Jan Winkelmann in Conversation with BLESS

Jan Winkelmann: In the catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition for the winners of ars viva 01/02 prize winners, you chose not to use the pages put at your disposal for the representation of your products, your collections and/or your projects but instead you worked out an exchange with a number of magazines: they placed your advert in their publication in exchange for an advert in the catalogue. Can you tell me something about the project and what motivated you to pursue that idea? Obviously a kind of refusal underlies what you did.

BLESS: Our work thrives on tasks that come from outside or that we impose on ourselves and the subsequent search for solutions that we consider meaningful. All reactions are welcome because it is exciting when our work functions as a means of establishing contact with undefined recipients. The ars viva prize was flattering and welcome – especially because it meant an expansion of our own field of action and potential access to a world with a take on things that we find very interesting. Since the catalogue was to be published in time for the first leg of the exhibition tour, the deadline was very tight. That was unusual for us because normally our publications document an outcome rather than make a prognosis.
It put a lot of pressure on us and made us realise that it is a privilege as designers not to be dependent on grants and stipends; we can take as long as we want to think through a project and we're not forced to present an unfinished version of something. Another complicating factor was that we wanted to incorporate the aspect of the unexpected, the unpredictable by reacting directly, spontaneously, to the venues of the touring ars viva exhibition and their respective contexts. That's why our contribution to the catalogue addresses the idea of the prize itself. We initiated an exchange of ads with magazines and publications relevant to our trade. We were able to place ads free of charge in international magazines of importance to us and, in fact, to place one ad for each individual product in our entire S/S 2002 collection BLESS Shopping Supports. But there was something even more important: we were able to reveal the external network structures that support our work. Since we have always been sceptical about the museum framework as a venue for our products, we came up with the idea of a combination of reading stand and picture frame for the presentation of the magazine participating in the project.
The Wall (BLESS Nº 17), on view at the Neues Museum in Nuremberg was a response to the conditions on site and to the desire to intervene directly in the specific structure there. It also gave us the opportunity to execute an idea we'd been mulling over for a long time: to build a wall that is actually a wall but one that you can also sit on. It was an idea we had envisioned for places like administrative buildings, public transport stops or museums. It is part of BLESS Nº 17 Design Relativators and a way of relativising the design of furniture for seating.

Could you explain what you mean by Design Relativators?

This is the product information on BLESS Nº 17 Design Relativators: style neutralising surfaces for indispensable products. The invasive design of unavoidable everyday products is omnipresent. A closer look at the appearance of most available products like telephones, blow dryers, irons, vacuum cleaners, cars, etc. generally shows their physical inability to give us visual satisfaction. We need to use them but don't like to look at them. The aim is an optical adaptation to our needs.

When and where did you meet, how did you start working together and, above all, how did you end up with the name BLESS?

We met 1993 at an international competition for fashion students in Paris. Desiree was studying at the Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna and Ines at the Fachhochschule für Kunst und Design in Hanover. Our drawings happened to be hung next to each other, so we started talking. We kept in contact and attended each other's graduation presentations in 1994 and 1995. The following summer we worked on a small edition of summer tops. We used pictures we had taken of them to design posters and thought about a name to which we could add our telephone number to encourage people to give us feedback on our first attempt at spreading our work.
BLESS is a name that represents our original approach to working on a project. We wanted a name that would not sound too distorted in various languages, one that could possibly be a woman's name and that would be very easy to remember.

How would you describe the way you work? Could you give an example of the genesis of a project or a collection?

Our approach is extremely project oriented. We are essentially motivated by the passionate desire to change or improve things as we see them, and to offer these proposals in the form of products or adverts. The prime mover of our work is our shared personal interest in two things: in coming up with an idea that is incomparable and in trying to make our own wishes come true. Another special aspect is probably that our work is always more than just a form of agreement between us, in other words, neither of us alone would ever arrive at the same result.
Naturally, as we acquire experience we also acquire a feeling for what might or might not 'work'. However, we have the freedom either to take that into account, that is to pander to the market from our point of view, or to be egotistical and idealistic and make as few compromises as possible. We have come to realise that both aspects are important because we can't live the way we would like to if we only have items in storage.

Do you make products/collections at regular intervals or do you fly in the face of convention and expectations in this respect as well?

We started out trying to present four products a year but we soon pared it down to three because it's also the rhythm of the fashion world, which does after all represent our main clientele. The number of ideas/designs/projects a year varies but the basic tendency has been a growing one since we started. At first we thought it was especially interesting not to think in terms of collections but rather in terms of single products because we didn't want to offer variations on one idea but the idea itself as a product. For example BLESS Nº 03 was an accessory conceived as a proxy for a collection. It is a full-body accessory, which you can attach to your ears, for example, and wear over your clothing as jewellery, a kind of tulle veil to which we attached several more or less useless elements in different colours and materials and that we basically envisioned would act as a kind of inspiration. We sold only a very few, among others, to friends who were also designers, and the product was more for our personal pleasure than a market success. Our low-key presence at the prêt-à-porter shows in Paris quickly made us realise that we would have to give up our dream idea of following our own rhythm. It obviously makes more sense to present a project during the 'official times' than while everybody is away on holiday. So we internalised the conventional concept of time, not least because of our collaboration with other designers and companies, and indulge in the luxury of pursuing our own projects during the summer season.

Does BLESS occasionally work on commission for other fashion labels?

Recently, we received our first inquiry from an Italian label, which markets two secondary lines. We were commissioned to work out two different advertising campaigns for magazines like Italian Vogue, Self Service and Dutch. We had already done a few jobs for magazines as freelance photographers. The company must have been 'watching' us for a while because they knew what we had done from the start. We found it interesting because the situation was diametrically opposed to BLESS: both lines already sell pretty well but the name is relatively unknown, even though the products hang next to designer labels in all the right shops. It appealed to us to be consulted as image designers. The only specification was a collection of clothing. Jobs like that are not only a creative challenge but also a means of financing our own work.

Your products are not only popular accessories among your customers but sometimes other fashion designers even use them for fashion shows, like your Furwigs (BLESS Nº 00). Have other cultural producers 'appropriated' your work?

The fact that the Furwig gave Martin Margiela the idea of cooperating with other designers for the first time was a fruitful coincidence for us. Since we weren't planning to produce a collection of our own as quickly as possible, his offer came at just the right time. But it also meant that we had to put a new product on the market because we didn't want to be reduced to being hat makers or to be perceived as such. That's when we made the first BLESS beauty product, our Wearable Make-up, consisting of a variety of little pieces of fabric that Kostas Murkudis used and presented in his show.
It occurred to us that we could support other designers who took an approach that we could identify with, and to promote ideas that we really liked and couldn't have done better ourselves. We called this line BLESS advanced, designed by ... and started out with the Direction Indicators, designed by Markus Wente. They are narrow grey arms bands labelled R for 'right' and L for 'left'. Later the line included the Protector, designed by Wendy & Jim, the Jeans Ring, designed by Jörg Todtenbier and the Earbags, designed by Tom Natvig. BLESS Nº 06 Customizable Footwear actually came about through an inquiry that we sent to New Balance and Charles Jourdain about the soles of their shoes, which they then kindly put at our disposal. And the Japanese label ZUCCa used our chairwear (BLESS Nº 07 Chairwear B) for their fashion show in Paris because there was no compelling reason for us to mount an independent presentation of these interior products. Then we initiated other collaborative ventures, like the BLESS Nº 10 Scarf project. We asked very different designers and manufacturers of mass-produced clothing for donations of clothes that we could use to create a new look, which we then reduced to a scarf silhouette. In one project BLESS Nº 12 Team-ups; we designed jewellery for Bucherer and trainers for Adidas. We also designed a shoe, BLESS Nº 16 Shoe Escort, for Eram. It was a unique collection of 50 pairs of hand-knitted leather shoes.

Your work not only addresses the conventions and codes of the fashion world; it also spreads out into neighbouring fields of cultural production such as product design. Are you interested in probing the interfaces or is that not an issue for you?

Actually we don't even notice the interfaces anymore. We don't think about what we do in terms of how it should be defined or classified. Quite simply, at a certain point something gave us cause to design a certain product and now that product exists. So it fulfils its purpose for us. We are happy if it fulfils the same purpose for somebody else but equally happy if people choose to use it for a different purpose. The most important thing, as far as we are concerned, is that we have 'mastered' an issue in the form of a product. If it makes other people happy as well, all the better, of course.

You make your customers contribute considerable mental input. They can't just be consumers; they have to be active participants. Or is it simply because you don't like to make products that are easy to consume?

It's difficult to relieve one's own optical boredom. When we make a new product, we may manage to surprise ourselves, for a moment, and possibly even to look at things that are in a different context from a different point of view. We always start with our own needs, thinking that there are probably other people out there who have similar needs. They may not necessarily be our customers but they get something out of the products in the form of reflection and involvement, which allows them to shift their own perspective and possibly triggers new thought processes.
It would be wonderful if we could offer an alternative to all the ready-made stuff that we're surrounded with. And we would like to retain just a little bit of naivety. It really goes against the grain to make things that are merely superficially decorative and basically more or less useless – except maybe as items on the 'What's-new?' pages of consumer-oriented lifestyle magazines. All of our products have to mean something to us, even if it's an absurd, very personal meaning that enriches our environment directly or indirectly.

In an article about your work you used the term 'dilettantism bonus' to describe activities that are not directly related to your core competence. Is that a kind of breaking point in your work that you deploy as a deliberate strategy?

There is less theory to our work that one might assume. We are not trained in the production of shoes and bags; we have absolutely no qualifications for managing the financing of a project, doing bookkeeping or planning the logistics of distribution; we don't know nearly enough about the composition of fabrics and until quite recently we still refused to have anything to do with computers. But we are both ambitious and have an unquenchable desire for change. We are two women who make a pretty good team and who give each other plenty of leeway, which other people probably wouldn't be prepared to do – to such an extent at least. We do not want to hold fast to any one thing and we do not want to claim that we are at home in any particular field because the day after tomorrow something completely different may suddenly inspire us.

Even so, I'd like to return to the fields of art and design. Since you work in both fields, I'd like to know how you perceive your experiences in these specific fields in relation to yourselves and your work. To what extent do find them compatible or mutually exclusive?

Generally, one would first have to talk about where the dividing line runs, who needs the distinction and whether it is even necessary. No buyer of our products has ever asked us if what they have just bought is 'art' or 'design'. We simply don't classify our work in that way. Everybody always wants to classify us but, interestingly enough, the fact that we don't take a stand is actually compatible with the prevailing discourse.
Our work is directed primarily at the product sector, that is, it's the field that we have to master. As soon as we have an idea we immediately try to give it shape and make a prototype – with no outside help, if possible. This is different from what fashion designers usually do. They mostly communicate their ideas in the form of sketches or technical drawings, especially if they are employed as part of a larger structure, and then second and third parties implement their ideas. As soon as we have a result, i.e. a prototype, a picture or a photograph of the piece, we then go on to decide how and how much we want to produce. Only then, if at all, do we get in touch with potential partners and think about what makes sense for the specific situation – also in terms of other parallel projects – and finally how we want to proceed. Occasionally an idea doesn't get any further than that; others are revived after having been shelved for a while if the circumstances change. In other cases, there is no possibility for a cooperative venture or no affordable solution for adequate outsourcing. So then 'craftsmanship' comes into play, in other words, we make the product by hand, which means that the size of the editions depends on the factors of 'time' and how much we 'feel like it' per season. The prices of these editions are based on the cost of production. Even if experience has shown that, for example, the Japanese will pay especially high sums for limited editions, we are still more interested in affordability. We want to make objects that can be used and we want our work to be disseminated. It's more important to us than exploiting our market value as artists.
Our approach to making unique pieces is based on their reproducibility and the respective situation for which we are making them. When we get invitations to contribute to an exhibition such as the Neues Museum in Nuremberg, we have a specific space at our disposal, a specific context and a corresponding budget. This opens up entirely different possibilities and the issue of sales becomes secondary. In other words, we can work on ideas that we wouldn't ordinarily be able to work on because of the economic constraints. That's the way the Wall came about, which we mentioned earlier. It is also seating, it offers a service and it is a museum interior as well. It 'functions' so well for us that we would like to incorporate it in our line of products. As you can see, the two fields inseminate each other; they constantly overlap and can't be viewed separately.

Those are all perfectly understandable considerations but they're essentially practical. So do you think of the dividing line between art and design more in terms of a pragmatic agenda rather than in terms of content or concept?

As already mentioned, there is no dividing line for us. We take our inspiration from commissioned work. We find our clients' and customers' desire for something extremely stimulating. What is important to us is to be able to function as independent agents in the sense of answering to our own personal sense of responsibility, and to act on a productive need to communicate.

Your exhibition at the Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam opened recently. The press release called it a retrospective. That's a big word, and maybe a little bit premature. How do you address that, or rather, what is on view in your exhibition?

Basically everything we've produced in the last ten years. That means BLESS Nº 00 to Nº 28 and in addition, BLESS Nº 29 Wallscapes. The Wallscapes measure 3 x 4 metres and papered directly onto the wall or onto a kind of folding screen or pieces of furniture. They're full-scale photographs of interiors with lots of objects including our products. BLESS Nº 29 Wallscapes is a typical BLESS product in the sense that it is a reaction to given circumstances, in this case the invitation to do a retrospective. We called the exhibition Retroperspective. We are interested in the possibilities of making a plausible presentation of our work in an artificial situation, in other words, one that is not part of everyday life.

Between your presentation in Rotterdam and your participation in the show in Leipzig in 2002, did you exhibit in other museums or institutional contexts?

For one thing, we've done all these BLESS shops, which we still consider a viable response to invitations to do exhibitions like Manifesta 4 in Frankfurt in 2002, where we presented our Nº 17 Design Relativators and Invitation Nº 75 at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau in Amsterdam, where we dressed the models as comic heroes and sent them to the opening with our products in order to document the event and themselves as well. And there have also been several design exhibitions to which we contributed: a presentation in our shop in Berlin as part of the Design Mai event; a Droog/BLESS exhibition in the south of France that was later shown in Amsterdam; Fashination a major fashion exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, 2004; moDe!, an exhibition at the Goethe-Institut in Tokyo, 2005, in conjunction with the German year in Japan; and in 2004 a contribution to the Performative Architektur exhibition at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig (Museum of Contemporary Art in Leipzig), where we had the opportunity to present our hanging furniture (Nº 22 Perpetual Home Motion Machines) in the form of a museum shop architecture. The latter has become a permanent installation to which we have added a special 'mobile cashier's counter' and, later, following substantial changes in the lobby, the design of the handrail along a ramp. At the moment we are still working on a kind of wardrobe system to satisfy the need for a place to store valuables.

How do you see your presence in a framework that is actually meant for the presentation of art? And particularly in Rotterdam, which has a magnificient collection of old and new art?

That is a key question that actually applies to all of our exhibitions. It was a great challenge for us to rethink our work devising an exhibition for such a renowned institution. Especially since our products are primarily designed and intended for everyday life. To us, they are more interesting as objects that work in a everyday context than when they are detached from their functional objective, which happens when they are on display. That's why we decided to present the Wallscapes.
The life-sized depiction of living spaces provided the ordinary background that we wanted for the items. In addition, some of our products that appear in the photographs show traces of use, showing that they are not new and still alive, still in use, which lends a kind of lightness to the retrospective aspect. We specifically wanted the view from the windows of the interiors to be included in the photographs. You might say that it is our decorative approach and at the Boijmans Museum, it breaks up the large wall surfaces and interacts with the architectural recesses. The one exception is a three-part wallpaper that shows the gallery Tensta Konsthall in Stockholm. There, in January 2006, we had installed our products in a windowless room completely papered all over in leopard pattern. It was the team of three curators at Tensta that decided to change the white cube to an animal print cube. It became a place for visitors to stay and work.
As a background for various objects in the collection – in our case the statues of saints, an inlaid wooden table and the permanent installation in the central circular gallery of the old building – the Wallscapes also work the other way around, as uniting elements. We like the fact that the carved figures with their impressive craftsmanship look as if they were collector's personal items, although they have not been moved. And our product BLESS Nº 26 Cable Jewellery is everywhere, running like a leitmotiv up and down the stairs and through all the spaces that we used for our exhibition.

On and off I receive these beautiful little printed items from you, little magazines that look like fanzines or small paperbacks. What role does the medium of printed matter fulfil for you?

Since our collection Nº 23, we have been publishing the catalogues for our collections in cooperation with magazines published by friends. We came up with the idea when a good friend of ours, Nakako Hayashi, a Japanese journalist, asked us for the name of our printer. Having worked for a long time for cosmetic giant Shiseido's monthly fashion magazine, she decided to venture out on her own. She has made a substantial personal investment to launch a small magazine, much acclaimed by the fashion world, called Here and There. We had got used to publishing our version of catalogues or rather our alternative to the look books that accompany collections twice a year. We liked the idea of collaborating with her by publishing the catalogue as part of her magazine, not least because of the financial advantage. For both sides it means an increase in circulation and we benefit from the fact that our clothing and products, which appeal to a small but internationally wide-spread public, can be presented in the form of a magazine that we really appreciate and that also supports us since we are given carte blanche for the design and the content of the BLESS section. We have also worked together with the Australian magazine Slave, the Los Angeles magazine Textfield and Pacemaker in Paris. As a result the magazines are even cooperating among each other. Since the magazines vary considerably in format, we are extremely lucky to habe Manuel Raeder as a graphic designer (he's been working with us on the BLESS book for two years). He has really risen to the challenge of dealing with these formats so that the BLESS catalogue section doesn't just look like an advertising supplement: sometimes it becomes an integrated part of the publication; other times, it appears clearly set off as an independent entity.

In conclusion, it would be very interesting to know about what's coming up. What projects do you have up your sleeve and what can we look forward to?

Alongside the usual, seasonal obligations, we're becoming more and more involved in the design of interiors. We're currently working on the design of a shop in Japan where parts of the Nº 29 Wallscapes are on the wall and the back of our Mirror Curtain; other parts, as duplicates of the background, are integrated into a piece of functional shop furniture placed in the front. The result is somewhat like a fragmented three-dimensional room.
In Ferrara, Italy, we are decorating parts of a new office building. In addition to the Wallscapes and the Mirror Curtain, we're using Nº 26 Cable Jewellery and Nº 28 Hammocks as fittings for the showroom, the offices and the company staff rooms. The Villa de Noailles in the south of France asked us if we would furnish one of the four former Residential Rooms for artists and in Leipzig (Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst), they are thinking about converting the artist's studios into hotel rooms. We are supposed to design them and the idea is that people can buy the furnishings, if they wish, much like the accessories that could be purchased as part of our Extended Hotel Service.
We are extremely happy about the way BLESS is developing. And especially that our fashion, design and exhibition activities are so well-balanced at the moment. But – except for the fact that we would like to design a car and a house – what we would really like is to have more time in the future, and we truly hope that we can manage to grow and still remain structurally small.
And then there's the dream of the ultimate BLESS product: a product that doesn't exist yet and therefore doesn't have a name yet, but once it has been invented, it will turn out to be as universally useful as Kleenex. We would simply call it BLESS and if I have one and you need one, then you'll ask me, "Do you by any chance have a BLESS for me?" or "Would you please hand me that BLESS?"

This conversation was published in: BLESS – Celebrating 10 Years of Themelessness Nº 00 – Nº 29, Sternberg Press, Berlin, New York, 2006.

Part of this conversation was originally published in Dutch language in: Metropolis M. Tijdschrift over hedendaagse kunst, No. 1, January-March 2003.

© 2006 Jan Winkelmann