Dutch Design Week: Going Backwards and Forwards in the History of Design - Review and interviews from Dutch Design Week 2016

Text and Interviews: Monika Dorniak

Between 21 - 29th of October Dutch Design Week took over Eindhoven once again. The diversity of international visitors showed how the popularity of DDW has spread beyond the borders of the Netherlands - along my journey between London and Eindhoven I perceived the invigorating change of cultural atmosphere keenly. On my journey to Design Week, I rediscovered the ever-evolving expressive street art around Brussels-Midi, enjoyed refreshingly-dressed pedestrians in Antwerp and took in the sleek exhibition currently at MoMu, Rik Wouters & The Private Utopia which bridges art and design with a superb list of Belgian fashion designers. 

The organised Dutch Design Week web presence helped me to identify Eindhoven's places of interest virtually. I filtered my choice from the overwhelming amount in the programme by its relevance to my recent research into tactile stimuli and manual work. My main targets, on my rented Dutch Velo, were multi-disciplinary exhibitions presenting innovative design and its significant role in cultural changes.

The exhibition at the Van Abbe Museum lead the visitor through a set of rooms dedicated to Zeitgeist topics. My favourite room focused on our planet’s organic resources, another on the logical division of form and colours, and one room was dedicated to the usage of black in art and design. Anish Kapoor's Blackest Black was possibly the main attractor, however the curatorial selection of works was astonishing, including Jan Van Den Dobbelsteen's installation 'The Bridge, I live here 1996-2006'. Showing that creative progress must not get bogged down in artificial intelligence and technology, the Bio Art Laboratories presented projects that were Hybrid Design in union with biomaterials, such as grown crystals. Seemingly traveling from the future to the past, I came across jewellery and furniture designer Marielle van Swam of  Ontwerpstudio van Swam in the archeological Heritage Centre Eindhoven. 

Curious to hear about the development of design from different perspectives, I interviewed Marielle and two Design Academy Eindhoven  graduates. According to Dezeen magazine, DAE is regarded as 'one of the most influential schools in the world' - a statement that builds up high expectations, and hopes for the future of design springing from DAE.

More on the ideas and opinions of Eindhoven's fresh minds and makers can be read in the interesting interviews below: 

© Ontwerpstudio van Swam

© Ontwerpstudio van Swam

Marielle van Swam - Ontwerpstudio van Swam

MD: Could you describe your work and your working tool(s)?
MvS: We often forget that we are surrounded by an array of beautiful things. My goal is to show these beautiful things in new designs by enlarging details or using techniques. I am inspired by techniques of materials from the past. I think we forget a lot of these things because of the industrialisation. We are searching for better, cheaper and faster ways to produce something, but we forget the quality of the genius things we invented in the past. Most projects are made of wood. I love this material because of the many different types and characteristics. Besides that, wood is easy to work with. 

MD: Do you define yourself as a craft-maker or designer? 
MvS: I define myself as a designer, but I take inspiration from old crafts. It is kind of a combination. 

MD: What is the intention behind your work with historical wood? 
MvS: My goal is to tell the story form the past with a product. Besides that, I want to show the beauty of this archeological material. The nice difference between material form the past and from now. 

MD: How did the collaboration with the Erfgoedhuis Eindhoven come about? 
MvS: I started with the project wheel reinvented in 2015. The question came from the Erfgoedhuis Eindhoven. “What can you make with rims of wheels from the middle ages?’ In the little stool I want to show what kind of product it was in the past, so I used the six parts that make one wheel and the twelve spokes became twelve feet. After the success of Dutch Design Week 2015 we decided to work on a new project for Dutch Design Week 2016 and this time I wanted to show the value and beauty of an archeological find.

MD: Does the increase of technology have an impact on your work? Do you think it deconstructs your working field?
MvS: It has an effect on my work, in a positive way. Actually I am going to appreciate the things from the past more. There were a lot of people during the Dutch Design Week 2016 who said that they were happy to see my work almost next to someone else who did a lot with 3D printing. Therefore, I think there are two kinds of people. Some people need help to see why or what is beautiful from the past, these are the people, among others I design for.

MD: Why is the connection of the past and the presence in the crafts essential for you? 
MvS: This connection is essential because I think we can use a lot of things that are already invented. We can use this as a basis for a new design. 

MD: What is your utopian thought for the development of the crafts in our era, the Anthropocene? 
MvS: It would be wonderful if we are still developing new crafts. It is so nice to learn a skill and by experimenting and practicing it get better. People would be much more smart as we are now. Now we let computers think for us, and sometimes this saves time but we rarely come to something unexpected. 

Thomas Nathan

Thomas Nathan

lumps of clay  © Thomas Nathan

lumps of clay  © Thomas Nathan

lumps of clay, Thomas Nathan© Design Academy Eindhoven

lumps of clay, Thomas Nathan© Design Academy Eindhoven

Thomas Nathan (Design Academy Eindhoven)

MD: Could you describe your work and your working tool(s)? Would you define yourself as a Craft-maker? 
TN: In my 'Lumps of clay' works I am pressing little pieces of porcelain with my finger into a mould. One element, one action. This happens in one continuous line, attaching one lump to the other. My hands are the main tool here. No, I wouldn't define myself as a Craft-maker. Others may define my work, if they feel the need. 

MD: What influenced your decision to choose your practice? How will you continue it after your graduation?
TN: I've been occupied with thinking in systems, frameworks or rules. At the same time, I have been interested in the relationship between built structures and existential experiences. Somewhere in between those worlds I began to develop my own vocabulary. One initial trigger has been a book about notation for new music (you might want to look up Earl Brown's '4 Systems'). Along the way I got inspired by Jan Schoonhoven's papier-mâché works or George Seurat's paintings. I read 'If on a winter's night a traveler' by Italo Calvino and Michel Serres' writings on multiplicity. And now I'm here. There has not been a clear decision. As long as it felt right I kept going, and I'm still going. Since graduation, chances are growing that I can show my work in a few galleries, along with opportunities to create new pieces. This is definitely something I want to foster. At the same time I will work on an empire of lumps.

MD: What is your point of view on the increasing integration of technology in our life? Does it have an impact on your work? 
TN: Generally, I'm not so much concerned about an increase of technology. There are some very good inventions around. What is worrying me is the speed and hysteria in which this development is taking place. Today new technologies are introduced rapidly. And as technological developments have always been a catalyst for historical change, we are experiencing something like an acceleration of historical change. It has reached a point where eventually I won't be able to process the change within my own lifetime. I am becoming a restless wanderer. And I don't like this. For me it is important to remember that within all these developments we remain fragile beings, mysterious to ourselves. So I'm creating opportunities to step back, calm down and bethink. And why not, start from scratch, from a lump of clay. Yes, technology has an impact on my work. 

MD: How does mind and body connect in your work? 
TN: One aspect is contemplation. Through the physical interaction with the material I make sure that I'm fully there, with all my senses, no distraction. And in the repetitive action my mind starts to drift off, while somehow I remain very present. It's a moment of closure in which I gain autonomy, overcoming any preconceptions. Another aspect is knowledge. We all embody different types of knowledge. There is explicit knowledge, which you can measure and compute. And there is embodied knowledge, which you gain through sensory experiences. In fact, most of our knowledge is based on sensory experiences. Like you only really know if the stove is hot when you have touched it. So in the making I'm gaining knowledge which is hard to communicate with words but with the made object itself. I aim to make my objects inform about themselves in the most direct way, so they also become carriers of knowledge.

MD: Does the repetition of an exercise build control, or is control the catalyst for creating? 
TN: When only control is the catalyst for creating, the outcome may be violent, a facade, forcing a material into your ideas. But I believe that everything has an essence of how it should be treated. And to get there you have to repeat, repeat, repeat. A lot of times I have prepared a mould, defined and precise, but as I worked within it I had to realise that it doesn't match the technique. They didn't need each other. The mould had to change. Now, the more I learn about the technique, the better the moulds fit. The gain of control through the making and the act of control when preparing a mould are become one and the same thing. 

Soo Ji Lee

Soo Ji Lee

Soo Ji Lee (Design Academy Eindhoven) 

MD: Could you describe your project, and your working tool(s)? What is the relation of control between you and your working tool? 
SJL: I’ve worked on a project for DAE master thesis, named “Craftsmanship. How to write Bodoni lowercase?” It’s literally about how to write certain typeface. I designed physical tool, process and behaviours for handwriting Bodoni. Since the mechanisation has been intensified, lots of human qualities have been deleted and replaced by machinery. I wondered what is the non-reproducible human originality and I found the possibility of a human ‘aura’ in ‘craftsmanship’, which machines can never imitate. Craftsmanship doesn’t come from the aesthetically well-made art piece; I thought it comes from one’s attitude shaped by endless repetition to achieve the highest level of perfection. In my project, to draw the perfect Bodoni, I deconstructed lowercases and found 26 elements from which all letters can be constructed. For one letter ‘a’, it needs 74 steps of strokes, 60 curves from perfect circles, two different widths and directions of pen points and I step on the pedal 43 times to pull the pen up and down. It takes 30 minutes to complete one single ‘a’. We can reproduce an infinite quantity of identical letters of ‘a’ with a push of a button. The letter ‘a’ in my project takes a long time, and the results of it will have all different shapes; depending on the speed of hand, the spread of ink, the effect of the tool can’t be constant. Those autonomous differences become the human perfection that the machine would never represent. I focused on the behaviour of ‘writing’ in this project. For me the essence of ‘writing’ is strokes. Actually, the typeface is an ironical subject. We normally say we are ‘writing’ when we type, although we just push buttons. The purpose of typeface invention was for the mass printing structure from the beginning. So it is impossible to write it stroke by stroke, typeface has been considered as ‘image’ from the letterpress process, not a stroke-by-stroke kind of writing letters. So the meaning of this project is literally ‘writing’ the typeface with the strokes as we normally do. 

MD: What influenced your decision to choose your Craft?
SJL: We are facing brand new high technology every minute. This allows us to approach complex specialties easily by using machines or digital devices without any deep-rooted knowledge of the relevant fields. This is a remarkable development from the overall human perspective, but there is also the problem that specialists’ specialties are becoming more shallow. The popularisation of specialties can be celebrated from the public perspective. But from the specialist’s stance, it cannot be fully celebrated. I was wondering what in the human designer’s nature cannot be replaced by a machine. And I thought intuitive human sense could be the thing. I was influenced by The Arts and Craft movement. Although I was not fully convinced with his extreme anti-technology stance since the analogue tools that William Morris used for crafts were also the result of technology when they were first invented in an earlier age. However, the try he attempted influenced me a lot. Because I think artists or designers sometimes try to go one step backward to specify their position, when the industrialisation goes too fast. 

MD: Has the increase of the digital influenced your thoughts about Crafts? What is your point of view on the increasing integration of technology in our life? 
SJL: So for me, using technology is just a method and it is not a big matter to choose a high-tech or low-tech method to craft. For me ‘position’ of creator in the relationship with tool is much important in craft. As a graphic designer, I keep asking myself if I use the computer as a method in the dominant position or do I just depend on it. Generally, craftsmen stick to using their old tools rather than newly developed efficient tools because those tools are already ‘trained’ by craftsmen and craftsmen can understand those tools the best. As a tool, computer doesn’t have that kind of material properties. I’m ‘training myself’ to follow brand new software rather than ‘training it’ as my own tool and I don’t even understand the mechanism that makes computer on and off. This is why I decided to design physical tool to write Bodoni to use it as a pure ‘tool’, which I can train and understand. It was not about against to the digital technology.

MD: How does mind and body connect in your work? 
SJL: I think the craftsmanship can be found when designing (head) and making (hand) come together. We say it is hard to have an insight into the overall view of the forest when one is one of the trees. The process of design today has already created a new structure under the division of labour between humans and machines to reach goals for economical profits. Therefore, the designer’s position has degenerated from integrator to participant. In earlier ages, before the heads and the hands of graphic designs were split, through the work of the letter press — doing letter press work is one combined process in which one can design (head) and print (hand) at the same time — we could see there was always the designer’s elaborate insight in every step. All the processes were fully controlled by the designer’s intuitive insight, from the work of putting the blank blocks between the letter blocks to adjust the letter spacing, to the work of controlling the volume of ink while spreading it. When the designer controls all the processes and tools, and when he doesn’t split his thoughts and hands, then he can put his own principles and responsibilities in his work as a producer.