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15 May 2020

A Mendini temple in Amsterdam

Frans Haks’ home interior

By Eva de Bruijne 
Photos by Alberto Ferrero 

It is commonly known that Italian designer Alessandro Mendini (1931-2019) and Frans Haks, the previous director of the Groninger Museum, shared a special bond. “Frans shared our view on the eighties,” Mendini proclaimed, referring to Haks as his “museum friend”. Haks nominated Mendini as the head architect of the planned new Groninger Museum building in 1987, after which the two became close friends. Few people know, however, that Mendini went on to design the interior of Haks’ home in Amsterdam after his work on the Groninger Museum. This Mendini interior is one of few, and aside from the Groninger Museum this is the only one in the Netherlands; quite a peculiarity!

An unexpected discovery
After his departure from the Groninger Museum on January 1, 1996, Haks and his partner Johan W. M. Ambaum moved to Amsterdam. The relationship between the municipality of Groningen and the notorious director had taken a turn for the worse. By moving to Amsterdam, Haks distanced himself from Groningen and the museum staff – literally and figuratively – which is why his former colleagues remained unaware of his Mendini interior in Amsterdam, which was designed in 1997 and built in 2000-2001.
Although friends and acquaintances of Haks knew about the interior design, the world of art at large was not familiar with it. The interior is rarely mentioned in Dutch or international literature, and even on the official website of Atelier Mendini, the project is barely archived, save for a couple of drawings. One reason is that Mendini considered this job a favour for his friend Haks. Most of their discussions took place in person.

It was only after Ambaum, the home’s last remaining inhabitant, passed away in 2018 that word of Frans Haks’ interior reached the Monuments and Archaeology Department in Amsterdam (M&A). Ambaum had named the Rijksmuseum Foundation as his only heir, under the name of the Ambaum Haks Foundation, with the goal of purchasing art and crafts from the 19th and 20th century for the museum’s collection. If the inheritance would not be used to strengthen the museum’s collection, it was to be sold in favour of the foundation. This is what happened to the apartment, which was placed on the market. In October 2018, employees of M&A visited the residence because a potential buyer intended to renew the interior. Due to the unexpected discovery of the Mendini interior on the ground floor, the interior was awarded a highly monumental status, while the building itself had already been considered a national monument on account of its facade.

From Groningen to Amsterdam
In 1995, Frans Haks asked his brother Leo, who had bought the building at the Recht Boomssloot 41 near the Nieuwmarkt in the 90s, if he knew of a suitable living space. Leo offered Frans and Johan a temporary living space on the third floor and attic of the building. Starting in January 1997 they were also able to use of the ground floor space, which had previously been used as a business. They then purchased the building’s first floor on which they resided, because the ground floor was uninhabitable. Their goal was to live on separate floors: both men were art historians with strong individual tastes. Ambaum would live among his 19th century art on the first floor, while Haks would be surrounded by his contemporary art and design collection in his Mendini temple on the ground floor. Both floors would become their own unique worlds.

The design commission
“The main task here in Milan has been completed. Sandro, Francesco, Mart [architect Mart van Schijndel, who worked as an advisor] and myself have finished discussing our new home, and we are all very satisfied, I think,” Haks wrote in his diary in 1997. His ground floor would be expanded through a conservatory annex, which would connect to the first floor – Ambaum’s domain – by a double staircase with a glass bridge. Frans Haks felt like the house needed a fitting front: the entrance had to stand out. Mendini created 14 designs for the entrance in total, as a geometric beveled pattern in striking colours. They opted for a continuation of the yellow and pink, in which the front door was hidden. Anyone passing by the house at the Recht Boomssloot will notice that the front is painted in a creamy colour. The Monuments and Archaeology Department strongly recommended a change to a “modest colour fitting of its historical surroundings”. Haks accepted the proposal, after some mild protest.

Life is a theatre!
Enter the studio through the postmodern Mendini-facade, and you will find yourself in a miraculous and theatrical world. Through high double doors in the red and pink vestibule, surrounded by mosaics by the Italian firm Bisazza, one enters a studio full of rich colours: a small space in which Haks ate his meals, worked, relaxed, took baths, slept, and received guests. It is noticeably dark in the studio; there are no windows in the front. Haks wanted to project audiovisual material during lectures and had a projection screen attached to the ceiling that nearly covered the entire wall, right at the start of the podium in the back of the room. This also symbolised theatre curtains: when rolling up the screen, a podium covered in sunlight would appear, with a sunken bathtub at its center – perhaps the most bizarre element of the entire interior.

The interior has been built up from a central visual axis that ends with the bathtub. When all doors are opened, someone standing on the street can look directly at the bathtub, which stands right behind a Bisazza mosaic gateway, flanked by a set of double stairs. Haks wanted to hold large receptions in his studio, followed by a fancy dinner prepared by Ambaum, who was an amazing cook. He imagined welcoming certain guests while lying in his bathtub: completely naked and covered in bubbles. After the reception in Haks’ studio, the guests and the host would climb the stairs to Ambaum’s apartment where dinner was served. The double stairs makes the interior seem even more theatrical: a contemporary interpretation of the stairs from the theatrical Baroque period. Haks stated in an interview in 2003: “life is like a theatre. I want to live in a place that gives the impression that I am merely acting.”

Decor for art and design
The full interior only stood in place for a short time: from 2001 to Haks’ death in 2006, after which it was removed. “My intention was to create an ambience in which all art, in the traditional sense, would be obsolete,” Haks said. He viewed his studio not just as an art piece in itself, but also as a stage for the arts. Mendini, too, imagined a home to be a museum full of objects the person has collected. In Haks’ case, this was a collection of contemporary design and art from postmodern movements such as Memphis and Alchimia. The interior design had to be a fitting decor for this collection. Among the objects in this space are a yellow Kartell Bubble couch and a yellow chair Troy by Philippe Starck, next to a side table Le Strutture Temano by Ettore Sottsass for Alchimia. The cylindrical cabinet Ollo, designed by Mendini, was on the left-hand side against the pink wall near the entrance, next to a photograph of Cornelie Tollens. The portal in front of the sunken bathtub stood next to the Treetops lamps that Ettore Sottsas made for Memphis, and at the foot of the bath Nigritella Nigra, designed by Mendini, had been propped up like some kind of altar – a piece now part of the Rijksmuseum’s collection (the piece did have some water damage due to its location near the bathtub and the lack of ventilation in the room). Haks stated in an interview: “I buy whatever I am interested in at the time. When things get boring, they are removed.” His interior wasn’t meant to be like a museum, however. The space was lived in. Everything was used and nothing had a fixed location.

‘Casa Toverbal’
Even though Haks never thought of his studio as a museum, the space shows striking similarities with the exhibition rooms of the Groninger Museum. Haks believed that these had to be controlled with artificial light, colour and material. He applied this same principle to the front part of his studio, where the mood was established through the artificial lighting and colourfully painted areas on the walls, ceiling and floor. These colours – which led the studio’s to be nicknamed the ‘Toverbal’, a candy ball with many colours – were retrieved from the colour palette developed by the Dutch artist Peter Struycken in 1994 for the exhibition rooms of the new Groninger Museum (which consisted of 16 colours and was expanded in 1999 by Struycken to a total of 30 colours). In the Mendini pavilion, these colourful areas were applied in accordance with conservator Mark Wilson’s ideas. Haks wrote: “To my great surprise, these colours turned out to be so permissive that you could put up almost any kind of art. You don’t need to change the colour of the walls for every exhibition. In fact, the opposite is true: once you have created a nice flow of moods in the rooms, just about any artwork can fit.” Although Struycken did offer to create a personal palette for Haks’ studio, Haks instead opted for the same palette and application used at the Groninger Museum. According to Peter Struycken, building the studio was a reminder of Haks’ greatest accomplishment in life: the new building of the Groninger Museum, finished in 1994, with Mendini as its head architect.

Posted 15 May 2020