Space Encounters is Gijs Baks, Stijn de Weerd, Joost Baks and Remi Versteeg, and a team of international architects, designers, artists, stylists, product designers, landscape architects and structural engineers based in Amsterdam.
Their projects traverse scale and type – offices, houses, multi-residential, commercial, and most recently their own developments – and look for innovation and perspectives in both modern technology and old techniques. At Space Encounters, every project starts with curiosity and research is the modus operandi for how the practice operates.
In Australia to speak at the WorkPlace/WorkLife conference hosted by Architecture Media, more space caught up with Stijn de Weerd to chat about design, experimentation and the future, and the fluidity the team nurtures between research and practice.
more space: It’s always fun to see a design firm with a name that’s also a play on words.
Stijn de Weerd: Actually a friend came up with the name. We immediately liked it because it’s open for interpretation.
Who makes up your core team and what other disciplines are part of the studio mix?
Our core team is Space Encounters itself. We are all architects but we have created a second circle around us of specialists we work with closely. This group consists of artists, stylists, product designers, landscape architects and structural engineers, who play a role in almost all of our projects. In Bar Anne for instance, we collaborated with light artists Children of the Light, and for the Joolz project we worked with Moss Amsterdam, a firm specialising in everything plant related.
How would you describe your practice?
We always try to make non-design that looks logical and simple and is down to earth. We are not ornamental and we like making simple things that are logical and beautiful too. The Boring collection is a furniture collection we developed from that point of view. At the end of a project there is often no money left because the budget has been overrun several times. So there is no choice other than to go with the generic black office chair and our design is then pushed somewhere into the background. So we created an office furniture collection that is simple, and also cheap, and we made everything grey. We think office furniture is a necessary evil so we can at least make it blend in! The attention then goes to the things that actually matter. It is a very logical reasoning and an example of how we like to do things. Simple and logical but when you take it to another extreme you enter another reality.
I am interested in your focus and flow between research and practice.
We do research all the time but we never do research for the sake of research. We don’t apply for grants, every project is research in its own right. Every job is an opportunity to experiment while you get paid. A lot of experiments don’t work at the time but we keep those models and good ideas and it may take several commissions, but in the end they get built. There are different ways to approach a project. You can look at the demand and be very logical or you can choose something that for a long time has been interesting and see how that applies to a commission. Sometimes we start with a material. If we really want to do something with steel, we look at how steel works with a project like this. Different approaches work with different results. It is a part of our research and i would like it to be bigger. Working with materials allows us to see things that we wouldn’t see otherwise.
Tell me more about your R&D into materials.
At the Art Academy of Holland we asked our students to do some material research with a material that is made of gelatine and water, it was really fun. Experiments don’t always lead to anything but the attention will come back in some way later on.
How do your clients see the research side, and how do they engage in this part of your practice?
Yes, we are usually quite honest with how we came up with things. Sometimes you are woking on an idea and there is one model that is everyone’s favourite so sometimes the story has to come later.
Communication is key isn’t it?
Way more than i thought. when i was at college. I thought everyone would listen to what we would say. But it is about how you say it and not exactly what you say. one of my partners is really good at that.
Your practice recently won Frame magazine’s 2018 Emerging Designer of the Year Award.
Yes, this is the reason we were invited to Australia. It’s hard to measure if you are successful and it is hard to quantify if you are going well, so It is nice to see that winning awards really makes a difference.
You have written that the constant search for innovation and different perspectives is expressed in both the practice of modern technology, and the revaluation of old techniques and analogue methods. How does that approach shape your work?
Old techniques deliver quite different results. A handmade model for instance takes a lot of time to make and sometimes involves boring repetitive work. This creates a moment to clear the mind and subconsciously reflect on the design. Every addition you make also costs time which makes you rethink its need. It’s a great way to take out the unnecessary additions and end up with a stronger and clearer design.
Can you tell me about the ideas behind the Sid Lee Office. They sound like a very interesting client. I am also interested in why you refer to it as the last step in office working concepts?
It was meant to be satirical. At the time there was a lot of marketing talk about 'the new way of working’ or ‘the office 2.0/3.0/4.0’ so we we just went for the ‘final step’. Of course there’s no such thing.
Is there a project you have completed, or are working on, that was only possible because of the research your office undertakes?
We always make multiple designs for every commission so the promising ones which don’t make it through are added to our catalogue of ideas. The NCG office was one of those ideas. It was such a good match with a new commission that we could implement it quite effectively. It was one of those projects that we could actually design on a napkin because of that… and we did!
Serendipity appears to be crucial to your approach, can you give me some examples of how those happy accidents have played out?
For the Boring Collection we designed a bin. We spend weeks finetuning it, but the production price kept on being too high. Then our eye fell on the black bin we already had in the office which actually looked perfect. We looked up the price on the internet which was ridiculously low. So we called the manufacturer and asked if he could also deliver them in grey, he said yes, and that became the Boring Bin!
What are the big shifts and changes to the workplace that are exciting you right now?
As an office we have a shared passion for fantastic reality. There are a lot of parallel realities and we are influenced by nightclub life, science and art, a utopian vision and that whole fantastic realm. I’m relieved and exited that sustainability is taken seriously now. I’m very curious about what impact it will have if all of humanity puts their shoulders under that challenge, and not only when it comes to the workplace.
What shifts, changes and influences do you believe will shape the way we work over the next decade?
If I look back at the workplaces since the beginning of 1900, I’d say that plain ordinairy fashion was always the biggest influence to the way we worked, so I reckon that will still be a force in the future. Next to that we will have to cope with an older workforce and r-o-b-o-t-s.
Do you think the role of the architect is changing?
The role of the architect has always been a spectrum, we always changed the role of architect according to our needs or desires. Our Bar Anne installation at Milan Design Week was initiated, produced and designed by us, The Boring Collection came to be out of frustration with the office furniture available at the time. We are even taking on the role of co-develloper on some of our upcoming projects. You can theorise about how to do it, but if you want things to change, just get out there yourself and do it.
Thank you Stijn, great chatting with you.
Stijn de Weerd was invited to Australia to speak at the WorkPlace/WorkLife conference hosted by Architecture Media and supported by Space Furniture.