It seems there are new sun rays on the perennially cloudy horizon of Belgium. Recently, the third edition of the “Uptown Design Tour” announced the list of participating designers. An emerging welding wizard Kevin Oyen from Bilzen is one of the 20 selected European artists, whose works will be displayed in one of the most highly valued neighborhoods of luxury shops in Brussels from 15 September to 1 October 2016.
How amusing! Amusing that a young Belgian designer gets the chance to showcase his extraordinary metal works after barely warming his seat – he turned pro only 3 years ago. His eponymous furniture and decor creations are on the crest of a wave, and no doubt he truly is gleeful to be a part of the upcoming “uptown opportunity” in order to take his welded wonders to the next level of growth.
Kevin can talk about a lot of things in any circumstances, but the best conversations with the artist happen when focused on the topic of design or welding science and take place at his atelier located in the grassy foothills of the town of Bilzen. Which is why, one sunny summer day I spoke with Kevin not at the café terrace but while sitting on his “Magic Bean” chair in the center of the hundred-square-meter artist’s sanctuary.
His workspace is one of those contemporary concrete-floored high-ceiling affairs with a lot of windows under the roof – an airy barn filled with dozens of pieces of handiwork. There’s a sparkling metal bullhead on the wall that immediately catches the eye of an observer. There are lamps, skulls, furniture items – all made out of steel industry waste. The main fiction character of this metal fairy-tale is a chair called ‘Magic Bean’, a masterpiece that evokes the associations with Harry Bertoia and his iconic ‘Diamond Chair’.
This welding heaven is where the 29-year-old designer spends his days (and sometimes nights) working with steel to develop future generations of furniture and décor pieces.
It all began, Kevin explained, when he was 12. “Metal is very much in my roots. When I was about twelve, I was welding in the garage, burning stuff and joining everything together. I was strongly obsessed with fire and melting iron. My father always said that there would be a craftsman one day, so 18 years later…”, laughs Kevin.
In 2014, at the Product, Furniture and Computer Design course in Hasselt Kevin met one of his recent inspirators, an established Belgian furniture and jewellery designer Peter Donders who is famous for combining traditional craftsmanship and computer technology in his work. ‘Peter really inspires me. He pushes the boundaries in the design, teaching me to think and rethink materials and the way designs are made”, confesses Kevin. “What I have already learned from him is to do a lot of research and invent the right tools to make the design work”.
Oyen comes from a practical background. When he was young he always wanted to study at art school. His daily entertainments were mainly focused on shaping different kinds of materials and fantasising on the creative outcomes. “But my parents wanted me to get a “decent education”, since the art market is very unpredictable and there is not much of stability in it. Therefore, I decided to go and study to become a craftsman and high-level welder. After graduating, I worked for a few big companies: welding boilers, piping and high-pressure vessels. I had friends who worked in product and furniture design, so I made some prototypes for them and I really enjoyed it. In 2013, I went to Australia to work and travel. After 2 months of holiday pleasures I grew desperate looking for a job. I put an advertisement on Gumtree and in 2 hours the amazing artist Matthew Harding replied if I was interested to work for him in Melbourne. The next day I took a flight, and that’s how our memorable 2-month artistic collaboration started. We were building sculptures for different expos and locations all around Australia and even for Denmark. It was there, in Australia, that I realized what my thing in life was and what I really wanted to do. I found my love for material (steel) again and decided to go back to Belgium to continue my education in product, furniture and computer design, to rethink everything that I’ve ever done’.
The family of Oyen can be proud of its artistic roots. The grandfather of Kevin was a painter. The brother of granddad was a sculptor and his sister was a writer. “One side of my father’s family is very technical, another is artistic. I think I combine those two sides and try to make art and design that push the boundaries of materials”.
Kevin’s designs not only reflect his family history, but also his personal fixations. If a designer is obsessed with nature or traveling (as Kevin seems to be), you’re guaranteed to find references in his artworks. Kevin’s innumerable sculls, bullheads, coffee bean-shaped chairs have a cultural resonance that not every designer of steel goods have ever enjoyed. “The satisfaction of looking at nature and shapes in nature and the feeling you get out of it – this is what moves me. When I travel I try to observe everything around: in nature or in big cities. Its always nice when people are wondering how something was made or to observe the eyes of those who are touched by moments of astonishment. Sometimes you see really cool stuff that unconsciously you use afterwards in a design”.
Kevin makes steel sculptures, much of which mirror nature’s creations. His pieces are often meant to be touched in order to evoke the inner ‘emotion’ of the metal and its shape. The same as Bertoia’s masterpieces, Kevin’s sculpture and furniture use metal almost as an organic material, often echoing the curves of the human body, coffee beans, or animals.
Many of the artist’s followers interpret his works as garments of harmony, peace and reflection. He talks of them as ‘sharing inspiration with others’. “The biggest goal of my designs is to make beautiful things which can inspire other people or which are just a pleasure to look at”.
Oyen is constantly probing and examining. Persistently, methodically, cyclically.
“When I have a new idea I make a drawing or a small prototype out of foam or clay. Sometimes I start to make it too soon, but most of the times its laying around or spinning inside my head, so I can think about the concept or a material that will fit the shape. I try to work with tension on a material and develop it into new elegant shapes and sizes”, says Kevin. “Currently I’m working on the new shapes of skulls to complete a small series. As for my daydreaming, I want to build bigger sculptures for public spaces. Also, new furniture and products designs. On the whole, I want to create and have fun following my passion, as does every human being’.
Discover the works of Kevin Oyen at the “Uptown Design”, a key creative and cultural event of Belgium with this year’s godparents: Xavier Lust (the internationally recognized designer) and Marion Lemesre (Alderman for Economic Affairs of the city of Brussels).
Text by Marina Kazakova
Reportage photography by Anuschka Theunissen