The last time we saw Joost Bakker, he was busy being really good at his job as an environmental designer, eco-entrepreneur, installation artist and gardener.
Well, Joost is still as busy as ever. Reprising his pop-up Greenhouse Restaurant concept for this year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Joost continues his passion for sustainable design. With the help of some cleverly designed urinals, the urine of patrons was used as a fertiliser for the harvesting of mustard seeds (with the oil kept for powering the restaurant). Pretty amazing stuff, so we’ve dug out our interview of Joost back in Issue 10 as he shared his unconventional philosophy with Dumbo Feather.
For more of his beautiful Greenhouse endeavours, check out his site.
If you’ve ever hung out in Melbourne for more than a couple of days it’s more than likely you’ve already seen the work of Joost Bakker (pronounced ‘Yoast’)… Unless of course you avoided the cafes with the best coffee, the restaurants with the best food and the bars with the best live music and martinis. I thought not. No ordinary florist, Joost is an installation artist who regularly creates installations and arrangements for many of Melbourne’s finest hospitality spots as well as oneoff pieces for clients who give him free rein to explore his extraordinary imagination. In Joost’s work you’re more likely to find bunches of fresh herbs than carnations, electrical wiring than ribbon, and cling wrap than cellophane. Recent projects include Jamie Oliver’s Melbourne Fifteen Restaurant and a marquee made entirely of mint plants for the Flemington Races. .Upon meeting Joost you quickly realise just why his clients love him and use him over and over again – he’s a truly fantastic guy; no attitude, just an extraordinary passion for what he does, oh, and talent, loads of it…
DUMBO FEATHER: Do you call yourself a florist?
JOOST BAKKER: Yes, although I suppose I’m more of an installation artist, but what’s in a title? I do flowers for people and I do sculptures for people and I do installations for people. The Heide Museum of Modern Art, at Bulleen, Victoria, wanted to credit me for work I’m to do for them and was like, what do we write? Flowers by Joost? But, there’s nothing organic in what I’m doing for the museum, I’m hanging fencing wire from the ceiling. Most of the time I say I am an installation artist.
What characterises your work? What makes it distinctive?
The main philosophy behind my work is I don’t try to imitate nature (see page 56 *The nature of art). I do the complete opposite while respecting it. I’m not into landscaping that looks like a jungle, or a pond that resembles a pond. What’s the point? It’s always going to be different. Flower arranging is no different. I just whack tulips in, or hang them; I’m not trying to recreate a tulip plant. What’s the point? That pretty much sums up my work. Some people still haven’t quite realised that’s all it is. I don’t try to explain everything, but that’s it, treating it as something else.
Thinking back, is there a favourite piece that is a perfect example of that philosophy?
Probably my latest work, but then it’s always my latest work. I’m not that wrapped in my older stuff. I hate some of it actually.
OK, let’s back track. Flowers are part of your family’s story, aren’t they?
My family migrated from Holland when I was nine. My Dad always wanted to migrate. He had four kids with his previous wife, so I’ve got three older brothers who are ten years older, and a sister. Then he married my mum who said she’d travel with him. When they came here my brothers were 18, 19, and 20. My sister stayed in Holland. My father grew tulips in a flower district in Holland so I grew up on a flower farm and left school at 15 to work. I travelled through Asia and Europe for a while and when I came back I decided to start an export business. I was sending flowers to the Philippines, Hong Kong and New Caledonia. That started OK and I rented some space in South Melbourne with a mushroom importer because mushrooms and flowers both need to be kept at 4C. We built a cool room together, rented a warehouse, fitted it out and lived there. He started importing all these amazing mushrooms and we had these chefs coming in. They’d see the flowers I was sending overseas and would ask why they couldn’t get these flowers. That’s how it started. Initially I was supplying flowers in boxes to restaurants and they’d put them in a vase. Then I started doing flowers for restaurants one morning a week and really enjoyed it.
But prior to that, even though you grew up surrounded by flowers, you never tried to arrange them?
No, but I have an aunt in Holland who’s a florist and we always had flowers in the house. If you go to my mum’s house she’s got flowers outside, inside and on the table outside. Last time I went to my mum and dad’s they probably had ten vases of flowers and that’s what it’s always been like. But if someone said to me when I was 14 you’re going to be a florist, I would have said no way.
Had you always been artistic?
Yes, I especially liked painting and drawing.
But you never thought of exploring art?
No. I was just so interested in having a business or being in my family’s business.
My art teacher at school wanted to kill me.
She was so frustrated I wasn’t taking it seriously.
When did you start taking flower arranging seriously?
My export business was doing well and I was working ridiculous hours but I had a lot of money outstanding when the Asian market crashed in the late 1980s. I thought, hang on, I’m really enjoying doing these flowers and I was being asked by more and more people to do their flowers but I didn’t have time. I had Country Road, Esprit and McDonalds as clients and I was sending out boxes of tulips to the stores by courier. I did that for about four years. I was still sending flowers to New Caledonia up until five years ago, but otherwise I gave exporting away. In 2000 I opened up a shop behind Kozminsky’s, in Bourke St, Melbourne. I ran the shop for eight months and then said this is not for me. I got rid of a lot of clients and kept my favourites and that’s what I’m still doing today, and loving it.
It seems you’ve moved gradually closer to working as an artist. When did you start exhibiting your pieces?
In 2001 I had my first exhibition at Crossley Scott Gallery. Paul [Scott] said to me one day, why don’t you have an exhibition? I didn’t take his question all that seriously, but had an exhibition and began to take it seriously for the first time. We sold a few pieces. It was the same deal really. I think people couldn’t quite get their head around this stuff. For that first show I did steel columns made out of concrete reinforcing steel and now they’re everywhere, but that’s going back a while. My second show was also at Crossley Scott. Then John Parker, of Space Furniture, who now owns Format Furniture – and who is an awesome guy – collaborated on the VIP room at the Melbourne Art Fair in 2002. I made all these balls out of fencing wire and after it he said: ‘Let’s hang them at Space’. So we hung them in the window and he sold them all, which was amazing because I’d never expected to sell them. Then in 2004 John said: ‘Why don’t you have an exhibition in here next year’. When I walked into Space with my stuff I expected the furniture to be there but he had emptied the whole floor. I was in shock he’d gone to so much effort, but that’s typical John. I had this whole floor on Church St, Richmond, to myself. I was on such a high and we had so many people turn up. The next day he went to Milan but I called him and asked if he minded whether I graffitied the side of the building with Exhibition by Joost because it looked odd that there wasn’t any signage. So I just graffitied the side of their building. That night Space’s management, in Sydney, was getting phone calls saying the shop’s been graffitied. Nobody even looked to see what it actually said. I had another show there last year and then, in June, one at the top of Melbourne’s Eureka Tower.
How on earth did you organise that?
A friend of mine designed Eureka Tower and one night we came up with the idea of having an exhibition on one of the top floors. It happened on the 84th floor. I made these cages and inserted roots and found objects, plants, and wrapped them in cling wrap (see image page 68). We were allowed to have 180 people there, sent out 450 invitations and got 600 replies. I just kept it quiet and it all went smoothly, thank goodness. I also suspended these lilies in table centres made from wire recovered from power cables. I ripped the conduit off and wrapped it around.
What sort of effect were you trying to achieve?
I don’t know. I saw the space and then I designed the sculptures around the space. The beautiful raw concrete had just been poured, the builders had only just finished. There were cables going everywhere and water dripping. It was perfect. We didn’t clean anything up. The view from up there is just incredible so I lit everything dimly so it wouldn’t reflect in the glass. It’s 300m up in the air. It’s amazing, it’s so high it makes the city look tiny.
So what came first: the idea for the roots, the cages, the wrapping? How did it evolve?
I’ve wanted to make the cages for quite a few years. It was one of those ideas that just sits in the back of your head. So when I saw the space, I thought, I’ve got to put these cages in here. And then the roots… I don’t know. I wanted to encase them somehow and thought of the plastic because they’re such bold, strong pieces I wanted something really throwaway, something you felt like ripping off. I knew the sunlight would hit the plastic… I love that stuff. It’s also that there’s this beautiful organic stuff wrapped inside an industrial material like plastic.
Do you often try to mix contradictory materials like that?
Yeah. I love anything industrial, anything that’s designed purely to be practical not beautiful, and then I combine that with organic pieces. I’m using more new materials now. Five or ten years ago I was using recycled old pieces.
Yeah. I’m sort of over that.
Did you trawl markets and throw-outs for materials?
Yeah. I think ten years ago people wouldn’t have accepted this, but now I’ve got the luxury of doing what I want and people go, OK, if that’s what he’s doing. Of the people who bought the works in the exhibition I’d say only a couple actually liked them initially. A lot of them were purchased because
they know that they will like them in one or two year’s time.
I love that concept. Somebody bought these big steel balls made out of concrete mesh two years ago and said to me recently, ‘I didn’t even like them, but I knew that I would’. When I create it, I’m not creating it that way. I’m in love with the work while I’m creating it.
How much of what you make now is designed to last forever, as opposed to being transitory, ephemeral pieces?
About half and half. I try to make about 13 sculptures a year that people can buy and then I make more of something else. Like last year, I made 200 steel column grids to hold flowers. This year I made wire test tube holders that can be used as table centrepieces. The year before I made building blocks glued together with steel rods that held the flowers. Often, even with that sort of stuff, nobody wants it. Last year I didn’t sell one steel column on the night, not one of 200, but now they’re flying out. It’s as if it’s taken people a year to get their head around them. When I do arrangements for bars and restaurants people see them (see page 58 *Joost’s Melbourne), get used to them, and then want them.
Did I see one in Journal yesterday?
Yeah. My sculptures sell because I think people view them differently. The people who bought the pieces in the Eureka Tower exhibition are so confident in what they’re doing they either know exactly what they’re going to do with it, or have no idea but want it anyway.
How many exhibitions have you had?
I’ve had six, one a year, and have 60 or so clients I do work for every week. I’m doing a big job for the Heide Museum of Modern Art (see page 62 *Too good to Heide) because it’s reopening the museum. I’m making 72 lights for their marquee because it is 72 years since the Reed’s bought the property.
Do you have any employees?
No, it’s just me. I was with a client last night who threw out the flowers I did for them on Wednesday on the Friday. I asked why they didn’t phone me and they said, ‘You’re too busy, we didn’t want to bother you’. I said, ‘But I’m your florist,if the flowers haven’t lasted, call me’. Often I might try something for the first time and with flowers it’s a natural product, so sometimes it doesn’t last.
Other florists just look at me and go, ‘You bastard,
if a petal falls we get complaints’.
Why do you get away with it?
I don’t know. I didn’t initially. It’s taken 12 years to get to this point.
Was it 12 years of doing consistently beautiful work?
Yeah, and testing the boundaries all the time. I was doing conservative posies and stuff when I started but then I had clients like Vernon, of The Gin Palace, tell me to ‘just go nuts’.
If I asked you what your Dumbo feather was would you say it was those first few clients who gave you free rein and believed in your work?
All you need is one client to tell you to go for it. That was actually The Lounge, in Melbourne, and Syracuse Restaurant. Conservative places like that allowed me to do things like install a single blossom branch that was five metres tall. The blossoms dropped on everybody and went in their food but they didn’t call me and say: ‘Look, you’ve got to get rid of this’. Actually, ABC radio announcer Virginia Trioli phoned me a couple of years ago, in May, and said she was going to organise her wedding around when I had cherry blossom in. She said she was proposed to under the blossom and had it in her hair and in the food and that it was on the such-and-such of August. I said I had no idea when I’d have the blossom in, but could try. She organised her wedding around when I could get the blossom in and I did five metre tall cherry blossom that went everywhere. I totally go with the seasons, like I’m using daphne now. I don’t use tropicals and I try not to use flowers that are around all the time. It’s purely seasonal. You do get flowers that droop and die, but you have to put up with it. Commercially grown flowers tend to be the ones that last, but there are 5,000 other things out there you could use.
You must be exhausted, yet you don’t seem to be?
I’m not. I work long days normally and get exhausted when things don’t happen. I’ve put together a proposal to do my first marquee for the Melbourne Cup races. I got it but have never had to write a proposal. Bruce who owns event management company The Big Group approached me and said: ‘If I can convince the client to go with your idea – without watering it down too much – would you be interested in doing a marquee’. I said that could be cool. The marquee will have a 4.4m herb wall made of 5000 mint plants. Every 20cm there’ll be a plant and from the outside it’ll look like a green cube. Then you enter, and from inside you’ll be able to see the lot. If they let the idea happen it’ll be exactly what they want it to be and everybody will be going: ‘My god, I can’t believe you’ve done this’. Then next year, there’ll be another ten great marquees. It’ll give so many other people freedom to do good stuff. It was the same with my Eureka Tower exhibition; it was all done on a handshake. I love people that fly by the seat of their pants like I do. It’s the same with the GPO. GPO developers Morrie Schwartz and Adam Garrison just say here’s your money, here’s your budget and I’ll hang up $500 ball things. Can you imagine? At Chadstone [shopping centre] they’d be asking how they were hung. But here,
there are no questions, there’s just total trust and faith.
My work is about: ‘That’s beautiful, that’s flowering and I’m going to use that’. You’ve got to have a client who says ‘great, put it in’ because you can’t plan that far ahead, you’ve got to grab it and use it.
Are you already thinking about the Christmas display you might do for the GPO?
I’ve already decided what I’m going to do. I’m going to get 1,000 blow up Christmas trees and strap them together with truck straps in a pyramid. I put all my energy into the initial idea. If I have to start going into detail to prove it I’ll lose interest.
Are there times when you don’t love it and you don’t have that same sense of effortlessness?
Oh yeah. On Monday mornings I start at the Rialto Tower at 5am. The client is a private family and it’s such a great start to the day because the place is full of such amazing art – it’s like walking into the National Gallery every week. But it’s an office and my second client is in an office, then a couple of restaurants, but then offices, offices and by 11am I feel terrible – I’m exhausted, physically and mentally. Today, I’m in and out of restaurants and I don’t feel the same way, so there’s something about those buildings that’s not right and I don’t know what it is. I think it’s the airconditioning, I’m sure it’s not enough fresh air.
Imagine what it’s like to be in that environment day in, day out.
And looking at a computer screen. And it’s only every Monday. I can work on the farm from 6am ’til 6pm and feel fantastic but on Monday nights I’m struggling… How did you find out about my work?
I first saw it at Schiavello’s Sydney showroom. They had one of your vertical gardens on display.
That was amazing. We had 3,000 plants in that showroom. It was like a jungle in there.
How did that project come about?
Peter [Schiavello] found out about me through a mutual friend, came to an exhibition and said: ‘Why don’t we manufacture and sell this’. I’m more into doing one-off things because I get sick of things quickly, so I said to him: ‘If you’re prepared to put in all the hard work and just take the idea, I’m prepared to work with you’. That’s what’s happening now. It’s given me such an insight into how much work is involved in making a vase, or this chair, and getting the idea off the ground. Also, because the vertical garden is a living product it needs to be maintained and has different commercial realities. To get it to market was a huge amount of work. Peter is like me, he’s very fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants and it’s great to see such big businesses run like that. Lawyers, doctors, many are the same; they cut it by the skin of their teeth every single time. Six months before an exhibition you’ve got so many ideas and choices. Then you’ve got four weeks to go and you end up going with the best ideas without realising it. Afterwards you wonder why you were even thinking about that other crap.
What do you do if you’re stuck for an idea?
Go and see a live gig. I’m a partner in a bar called Ding Dong. I love live music and seeing a great gig does it for me, pretty much. That’s probably why
my work is unlike anything else, I get inspiration from music.
It’s not like I’ve seen another building or object that inspires me – it’s the music.
Can you give me an example?
I saw Jeff Buckley at the Palais before he died and that was about the time I started asking myself what I was doing all this business stuff for. Here was this guy on stage, throwing everything he had into his show and when he stopped playing there wasn’t a sound in the place. About 3,000 people were gob-smacked. I thought this guy is onto it.
So, you’re the rock star florist?
Well, it’s usually not rock stars that make people feel like that. There are all these great bands and nobody gets it until they have a pop hit and then all of a sudden …
I’ve decided to accept there’s mainstream and not mainstream, and that’s just the way it is.
They need to come a bit closer together because people that don’t fit the mainstream aren’t making a living. I suppose it’s always going to be like that. On Wednesday at Ding Dong we have five bands that get half an hour each. They play their hearts out. At the door you have to say which band you’ve come to see and pay $5. Sometimes the first band might get 30 people, but sometimes they might get 150 people because mum and dad and the whole family come. You can tell it’s their life and they’ve been playing the guitar since they were, you know, and here they are playing at this venue and it’s so good. It’s my favourite night of the week. It’s also my last day of the week doing flowers so my friends come; we have a few beers and listen to some great bands. Then again, some are so bad, but then what is bad? Sometimes I think, if Coldplay did that it’d be cool.
Where do you want to go from here?
I’m just going. I’ve got no goals really. I’m building a house and we just got the permit this week – that’s a big project. We bought 2.5ha four years ago and I’ve planted it out with different trees. They’re all growing and loving it. The idea is that I spend half my time up there working on the farm and doing my sculptures and the other half in town. That’s sort of happening now. I spend Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in town and Thursday, Friday and Saturday on the land. I’ve planted 5,000 trees and flowers so hopefully by next year most of the stuff I use will come from my land. Once the house is up I can work there, pick, be with my wife and young family, everything. That’s pretty exciting. I’m itching to do that. But I don’t have any ambitions. I’ve got everything I need. I don’t want an expensive car – I genuinely don’t. There’s nothing I long for.
Wanting for nothing means I have total freedom
and don’t have to say I need to do a job. There’s no financial pressure on me to say yes or no. It seems to be that when you don’t need it, that’s when it comes to you. When you need it, people can tell. If you’re not that precious about getting the job they want you. It always seems to work. It gives me total freedom; I can do whatever I want.
Have you done much work outside Melbourne?
No, it’s just too hard. Quay Restaurant, in Sydney, wanted me to come up and do the flowers once a week, but I think that’s a bit over the top. I’m of that Dutch, Calvinist background. That comes into my work – half my work’s a contradiction. I go into quite opulent surroundings with my cheap beakers and tulips, or I’ll put a steel reo herb-wall and table centres made out of powerlines into a multi-million dollar fitout. That’s quite funny.
And have you lost that desire to run a business?
Totally. I think I just found what I wanted. I mingle with really successful people, people who are really good at what they do in many fields. I do QCs’ flowers so I meet the best legal minds every week and we have coffees. They come to my exhibitions and they’ll come out for lunch and talk. Whether it is lawyers, doctors, architects, I meet all these amazing people and they all seem to have the same thing in common – there’s no desire. Anyone I know who is successful has no desire to be financially well off, they’re just really passionate about what they do and because of that they’re rewarded. I have a policy that I don’t work for people I don’t like. It means I’m totally surrounded by people who are real and passionate about what they’re doing. I mean what more do you really want? It’s amazing the interesting people I’ve come across. The mix of people is just phenomenal. I’m really lucky. If you seek it, you don’t find it, but without seeking it, it just comes.