Going Dutch in Milan

On the design world’s biggest stage, Studio Job stole the show with its latest boundary-busting creations. Gisela Williams-Kramer catches up with the duo on the verge.

On a cool evening in Milan last April, the design gallery Dilmos held an opening to unveil the latest line of furniture by Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel, the Belgian-Dutch duo who call themselves Studio Job. It was the first day of the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, and the crowd that jammed the brightly lit space off the Piazza San Marco included many of the design world’s elite. New York dealer Murray Moss, Pascal Fulton-Dowers of the London shop Greenwich Village, and Masaki Yokokawa, president of Cïbone in Tokyo, were among those who turned out for what would be the week’s most buzzed-about exhibition.

Known for mixing a quirky, kitschy sensibility with high polish and costly materials, Smeets and Tynagel created a suite of five new pieces—a bench, table, cabinet, and folding screen made from Makassar ebony, along with a cylindrical silk lantern. The forms are pared down, but their surfaces are embellished with eye-popping maple inlays (or in the case of the lamp, prints) depicting prehistoric animal skele- tons. Hence the collection’s darkly tongue-in-cheek name: Perished.

Studio Job’s choice of decoration is, in part, a comment on our "extravagant and violent" times, as a gallery wall label suggested. For starters, one wonders how many rare ebony trees were cut down to produce the ensemble. "Using this wood is like using fur in fashion," Tynagel noted at the Dilmos reception, wearing an Azzedine Alaïa leather jacket over her dress. "It’s very decadent—like haute couture," chimed in Smeets, who was dressed in a dark Comme des Garçons suit with an Hermès tie. Ultimately the designers are happy to let viewers come up with their own interpretations.

"Studio Job’s iconography is so sophisticated, it elicits more than just an emotional response," said Murray Moss as he was leaving the gallery, comparing their skill with materials to traditional guild work. Pointing to the bench, which has a high back with hinged wings that open like a medieval triptych, he added, "This is the best piece they’ve ever made."

Clearly the work struck a chord. Rumor circulating at the fair was that four of the six sets of Perished had already sold, at around $120,000 apiece.

Tynagel, 29, and Smeets, 35, have been together for a decade (though a couple, they aren’t married). Introduced at a party at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where both trained, they now live and work in Antwerp. Though Smeets had gained some attention in Holland on his own, it wasn’t until Tynagel finished school and joined him in 2000 that Studio Job began to make an international push. It’s generally understood that while she’s not as outspoken as Smeets, the low-key Tynagel keeps the studio on track. "Job shoots the goal, but Nynke makes the pass," says one of their producers.

A 2002 solo exhibition of their Black collection in Milan got the couple noticed. The Dilmos gallery took them on and a year later showed their Oxidized series, which included heavily ornamented bronze urns and centerpieces shaped like castles and antique busts. Americans soon caught on, when the duo’s Charm Chandelier for Swarovski went on display at Bergdorf Goodman in New York with a $457,000 price tag. Then in 2004 the Zoom collection of "rock furniture"—pieces cast in aluminum and bronze that might be described as the Flintstones meet the royal family—was a huge hit at the Milan fair. Ever since, Studio Job has been attracting attention around the globe.

The day after the April opening at Dilmos, Smeets and Tynagel won more raves for Biscuit, their new line of pressed porcelain for Royal Tichelaar Makkum, the Dutch firm that has been crafting fine ceramics for four centu- ries. Exhibited at the historic Galleria dell’Orso, the set consists of nine white plates, each with whimsical patterns in relief on both sides (say, a poodle on the front and a mosaic of skulls on the back), and five centerpieces that resemble cakes.

"We showed Job before he left the academy and now he is turning into a superstar," says Dick Dankers, whose gallery, the Frozen Fountain, is Biscuit’s exclusive vendor in Am- sterdam. "And," he adds, laugh- ing, "he behaves like one, too." This spring Dankers and his partner, Cok de Rooy, will create a special Studio Job section within their two-story shop. "Their vision is becoming crystal clear," Dankers observes. "They are making collector’s items now."

Adding to the sense that Studio Job was everywhere in Milan, the duo also had work in the exhibition organized by the influential Dutch collective Moooi at Superstudio Più, in the Tortona district. Tynagel and Smeets contributed an ensemble of eight designs in ghostly white papier-mâché, including a clean-lined cupboard, a buffet, and two chandeliers. Unlike the duo’s designs that are made for "a lucky few collectors or for a museum," as Smeets puts it, these pieces are intended for a wider audience, ranging from $315 (for the mirror) to just over $3,200 (for the large chandelier). This is as mainstream as Studio Job plans to go, Smeets makes clear, shuddering at the idea of collaborating with Ikea as Dutch designer Hella Jongerius did recently.

Instead, the two prefer to balance on the fine line between art and high-end design. "On one leg we want to be Tiffany and on the other leg we want to be an artist like Jeff Koons," Smeets explains. "And we are always hopping from one to the other."

During the London Design Festival in September, Studio Job presented a special hand-painted edition of their papier-mâché furniture in a show organized by Greenwich Village. "They’re clever. They want status in the market so they use expensive materials," says the gallery’s director, Pascal Fulton-Dowers. "Their work re-minds me of Fabergé. It’s dangerous— death or glory. They take risks but soften it by not being too serious."

The day before Smeets and Tynagel left Milan, the couple was positively giddy. They had just come from a morning of victorious meetings: The Italian tile company Bisazza wants to collaborate on a project, Cïbone in Tokyo confirmed a show for fall 2007, and after much back-and-forth the duo agreed to do a major exhibition at the Moss Gallery in New York in the first half of next year.

The designers are definitely enjoying the success. "The steps up are better than the steps down," Smeets says. Almost fondly, he recalls how in Milan six years ago he and Tynagel were too broke to stay in a hotel: "We were sleeping at a campsite and putting on our suits in the rain." The two of them look at each other and just laugh.

Gisela Williams-Kramer lives in Germany and writes on travel and culture.

At the Milan Furniture Fair with Studio Job

As with contemporary art fairs such as Frieze in London and Art Basel Miami Beach, the Salone Internazionale del Mobile (cosmit.it) has grown into a can’t-miss festival. Held in April, it’s a lively way to discover Milan and the latest in design.

Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel often stay at the old-world Grand Hotel et de Milan (39-02/723-141; grandhoteletdemilan.it), a short walk from La Scala, or the Hotel Principe di Savoia (39-02/62301; hotelprincipedisavoia.com), which, Smeets notes, has "a great bar and beautiful suites." The fashion-forward Bulgari (39-02/805-8051; bulgarihotels.com) is great, too, with its one-of-a-kind garden for breakfast.

For cocktails, it’s the historic Bar Basso (39 Via Plinio; 39-02/2940-0580), where 30 years ago Mirko Stocchetto created the Negroni Sbagliato, using Spumante instead of gin. "Here you will find a crazy owner and drunk designers," Smeets notes. Favorite restaurants are Bagutta (14 Via Bagutta; 39-02/7600-2767), the classic trattoria decorated with art by Mario Vellani Marchi, which has been around since the twenties, and the café at 10 Corso Como (39-02/2901-3581): "Asian fusion food and Azzedine Alaïa," Smeets says.

As for shopping, there’s the upside-down Viktor & Rolf store (14 Via Sant’Andrea; 39-02/796-091). The designers are old friends of Studio Job’s. And don’t leave Milan, warns the duo, without booking a visit to the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie (2 Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie; 39-02/8942-1146) to see Leonardo’s The Last Supper. After all, one shouldn’t live on modern design alone.

Where to Find Studio Job

Moss The New York design guru is taking the couple’s work to Design Miami in December and has them slated for a show this spring. 146 Greene St., New York; 866-888-6677; mossonline.com

Greenwich Village During the London Design Festival, GV featured Studio Job in a pair of exhibitions. C103, 8–10 Creekside, London; 44-208/320-2672; gvuk.co.uk

Dilmos This gallery has championed the duo since 2003, showing them each April during the Salone Internazionale del Mobile. 1 Piazza San Marco, Milan; 39-022/900-2437; dilmos.com

The Frozen Fountain Holland’s top design shop is creating a space dedicated exclusively to Studio Job this spring. 645 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam; 31-20/622-9375; frozenfountain.nl

Cïbone The designers’ Asian rep will host a solo show at the shop’s Aoyama gallery next fall. Aoyama Bell Commons, B1, 2-14-6 Kita Aoyama, Tokyo; 81-33/475-8017; cibone.com