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Bureaucracy vs. Design

Nobody quite knows what to think in Eindhoven this week as news of Edelkoort's departure spreads and confusion sets in about what exactly the city government is planning.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 28-01-2010

In Li Edelkoort’s open-letter of resignation from the Designhuis and Eindhoven, she blames the vision of the city’s governance.

Rob Schoonen has been covering the rift between Edelkoort and Eindhoven in the Eindhovens Dagblad.  “It’s really just two opposing views on how design should develop in this city,” he says.  “Li has really supported autonomous design and feels it should be allowed to have Designhuis to itself.  The city thinks social design and technology needs to play more of a role.  The two opinions don't match.”

The city’s goal is to better coordinate the design scene by incorporating not just the autonomous design favoured and so effectively promulgated by Edelkoort, but design technology and production.  In its vision TU Eindhoven, Design Academy, Dutch Design Week and Designhuis as well as research and production facilities will be more integrated into the Economic Development Board, which at the moment is going by the name of Eindhoven Brainport.  

“That name may change, but it’s about working out how everything can combine to strengthen the region,” says Eindhoven City Director Ger Peeters.  “It will be controlled by a corporation that will be run by a board and all facets of Eindhoven’s economy will be represented on it. It’s as simple as that.  Nothing else about autonomous design is going to change.”

Local designers, however, disagree.  “I think a lot is going to change,” says Kiki van Eijk.  “If Li is no longer active down here then that means we will have lost a very key figure in the international design scene.  I really think Eindhoven should find a way to keep her.”

And how can autonomous design thrive without true artistic freedom, which demands risk, experimentation and oft-times failure.  No creative pursuit can work with bureaucratic restrictions and every big name Dutch designer from Maarten Baas to Piet Hein Eek and Jurgen Bey proves this.

“I feel free with the way things are set up now and that is really important,” says Van Eijk.  “It doesn’t feel like anybody is putting anything in my way.”

Peeters, however, says the whole thing is baffling and claims that even those behind the scenes don’t fully understand Edelkoort’s decision.  “Of course I was shocked by her letter,” he says, “especially by the words and tone she used and that she is dragging people into this argument who for years have only supported her.  It really isn’t fair.  She seems convinced that we are taking Eindhoven backwards to a time when design was all about technology and industry, but that is simply not true … The Design Academy and Dutch Design Week will continue doing the same good work that they have been doing to date.”

Everyone and especially Eindhoven power-brokers know what Edelkoort is like - she didn’t earn her reputation or success for her ability to compromise and although her letter may have been peppered with histrionics, it’s not impossible to sympathize with her position. It’s taken a decade in Eindhoven of what she might think of as high-minded or at least purist endeavours for autonomous design to really get established.  To be forced now to make concessions for what bureaucrats consider to be "for the good of Eindhoven" and have her work tucked into a marketing and branding exercise has understandably left her furious.

“I don’t think this is about power though,” says Peeters, who clearly respects Edelkoort, but has a different more all-encompassing vision for his city.  “She just doesn’t want to be controlled at all and if you are working with public money, you have to be able to properly explain what you are doing.  We’ve even offered her to be artistic curator of Designhuis exhibitions, but she refused.”  

In her letter, Edelkoort emphasizes that she owns the Desgnhuis concept and name.  “That is what she claims,” says Peeters, "but in reality it was a collaboration.”  Already the Designhuis website has changed and it appears that at least for now they are attempting to stick with the name, but are using a new look and logo.  By maintaining control of her brand, Edelkoort is able to take it and use it elsewhere – a fact she alluded to in an interview with Schoonen.  “I own this,” she told him.  “Eindhoven will have to come up with another name. Who knows, I might start a Designhuis in another city. Right now I have no plans, but you never know."

According to Peeters, Designhuis was never supposed to be a solely Edelkoort vehicle anyway.  “The idea behind the concept was always to use the space as a meeting place for all people from all facets of design including business and education,” he says.  “It wasn’t meant to be a museum and if we have to change the name, so be it.  The name isn't the point, it’s what’s going on inside that matters.”

An editorial on the issue in the Eindhovens Dagblad describes the situation as a head-butt between a bureaucracy working within a budgetary framework and an intractable women who wants her own way.  It blames the mayor and the city government for her departure and says that however willful she may have been, a bridge should have been built to accommodate her.

“She [Edelkoort] is a very willful person with remarkable views and a large ego,” it reads.  “This causes conflicts with people who prefer to stick to a more middle-of-the road path.”

Edelkoort refused to comment to saying her manifesto says it all and that it is now up to journalists to take a position.  She does, however, admit that the whole ordeal has been very “painful.”

Images from top Li Edelkoort and the Designhuis, Ger Peeters, Kiki van Eijk, Rob Schoonen

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