Right on hue

Once dismissed as mere colourists, Stefan Scholten and Carole Baijings are emerging as a design duo whose work is praised as much for its conceptual content and commercial success as for its beautiful palette. Jenny Dalton reports

Carole Baijings and Stefan Scholten in their Amsterdan studio surrounded by their designs, including, from far left: fabric trompe-l’oeil Rhubarb, price on request; Candy Dish, €2,700, and Platter with Cover, €4,000, both produced in collaboration with Royal Leerdam Crystal; Pink Light for Established & Sons, £480.
Carole Baijings and Stefan Scholten in their Amsterdan studio surrounded by their designs, including, from far left: fabric trompe-l’oeil Rhubarb, price on request; Candy Dish, €2,700, and Platter with Cover, €4,000, both produced in collaboration with Royal Leerdam Crystal; Pink Light for Established & Sons, £480. | Image: Jouk Oosterhof

Carole Baijings looks a little sheepish up close and personal on Skype. “I normally only do this with family,” says the blue-eyed, dark-blonde Dutch designer of the day. It is indeed a strange way to “meet” – a little too up-front on a cold Monday morning, but, momentary self-consciousness over, she obligingly ups laptop and gives me a tour of the studio, which is the Amsterdam headquarters of the award-winning Scholten & Baijings’ eight-strong design team.

Inside, beyond the waterfront façade, all is pure white, punctuated by current mood boards and shelving packed with tiny models of furniture, cutlery and ceramics in neon pink, yellow and orange – hints of the firm’s love of uplifting colour, which is fast defining its breakthrough work.

Frankly, the Skype tour is a relief. My emails to Baijings over a number of years had always received a reply from her personally. This time, however, her assistant responded and I feared that Baijings’ accessibility was a thing of the past.

Amsterdam Armoire, with photography by Scheltens & Abbenes, for Established & Sons, £8,300.
Amsterdam Armoire, with photography by Scheltens & Abbenes, for Established & Sons, £8,300. | Image: © Scholten & Baijings, 2010

Thankfully, having an assistant to answer emails seems to be as much change as she and Stefan Scholten, her husband and design partner, will allow. The duo, who insist on designing every item together, seem to have found a working formula. “We used to try and do 20 commissions at once,” says Scholten, “but reduced it to 10. We always like to say yes to an assignment, but the problem is you end up working too hard – it should be fun as well. Now we accept nice projects that we think will be good for the progression of our work.”

It would be understandable if Scholten and Baijings (pronounced Skolten and Bai-ings) were too busy for journalists. The past few years have seen substantial growth for the husband-and-wife team since they launched a collection of impossible-to-ignore neon-hued throws – Colour Plaids (£295) – developed during a research stint at the Audax Textielmuseum in the southern Dutch city of Tilburg, at a time when colour was only just beginning to seep back into post-minimalist design.

Following on from the success of the Colour Plaids, new products include the growing range of beautiful and accessible Colour Block bedlinen (from £72), and two rug collections – the graduated Colour Carpet (from £746) and the felted-wool-ball Dot Carpet (from £429) – all for fashionable Danish home brand Hay. There is also a simple, sliding-door cabinet for Dutch furniture company Pastoe, called Shift (from €1,995), which is white with translucent doors of either solid or gradient colour that cross each other when opened, so that “the colours mix, fade or are strengthened”; as well as porcelain with their signature colour accents (price on request) for Japanese tableware brand 1616 Arita, to be shown in April at Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan; a super-thin side table (price on request) for Japanese design firm Karimoku New Standard; and yet more to be unveiled.

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This looks, therefore, like being another growth year for Scholten & Baijings, with its name continuing to emerge from the not quite recognisable and joining the ranks of Jurgen Bey, Droog and Hella Jongerius – Dutch designers who have enjoyed international recognition but whose fame belongs largely to Dutch design of a generation ago. There are those who see in Scholten & Baijings a fresh, commercial, accessible (and undoubtably very good-looking) face for a new design era.

Pastoe’s director, Remco van der Voort, for example, chose them for the company’s new cabinet commission on the basis that he was “looking for a way to appeal to a new generation without making any concessions to the quality people expect from Pastoe”.

Dutch design guru and trend forecaster Li Edelkoort has written that their work echoes of some of our most iconic designers: “Is it modernist? At times, it’s as if the couple are letting the spirit of Charles and Ray [Eames] out of the bottle, with a tendency toward the serial and functional – a well-founded yet fun approach.

Colour Plaid 04 throw, £295, from Darkroom and other stockists.
Colour Plaid 04 throw, £295, from Darkroom and other stockists. | Image: © Scholten & Baijings, 2005. Photo: Inga Powilleit

“Is it Arts and Crafts? At times, it’s as if the couple are reincarnating the spirit of William and Jane [Morris], with a tendency toward the decorative and autonomous – a liberated and utopian approach.

“Is it Bauhaus? At times, it’s as if the couple are duplicating the spirit of Josef and Anni [Albers] with a tendency toward the theoretical and abstract – a disciplined, almost educational and conceptual approach.”

Italian design director David Glaettli, who works for both Karimoku New Standard and 1616 Arita, adds: “Only time will tell if they become the Eameses of the 21st century, but they are surely on their way to becoming worldwide names. They already have a significant influence. They have given the use of colour in design a new dimension and have managed to create a very strong identity and recognisability.”

Shift cabinet for Pastoe, from €1,995.
Shift cabinet for Pastoe, from €1,995. | Image: © Scholten & Baijings for Pastoe, 2011

It has not, however, been a fast road to this point. “It’s almost 14 years now,” says Scholten, for whom the duo’s serendipitous meeting and subsequent design partnership makes perfect sense. (Their encounter was at a club for creatives in a converted church – she was working in TV commercials, he had been hired to design the club’s lounge area. They met again later on the beach, and that was that.)

“You start by having to trust your own handwriting,” says Baijings, “and you have to go with your intuition. But when your work is requested more and more, you realise you’re on the right track. You are rewarded not just in the sense that you can earn some money [the pair admit their turnover has doubled], but you have nicer assignments.”

These include working with Pastoe, which, despite being a Dutch company, hadn’t collaborated with a Dutch designer since 1985, as well as with Established & Sons.

Limited-edition Pegged Chair, designed in conjunction with the Zuiderzee Museum, price on request .
Limited-edition Pegged Chair, designed in conjunction with the Zuiderzee Museum, price on request . | Image: © Scholten & Baijings, 2009

As both Scholten and Baijings tell it, Established & Sons’ design director, Sebastian Wrong, saw the couple’s work at the Milan furniture fair, where they were showing a number of pieces in an exhibition called Truly Dutch. The designs, produced in conjunction with the Zuiderzee Museum, included the Tilt-Top Table (price on request), the Pegged Chair (price on request) and the Amsterdam Armoire, a traditional Dutch story cabinet featuring trompe-l’oeil artwork on its inner doors and pastel-pink glass feet.

Established & Sons now produces not just the cabinet (£8,300), but also a bulb-shaped pendant light (£480), spray-painted in ombre-effect yellow or pink so that it looks lit even when it’s off, and the ecologically themed Butte wooden storage boxes (from £240).

Producer Thomas Eyck, who has known Scholten since before he met his wife and who distributes the Colour Plaid throws as well as a Scholten & Baijings series of glass jugs, napkin rings, and plastic and woven willow bowls (from €120), says it is a deliberate policy of the designers to work at all price points, from the one-off art piece to tea towels: “It’s flattering to have your work bought by museums or by a collector, but they understand it’s not better than selling in the mass market.”

Dot Carpet for Hay, from £429.
Dot Carpet for Hay, from £429. | Image: © Scholten & Baijings for Hay, 2011

Scholten admits that they enjoy working within the commercial bounds of the marketplace: “It’s amazing when what you like to do is successful because consumers have started to buy it,” he says. “It’s a big compliment. We are in the design industry, and that means design related to a market. We call it democratic design – people judge your work by buying it or not.”

They are designers then who aren’t afraid of the commercial, who aren’t afraid of textiles (still marginalised somewhat in the design world), who aren’t afraid of pretty. For their colour work – wake-me-up cocktails of neon orange or yellow combined with more delicate pinks, blues and greens – is certainly that. It’s a colour palette arrived at through intuition and often the materials they are manipulating (the new 1616 Arita ceramics, for example, feature the natural hue of the Japanese porcelain, hitherto coloured white by the company).

Their first solo exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum last summer was entitled Blush – Design in Full Colour; a play on being a little embarrassed about presenting your work to the world without any buffers (that sheepishness again), and also a beautiful, natural, upbeat pink. There’s certainly no embarrassment about their love of hue.

Limited-edition Tilt-Top Table with artwork by Mathieu Meijers, price on request.
Limited-edition Tilt-Top Table with artwork by Mathieu Meijers, price on request. | Image: © Scholten & Baijings, 2009

Nor should there be, says Hay’s co-owner Mette Hjort Hay: “I really admire how they manage to unite and combine colours, their capability to create patterns and give the products a feminine and a masculine touch.”

Jane Withers, a design consultant, writer and curator, who frequently works with northern European designers, remembers encountering Scholten & Baijings through its Colour Plaid collection. She saw it as “a glorious explosion of colour but also quite rigorous and subtle in the gradations”, and argues: “It’s true they are sometimes described slightly dismissively as colourists. But isn’t it crazy that colour should be valued less than technology, material or form? I think people can be suspicious of colour in design, that somehow it’s considered less serious or worthy. It often seems an afterthought and, in design, colourists as magical and subtle as Scholten & Baijings are rare. There’s a wonderful essay by artist David Batchelor called ‘Chromophobia’, in which he argues that colour has been the object of extreme prejudice in western culture and systematically marginalised and derided since antiquity.”

And yet colour does not in itself a successful designer make. So says Wrong: “It’s a hugely important thing that affects one’s mood, but it cannot be the sole inspiration behind a piece.” Luckily, Scholten and Baijings have other assets. For every project, they create precise, miniature, to-scale models for clients. For the Pastoe cabinet, the studio produced seven different versions: “It shows how much they care,” says Remco van der Voort. It’s time-consuming, but Scholten believes 3-D digital mock-ups “can’t simulate, say, the feeling of bringing a cup to your mouth. Some things just don’t work in real life.”

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Increasingly, it seems that other manufacturers are adopting the Scholten & Baijings “old-fashioned” way of working, rejecting the past decade’s emphasis on the purely digital: “Designers who design on a screen are utterly removed from the material,” says Wrong, who is spearheading a return to touchy-feely design education at the Royal College of Art.

What they also excel at, says Wrong, is offering great sensitivity, which Scholten puts down to the couple’s love of historic design – greatly influenced by trips to the V&A when they’re in London, as well as by significant discoveries at home. “We appreciate minimal aesthetics very much,” he explains. “But when we came across some cabinets from the 1700s decorated with flower motifs, in particular tulips, we found them really inspiring, especially as the decoration was worth more than the wood they were made of. We didn’t know the Dutch had this sensitive side. We grew up with Droog design and conceptual environments, where we didn’t feel at home. Here was something extra that was ours to mix with the minimalism – and it’s working out fine. Because we do it with very skilled craftspeople, it’s more than just a brushstroke or an add-on.”

Their sensitivity may also be attributable to their backgrounds. Scholten, for example, moved around a lot as a child because of his father’s job, so he found a “safe place” in his bedroom, for which he’d draw intricate designs. This eventually led him to the renowned Design Academy Eindhoven. Baijings, meanwhile, is the granddaughter of a Persian rug importer who took her on trips to the Middle East and Asia and filled his home with “the best textiles and glassware” at a time when such things weren’t commonplace. “For me it was normal. Later on, you think – as I did when we designed our first rugs – that maybe there’s a link. I think it’s also why, from the start, we felt that we had a certain taste – we knew what we wanted.”

Happily, what they want coincides with what we want. Their popularity is evidenced by hip retailer The Lollipop Shoppe’s investment in the Hay ranges, as well as by their presence in influential boutique Darkroom. And, while Wrong says the couple’s work isn’t exactly flying out of the door, “it is doing as well as you’d expect for cabinets priced at more than £8,000”. And new Established & Sons collaborations are in the pipeline.

“It’s too huge a question to ask how much influence they will have in the future,” says Wrong. “But they have a good opportunity right now to diversify their practice into more industrial, mainstream and commercial ventures.” They also have an “it” factor: the on-trend duo theme, though Wrong admits that he has little idea why at this moment in time there are a number of couples (from Doshi Levien to GamFratesi) making waves in the design world, beyond it being a natural evolution to take life and design questions into the workplace.

While the partnership between Scholten and Baijings seems far removed from a marketing ploy – they’re too poised for that – it’s curious that Established & Sons has a very different take on the story of their initial meeting and collaboration. “Carole just kept banging on my door,” laughs Wrong. “She was very persistent in getting my attention. She is very steely. They both are.”

Steely, talented and exploiting our current love of colour, Scholten and Baijings promise to be as unexpected and seductive in the next 14 years as they were in the last. You’d be advised to keep watch.

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