Reinier Bosch has a crackling presence when he enters a room, reflecting a life that is being lived with an intense focus on the here and now, form, structure and above all else energy, or Chiin Chinese. The young Dutch artist and designer has packed a lot into his 32 years. Originally from a deeply conservative Calvinist religious family in the north of the Netherlands he emerged as the top graduating student from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2007 during a period when it was the leading school for design in the world. Two weeks before he was due to present his graduation project, doctors discovered a tumour the size of a football in his stomach and he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
“My world collapsed. I’d been working all hours for nine months on my projects and hadn’t been eating properly and lost a lot of weight, which I put down to hard work and stress as all my fellow students didn’t look that great either. At that time, I also experienced extreme pain in my back and left testicle and I couldn’t sleep without taking painkillers with a glass of whisky. The doctors tested me three times and couldn’t find anything. They suggested I lowered the height of the saddle on my bike — as if that was responsible for the pain in my groin. Then my leg swelled up and I found a squishy bulge in my stomach in the shower that I could push in like a marshmallow,” Bosch said.
Eventually when he could hardly walk, Bosch’s neighbourhood doctor sent him to the accident and emergency clinic of his local hospital on a bicycle where they identified thrombosis in his leg and kept him overnight for tests. The following morning an assistant doctor told Bosch he had cancer.
“It was a Thursday in February. The next day it was the start of carnival in Brabant in the south of the Netherlands. Everybody was dressing up in costumes and laughing around the hospital and it felt completely unreal as though I was participating in a strange dream. I thought cancer is nothing for me. I’m happy. I have a good life, lots of friends, and I’m working on design and my dreams.”
“Then the chemotherapy started. It really broke me down at first. It felt as though I was on the border of living and dying and at the edge of what a body can take. But I knew I had to be positive and super-willed. I was good. I had fights with the doctors. They said the numbers are going down, but I wasn’t focused on the numbers I was always working on the idea of getting better. They said my cancer was the same type as the former cycling world champion Lance Armstrong had, but my blood markers were ten times higher than his. They gave me his book, but I didn’t want to read it. I wanted to walk my own path on this one.”
As he battled with the cancer, Bosch’s presentation date for his graduation project was approaching. His student friends gathered around and assembled his works for him.
These included The Stovetable (2007) inspired by a trip through China, which integrates a small furnace and chimney into a coated steel table.
“I saw people living around the fireplace to cook, keep warm and interact. Heat and space are related to each other. Heat dictates how space is divided. I used this concept to design a heater table. A steel table as a massive radiator for the heater that’s connected to it. The hot air circulates through he hollow tubes that make up the tabletop and the legs. You can adjust the heat by opening the vents on the back of the stove. The warmth and the light of the fire create a cosy space. This piece of furniture becomes the centre of a social life. It is an expression of a new domestic hearth life expressed in a modern industrial way.”
The second piece is entitled Exploded (2007). Four flat drawers of mirrored stainless steel are stripped of their construction and kept in place by musical instrument strings suspended from the ceiling. After the drawers are opened they swing back into place triggering a tinkling sound from the strings and evoking the sense of a frozen moment in time where everything appears to float in space.
The inspiration for this project came from travelling through India, where Bosch tried to capture the mysticism of Hinduism in a modern Western product with linear Calvinist thinking giving way to a cyclical vision of life.
Bosch graduated as the top student in his year from Eindhoven, winning the prestigious
Melkweg Prize (Milky Way Prize) awarded by the Academy to honour only truly unique creative talent. He was also named by Wallpaper Magazine™ as the second most promising upcoming design talent in the world in 2008.
Back at home Boch was looking for alternative treatments for his cancer and was introduced to the practice of Chi Neng Qigong, an ancient Chinese form of meditation and exercise, by the mother of his then girlfriend.
“She taught me some basic techniques and I researched Chi Neng Qiqong in the library and saw that it was also used as a medical tool to cure people of disease in China. Chi is the undefined energy that is all around us in the world, but it can also be focused very powerfully using the right techniques to produce amazing results in people’s mental and physical wellbeing. I thought it was kind of cool.”
Energy, focus and discipline have been constant themes in Bosch’s life. He was born in 1980 in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands to a strongly religious family who were members of a breakaway and deeply conservative branch of the protestant Dutch Reformed Church. His early years were characterised by daily attendance at church and discussion groups on moral and religious affairs. Sundays were a day of rest when no work, cooking, or travel by vehicle or bicycle, should be done.
His father ran the family boatyard in Groningen, repairing barges for the Dutch and European canal and river networks until the late 1980s when he gave up the business and the family moved to Emmen near the northeast border with Germany. The boatyard was inherited from Bosch’s grandfather, who established the business after the war at the age of 18. His great grandfather was a barge captain despatched to work in Germany with his ship and family by the Nazis during the wartime occupation of the Netherlands and where he perished from hunger and cold. This left his son, then 16, to bring the surviving family members home and to support them.
“Both my father and grandfather had a huge amount of responsibility thrust on their shoulders at an early age and they were both very hard-working and entrepreneurial men. My father took over the running of the boatyard in Groningen from his father after it went bankrupt in the recession of the 1970s when he was only 28.
Some of my strongest early memories are of the smells and sparks of welding and of the moulding of materials, particularly metal. These have stayed with me and are a constant theme in my life and work. After I left school I knew that I wanted to work with forms and material. I tried to get into the Eindhoven Design Academy, but it was extremely competitive and so I went to Den Bosch for a year to study art. That was my first real exposure to Dutch youth culture and I wasn’t so comfortable with it, as I was deeply religious and church going. So I threw myself into painting and fanatically into sport where I drove myself to be a top volleyball player. I gradually eased up though and had sex with women for the first time and tried drugs – though the mushrooms didn’t seem to work.”
In October 2007 the doctors told Bosch that his cancer was not responding to the chemotherapy and that his blood markers were going up rather than declining.
“They said they had no more tricks left in the box. They couldn’t do anything else and if the numbers continued to rise I would die. You always believe there’s something else, another treatment around the corner, but then I thought Jesus they can’t help me and I’m on my own. At the same time, I also experienced a huge amount of clarity and could suddenly see what was really important. Strangely enough life had never before seemed so beautiful to me. It was as if all the surfaces of objects had been peeled away to reveal the truth of what was below.”
The passion and drive that Bosch had previously put into his religious faith and his work was now channelled into finding a cure for his disease. He immersed himself completely in the study and practice of Chi Neng Qigong.
“I went all over the Internet and found a Chi Neng Qigong master in Malaysia who advised me. Then there was a guy in the Netherlands who was treating a serious lung disease he had with Chi Neng Qigong and he taught me more techniques. I met Chinese teachers in Europe. I was doing the exercises and mediation all day for six to eight hours. I cut meat out of my diet, stopped drinking alcohol and only watched very positive stuff like comedies on the television. If you practice controlling energy flows through your body enough you become extremely strong and you can fight physical and mental disease very effectively. I also drew on the athletic training of my youth, which helped me to achieve an intense focus on healing myself and to overcome the pain and tiredness.”
After six months the doctors monitoring his condition said his blood markers were falling sharply and that they thought they could operate to remove the cancerous tumour.
“I’d done it myself and here were the doctors saying they wanted to cut me open to see what happened and now they could help me again. I felt that the disease was over and I didn’t want to put myself back in their hands. But they said it would be a short, straightforward operation and there was all the pressure from my family and friends to do what the medical experts wanted. They operated for eight hours. Cut me open from top to bottom, leaving a long scar, and removed the tumour which was completely dead.”
Resuming his life again, Bosch moved to Amsterdam and first rented a studio in a rough, edgy neighbourhood in the north of the city.
“It was August 28th 2008 – 8/8/08 (the repetition of the lucky number eight, which sounds like the words “prosper” or “wealth” in Chinese). Everything had changed in my perspective — the value of life had changed. I wanted to implant energy in all the objects I was creating. My hands were hot. Everything in life was suddenly beautiful, young and old alike. I was liberating myself from the past and opening up to see that objects have a value of themselves, it just depends on the development of the person perceiving them.”
During this period Bosch created his Flowchair (2008).
“After deliberately resizing an oak tree into standardized planks, it is then meticulously cut and re-joined together into an uninterrupted flowing surface structure, which is a very labour-intensive process for a highly skilled woodworker. The shape of this chair resembles the circular flow of fluid through the veins and nerves of trees and the human body. Designed with this in mind, the chair’s strength and flexibility and the use of wood are a reflection of a harmoniously functioning system.”
Bosch said he is fascinated by the expression of flowing forms and energy systems in Fibonacci number sequences, which occur throughout nature in so-called “Golden Ratios” in the arrangement of branches on a tree, or leaves on a stem.
Bosch’s work drew the attention of London gallery owner David Gill and he was invited to exhibit at his King Street showroom.
“I suddenly found myself designing for one of the leading galleries in the world. I was meeting all the designers and artists I’d studied and exhibiting at Art Basel and Design Miami. I always thought I’d be 50 before I made it to that level and would have to work for another 20 years. I found I wanted to express my experience of meditation and exercise through the energy of my work. Beauty is in everything and I sought to create value and beauty from worthless objects and forms such as garbage bags and cardboard made of bronze. Bronze is the perfect material for this transcendence as if you polish it the metal looks like gold and if you sandblast it then it’s the same colour as cardboard.”
Bosch made up for lost time by diving into Amsterdam’s colourful nightlife and his friends remarked that he appeared to be driven by the energy of two people as he explored the city’s bars and clubs. Nightman’s Throne (2008) is a poof made of bronze garbage bags topped by a foam seat for the comfort of the street drunk. This piece is from the “Quid pro quo” (This for That) Series.
He formed many of his ideas while travelling in China and Tibet taking myriad photos to extract elements from those societies that are universal in their appeal. Golden Hoard (2010) takes the omnipresent cardboard box and casts it in bronze to create a nest of tables that are iconic sculptures, but also functional too.
In the Venice series, the daily life of the city seen in the hanging laundry from windows and balconies is linked to the famous local Murano glass tradition in the form of a wall chandelier shaped like drying sheets on a rack. Laundry (2012) celebrates life and glass in Venice. Hanging out your laundry is literally showing your most intimate “smalls” to the world and is free and liberating. The conversion of the laundry into internal translucent lighting changes the perception of what can be outside and what can be inside. This was the first solo show I made with Dutch Gallery privee kollektie.
When the Dutch think about Delfts Blauw or Delft blue pottery the Turks look to the small city of Iznik – the Turkish birthplace of advanced ceramics. The famous flower tile patterns of Iznik are to be found in the palaces of the sultans and mosques around the country. During the celebrations marking 400 years of trade between Turkey and the Netherlands Bosch and his partner, fellow young Dutch designer Caroline Wilcke, with whom he lives and creates, were asked to work together with the Turkish Iznik foundation. The result of this project was two series of ceramic products called Waxing Moons and Spheres (2012), drawing on the crescent moon symbol of Islam, which were introduced at the first ever Istanbul Design Biennial.
The moon also has a very important meditation role in Chi Neng Qigong as the closest celestial body to the earth — which it influences through the flow of the tides and mythically in emotions and the physical body in the female menstrual cycle. The moon is the first step towards something greater mirrored in the orbiting spheres of the solar system and the universe beyond. The person may appear very small and insignificant in comparison, but by drawing on these symbols he can rescale his problems by looking above to the infinitely grander heavens as a path of transformation
Bosch and Wilcke created a collection of seven objects, which, just like the transformation of the waxing to the full moon, change their shapes from a flat dish to a round vase. The colours of the pieces also evolve from Delft blue to the characteristic turquoise of Iznik linking the great Dutch and Turkish ceramic traditions.
In other designs Bosch has experimented with transforming ordinary objects through liberating movements, such as the ripping of cardboard to create the basis of say a lamp or even jewellery. That freedom can be as much about discarding the constraints of the trammelled thinking of design school as it is about the binds of the mind and the body
In Frozen Tear (2010) a piece of cardboard is ripped in two, then cast in bronze to create a rigid form, complete with the corrugation of the original board. One polished section of metal displays the more usual association with value and fine craft.
“The simple action of tearing is liberation and yet true design. My next project is about boxes cast in glass. There’s melting and pouring with a fluid material that gives freedom to the object, but there is always a perfect finish and that’s the contrast.”
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