Interview by Daniel Klapsing

Image: Without title, Maríusz Kruk/ 2010

In 2007 I was interviewed at our home in Alkmaar by Daniel Klapsing who studied in product design at Bauhaus–University Weimar. Together with Philipp Schöpfer he founded the remarkable design studio ABOUT45 Kilo. Klapsing made me express what I actually thought at that time, for which I am still very grateful to him today.

I am trying to work out my position as a designer, and as a professional designer one should know what is going on in the design world. I am interested in Dutch design and organisations like Premsela. Could you describe what Premsela does for design and what your position is within it?

I am the director of Premsela. It is the Dutch platform for design and fashion. It’s an institution that is subsidised by the government. The extraordinary thing is that we get our funding from cultural sources and not from economic sources. That is very different to the situation in many other countries. Organisations such as the Design Council primarily have an economic goal and our primary goals are cultural. This is quite unique and it not often appreciated by foreigners. So that’s one of the extraordinary things about the cultural climate in the Netherlands.

What do we do? We were established in 2002. So we are still a rather young organisation in a very dynamic and complex design field. It has taken us some time to find out exactly what our role is. We are working on a new policy plan – a four-year plan. We believe in working to improve the Dutch design climate. So we do not promote designers and we do not sell design. We look at the conditions that are fruitful for the development of design. What do we mean by a design climate? For me it comprises three equally important elements:

– Openness. In the broadest and international sense. We should be open to foreigners, to different cultures. But openness also means we should not end up being dogmatic or get stuck in our own ideologies. Openness allows you to change, to be influenced, to respond to the changes in the environment.
– Identity. Not identity in a narrow-minded nationalist sense but identity as an understanding of tradition and change, as an understanding of what makes the Dutch design climate different from the design climate in Switzerland or in Germany.
– Adaptability. We should be able to respond to changes almost intuitively; not a policy-led change but almost an intuitive change to the world that’s evolving around us.

Those three elements are very important in maintaining a strong design climate and improving upon it.

Furthermore, we are developing programmes and projects that trigger those developments in one way or another. We publish a magazine called Morf. It is for design students. We distribute it through the art and design schools. It deals with theory and reflections upon design.
There is the Dutch word ‘amorf’ which means without a shape, without a defined form. So we decided we should use the opposite of it. It is a word that does not exist, but we would like it to exist.

On one level we do that to influence the educational system, to stress the importance of writing and thinking about design. Design shouldn’t be only a profession of making things. We have set up an international web portal that will be launched in October. It’s called The ‘nl’ is the Netherlands’ internet suffix. It is supposed to improve the access to recent developments in the Netherlands for foreigners. We want a single portal where you can get the news about the latest products, designers and developments. There is a lot of international interest in what is going on in this funny little country. To serve the argument of openness it is good for people to have a window where they can see what is going on here and also react to it, respond to it.

Then we also bring our own designers to other countries. In October we have a presentation in Tokyo and we have also made a presentation in Milan. We are developing exhibitions, such as a travelling show of Dutch graphic design from 1890-1990. So we are doing a lot of things that are connected with the themes that I just mentioned. Another theme that occupies us is the heritage of design, the preservation of design archives. This is a serious problem. There are archives for science, art and architecture, but the infrastructure hasn’t really been developed for design. And if you don’t archive you lose your collective design memory and you lose your sense of tradition. We feel it is our responsibility to work on that and to see how we can get things done.

Perhaps our most ambitious initiative is a cooperation with a major developer in the Netherlands – ING real estate – and the city of Amsterdam to develop a new centre for design. We call it Platform 21. It’s in the southern part of Amsterdam and we are now piloting this project on a small scale. It should open in 2011; there is a budget for the building of 24 million euros. There was a debate about whether it should become a design museum. In a way I do not believe in design museums. I think it’s good to have museums like the Victorian & Albert Museum, but the Netherlands isn’t a country where we would create a museum like the V&A. In the Netherlands those collections are scattered across a number of different museums. There was an initiative to a museum in the Netherlands for contemporary design. But I believe that people relate to design as consumers and that a museum is a strange environment for consumers. They see a chair and they are not allowed to sit on it or to buy it. So it is a very strange environment and it creates a barrier, so that only a small number of people find their way to the museum.

I want to create a centre that is inclusive and open to a lot of people. We’ve drawn up a plan for a major gallery where you can look at things, but you can also buy them. Each year we’ll make three collections of new products, they can be high-tech, low-tech, and they can be from developed countries or from developing countries. And we tell the story of the product, so we provide information. We’ll have events, we’ll invite designers to speak and it’ll also be international in scope. What I like a lot about this idea is that you merge the qualities of high quality shops and museums, so you get a very information-rich environment, but it is not a museum. It allows you to have interesting debates about developments that address ecology as well as political or social issues. That’s the dream we are working on.

Are you also looking for partners, and ifs, who are they?

Yes, it is a large project and we are still working on that. It’s obvious that museums won’t be our partners. Perhaps we need commercial partners, but very sophisticated commercial partners. Also art schools, academic partners. In the long run I think we need a network of partners, including international ones. The centre’s quality will be focussed on sourcing products, finding the right products in Brazil, Africa, the United States or Japan. To bring it here, make it available here and tell its story.

What fascinates you about design and how did you come to do what you are doing now?

I never planned to do what I do now, it just happened. I trained as a graphic designer. What I personally like about design is that it allows you, perhaps even forces you, to think about everything but design. So when you see a chair it is not only a chair. It’s a symbol, it’s an interface and it addresses a lot of issues. To understand those issues you really have to focus on cultural developments, on history, on the motivation of the designer, on production processes, on market conditions. They are highly complex symbols that invite you to think. For me that’s the most interesting thing about design. I am not in love with the objects themselves. I am not a design fetishist.

What are the other functions of an object in addition to its purely functional one?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for the last six months. I think that functionalism has just been an alibi, an ideology in design. People say that we need chairs to sit on. I think we’ve never needed chairs to sit on. If we only needed chairs to sit on, we would not have so many different chairs. Just count the chairs in the country and count the times that people sit on chairs, we’ve got far too many chairs. But in a way we want too many chairs and why do we want those chairs? What I find really interesting is looking at design in Second Life. I was just reading a report of the World Economic Forum in Davos which said that a third of the users of Second Life spend more time in it than in real life. There are funny things going on. In Second Life you don’t need chairs, you don’t need cars, you don’t need clothes, you don’t need food because it’s a totally virtual environment. But at the same time you still need chairs, tables and houses because you can’t do without their symbolic meaning. If you have a room and you have no chairs, you don’t really have a room. Second Life seems to prove that the symbolic function is the primarily function in design. That is very interesting because it shows that functionalism has always been an alibi.

In Milan (Salone di Mobile 2007) there were two projects that I found really interesting by our Dutch designers. Hella Jongerius developed a series for Vitra called Props. As we all know Vitra is one of the strongest modernist companies, and all of a sudden Hella was working for them developing this series of props. They include animal shaped vases that are torn, so it was obvious that they could not function in a traditional way. But they still referred to functional issues and they did not pretend to be art. So this is a very meaningful new category of objects. And then at the same time I saw a new work by Marcel Wanders. He used the rapid prototyping technique to make small scenes of his products that he calls Hi-Qs. You might have seen them. He played with the dimension of his objects and placed them in a stage-like miniature environment. Both are very intuitive ways of working that address the realities of Second Life and what I tend to call post-functionalism. We have entered an age of post-functionalism where meaning has become the essence of design.

What are your influences and what inspires you?

It’s hard to say because I have worked in various disciplines. I have been involved in producing popular television; I studied medicine; I’ve written and studied poetry. As a graphic designer I worked with one of my heroes, Anton Beeke, who is one of the greatest graphic designers in the Netherlands. I’ve worked as an international design manager for the Dutch electronics company Philips. Then I worked as a marketing strategist for a major Dutch company. And now I’m doing this.
What inspires me is everything that makes me curious. My favourite designers tend to be people such as Capability Brown, the nineteenth-century English garden architect. He was truly visionary. He invented the English landscape with the means of this time. What I like about garden architecture is that you create something and you can’t see the end result. So you really have to be visionary because you plant those trees and then you die and a hundred years later you get the landscape that you wanted to see. I like that visionary way of thinking, this long-term thinking. One of my other heroes is Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I think he is also one of the true geniuses of our time.

Could you explain that further?

He is one of the guys that reinvented popular music. He is nostalgic about a childhood that he never had. He is looking in his rear mirror seeing a utopia, remembering it and using it as an inspiration for the music he is making today. It’s incredibly clever and so complicated and yet so clear.

Talking about long-term thinking, what do you think will be the most interesting techniques used in design in the future, regarding also nano-technology or gene manipulation, because these technologies are about to change our society.

I do not really know. I can’t imagine what it will be like. It is such a big issue. If I try to think about it I end up writing science fiction.

In Germany there was this exhibition entitled Entry, it was about biotechnology and the accompanying catalogue contained several utopian texts about designers working together with bio-engineers. For me as a designer it is so far away, but obviously these people are honestly discussing it in Germany. Is it a theme in the Netherlands?

Not really, I think it is not one of the drivers of design. Of course in the technical universities they know a lot about material and technologies and they try to link it up to design concepts. That’s what major companies do as well. But it’s still very far away from reality. I see those new technologies, but I don’t see how they will fit into daily life. I just don’t know.

How important is tradition and origin for design?

I think it is very important. In the most literal sense design without tradition is superficial. We should be aware of design becoming too superficial. Today design is so contemporary; it’s almost a real-time profession. It’s here today and gone tomorrow. It’s like fashion, but even in fashion there is more awareness of tradition and history than in design today. Quite often you see designers inventing things that already existed in the past, which they are unaware of. So they do not see the connections and the resemblances. When you are not aware of history and tradition you lose your identity, and the design itself loses its identity.

How does identity relate to a person and the objects around him? Does design also influence humans, or do they just take whatever they like and that’s it?

It’s the same in biology, there they say evolution is not about the bird, it’s about the bird and its nest, evolution is not about the beaver, it’s about the beaver and the dam. Also human evolution is not about the ape that gradually stands up and eventually ends up walking around NYC. It’s about the ape changing in relation to its artefacts. So the man without the mobile phone is a different man than the man with the mobile phone. The idea that our development is totally interdependent on our artefacts is perhaps even more important today because these artefacts may also threaten us.

Do you detect a movement creating a religious aura around design, creating myths around design objects?

No, not really. Like I said before, in this post-functional world it’s all about the symbolic meaning of objects. From the earliest times people have constructed the meaning, and they needed the meaning to relate to reality, in a way to survive the chaotic world. We need our symbols and we need them desperately.

What is the mission of the avant-garde in design?

I don’t believe in the avant-garde in design. Three years ago I made an exhibition in Middelburg, in Zeeland entitled Alternate as an alternative to innovate. One of the things we showed was an average middle-class car reduced to its silhouette. When you juxtapose all those silhouettes you can see that they are just variations of a theme. So there is no progress whatsoever. I mean you can call it progress but they are merely variations. It’s the same whether you look at vases or suits. It’s not about progress. The idea of progress, like the idea of functionalism, is a construct. It’s an ideology, an alibi. I really believe that design is much more of an evolutionary scheme. There are many variations, many mutations of an object, and some of them almost accidentally have certain qualities that make them better or stronger. And they create the next generations. And that has nothing to do with the idea of an avant-garde.

Do you see a big difference between German and Dutch design?

Design is, like art and many other things, the product of the social climate of a country. It’s an expression of the country’s social-cultural conditions. That also makes design very interesting because in a way it mirrors, it visualises. Holland had its own cultural revolution in the seventies. We deliberately got rid of hierarchies, former structures, discipline and all kind of things that the baby-boomer generation did not like. So we have become a highly ideological country that is based on the idea that it’s simply stupid to believe in God, so we are merely anti-religious. We believe in the individual and in the qualities of the individual, much more than we believe in the qualities of a social structure as a whole. In a way we want to see that people are more or less equal, and the whole system forces us to behave in that way. This whole ideology has influenced our educational system and it has also influenced our creative climate. You can see this almost as a social-cultural experiment that is taking place in this country up to its extremes, and that has had consequences to our designs as well. Many of the things we see today hark back to the developments of the 1970s. There is no other place in the world where this happened. And today in the Netherlands we find ourselves not entirely happy with what we have done. But we don’t know how to restore the qualities we are missing.

What are those qualities?

We miss social coherence, we miss solidarity, discipline. It’s like the symphonic tradition in music. The moment you break a tradition, the moment you say: ‘We stop writing symphonies, because we want to do something else!’, the following generation doesn’t know how to write symphonies anymore. It’s incredibly dangerous to destroy traditions through ideologies. Those disruptive movements in history have always proven to be, I don’t want to say disastrous, but to a large extent they were disastrous. So we are in the midst of an experiment, and the results of this experiment are interesting but they are equally painful.

Germany is a much more traditional country. You still have a newspaper like the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that does not have illustrations. Germans still write essays that are much longer than the essays we want to read in Holland. They still have an educational system where there is room for theory and for many other things we really find a waste of time. The German football team is based on force, discipline and mentality while the Dutch football team is a weird balance of individuality, self-esteem and the idea that we are virtuous and that we need to do everything beautifully. Those differences are enormous.

But there was an exhibition in Rotterdam in the late 1980s of avant-garde designers from Berlin. What they showed at that moment was purely conceptual design like the things that Droog Design became famous for five or ten years later. So there are many differences but there are also strong similarities. I’m much more interested in the connections. What amazed me was that there was a new generation of highly conceptual German designers who showed their work at that time, but I believe that the world did not see it as really German. So it was not successful; they wanted to see something different. When Droog Design came up with similar concepts in Milan the world saw that it fitted the expectations of this funny low country and it became very successful.

Do you think as a German designer one should do something very German to be successful?

I think you should always do what you want to do. But today, even more so than ten or twenty years ago, the national clichés play an enormous role in the appreciation of design movements. We all fill in the expectations that have been built up. If it doesn’t fit in some kind of pattern it seems difficult to sell the stuff to the media, to the museums, to the consumers. If Mercedes made a Fiat-style car, it would not be accepted, because we want a German car, and you know what a German car is. It’s a bit like that with designers. I will tell you what a German designer is and if you think differently then you have a problem.

What is your favourite object?

I don’t have a favourite object. I have a few objects that I can’t do without. If my laptop broke down I would be in deep shit. And I have objects that I like a lot.

What do you think about the education of designers? Is it sufficient?

We did some research on design professionals in the Netherlands together with the Dutch Institute for Statistics. So there are fresh statistics and I am still puzzled about what to do with them. What we already knew was that there are approximately 40,000-50,000 people in the Netherlands who call themselves designers. We are quite sure that they are not architects or artists. So that is a lot of designers for a country of 16 million people. Then we found out that 20,000 of them have had no design education whatsoever. Yet, half the design-school graduates do not become designers. It feels as if there is a gap between design education and professional practice, which allows half of the designers to do something else such as becoming cooks or consultants. And the other 20,000 just do it and get into the profession. Is that a problem? I don’t think so. I would like design to be something like photography. Everybody who has a camera is a photographer. It is an open cultural field. Much more than it is today, I would like design to be an open cultural field like cooking or photography or football. Within that field you find, as in photography, good professionals, lousy professionals or very good amateurs. That’s the dynamic of a cultural field. I really would like design to function in the same way. If the design task is very complex you need professional education because you need an understanding of the process to be able to manage the complexity. Some photographic tasks you can’t do without professional education. But we don’t need so many professionals, let’s keep the profession open. That’s the best way to ensure that it keeps developing and progressing.

How important is working without clear aims?

It’s very important. But at the same time it’s the wrong question, because it’s utilitarian. I think in reality there is no work without an aim. When you make something, you do so because you want to make something, and that is the aim of work. And it is always important to make something if you feel the urge to make something. So don’t worry about the aim.

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