Has Dutch design become predictable – evolved from being down to earth into an indulgence of comical and shallow gimmicks? Art critic Ebele Wybenga recently answered this question in the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad with a resounding “Yes!” “The recipe for Dutch Design isn’t that complicated,” he writes. “Pick an everyday object and execute it in unexpectedly luxurious materials (Studio Job’s polished bronze garden shovel). Or endow a prestige object with imperfections (Maarten Baas’ renowned Smoke Chair or Hella Jongerius’ B-Set dinnerware). Or find a surprising way to mix function and ornament (Richard Hutten’s elephant ear mug, Dombo). Even though we’ve had our fun with it for years, it’s time for a respectful goodbye to humor in Dutch design.”
Last year, Hella Jongerius, the Founding Mother of Dutch design, also saw the need to reinvent her country’s design world. In a manifesto co-authored with Louise Schouwenberg and presented at the 2015 Salone del Mobile, she remarks that “the egocentric products of professional designers” have become farcical, their constant quest for a new and experimental stylistic language at risk of becoming meaningless. “Design should not be confused with art: Even after they are presented in museums as experimental, eye-catching gestures, good ideas in design require further development. Only then will they add meaning to the world of daily objects and reach a larger public.”
She contrasts this with a new generation of design students who aim to solve societal problems. To come up with attractive and workable objects suitable for large-scale production, she believes a good designer should strive to combine insight from experimentation with creativity.
In recent years, Dutch design has undeniably been looking to renew itself. Teachers at Design Academy Eindhoven have emphasized the social importance of design. Arnhem’s ArtEZ Academy of Design is closely involved with clothing and fashion. At the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, students conduct in-depth materials science research and experiment with ways to allow independent art and design to merge.
In this dynamic era of multifaceted Dutch design, we host the exhibition Dream Out Loud! This biennial show features proposals for the acquisition of municipal art and this year’s theme is (see Breakout Box below). In response to its open call, the museum received roughly 750 different works from more than 350 designers. “Classic” Dutch design was well represented, but the offerings were noteworthy for a high proportion that provide solutions to social problems, seek alternatives to our disposable society, or advocate a critical attitude toward products among designers and users. A remarkably large number of designers question current social systems, hold a mirror before the viewer, and look for and paint a daring new vision of the future. Idealism in design is nothing new, but we are witnessing a shift of focus away from the aesthetic nature of objects and towards a notion of practicality, engagement, and the object’s underlying concept or ideal.
Gloomy reports of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels, overconsumption, industrial livestock production, and the exploitation of cheap labor by multinational corporations all strengthen a desire for independence, self-reliance, and renewed idealism. In his 2008 book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett emphasizes the importance of craftsmanship. The learning, perfection, and maintenance of skills enable people to govern themselves and have a positive impact on society.
In 2016, a new generation of designers dreams out loud of a better world and sees a role for itself in this social transformation. Many go beyond what Sennett describes and wish to contribute to solving large social problems. Under the banner of “social design” they attempt to improve the world through social intervention. Victor Papanek (1923-1998), a strong supporter of socially and ecologically responsible product design, tools, and community infrastructure, is regarded as the originator of this philosophy. For this new generation, there is no room for cynicism or apathy. For less dependence on meat, let’s produce cultured meat without causing animals to suffer. To return to a clean universe, start out with non-petroleum products. Some designers explore the meaning of ownership, transforming brand name clothing into unique non-brand pieces. Others create jewelry from construction helmets or melt surplus compact disks into plastic with which to 3D print chairs.
In this collection of ideas and solutions, four dominant themes stand out:
• Designs presenting fictitious but conceivable social applications;
• New stylistic language made available by new technology (e.g., the use of 3D printers);
• Reuse of natural resources or industrial waste and the search for sustainable materials;
• Recapturing ownership of the mining of resources, control over manufacturing, and democratic use of its tools by the consumer.
Cognizant of the Jongerius and Schouwenberg manifesto, the qualification “good design” should be revisited. A new class of designers is playing with the rules of the game. A key characteristic of this trend is a wish to design for the real world. And although the younger generation does not want to be guilty of creating the “meaningless Dutch design” so criticized by Jongerius, it may nonetheless, while aiming to solve social problems, succumb to meaningless experimentation. Journalist Jeroen Junte articulated this risk in regard to the design contest “Refugee Challenge.” This competition, launched jointly by IKEA, the UNHCR refugee agency, and “What Design Can Do,” presents Western designers’ solutions to the refugee problem without involvement from the people who are most affected.
A few years ago, Timo de Rijk, professor of Design, Culture & Society at Delft University of Technology, sternly questioned the substance of this type of socially motivated design. In a newspaper article (NRC Handelsblad, February 12, 2013), he takes a vigorous stand against the hype about Mine Kafon, the ‘design’-minesweeper. Intended to be carried by the wind along the Afghan plains, this minesweeper would deactivate landmines. But to De Rijk, it is a bad idea. “Let’s just be frank: this type of ‘social quality’ is deceptive, and the design is dishonest and immoral,” he writes. “Mine Kafon’s designer promises more than he can even deliver. The device only works if there is wind. Despite its GPS technology, there isn’t the slightest expectation that it can be expected to detonate all the landmines in a battlefield.”
In other words, in making a socially motivated promise, the designer accepts a moral responsibility: an obligation to make a sound product, something that works – or is likely to work eventually. If not, then one has made only a gadget that flirts with social engagement. This criticism could be applied to many of this exhibition’s entries. Daan Roosegaarde’s Smog Free Ring, which contains particulate matter filtered from dirty air, will not significantly reduce air pollution. Boyan Slat’s Plastic Soup project does not address marine pollution; it merely removes plastic that has already accumulated in our oceans. And Agatha Haines’ printed organs can be imagined, but they a long way from being ready for implantation.
A Dutch Makeover
Still, the indications bode well for the future. Alternating between art, design, and social criticism, designers are stepping up – seemingly with playful ease – to tackle some of today’s problems. In so doing, they substantially widen their terrain as well as their chances of success. Many of their ideas have a basis in science and recent technological advances. In addition, they create awareness and initiate social discussion. As evidenced by the media attention generated by their new designs, they embarrass manufacturers who can no longer deny the existence of viable alternatives.
Many designers draw from a multitude of useful strategies, ranging from aesthetic creativity to socially motivated design, and from materials science to computer technology – an evolution that is gradually redefining the design landscape. The goal of this generation of designers is not luxury but functional improvement and problem solving. The Dutch makeover of experimental design has already resulted in practical applications. However, and more importantly, the critical stance and force of imagination of these artists open up new avenues of thought, making the possible feasible.
Every two years, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, with the support of the City of Amsterdam, organizes a juried exhibition that features young talents and highlights new developments in the arts. This event, entitled “Proposals for Acquisition of Municipal Art,” invites artists and designers, either Dutch or working in the Netherlands, from specific areas of interest to submit recent works. The submissions are judged by a panel of experts who, together with museum curators, select projects for the exhibition. After the show, Museum Director Beatrix Ruf will decide which works to acquire for the museum’s permanent collection.
The theme of the 2016 edition was contemporary design. The submissions, from over 350 designers, ranged from chairs to social interventions to fictitious or virtual designs. The expert panel was comprised of Bas van Beek (designer and lecturer), Corinna Gardner (curator of Contemporary Product Design, Victoria & Albert Museum), Caroline Prisse (artist, curator, and director of Van Tetterode Glass Studio), Chris Reinewald (design journalist and former editor-in-chief of the periodicals Items and Museumvisie), and Lennart Booij (curator of Applied Arts and Design, Stedelijk Museum, jury chair, and compiler of the exhibition).
All the judges partook in roughly three days of selection. A first day of “blind” sifting yielded 250 projects by about 100 designers for intense scrutiny in the remaining time. The experimental designs were particularly noteworthy. Less well received were the pieces of “art for art’s sake” with utility or social impact subordinate to appearance and – often forced – humor.
The resulting short list, fine-tuned by studio visits and discussions with the museum’s directors and colleagues, resulted in the 26 artists now on display. While the group reflects current activity in the field, it is by no means comprehensive for current Dutch design. We take great pleasure in being able to showcase these developments in a Dutch context.
Our web site, www.dreamoutloud.stedelijk.nl, serves as catalog and live magazine. We hope you will visit us regularly to check for updates. And please share your reactions by posting comments on the site.
Ebele Wybenga, “Hoe lang is Dutch Design nog grappig?” [How much longer will Dutch Design stay funny?], in: NRC Handelsblad, May 2, 2016.
Hella Jongerius and Louise Schouwenberg, “Beyond the New,” http://beyondthenew.jongeriuslab.com/.
Victor Papanek, “Design for the real world”, London, 1972.
See: Jeroen Junte, opinion piece in De Volkskrant, June 28, 2016.
See: Timo de Rijk, opinion piece in NRC Handelsblad, February 12, 2013.