Lionheart Magazine, Warmth issue, 2012. Original article.
“I don’t care about pretty things,” says Bernadette Deddens, as I’ve just asked her about the clean look of her work. Her considered and specific processes create something elegant and beautiful, but what it is not, and do take this in the best way possible, is pretty.
The product designer is fresh-faced and cheerful in spite of the freeze gripping London the day we meet. Fellow café patrons are huddled over hot tea, but Bernadette seems unfazed by the sub-zero temperature; her means of transport is a bicycle, imported from her native Holland.
“The beauty lies in the practicality, in the usability,” she explains, taking off her self-made leather bangle. “People say they like this, so it must be pretty. But for me, it’s a 1.2 metre long piece of leather. I considered the thickness of the leather, how to roll it up … that’s where the beauty is for me. It’s almost mathematical. It’s a simple object.”
I’d hoped to meet Bernadette in her studio, which I’ve been told is cold and cramped and speaks volumes of how one suffers for art, but alas. Bernadette, who makes up half of Study O Portable alongside husband Tetsuo Mukai, is in the process of moving to a bigger space: “At the moment we have small versions of the tools we need. A small belt sander, small drills, a puzzle saw instead of a big saw.” This is dirty work; the result may be elegant, but the process is anything but.
Of course, Bernadette realises customers may be less concerned with the method. This will sometimes result in requests for matching pieces, such as earrings, but this is problematic: “This process doesn’t apply to earrings,” asserts Bernadette, explaining that the hollowness of the bangle can’t be replicated for earrings: “The process was developed for bangles, and I like to be specific.” She runs her fingers around the inside of the bracelet, her voice soft again now, self-conscious after having spoken so adamantly. But she is certain in her intentions, meaning the product catalogue will never feature earrings alongside the bangles. But would she do it on commission? She shrugs a yes, probably. This is where artistic ideas meet the reality of rent.
On that note, Bernadette works part time in a gallery and as a university art tutor. “Tetsuo and I have always had other jobs to fund our work. The other jobs pay for the job I love. I never envisioned it any differently, but it’s starting to pay off now, seven years later.” While she loves teaching, Bernadette is quick to point out that not everyone is suited to become artists: “You have to have a vision of what you want to do.” I ask her if she has a vision, and she makes a face. And then: “Yes, I am capable!” She bursts out laughing, shy again for speaking boldly, but I think she knows this is the truth. Bernadette’s teachers tried to talk her out of going to art school, and she is not entirely against this advice: “You have to be extremely driven. You have to subject yourself to vigorous experiments.”
Bernadette and Tetsuo’s dedication to experimentation runs through everything they create. Take the newest works, a series of quartz crystal mirrors. Crystals are integral to transferring energy in technological devices, and the mirrors are a play on the idea that we see ourselves through the objects we create. “We didn’t know anything about crystal when we started. But if you want to know, you find out.”
Peering over the photos of the mirrors, I cannot but point out how neat they would be as pendant. Bernadette’s eyes widen: “The mirrors won’t be pendants!” Their function would be compromised if they were that small, she explains, laughing. What if someone commissions one, I ask, and she nods, well yes, probably: “Is that a cop out?”
I think that’s a reality of London rents, I say as we gather our coats to brave the cold again. Has she considered moving Study O Portable to a less expensive city? “No, I think we need London. It has amazing free lectures, for one, all the galleries, the opportunities to meet people. Elsewhere would be cheaper, but we’d miss out on all this. I think we need this flux.”
For a designer whose work is all about experiments, transferrable ideas and methods, it makes sense to want to be in the middle of the noise and grime of a place like London. For an artist who sees beauty through process and practicality, it must be paradise.