Where They've Been
Kiki and Joost’s World Travels

When Kiki van Eijk and Joost van Bleiswijk were invited this year to each create a series based on the collections at the Zuiderzee Museum, an art and history center in a former port region in the north of Holland, they got to do what they’re known for doing best: looking backwards to research archetypal objects from the past — in this case old Dutch ironing boards, apothecary pots, and shipping trunks — then reinterpreting them using new shapes and luxe materials. What most people don’t realize, though, is that the couple are equally obsessed with looking outwards, having backpacked their way through far-flung countries together each year since they graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, photographing intriguing uses of color, pattern, texture, and technique along the way. “It’s not that we see some fabric in South America and think, ‘I’m going to do something like this in my own design’ — it’s not that literal. It’s more about exploring the world,” says van Bleiswijk, whose No Screw No Glue series of slotted-together furnishings is more linear and process-oriented than van Eijk’s explorations into ornament. “But,” van Eijk continues, “it can put you in a new mood, so suddenly you feel like working with this or that material, or this or that technique. And it’s inspiring to see the symbolism behind, for example, colors and fabric construction.”

The first trip the pair ever took together, to Turkey, happened to be on September 11. Their flight took off two hours after the World Trade Center attacks, causing them to pull their route further into the interior of the country. But flexibility has always been key to their trips, which usually consist of flying in one end of a region and out the other, leaving everything in between up to fate. In Turkey, they meandered through seaside villages and villages full of carpet-makers or ceramicists, navigating by way of a Lonely Planet guidebook and the advice of locals. “We go with the flow,” says van Eijk. “In India, we rented a motorbike and crisscrossed the country with no map, seeing who we’d meet and what we’d find.” The first day they were in Madagascar, they found out they could take a 3-day guided trip down the river in a canoe carved from a tree trunk. In Cameroon, they went on a hiking tour and stumbled onto a hut in the middle of nowhere whose inhabitants were busy making sculptures while dinner cooked. Later, they found a crocodile in their soup whose skull they brought back with them to Eindhoven.

It’s that on-the-flyness that has slowly come to influence their work the most: This year they’ve begun to experiment with designing in a more gestural and organic way, relying less on heavy research and preparation and more on intuition. Van Eijk’s latest project, an upcoming installation for the Rotterdam gallery Red Apple, is a handmade brass wireframe structure crudely shaped like a series of objects — she describes it as a kind of large “3-D sketch” that’s designed as it’s built, like a sculpture. And for a joint show at Vivid gallery early next year, Van Bleiswijk has begun remaking his No Screw No Glue collection by hand, with thick slabs of metal and a blowtorch, rather than with meticulous digital drawings carved out by computer. It’s a roughness he first explored last year when he made the pieces out of Cor-Ten steel, leaving them outside the studio to sit and rust. “I’m moving more towards free and abstract shapes, which are much more expressive and asymmetrical and powerful,” he says. “I used to reference a lot of history books and museums, looking through a thousand images of a candelabra before making my own. I’m skipping that part now.”

The couple have also begun to work on joint projects recently, not so much blending their two aesthetics but layering them on top of one another, as with a soon-to-launch textile series for Bernhardt which they executed using a kind of exquisite corpse method. Here, too, their travels have come in handy. “When you travel together, you experience the same things, doing everything together and seeing everything together,” says van Eijk. “You see why one person gets inspired by something or finds it interesting, and because of that it becomes easier to understand each other’s work. He gets why I choose to do certain things or use certain materials, and if what he’s doing might not be my cup of tea, I can still see his perspective.” With the slideshow of images they’ve narrated here, which are culled from a selection of their trips over the past nine years, they’re offering Sight Unseen readers the rare opportunity to see it too.

KJsetting kleur

Mexico: “With the fruit on the table, this is like a color still life,” says van Eijk. “I’m intrigued by them. The Settings project I did for the Zuiderzee museum was really about setting and still lives. And this was just standing on the street somewhere, not designed at all, like a coincidence. Maybe no one thought about it looking nice. If you really designed it or styled it, it would never look as special as this. Then you almost start thinking, is it good to be a designer? Isn’t it nicer if there are no designers in the world? It’s interesting if you can keep this kind of intuitive thinking in your work, and try not to direct everything, but to let coincidence play a role. It’s really hard to achieve; you have to put a lot of effort into making something effortless.”


A piece from van Eijk's project for Zuiderzee, representing one of seven domestic settings inspired by the history of the port region around the museum.

KJtegels schaaltjes

Vietnam: “This again is like a kind of still life, but in a temple in Vietnam,” says van Eijk. “It’s an ordinary table with plastic plates stacked on top of each other, but the colors together and the materials and the repetition of the tiles in back has a kind of unconscious beauty.”


India: “This was taken the first day we were in India, and you’re surprised about the new aesthetic you encounter in another country: the fake flowers, the atmosphere. In India we were never alone. If we were walking, or at a restaurant, there were always between two and 20 people who wanted to tell us something, or beg, or found it interesting to be around us,” says van Bleiswijk. Adds van Eijk: “This was a very tiny restaurant, and there’s a kind of fence around it. The daugher of the owner was sneaking stares at the people eating inside. This very curious child almost becomes part of the setting, but at the same time it’s also a bit sad, because it might be that she doesn’t get as much to eat as the people having dinner there.” Continues van Bleiswijk: “There’s another layer of emotion to this picture, because a couple weeks after we came back from this trip, the tsunami hit this area.”

wall ad

India: “I love that in India you see advertisements hand-painted on the wall, whether it’s a shampoo bottle or a pair of underwear,” says van Eijk. “It’s fantastic to not get this paper brochure in your mailbox or to see those ugly billboards in the street, but just to have a nice painting on the wall and that’s it.” Says Bleiswijk, admiringly: “It’s not done very well, it’s not completely symmetrical, the perspective isn’t good, and the letters aren’t very straight.”


Vietnam: “My photos are mostly about repetition,” says van Bleiswijk. “Through a repetitive image, the object itself becomes stronger. With my work, maybe it’s because repetition means there are more details, and more steps required to make it. Although next I’m going to try, by making No Screw No Glue by hand with a blowtorch, to achieve the same feeling with fewer elements. So I’d make a desk out of five or six pieces instead of 34.”


Van Bleiswijk's original, stainless-steel No Screw No Glue desk, whose computer-carved pieces slot together without any hardware.


Vietnam: “This is a street where they sell only handmade scissors,” says van Eijk. “I’ve never seen a street like it in the world, with all those different colors. Guitars and sewing machines maybe, but never scissors. That’s what attracted us first, but then we found out they also cut extremely well.” Says van Bleiswijk: “I never understood why the same professions would open shops on the same street, but when everyone’s neighbor can do the same job, they all have to make their product better.”

KJrozebriefjes tempel

Vietnam: “Again, you have this repetition,” says van Bleiswijk. “This is what happens in the East when people are putting thought into something, and if they aren’t, you see it happen more naturally.” Adds van Eijk: “I don’t remember what these leaves are exactly, but this is outside a temple, so they have a symbolic value, and there’s a lot of repetition in Asian ceremonies: When someone’s died, the mourners make a kind of sound which they repeat for hours and hours like a mantra. Here, it’s very thin pieces of paper, and they curl with the wind. What I like is that all these things could be an art installation in the Western world, but here it’s just everyday life.”

KJceramic village2

Vietnam: “We visited a town they actually call Ceramic Village, which is completely covered with ceramics companies,” says van Eijk. “Everything in the town, from tools to transportation, is literally blanketed in ceramics or plaster dust. It looks the same as snow in the wintertime. But it expresses the vibe that’s in the village — everyone goes around carrying ceramics, transporting and casting, it’s one big action. What I also find interesting is that it creates another kind of still life.”


Vietnam: “You can see the still life again in this shot taken in the Ceramic Village, and from the still life you can feel the action,” says van Eijk. “This place was making mainly vessels. I think it’s a kind of pot to store tea or herbs in, and I found them more interesting without the typical Vietnamese decoration painted on — this is when they’re not baked yet, just slipcast. I’m quite sure they’re used as functional objects, whereas when we make something by hand like this and sell it in a gallery, people place it in their house as an art object instead, even if it looks exactly the same. This place also did quite a lot with terracotta, which is often seen as a kind of cheap material, but if you use it in the right way it can be very beautiful. It has a nice, natural feeling.”


Vietnam: “This picture shows how they prepare the clay by putting it onto the wall to dry before using it,” says van Bleiswijk. “You mix it, make it a bit more dry, and then press it or put it on a potter’s wheel. You can see the handprints in these pieces. It reminds me a bit of the Antony Gormley installation ‘Field,’ made up of tens of thousands of clay dolls.”


Vietnam: “I think these are pigments for fabric dyeing,” says van Bleiswijk. “In Europe we would have ranked them: first whites, then yellows, then oranges, then pinks, then blues. Whereas here you see everything mixed up like a Rubik’s Cube. Maybe it’s less about daring and more about not being aware. It would be easy to make a color order, but I think it’s nice that they didn’t.”


Mexico: “This is a similar effect, with all of the different buckets and bowls for these herbs,” says van Bleiswijk. “But from a design point of view, it’s interesting that they used all the same signs.” Van Eijk continues: “It creates one visual story because of all the pink tags.”


Vietnam: “I loved that they made the rice so colorful with herbs, almost like the pigments,” says van Eijk. “I also like that you can just go on the street and find delicious food. This photo makes me feel hungry.”


Guatemala: “Each village in this area has its own textile pattern, which all of the people in the village wear,” says van Eijk. “It's all handmade, woven on a loom. It was inspiring; I never work in this kind of way with my own textiles, but it’s interesting to see how they use color and the technique of the looms, how they make those geometric forms.”


“It's funny though, my graduation project was the Kiki Carpet with the big rose (pictured), and then we go to the Guatemalan markets where they’re selling hundreds of thousands of cross-stitch patterns, and I found almost exactly the same pattern as my own,” says van Eijk. “I got the inspiration from my research into Victorian dollhouses, and here it was again halfway across the world.”


Mexico: “This is hand-embroidered,” says van Eijk. Van Bleiswijk: “I don’t like these kinds of things; I think they’re cheaply made. The material’s not nice, the details aren’t nice. I don’t like it.” Van Eijk: “I like it, because it’s simple.” Van Bleiswijk: “Everything that you can dislike about something, I dislike about this. It’s tradition, but it hasn’t grown. In the previous slide you see an evolution, and maybe centuries of tradition in there, but in these flowers you just see a simple thing — no evolution, just what it is, and it’s not good yet.” Van Eijk: “That’s what I like about it, because this isn't made by designers, it’s just folk art.”

KJmuur kleur4

Mexico: “This is almost like a Rothko,” says van Eijk. “It’s a strange combination of these flat, heavy color surfaces and at the same time these strange gray elements placed on top of there. This was just a regular street, nothing special. But we saw the same thing in India, and you sometimes wonder why is the Western world not painted? Why is everything so grey? People are afraid of these colors I think.” Adds van Bleiswijk: “Sometimes you do see new areas that try to paint everything very bright, but it always looks fake; it’s never honest. It also has to do with tradition: People in these countries are really good at painting their houses. They have a natural sense of color.”

KJmuur deurbaksteen

Mexico: “There’s a flat surface, and then a rough surface, and then the door with a lot of detailing,” says van Bleiswijk. “So it’s a lot to see, but because everything is blue, it becomes sort of easy to look at.”

india wall

India: “Here’s another extreme color combination — brown with yellow and turquiose,” says van Eijk. “Over there it’s just perfect and I think it’s beautiful, but in the Western world we wouldn’t use that combination.” Van Bleiswijk: “The wear of the color gives it an extra layered effect. Without that it wouldn’t be as nice.” Van Eijk: “They put layers and layers on top of each other, even on the woodwork.” Van Bleiswijk: “They don’t feel like sanding it down, so they keep on putting the layers on, even though it’s not really working.” Van Eijk: “It’s an interesting effect; at some point we might use it for something.”

KJmuurtje gekleurd

Vietnam: “This is a fence in the Emperor’s village,” says van Eijk. “You always see these same kinds of signs.” Says van Bleiswijk: “In our culture we’d make a fence intimidating, and here they’ve almost made it an art piece.”


Mexico: “This is by a covered market,” says van Eijk. “We like the repetition, and the rivets, and how it’s constructed." Says van Bleiswijk: “Here you always see crates of beer or Coca-Cola that look very new and plastic. Because this is cardboard, and some are older than others, it makes such a nice pattern.” Van Eijk adds: “I like that it’s something so ordinary, and not put there to be beautiful, but has a very good feel about it.”


Vietnam or Mexico: “I took this one, but I’m not sure which country it was taken in,” says van Eijk. “It could be old Saigon, but it could also be Mexico, because of the vivid colors. At the time I was working with reliefs, for my Stamped and Sealed Jewels, and I’m always working a lot on textiles, so this photo is also looking at the colors and ornamentation.”


Van Eijk's Stamped and Sealed collection of jewelry and vases launched in Milan in 2008, using the form of handmade seals found on Medieval glass bottles but with imagery representing what might be found around the kitchen back then.

KJklok roze

Vietnam: “This was in a temple where they’d sound a series of bells simultaneously for good luck,” says van Bleiswijk. Adds van Eijk: “In Holland there’s only one bronze-casting company that still makes bells, so it seems special to have this custom-cast piece. It wouldn’t make sense to use a plastic or electronic bell because you wouldn’t take it seriously. This is how we feel about our own work, that when you use a high-quality material it gives much more of a story and a sense of layering to an object.”


In December, pieces from the pair's Glass Skin series — done in collaboration with Murano glass artisans for Venice Projects gallery — will be part of Design Miami's Design On/Site showcase. Van Bleiswijk's piece is on the left, van Eijk's at right. Photo credit: Francesco Ferruzzi