Surface is a contradiction. An object’s face, it simultaneously hides and reveals. Surface encapsulates the rhetorical question of whether true beauty comes from within or is only skin deep, a dimension of our psyche that separates the shared reality from the subconscious. Surface interfaces between what we see and what we feel, increasingly flattened by screens. Surface in design is too often either incidental, or it’s an added antidote to an increased pervasiveness of hyperreality.

But for designer Bart Hess, the surface is the object. In his hands, metal becomes fur-like, shaving foam looks like polystyrene, latex takes on the qualities of silk, silk becomes flesh, and wax emulates delicate satin drapery. He works like an obsessive-compulsive craftsman to achieve material perfection, pushing the material to just before breaking point. For Hess, perfection means the material is imbued with an organic life of its own, not forced but effortless. “I don’t want people to be able to see my hand gestures”, says the Eindhoven-based designer. “For me, the most magical thing is when a material can still behave as it wants to but has been pushed to its maximum. So it almost starts growing by itself in the lab, because I’ve created a system to push it into that shape.”

Royal Latex Bed, 2016 Dutch Design Week, Eindhoven
Beyond creating a contradiction between manmade and natural systems, there is always another step for Hess: establishing the anomaly between tactile and digital through photography, film, or performance. Pushing his craft-based products to emulate super slick computer-generated images creates an uncanny interplay between the seamless perfection of hyperreality and the naturally occurring flaws of reality. These flaws are often introduced into the image using human bodies that by contemporary standards might be deemed perfect.

Gorgeous bodies are not the only reason Hess’s work drips with eroticism, without any conscious intention by the designer. Rather, the eroticism of his work is more in the mind. For instance, he likes “to play with that moment where you want to touch it but the material creates a distance between you”.

Hunt for High-tech, 2007 Collection of conceptual textiles and animation
It’s also about evoking two feelings in the viewer at the same time, creating a fine line between desire and repulsion. In the words of Georges Bataille: “Extreme seductiveness is at the boundary of horror.” In Hess’s most recent project for the Textielmuseum in Tilburg, this boundary of horror was created by giving different movements to three semi-interactive textiles in order to anthropomorphise them. “It was inspired by testicles and their pulse, which a man can’t control”, says Hess. “Like when you drink too much coffee and your eye starts to spasm.”

While working for a museum forces Hess to utilise materials that have a long lifespan, he has also started to explore the half-life of his favourite one of all, latex. Repurposing the reams of flesh-coloured silk-like latex created for the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Etienne 2015, he has installed the Royal Latex Bed in his studio. Within a few months, the texture is already hardening and the colour yellowing, like a body in decay – a far cry from our sleek futuristic associations with latex. By pushing standard surface associations beyond recognition, Hess is exposing the design of both the physical and psychological. We need more nuanced examinations of surfaces as we negotiate between the physical and the second skin of the hyperreal. Which brings us back to Bataille: “I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.”

Work With Me People, 2012 Shell mould from a workshop performance at MU, Eindhoven
Digital Artefacts, 2013; film performance with wax Lisbon Architecture Triennale
This article appeared in DAM60. Order your personal copy.
Exploded View Part Two, 2008, by LucyandBart
Mutants, 2011; latex photographic installation In collaboration with HeyHeyHey
Video installation for the Monsters in Fashion exhibition in Paris, 2013