Dutch designer Aldo Bakker fell in love with Le Grand-Hornu a few years ago. The subtle and sensuous retrospective is being presented in a massive oblong room, providing an impressive contrast with the fragile, poetic objects that serve to enhance banal daily acts like pouring a cup of tea or getting food into one’s mouth with beauty and elegance. On display are mindful pieces, made at a moment in history when we have forgotten how to live mindful lives.

The fine space at CID in which Aldo Bakker is exhibiting his objects is part of the Grand-Hornu, an early-19th-century coalmining complex situated in the French-speaking part of Belgium. Unemployment is high in the city of Hornu, but few visitors will notice the associated misery, as there are no other tourist attractions that could spur them to explore the hinterland. Bakker is in the know, though. With the exhibition of his fragile pieces, Grand-Hornu has become an isle of peace and beauty amid a disturbed world. What many others don’t notice, Bakker is sensitive to. This sensitivity is paramount in the work of the designer.

“It took me a long time before I accepted that feeling was hugely important in my work”, Bakker says. Self-taught, he inherited a major sense of beauty from his parents – designers Gijs Bakker and Emmy van Leersum. “Sometimes my approach proves difficult to combine with time pressures.” Bakker is aware that the world in which he finds himself increasingly assumes a different direction – the biography on his website states that he’s a designer who battles the spirit of the time. “The period in which we live rationalises everything; everything should be useful and should guarantee a return on investment.” Whereas for him, function is never the most important issue, it’s the form he finds fascinating, even though in the end all his pieces are functional, or at least useful. He notices how his students at Design Academy Eindhoven are also much more market-oriented than he would expect young people to be. It should be clear by now that Bakker represents a type of designer who may soon become extinct. “Nowadays we are very focused on getting away with short-term solutions; we are becoming short of breath.” Bakker’s pieces are timeless. The fact that his work is in museum collections fills him with joy because it gives him the chance to transcend the temporal and the issues of the day. His Urushi Stool is in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; Three Pair basaltina is in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam; Swing is in Grand-Hornu in Belgium; porcelain tablewear is in New York’s Cooper Hewitt, and the list goes on. “To leave a trail is a satisfying idea.”

The reason why Bakker decided to do this great exhibition? “I needed feedback on my work; I wanted to take a pause, to stop and reflect. This is the way I learn to know my own work, how I realise why I have made certain choices.” He says it’s striking that he seems to have become milder over the years when it comes to his idea of beauty. Less radical perhaps? “Rather, more radical. I had fewer resources back in the day; now I can dare to make more radical choices, so when I feel a piece is ready, it's ready. I’ve got more experience, for instance through my students, through the travels I undertake for my work, through research, through company visits, etc. All of this is reflected in my pieces – but not literally, and it only shows after a long, organic process.” Pause thus proves to be an appropriate title for the retrospective at Grand-Hornu. The exhibition and accompanying book have taken nearly four years to finish, giving Bakker the opportunity, or should we say, forcing him to reflect on his work so far. “For me, everything grows organically, there are no abrupt changes in my path, and this exhibition is no exception.”

His work, which balances between craft and sculpture, has recently gathered interest from China, too. “I was impressed by the high level of crafts there. Although it is a culture that’s still hard for me to read, it fills me with curiosity. I visited a village in China that’s entirely devoted to embroidery, where the workers were glowing with pride when showing me their work – but how to actually read the situation? It made an impression on me and I felt the genuine pride of these craftspeople. At the same time, we hear so many alarming things about China... I’ll need more time to get a better grip on it, but in any case, this is a project that fills me with much passion.” Bakker was invited for a project by Pearl Lam Galleries Shanghai.

He has always loved challenges and trips to unknown areas. That is exactly the experience Bakker offers those who visit his retrospective, as well as those who buy his book and all fans of his work: he challenges us to leave our comfort zone. The most recent proof of this is the crystal and marble vase he designed for luxury brand Swarovski (according to some critics, “the Kardashians of the design world”), launched at the recent edition of the Salone del Mobile. “I witnessed a great spirit at Swarovski, and technically it’s a company capable of tremendous quality. I know it is regarded as too decorative and spectacular, but I consider this vase an important part of my collection of works." It is obvious that Aldo Bakker follows his heart.

The retrospective PAUSE runs until 14 August at CID / Grand-Hornu in Hornu, Belgium. On 08 June, Aldo Bakker is giving a talk at CID together with the author of his book, art critic Hans den Hartog Jager.

cover of the book, by nai010 publishers