30 Apr 21

The magnetising Jólan van der Wiel

Dutch designer Jólan van der Wiel’s organically shaped sitting stools are truly one of a kind. Van der Wiel takes us through the inspiration and production behind his work in the NGV Collection, Original gravity stool, 2016, and speaks about some recent projects.

The origins of my work Original gravity stool, which was designed in 2011 and manufactured in 2016, and other similar stools I have produced, came from my research titled ‘Nothing is Something.’ The aim of the research was to explore and visualise what was always already there, but invisible to the human eye. In search of a means of visualisation, gravitation caught my attention; as an invisible but omnipresent power, gravity offers the possibility to manifest itself visually within the realm of material. Departing from the idea that everything is influenced by gravity, a force with a strongly shaping effect, I intended to manipulate this natural phenomenon by exploiting its own power: magnetism. From the beginning of the project, I intended to take a step back and let the natural phenomenon itself determine the final shape of the object. How could we use a natural phenomenon to create a functional object? How could we work together with the environment to create something for us humans? My role as a designer should be nothing but a supporting one, determining only the conditions under which the object could take shape. This research led me to create The Gravity Tool, a machine comprising several strong magnets that are held into place by two weights. I intentionally designed it so it doesn’t require electricity, as though it could have existed for a long time and been discovered from an ancient civilization. I experimented with small and big magnets to see whether it was possible to make an object like a stool, as the materials for magnetic art didn’t exist yet. I’m pleased to say these materials now do exist.

The first and most important step is the mixture of the materials. The gravity stool consists of a mixture of iron filings with different components of plastics. I then determine the shape of the seat and the places where the chair legs should go and put the well-mixed material in the pan that is inside my machine. After that, the gravity power takes over. Everything that happens between the points I give (between the seat and the leg ends) is also a surprise for me and owes its shape totally to the magnetic fields themselves. Because of the large amount of iron – almost six kilos each – it caused the reaction to the magnets that I hoped for. I have also produced a table using the same principles as the stool, called Monster table, in 2017 for Groninger Musuem, Netherlands, using an enormous 2000-kilogram electromagnet. Every gravity stool I create is unique because magnetic fields are never the same; the shapes change constantly. Even when you use the exact same process, the result will always be different. That is the beauty of it: even if you made the gravity stools in a production line, the result would be a unique object every single time.

Colour depends on the metal powders I use to make the objects. The base colour is always dark because it consists of more than fifty percent metal powder. I use grey coloured iron powder as well. Sometimes I add a contrasting colour such as blue, red, green, white or purple, like my stool in the NGV Collection, to show the difference between the natural colours of the metals and the human factor of the manipulator. I always work from the idea of extreme environments. I research a certain environment, what natural forces are active within that environment and what happens if you change that. Since 2017, I have been working more with specific themes and developing techniques that fit within these themes. I have been focusing on the subject of water for the last few years. For example, at my 2017 exhibition Tropic City in Het Scheepsvaartmuseum, Amsterdam, which was a fantasy of what it would be like if Amsterdam were tropical, I created objects that could absorb and circulate water; for example, Water bench, 2017.

My attention has now shifted from the physical world to the virtual world. I am currently working on projects that are focused on visualising invisible data that is normally only available to scientists. I was approached by a water authority in the Netherlands to contribute as an artist to increase the public’s ‘water awareness’. To make the system of dykes and drainage in Holland futureproof, it is constantly monitored and many parts need to be reinforced or raised. The idea is to make the dyke digitally visible, as if you could pass through it. We want to make this data available to a broader audience in apps and through augmented reality. Like the Original gravity stool, this work is focused on manipulating and controlling natural forces.

This was originally commissioned and published in NGV Magazine Issue 23 Jul–Aug 2020.