Mendel Jonkers is an artist, craftsman and designer – or just “creator” as he would have it – in wood and metal. Two years ago, after a brief stint as an English teacher, he returned to return to his first love, creating art. He has survived hunger, the immigration office, and the bosozoku to make a living with his skills in Japan.
The son of a master craftsman who is regularly commissioned by the Dutch Royal Family, Mendel is a seventh generation Dutch blacksmith, which conjures up images of Lord of the Rings, but most of Mendel’s stuff is strikingly modern. His resume shows an amazing range of work in all materials, from wrought iron on the gate of the Globe Theatre to a Mini Cooper limousine for the Spice Girls (really!). He has made fine art and jewellery, knives, canoes and done all kinds of woodworking.
His latest incarnation is “Space Nouveau”, making large interior pieces and smaller commissions in a design style where “art nouveau meets the space age”. Emphasising natural, functional shapes with a simplicity that highlights the “real” materials. Mendel talks like a 19th century artist; in his philosophy designs and materials are much more than objects, they are part of the soul. “Disposable and plastic” is how he describes much of modern design and you understand that he means the way of life as much as he means the objects. The philosophy applies to all things, decorative or functional.
His business card reads, “To put it simple (sic), You name it, I make it”.
He has a handsome, exaggerated face, wonky smile and lots of angles. He’s tall, with the shoulders of a blacksmith, but his size is offset by a slightly confused look in his eye, which reminds me of someone who just stepped off a high speed acid trip and can’t remember how he got here – the truth, however, is that very little he does is random. He’s got a reputation for fierce, off-the-wall diatribes on the GetHiroshima forums but in person is open, friendly and wholly disarming.
What kind of community of craftspeople is there in Hiroshima?
There are quite a few professional artists, interior designers, a mural painter, sculptors and jewellery makers and so on that I know. Generally they used to make a reasonable living about ten years ago, during the bubble, but are finding it very difficult now. Most seem to have second jobs. As for non-Japanese, I know some artists but no one who survives without a ‘side income’.
Is this a good place to do what you do?
I get a lot of ideas and inspiration here. The contrast between the ultra modern and the obsession with history is stimulating. This is the home of packaging and disposable plastic nonsense while also having an amazing tradition of natural materials and respect for beauty. These contrasts give me inspiration, make me crazy and help me create at the same time. Now that I’m here it seems a natural part of my evolution as an artist to be here. Don’t ask me why I came to Hiroshima though because the answer is that I was chasing a girl. Not very artistic huh?
What do you think of design and craft culture in Japan right now?
I don’t know how qualified I am to discuss all of it. I’d love to go to Tokyo and see what’s happening, but to be honest, I tend to not like much of what I see of modern design. In Japan now modern is fashionable but I look at it and I see that a lot of it is all so harsh and white and they all seem to copy each other. I got fed up with art school in London because they kept saying, “look at this guy, today let’s try to copy him,” and I would say, “but I want to try and make something in my style and I prefer to get inspiration in a different way.”
For the crafts in Japan I have great respect with their high sense of perfection and beautiful subtle lines. They’re also one of the finest in the world. It hurts me to see that those occupations are slowly but surely diminishing now.
You’re more traditional?
Well, I come from a craft background where people have made beautiful things to be used by other people. It’s a communication and in a way spiritual, the creator improves lives of others by giving them beauty. That’s art and being an artist to me. Now to be called an artist is different to this. Other people think artists should be these weird and wacky people, and put this thing on the other (Mendel puts a dishcloth on a chair back), but I can’t relate to this. Maybe it expresses society today or something but to me art needs to be beautiful, not just shocking or grating.
So what is Space Nouveau?
I’m taking the name from the Art Nouveau movement at the beginning of the century. They looked to nature for inspiration instead of copying accepted styles. I also feel I’m part of the arts and crafts movements that sees usefulness and beauty as equally important. I’m interested in applied art right now (although I have done and will do “art for the sake of art” pieces.) and I want to make natural-looking things, which are functional and a pleasure to see and use. It’s got to match with human beings. When I see a designer chair that is so square and is not comfortable to sit on, I think, “Well what is the point? That is really a waste of everyone’s time.”
What kind of things do you make?
Most of them are based on requests so they can be anything, large or small, cheap or expensive and in any material. People see something I’ve made and want a different version or they want something very specific, for a gift or a special purpose. I’ve done some shop interior pieces and am interested in doing more of those. This bottle opener is another example. I really rethought the opener here. The metal never touches the glass; it takes so little effort to remove the top and a magnet holds the cap. It all works really well, it fits in your hand comfortably and it looks cool too. This encapsulates the themes of Space Nouveau well.
It’s beautiful, looks like it should be on sale in a very expensive shop.
Yes, I know what you mean. It isn’t on sale in any shops. It’s a problem because, I’ve got to divide my time between creating and sales. Do I want to make stuff or to go around selling it? I guess I have to find a middle ground, but when I’m trying to sell stuff I’m not doing the thing I want to do and am good at. I’m not stupid, I want money but this is much more than money. I feel that when I make something I give it so much care and attention. I put soul into it. That kind of love travels with what I make. It gives me a connection to the people using it and those people, I hope, can feel the soul of the object. It makes my life fulfilling and deepens the experience of the user. It is my contribution to a better world.
It’s a slow and direct way of influencing the world but that is my talent, my power. If you love to teach English or make pizza or design computer games you are doing that too if you really put yourself into what you are doing, don’t copy, don’t cheat, really give yourself to the work. You will feel the effect and so will the people around you.
So, poor but happy?
You could say that. I spent three years here teaching, regular pay check, but felt kind of empty. Maybe many people do, but it was worse for me because I know exactly what I should be doing. I know what I’m good at and I love it. It can be difficult to get enough money. Some months I have lots and some months I have none, but still have the bills. I’ve been really worried a couple of times – no food, no money – but this is what I do and I don’t feel alive doing anything else. I’m busy these days, so it’s going well.
Do you have any plans on the business side?
Basically to just keep doing what I’m doing. It’s possible I’ll go back to Europe in the not too distant future and work with my father again but I’d like to stay. I’m gathering more and more commissions here. Some of my metal pieces are designed with mass production in mind. I have an idea of going to South East Asians countries at some point and have someone make them because they do good work there and for less, Japan is too expensive for this kind of thing. But, as I said I’m not a marketing guy, and I know shit about exporting and that kind of stuff.
Tell me about your visa for Japan?
It was a big pain in the arse! Nine months of hell. First I applied for an artists visa and they accepted the application but then came back and asked for a company contract. What? I don’t have a company, I’m an artist! They said, “Yeah, well, um, actually we don’t have an artist visa exactly, it’s just a regular working visa”. So next I apply for a skilled labour visa as a blacksmith. Now I have to prove, really prove, that European blacksmithing is different to Japanese. I must have given them 3 kilos of paperwork! I bet no one read it, Japanese beareaucrats are the worst man! Anyway, I would never have done it without the help of a very good Japanese friend, the same person whose studio I use.
Anything else you would like to say to the people in Hiroshima?
Sure. Don’t let your dreams or your real inner self be put aside just because you’re living in a strange country. I always say, “Where there is a will, there is a way.” So go for it! Money isn’t everything, though it does make me happy to be able to share a good few beers with you lot in the bars. Come and visit me in my studio, I’ll be happy to show you my works or take your order. Catch ya around and don’t be a stranger.