Spaces for the Mind, Objects for Well Being

By Aslı Çiçek
"He sat naked in his rocking-chair of undressed teak, guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode or creak at night. It was his own, it never left him." ¹
Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s second published novel, Murphy, opens with the eponymous protagonist having tied himself naked and with seven scarves to his rocking chair, swinging back and forth in the dark of his room. With this ritual Beckett’s well read, intellectual character retreats from everyday reality, relieves his body to set his mind free: ‘for it was not until his body is appeased that he could come alive in his mind’.2 Murphy’s rocking chair is the ultimate space in which to daydream. Within the narrative it becomes a symbol, directly connected with the nakedness of the body tied and pressed against its surfaces. The chair’s main function is not limited to the act of sitting. As an element it opens an ungraspable space for the mind. While sitting in his rocking chair life unfolds in Murphy’s thoughts and ‘gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word’.3 The furniture was not especially made for him to tie himself and meander in the endless space of his mind. Yet in Beckett’s avant-garde prose it becomes the object leading from the physical experience to the mental realm. Murphy’s act grants to the object a meaning, a story, which eventually carries the novel.

Creating space for the mind through objects and furniture is an essential part of Robbrecht en Daem architecten’ oeuvre. In contrast to Murphy’s rocking chair, however, the architects’ furniture might not be essential for entering the world of contemplation; yet Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem have always seen great value in evoking possibilities for that. They regard the design of furniture, objects and the architecture of the interior as ways in which to enable the different sorts of well-being. However, this notion of well-being is not be confused with reaching various layers of comfort. It is rather to be seen as the level of tranquillity caused by the physical act regarding the furniture or object. The designs of Robbrecht en Daem are simple and direct; nonetheless, they place a great emphasis on tactility. At the furniture end of the scale, the closeness of the body to the object itself becomes essential as it creates an intimacy that is rarely, if ever, recalled by the larger scale of architecture. Evidently designing a building involves broader thinking about the urban, historical and local context. Therefore, most of the furniture designed by the Robbrect en Daem is as part of an architectural project, and has the function of pronouncing the human contact with the constructed envelope. From domestic to public buildings the architects search for harmonious ways in which to work on different scales to keep the direct relationship to the human being. The design of various furnishings within their projects is an indispensable part of their practice, both as a pleasant obstruction within the architecture and the direct expression of human scale. The imagination and pleasure involved in their designs are perhaps best described by Gio Ponti, another architect who enjoyed making furniture and objects. In the 1950s Ponti stated about his own work that ‘each piece of furniture, though always functional (the functions of furniture are many but one of them is to be pleasing), should engage the imagination of the person who designs it and the person who looks at it.’4

Two furniture pieces dating from the 1990s demonstrate the pleasure and imagination that Robbrecht and Daem take from their work and also aim to transmit through their design of objects. A desk they made as a birthday present in 1992 for the artist Gerhard Richter was conceived with the idea of creating space in which for him to contemplate. Built out of cherry wood with a linoleum desktop, the piece displays an elegant simplicity. Its trapezium, horizontal surface tilts slightly from the longer upper side towards the shorter front. Like old school desks the small table has storage under the horizontal surface, which introduces the idea of the ‘object of one’s own’. The trapezium shape refers to two lines in a central perspective leading to one vanishing point, suggesting a focal spot in an imaginary landscape. Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem imagined the desk being installed in front of a window and the artist standing next to it, looking over his table outside. This imagination triggered the design of the simple desk for their friend, to give him a space of his own for moments for reflection. In a similar manner they conceived a bench for the exhibition space of Raoul de Keyser in their Aue Pavilions of Documenta IX (1992). While explaining the shape and materiality of the piece Paul Robbrecht refers to experiences from his and Hilde Daem’s early travels: waiting on the old wooden settles at Sint Pieters station in Ghent and the train trips in Spain in the 1970s, sitting on hard timber benches in 3rd class and watching the landscape race past. For the architects, the overlapping of these memories and experiences transformed the act of waiting into moments of observation, absorption of and confrontation with the surroundings. Also in the design for De Keyser they had a picture in mind, namely the painter himself sitting on his bench, in the cabinet-like interior of the pavilions and looking silently around. Taking pleasure in this sight they later designed three more benches for different De Keyser exhibitions as if they always wanted to make sure that the artist could vanish into his own mental space even if physically surrounded by his own creations.

A more recent example of creating intimate space can be found in a pop-up studio that Robbrecht en Daem designed for the radio programme Pompidou during the Klara Festival in 2014. Four screens built as triptychs generated a private area in which a conversation takes place. The flexibility of these elements allows the space to be changed each time. The design is supposed to stimulate a conversation that happens between a few people but can be heard by thousands who do not know what this space looks like. The screens are perforated and are visually reminiscent of star constellations; they are painted light blue on the inside and dark blue on the outside to symbolise the cycle of the day. They also carry a philosophical connotation referring to Peter Sloterdijk’s book Bubbles,5 which is the first volume of the philosopher’s epic trilogy Spheres reflecting on human history. Having given his book the subtitle Archaeology of the Intimate, Sloterdijk argues that the individual resembles a bubble, yet is never alone and is always surrounded by other bubbles, eventually becoming part of the Foam that represents society.6 With illustrations accompanying his words the philosopher investigates the paradox of the individual in today’s communities. Paul Robbrecht explains that during the conception of the mobile radio station he had just rediscovered Sloterdijk’s work and was reminded of the main question asked by him, namely how and where human beings happen to live together. His fascination for Sloterdijk’s arguments are formally transferred onto the surface of the screens, which physically and metaphorically surround the individuals in the radio conversations.

Slightly different and with perhaps fewer connotations are the furnishings that Robbrecht en Daem design for the interiors of its projects. Here the notion of well-being is more focused on sharing a moment of human encounter. For instance, a fireplace becomes a special area, creating a locus where people naturally gather together, sitting down at its edge and enjoying each other’s company. In Winge Golf and Country Club (2011–15), two such fireplaces modelled in clay define focal points in the open space under a continuous ceiling. A restaurant, bistro, bar and salon are covered by this concrete quilt. Instead of installing two prefabricated chimneys the architects decided to develop the idea of a hearth where people would naturally gather and start conversations. Open on three sides and with a concrete, wide border around the hearthstone above which the chimney in clay is suspended, both objects emphasise the cosiness of the interior. The monolithic appearance of the fireplaces is balanced by elegant pendant lamps, also specially designed. The lamps consist of nine light bulbs fixed above each other around a metal tube and covered with a transparent cylinder. Their lightness underlines the gracefully expanding concrete ceiling while illuminating the space in a cheerful festive fashion.

The visibility of the structure of the pendant lamps touches on another prominent aspect of the Robbrecht en Daem’s furniture designs. The architects’ profound interest in simplicity is reflected in materiality displaying the honesty of structure. The foldable furniture – ‘ta tisch table’ – for the travelling exhibition Pacing Through Architecture is a good example (2012). Made for laying out the drawings, sketches and photographs of their projects, these pieces were constructed in birch plywood measuring 112 cm by 303 cm, resting on two elegant legs in the same material, which can be folded flat on hinges under the desk. The furniture touches the floor on two linear surfaces; the big plate seems to float rather than stand on legs. The table is of a solid construction, which is easily transportable because of the folding system. In 2015 Valerie Traan Objects, a furniture gallery from Antwerp, approached the Robbrect en Daem to develop the piece further. This collaboration resulted in two new versions with colour and a third constructed in French oak, stained dark brown and finished with high-gloss varnish. Recently the architects have worked on a version entirely in aluminium to improve the table’s movability further still. Alongside the foldable table in the exhibition they also incorporated an adaptation of a stool first designed for Cinematek in Brussels (2003–9). Built out of a folded steel leg and carrying oval seats stained in vivid colours, these small, playful objects are spread around Cinematek’s entrance hall. For the presentation of Pacing Through Architecture in Johannesburg the piece was simplified to a plywood construction and was produced in situ; it was give the name ‘joburg’. This, too, became a production in its own right, and various versions were made in different colours and finishings, as with ‘ta tisch table’.

Paul Robbrecht and Hilde Daem have a very subtle, sensitive way of applying colour to both their architecture and their furniture. The ‘Ligeti bench’, which they designed for the foyers of the Concert Hall in Bruges (1999–2002), ranks as one of their most empathically coloured designs. This piece derived from their idea of introducing lightness as a contrast to the rigid concrete interiors of the building. They designed a low, deep bench painted in stripes, the colour composition inspired by the precisely conceived Farbenklavier of Le Corbusier.7 The colour palette developed by the modernist architect had been edited and republished just before the Robbrecht en Daem started to build the concert hall in 1999.8 Despite (or because of) its lightness and fluid appearance, the colourful Ligeti bench gained a significant, recurring presence in the halls of the building. The reference to the Farbenklavier was chosen specifically because of its musical connotations, as the name of the bench is borrowed from the influential avant-garde composer. The furniture tells its story effortlessly, triggering an immediate association with the keyboard of a piano and also with the surroundings for which it was designed.

Various other objects have been and are being designed by Robbrecht en Daem with the idea of telling stories. The architects’ creation of surroundings that stimulate the well-being relates to the human need for pleasant space both physically and mentally, without sacrificing basic functionalities for a poetic approach. It is this normality, though, that allows Robbrecht en Daem’s objects to become resonant in the architects’ and user’s imagination. The designer Jasper Morrison wrote on the notion of this kind of normality that special things would ‘demand attention for the wrong reasons, interrupting potentially good atmosphere with their awkward presence’.9 The objects designed by Robbrecht en Daem contribute to a good atmosphere because they are not awkward and, by being so, they can be naturally included in our lives, accompanying several moments that gives us pleasure. 
1 S. Beckett, Murphy (1938), p. 5.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., p. 6.
4 U. La Pietra, ed., Gio Ponti (New York, 2009).
5 P. Sloterdijk, Sphären I – Blasen (Berlin, 1998).
6 P. Sloterdijk, Sphären III – Schäume (Berlin, 2004).
7 Farbenklavier, the Colour Organ: A mechanical device originating from the 18th century. In this instrument each of the 12 chromatic keys of the octave is assigned to a colour, with the aim of creating visual music comparable to auditory music.
8 A. Rüegg, ed., Polychromie Architecturale (Basel, 1997).
9 N. Fukasawa and J. Morrison, Super Normal – Sensations of the Ordinary (Zürich, 2007), p. 29.
Original Publication: Aslı Çiçek, “Spaces for the Mind, Objects for Well Being”, in An architectural Anthology (Brussels, 2017), p. 480.