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In Conversation with Bertjan Pot
Take a peek into Bertjan Pot’s world where a mask is a more sophisticated smoker than you’ll ever be.
Ahead of the release of a new series of exclusive Bertjan Pot posters later this month, we sat down with the experimental artist and designer to discuss his creative process and approach to materials. Bertjan is well known for his lighting, baskets, masks, seats, and rugs which reflect his experimental techniques. His category-defying work and constructions embrace structure, pattern, and color. Read the interview below, and check out Bertjan's ‘Ropemasks’ collection designed in collaboration with Wrong Shop here.
Bertjan, your work often blurs the line between art and design. How do you navigate this intersection?
Putting a label on it would only restrict me working. I’m a creator, I just like to make stuff, that’s it. Maybe if I’m working on a more commercial project I go for designer but in general my designer friends think of me as an artist, and my artist friends think of me as a designer.
Many of the Wrong Shop’s multidisciplinary makers take a similar approach. So what inspires you to create in this way?
I find my inspiration in the boundless realm of possibilities and in constantly pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved. When I come across intriguing materials or techniques that I believe I can work with, it ignites my creativity. My goal is to create value from these materials, which often involves a fair amount of hard work and dedication. I believe that there's a delicate balance in adding value without overworking something, knowing that some pieces may only be appreciated a limited number of times.
Yet, there are moments when I see the potential for a material to be harnessed endlessly and effortlessly, resulting in highly functional products. That's when I transition into designer mode. The outcome can vary; it might be a unique piece that's considered art, or it could lead to the production of multiple pieces for broader use. More often than not, my work falls somewhere along the spectrum between art and design, depending on the specific project.
We hear your studio is based in a converted gymnasium in Rotterdam. What does an average day look like for you?
You know I always dread that question, even though I ask the same question to other people! How about I tell you what my ideal day would look like? I wake up, shower, and try to take an hour walk every morning. My house is just on the opposite side of the street to my studio which is very nice but it also means my world can be quite small. So I decided a few years ago to take a walk every day to see a bit more. I’m at the studio by 9am, and then I start making something. Maybe something I couldn't finish the day before or a new thing I want to do, and I hope that thing lasts as long as the day lasts. There will be other stuff like phone calls, meetings, emails that break it up but being busy, making things and experimenting with new materials is what I would like to do.
Your work often showcases your innovative use of materials. Could you please provide some insight into your creative process when you're experimenting with new materials or techniques?
I'm drawn to work that strikes a balance between hands-on craftsmanship and creative thinking. When I create a mask, for example, I typically have a basic idea of what the final piece might look like, but it's always a journey of discovery. I begin crafting it with a vision in mind, but halfway through, I often realize it's taking a different form than I initially expected. This is when I have to improvise and make new decisions, steering the creation in another direction. It's this element of unpredictability and adaptability that I find exciting in my process.
Photography by Jan Bijl
What do you hope viewers take away from your ‘Ropemasks’ series?
What I enjoy when people buy a mask, is to see which they bought and how it matches their character. It's nice to see somebody finding something of themselves in the mask. I know that is a cliché but I like it when the mask has the ability to mean something different for different people, and people realize ‘this is totally me!’.
My joy in making the masks is not so much creating a character though, but when it can be seen in different ways by different people and in bending material into something that makes you forget what it’s made out of. Finding out ways to make a nose or eyes, or a suggestion of a nose or eyes or ears from coiling up a thread. So I'm quite open about people's interpretation - they can see whatever they want to see. I love it when people come up with a story themselves.
What was the initial inspiration behind the ‘Ropemasks’?
I had lots of one rope which I was hoping to turn into a carpet but after hours of stitching it was small and warped, and I realized this would not make a good carpet. Then my assistant comes in and asks what I’m struggling with and exclaims “Ah you should make a mask!”. So I started over with his idea, firstly with the nose and then ears, until half a day later when I completed the first one. This is the very same one from the ‘Ropemask No.1’ poster. It surprised my assistant as it was not what he had in mind either.
I've always been interested in masks, so it was silly not to have thought of making masks before. It's also very easy making a mask because every human is trained to identify faces. Like when you spot a little suggestion of eyes in a door, or a tap or some everyday item. As soon as there's two dots and a line for the nose or mouth, we see a face. Which is why I’ve made so many masks, I’ve made up to 350 masks over 13 years!
Photography by Jan Bijl
Your technique could be described as both playful and thought-provoking. Could you talk more about the process of making the masks?
My technique involves taking a piece of rope and zig-zag stitching it together, and while it may seem similar to knitting or weaving, it's more accurately described as coiling. This method presents its own set of challenges in its development. I've been practicing this technique since 2009, and if you compare my early work, like the one with the ‘Ropemask No.1’, to my later pieces, you'll notice a significant difference. The early work is slow and filled with irregularities, which I now appreciate because I wasn't entirely in control of the technique. It's also one of the reasons why I've transitioned away from making masks as frequently. I've become quite skilled at this technique, and I always feel the need to challenge myself by trying something different. That's where new series of masks often emerge, as I grapple with new problems, whether it's a different way of stitching rope, new tools, colors, or types of rope, which naturally come with their own set of struggles.
Can you tell us more about the unique mirrored background on the new ‘Ropemask’ posters?
Well that is down to Sebastian Wrong. I have been asked to sell images of the rope masks before but my work is so much about the material that it had to be more than just imagery. I’ve worked with Sebastian on projects for many years, since Wrong for HAY in 2015. His suggestion to use a mirror was innovative. We wanted it so if you stand in front of it, you see a small shimmer of your own body, so it's almost like you are wearing the mask. There is also this levitating effect that removes the mask from its environment but on the other hand it simply makes it blend in with the space because of the reflection, and that duality is magic.