The geometric artwork by Siba Sahabi and Merijn Sabée

‘When visitors come in, they first look up at the artwork, and then walk underneath it. But when they walk up the stairs, they see the sculpture at eye level. As a result, they get a different perspective each time.’ Young designer Merijn Sabée (1992) is standing in front of a scale model of a new healthcare centre. Hanging inside the little building made of foam board, there is an angular, twisted structure about 50 centimetres in height. Once it is suspended in the stairwell, this artwork will be three metres high. ‘Its powerful blue colour makes it highly visible from outside as well,’ continues designer Siba Sahabi (1979), under whose name the project is being carried out. Pointing to a large opening in the side of the cardboard building: ‘These are large windows. The installation will be lit, making it a landmark in the neighbourhood.’

The geometric artwork will hang in a healthcare centre in Rotterdam-South, a challenging neighbourhood where many of the people who live there have low incomes. Sahabi: ‘Relatively many residents experience a barrier to accessing healthcare due to language barriers and low income and education levels. With this installation, we want to give the building a less formal look.’ In addition, many residents have non-Western backgrounds. ‘The abstract form is in keeping with the Middle Eastern art-historical tradition of many geometric patterns, as hardly any people or animals are depicted. For local residents, it will be a recognizable image, so the artwork also has a connecting effect,’ says the Dutch-German-Iranian designer.

It’s very inspiring to see how Siba ties together these different worlds and also eras in her work. – Merijn Sabée

Islamic art
On a round work table in Sahabi’s Amsterdam studio lie stacks of copies of Islamic art and architecture full of systematic but graceful forms as inspiration. But there are also photo prints of the rhythmic paintings of Jan Schoonhoven (1914-1994), who worked with white reliefs in a tight grid. Yet another reference is an open book full of repetitive patterns of mathematical figures like a spiral or a pentagon. ‘It’s very inspiring to see how Siba ties together these different worlds and also eras in her work. I see the connection between the installation and these decorations on a mosque,’ Sabée says, picking up a photo print and pointing to the model. ‘But as a designer, I can’t make such connections myself yet.’

Building on talent

It was not immediately obvious that these two designers would work together. They are both from other generations, with different professional backgrounds as well. The Creative Industries Fund NL’s Building Talent grant scheme pairs two such different designers each time, with the aim of exchanging experience and knowledge. In 2006, Sahabi studied at the Designlab of the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. She then devoted herself to artisanal production in small editions. Gradually, her design practice shifted to spatial installations and design research.

Covid-19 wave
In 2019, Sahabi conducted extensive research into the perception of time, which translated in practical terms to the experience of waiting in a healthcare situation. ‘During the time we have to wait in a hospital or a GP practice, tension often builds. That is why it is crucial that patients, and also the family members, are comfortable or distracted for a while. Art and design can contribute greatly to achieving this. This assignment in Rotterdam-South builds on the idea.’

Last year, Merijn Sabée completed the master’s degree programme in Design For Interaction – ‘the most people-oriented of the design programmes at TU Delft,’ he says himself. The subject of his graduate work was the mental health of healthcare personnel during the first and second Covid-19 waves. ‘I developed a tool that allowed these nurses, who were under a lot of pressure, to articulate their story better to the right people, at a self-chosen time.’

And yet he missed something in his study after Delft. ‘There I learned mainly systematic design processes and measurable applications. But I also want to be able to make decisions based on a feeling, without a scientific foundation. Siba works intuitively, so people experience her work in an emotional way.’ On a practical level, he was drawn to the important role that light plays in Sahabi’s installation. ‘Even during the application, I was triggered in my focus on light and more artistic concepts.’

Sheer processing power
At the moment the collaboration started, it was actually established that it should be an abstract-geometric design in which light should play a prominent role because of its visibility from the street. For more than three months, they worked about two days a week on realizing the project. ‘In doing so, we mainly engaged in a lot of conversation,’ says Sahabi. ‘Because we had a common starting point, we could easily complement or challenge each other. Important in this process is leaving room for each other’s expertise.’

For the experienced Sahabi, Sabée’s technical background brought added value during the implementation of the project. ‘To turn a sketch into a scale model and then convert that back into the ultimate installation requires sheer processing power. In this area, Merijn is much stronger than I am.’ Sabée says, with a laugh: ‘I had to switch back to subjects from my bachelor’s degree, though. But it’s also just fun to build something. Design for me is also a physical discipline.’ That there was chemistry on a personal level as well was evident in the happy laughter and nodding in agreement during the interview.

Because we had a common starting point, we could easily complement or challenge each other. Important in this process is leaving room for each other’s expertise. – Siba Sahabi

The lighting for the sculpture was also mainly carried out by Sabée, who simultaneously works for a company that carries out large lighting projects in public spaces or for industry or infrastructure. ‘We both agreed that the artwork itself should not emit light. That would make it a piece of light art, which was not the intention. So we opted for spotlights that illuminate the work from above.’ The design vocabulary of the installation is really Sahabi’s, who also chose the bright penetrating cobalt-blue colour. ‘It’s a calm, cool colour that references both the sky and the canal in front of the building.’ Sabée: ‘But if this bright blue is lit just right, it acquires a sort of luminous glow of its own.’

First lockdown
For Sahabi, it was not the first time she had worked intensively with professionals from a different background. ‘For my research into time and the experience of time, I collaborated with photographers, graphic designers, philosophers and writers. Right now, I’m working with a dance company on a theatre performance.’ What was new here was that Merijn translated her ideas directly into a technical design. ‘Merijn uses his laptop for everything, including visuals and colour choices. This turned out to be pretty effective. Although I think and work very differently. I’m more about the materials and colours.’

The latter, in particular, was a creative impulse for Sabée. ‘Just working here has been so informative,’ he says, looking at a tall wall cabinet with the felt lamp collection Scherazade, inspired by the Arabic storyteller of 1001 Nights. Next to it is a prototype of Mudéjar, a folding screen based on the geometric architecture of the Moors. On the wall are photo prints of Nexus, a series of abstract face masks depicting the feeling of loneliness, a project Sahabi created during the first lockdown in 2020. ‘I now know that my designs can also be much more than functional objects. That has had a lasting impact on my practice.’

Text: Jeroen Junte
Photography: Renate Beense

Beeld: Nexus van Sabi Sahabi