Marc Gerritsen’s first impression of Taiwan’s urban landscape was of a country populated by ugly concrete apartment blocks hurriedly constructed during the Martial Law era, punctuated here and there with dilapidated Japanese buildings, remnants of the country’s colonial past.
But in his recently published book, Taiwan Mod: A Journey Through Taiwanese Design, the Dutch photographer delves deeper.
Gerritsen is in a unique position to document Taiwan’s urban landscape. A professional freelance photographer based in Taipei since 2004, he has been commissioned by many of the nation’s top design and architecture firms to photograph hundreds of buildings and interiors.
Taiwan Mod, weighing roughly 5kg with more than 600 pages, is the first internationally published book about Taiwanese interior design. Lavishly illustrated with Gerritsen’s photographs, the tome includes interviews with a veritable who’s who of the country’s design professionals.
But what is Taiwanese interior design like?
“It’s a mixed salad,” Gerritsen said in the kitchen of his renovated 1980s apartment in downtown Taipei.
“That looks very much like Dutch design, or that looks very American, or that looks French, or Chinese. Because most of the designers I have worked for studied outside of Taiwan, they have brought those aesthetics [back] and have combined them with Taiwan[ese elements]. And that is Taiwanese style: It’s a combination of all these different things.”
Gerritsen’s own past is also something of a mixed salad. Born in the Netherlands, he spent stints in Belgium, France and England before returning home to study industrial design. After graduating, he “didn’t really want to sit in an office designing toasters and vacuum cleaners,” so he set off for New York to build houses.
A few years later, he moved to Australia where he gained experience in interior design and architecture. He developed a keen eye for design and became a photographer for magazines such as Forbes and international brands including Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Getty Images’ Global Assignment.
Since arriving in Taiwan, he has established himself as one of the country’s top photographers of residential and commercial interiors. He has worked for IMP & Associates (Taishin Financial Tower, Taipei), Artech Architects (Quanta Headquarters, Taoyuan) and LWM Architects (UFO Building, Kaohsiung), to name but a few.
The interviews with local designers and architects reveal that the emergence of a Taiwanese-centered design industry was a recent phenomenon. As with fashion and the visual arts, Taiwan’s interior design industry only began to develop in the late 1980s.
At the time, local designers felt it crucial to engage with the international community, which resulted in a mass exodus of local talent to universities overseas. But this led, according to one interviewee, to designers copying foreign ideas.
As local designers grew more confident about their work a Taiwanese style began to emerge — one that architect Albert Ho, in another of the book’s interviews, dubs “regional modernism.”
“There are many Taiwanese architects who ... have gone overseas to study. But once back in Taiwan, many shift their focus to the regional and local aspects of their art,” Ho said.
Though Gerritsen’s photographs present a spectrum of designers’ work — images he calls “very clean and clinical” — he said his book isn’t meant to be the last word on Taiwanese design.
“As I say in the beginning of the book, this is not necessarily a perfect snapshot of the interior [design] and architectural landscape of Taiwan. To do that I would have to involve other photographers,” he said.
Taiwan Mod focuses on the upper echelons of Taiwanese society, those who are able to spend lavishly on renovating their homes.
But Gerritsen is against tearing down buildings constructed from the 1960s to the 1980s to make way for luxury apartments. He hopes that his book can serve as a blueprint to transform these older structures.
“These buildings should be preserved for future generations. [The government] should take out 300 or 400 of the most beautiful and fix them up properly to give an example to the developers — replace all the glass, insulate the floors and walls, make them eco-friendly. And they can fix up the facade so that when you look at the building, you think it looks pleasing. It would bring so much more value to the street,” he said.
Like some of the interiors found in Gerritsen’s book, his own two-level apartment in central Taipei offers an example of the potential of Taiwan’s older buildings.
The open-plan minimalist interior, accentuated with natural light, is a well-designed urban living environment that was inexpensive to renovate.
“It’s coming to a tipping point right now where there are more people living here who like a gentrified city,” Gerritsen said. “People like a healthier lifestyle. People who like to do something else than shopping on the weekend ... And once we get to that tipping point, suddenly Taipei will become the coolest city in East Asia.”
On the Net: www.marcgerritsen.com
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