to put their collective finger on, and I was scooped up and promoted as an example of whatever that something was. Their flattery got me everywhere. I was one of their pets. It was a wonderful rollercoaster of a ride with trips to foreign parts on exchanges which saw Dutch clogs and Swiss cheese being promoted in Leicester Square while we were shipped off to Vienna and Amsterdam on a stand with Burberry jackets, Purdy shot guns, Jaguar motor cars, the very first, pink, Dyson vacuum cleaner and ring pull cans of fog. All of which was great fun but I failed to notice that I was in fact being sucked in to a pool of the very people I was trying to escape from.
You see there were a number of furniture “designer makers” who were and are brilliant at their thing, but their thing wasn’t my thing. We were all intending to show off, but while I was intent on exploring a new vocabulary of form and structure, they were mostly intent on dragging the arts and crafts movement into the second half of the 20th century or using flashy woodworking as a vehicle to express nothing in particular other than their skill at making things in wood. Very different agendas. OK I did make things well but the woodwork wasn’t the issue. They were on the roll that craft had a big C. I made things well in the hope that my pieces were of “museum quality” and collectable. So my best bet was to sidestep the issue and go and work in the States where the idea of Furniture Art was not perceived as an oxymoron.
And that was a good move. I did well in New York. We had a fantastic adventure. American culture was something I had grown up with. The space race, Marvel comics and classic cars are all deep in there. Couple that with Russian Constructivism, industrial archeology, pop art and science fact and fiction and you’ve just about got the measure of me as long as you mix in a sound track of soul music.
There was a moment when instead of going to the States we could have gone to Spain. I was offered a Gaudi apartment and a studio in a factory in the outskirts of Barcelona. The Catalonian design set were very gracious and welcoming to me. The factory was a big place with a series of self-contained production units that were opened up or closed down depending on whether Europe was booming or in decline. The deal was: - no rent, but I was expected to slant my work towards industry and they would pick up appropriate ideas. It sounds amazing I know, but there was no talk of cash and I didn’t even know the word for wood in Spanish, let alone Catalan. My hosts were almost local nobility, a bit like the upper crust of Italian design who had also had me do bits and bobs for them, but to join in properly with any of that lot you need either a private income or to marry one of their daughters. They are keen to have you have ideas for them and they are happy to fund prototyping of those ideas that they select. They will even take some things all the way to market, but an earn from it is a very long way down the line. And anyway I’m allergic to the whole cool of the design set. It ends up paring down ideas to a smooth and homogenous kind of minimalism. Too many compromises have to be made. All understandable if you want to sell product as a commodity, but no sooner than I’ve finished a piece I want to be on with the next project, which will preferably be completely disparate. And anyway I like the rawness of an idea without compromise. With one-off pieces you have to make things work by hook or crook, which is often a challenge and usually a bit of a time-heavy fiddle, but then it’s over. In industry those sorts of issues drag on as they are slowly ironed out through progressive prototyping. In Freddy World we don’t hav that luxury.
That’s not to say that I am impoverished by choosing to be a studio practitioner. Mine is a different kind of comfort. My point of making something is to feel that I’m in control and getting it absolutely right. That calls for hands on at every stage. I have the luxury of autocracy in all my decisions. First set up my parameters in order to make my mind up about all the bits. I then have to find reasons why all those particular component parts exist. Why have a leg in each corner? Well don’t then. Why make another thing that looks a bit like that one over there? No need. Why look at other people’s work for inspiration about what to make? Can’t think. Why not just make sculptures? Ahaa. Good question. Because I always intended to make furniture and I am still finding new ways of expressing myself in that arena. People are still appreciating my creations and I’d hardly know where to begin if the applied aspects of the discipline of furniture were removed. With every new project I ask these sort of why questions about each element. AND I try to give the following issues their rightful place in the hierarchy of the forthcoming object. The form, structure, process, composition, proportion, function, history, narrative, colour, technology, material and so on, and where I don’t have an answer I look around for one in all sorts of unrelated places and use a pencil or crayon to help me see.
...then came the computer
Thank god. It was the escape module that saved me from being shipwrecked on woody world. (I mean space-ship-wrecked of course).
Although I’d forgotten most of it, I had been quite keen and good at maths as a schoolboy. It helps with the measuring and geometry vital to woodwork but, much more importantly, a maths head was a godsend in those early years of computing. And I’m talking early. The equipment was in air-conditioned rooms. Rows of steel cabinets containing reel to reel magnetic tape-reading machines which took all day to process the simplest of commands that take an instant on your mobile phones these days.
I was a guinea pig designer for a chap called Paul McManus who was developing one of the first solid modeling programs EVER. We played interpenetrative geometry. And I designed furniture with the thought that real wood was on its way out and sheet material was the future. So everything we did was to be made of ply or mdf. Any curves were expressed in facets and simple platonic solids ruled. One day we discovered the idea that the minus button was the very latest modeling tool. You couple, lets say, a cylinder and a cube but instead of adding them together you subtract and, providing the cylinder is smaller than the cube, you end up with a cube with a cylindrical hole in it.
Sooo exciting. Didn’t stop using a pencil though.
I don’t like to have a computer in the studio at all. They have become more than just a tool in the box they are TAKING OVER TIME. Before we know it, we will all be stuck in some dark crypt, thinking that tomorrow (which never comes) is a day off, tippy typing and staring at screens while in the real world, cyber people are living lives of luxury. I’m telling you, IT’S HAPPENING. You must have noticed how everyone is obsessed with being busy and talk about that instead of the weather. They complain about not having enough TIME any more… See what I mean?
As I get older and accrue all these aches, pains and body malfunctions, I've been looking forward to being able to upload myself into cyber world a bit like Flynn does in Tron. Do you think it'll happen? Be good! He (Jeff Bridges) manages to stay young in The Legacy (Tron 2), and scores Olivia Wilde. So I'm up for it. Or I could be THE ONE in the Matrix. In that, I was all for the Agents to win. The world would be a better place for all of us. Agents are the Gatekeepers of the Matrix keeping people in cyber utopia. And, what’s more, the Matrix is dust free. Although all those tumbling numbers probably amount to cyber dust, inflation, and programs that will cheat us out of our pensions.
After the day in the studio, most evenings are a bit like tonight where I AM in cyber world clacking away in QWERTY land till gone midnight while normal people eat meals in front of celebrity images. I love my life and am very happy. No regrets.
I know I haven’t managed to put my finger right on the button of why I do what I do, but hopefully this has given you some pointers. Even I’m not exactly sure what it’s all about. There has to be a certain amount of intuition involved and anyway there’s bound to be a healthy slop of leeway between what I intend and what is perceived. There are also a number of secret agendas that I’m not going to admit to in print.
Hopefully the work speaks for itself. It has to once it has left home. If you want any more explanation, try www.artybollocks.com. I just feel lucky to be able to create the props and imagery for my own personal science fiction world.
It amazes me to think that the piece purchased by the V&A is now worth more than five times what it cost when I first sold it, even though it has already had a life in someone’s front room. My mum would be so proud.