Last week, I visited with designer/artist Bertjan Pot in his inspiring former gymnasium-cum-design-studio in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. You get there by going over a footbridge that crosses an ancient canal, through an iron gate and past an expansive garden.
You couldn’t imagine a better setting for a creative enterprise.
After a much-appreciated offer of strong coffee, we wandered through the space and looked at prototypes, raw materials, completed commissions and others still under development.
Our conversation wandered, too, but led to some very interesting talk about where his ideas come from and how he arrives at a finished product. I think his methods could apply to anyone trying to do something interesting, regardless of the industry category.
Pot’s raw materials
Pot frequently makes a habit of using easy-to-find things that are easy to work with.
I saw prototypes for chairs made from bamboo sticks sourced from those three-dollar bamboo rolling window blinds. Buy a blind, cut it open, and you have 1,000 bamboo rods to start playing with.
I saw hanging light fixtures made from carnival blinking lights and Persian rugs made into something closer to art, with strips of coloured duct tape heat-sealed to the fibres of the carpet with a household iron. There’s another project that involves weaving plastic strips — the kind that hold bundles of newspapers or flyers together — around rubber inner tubes.
We’re all surrounded by raw materials particular to our industry that could be the DNA of an idea that can then be added to other things until a final object, project or thing is formed. Pot talked about letting the materials tell you what they want to be. It made me think of Inuit soapstone carvers who say the stone tells them what’s trapped inside.
Their job, as they see it, is to just let the stone be what it wants to be.
What we can learn from Pot
All of us who are participants in the idea economy could benefit, I think, from one of two things I learned from Pot. We could adopt his practice of evolutionary thinking, where you start small and are comfortable letting your idea organically and sometimes chaotically grow into what it wants to be.
Or, at the very least, know the creation process you prefer to use yourself. Being able to recognize the pattern is being able to use it better. “Know your tools” is the epigraph here.
For me, it reinforced this notion I’ve been struggling with lately that not everything needs to have a defined outcome before you begin the work of what you’re doing. It’s so counter to my type-A way of thinking, but sometimes the journey is the point and will lead you places you can’t even imagine.
I think this applies equally well to urban planning, architecture, company-building and product design of all kinds. The same goes for book-writing, music, interior design and graphic design. You name it.
It invites nature to be your collaborator. And that’s a pretty powerful collaborator to have. Just listen to whatever your raw materials are, and guide them until they become what they want to be.