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Basic Instincts

A new exhibition that reveals creative connections between Dutch fashion, design, art and architecture has opened in Berlin to rapturous applause.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 07-07-2011

It is the impossible question, but one that every magazine editor and design enthusiast wants neatly answered.  “Just what is ‘Dutch design’?”

In the 90s the answer was narrower – less complex.  Basic Instincts, which opened in Berlin last week, is an excellent beginning to an answer for this new decade.

The exhibition - curated by Luca Marchetti and Emanuele Quinz, and designed by Henrik Vibskov – presents a distillation of the ideas shaping contemporary Dutch fashion.  Beyond just that, it explores how these same ideas are concomitantly the force behind product design, architecture and even art.

Categorized and fully explored, each idea or theme is presented via a series of projects spanning the disciplines. Visitors leave with a very tangible sense of how in Holland the creative vision is always outward, multidisciplinary and open.  

Marchetti, who teaches semiotics at Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in France, says he spotted the themes early in the curatorial process.  “Right away I saw a lot of diversity, fragmentation and a very subtle approach to density, textures, volumes and geometry,” he says.

He was also struck by how Dutch design tends to shun the sort of surface culture more typical of French and Italian design.  “In Holland it is just not a decorative discipline,” he says.  Rather, he found a philosophical aesthetic that when analyzed becomes relevant to our collective social lives.

 “I’m talking about aesthetics as a contemporary notion,” Marchetti says.  “It is about giving a face to symbols, important ideas and archetypes.”

What he did with Basic Instincts is bring that notion up to a visible form so that ideas can be represented, and relationships become more clear.  Then he divided all his findings up so as to make them easier to digest.

It's a great approach and it works splendidly.

In “Perspectives” projects explore the idea that meaning depends on how one looks at things, but also how our own baggage is the dominant determinant of our own personal truths.  Like, for example, Design duo Daphna Laurens’ “Vault” series, which relies on history to create meaning for a user. Fashion designer Oda Pausma and product designer Frederike Top also turn to travel and memory to forge relationships between people and their own objects.

In “Un-designed” designers acknowledge that more things are not needed, but rather a better appreciation of what already exists.   Product designers Pieke Bergmans and Lex Pott embrace the casual existence of things that look randomly, even accidentally in place.

Marchetti’s categorizations also reveal a lot about where Dutch design has come since the 90s when big name, charismatic designers swamped the sector.  “It's true that in what we see now there is still something recognizable from that era,” he says.  “They are still immersing themselves in different textures and materials and making work that has the courage to be rough and raw.  It is also still very conceptual.”

In “Soft-Future” fashion designer Klavers van Engelen, product designer Bo Reudler and architects Powerhouse show work that is less about rational shapes and modernist solutions and more about being adaptable and having a sensitivity for what already is.  These creatives are less egotistical, but their work doesn’t shrink for its humbleness.  Rather, its purity and poeticism afford it a strength that sets it apart.  This theme was one of the most striking of the exhibition.

A conceptual approach has always characterized Dutch design, but it’s also the Dutch designer’s willingness to take things a step further.  “In France and Italy the play with volume and geometry is not the same,” Marchetti acknowledges.  “In France designers tend to always add more external balance – they want to finish with coherence, round edges and polish.”

But that does not mean that a strong decorative element doesn’t exist.  It becomes a generational thing.  When a designer is young and can produce work more aligned to his or her research, there are always going to be fewer commercial constraints.

Projects exhibited by product designers Scholten and Baijings, fashion designer Anne de Grijff and architect Ramon Knoester (WHIM architecture) are all very much about communicating what is urban and elegant.  It is work, according to Marchetti, that blurs the boundary between “appearing” and “being”.

And that makes good commercial sense.  “As a designer you have a duty to the market,” Marchetti says.  “If you forget that, I think you have missed the point of the job.”

And as the curator points out, dealing with the market is nothing more than managing constraints.  “A fashion designer can always assume freedom,” he says, “but then he or she has to drive their product through the market.”

The standout fine-artist of the exhibition was Amie Dicke whose development since her fashion cut-outs has moved into unexpected territory.  “I have wanted to work with her for years, but she has been very protected,” Marchetti says.  “Her work was very compatible with glossy magazines, but now I think she is being more courageous.  She is supporting a stronger artistic point of view.”

Still, it was in design that the exhibition really wowed.   

Marchetti agrees:  “To be honest, I didn't think such young designers could take it that far,” he says.  “The underground scene in Holland, what's going on with the independents.  It’s really fantastic.”

Product designer Jo Meesters and fashion designer Iris van Herpen, for example, presented fascinating work that proves that futuristic isn’t all about technology – it can be a radical re-embrace of craftsmanship.  Even the most cutting edge ideas can be manufactured by hand.

During the opening of Basic Instincts there were some grumblings about Henrik Vibskov’s exhibition design.   Given, however, the ambitions of the exhibition, it makes good sense.  All fifty projects will be packed up and moved around the world to be exhibited in all sorts of spaces from classical buildings to bare white boxes.  The exhibition cannot be redesigned every time to fit its surroundings. A strong structural design bordering the works that underscores its coherence is essential.

Basic Instincts has successfully captured an attitude held by the Dutch creative world towards the complexities of contemporary life. It shows this country’s design as a proactive entity – a sector with a vision; subtler than its more famous 90s forefathers, but more implicated in possibility.

Basic Instincts is a Premsela, the Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion, project.  It will run at Berlin's Villa Elisabeth through 31 July.

Images: small top page "Vault" by Daphna Laurens, main at top Iris van Herpen as seen in the Basic Instincts exhibition, top three from top Basic Instincts exhibition images, followed by work from Oda Pausma, Pieke Bergmans, Lex Pott, Bo Reudler, Scholten and Baijings, Anne de Grijff, and Jo Meesters.

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