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.