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Hella Jongerius – Misfit

For the first time in the Netherlands, Hella Jongerius’ entire oeuvre is being exhibited. We talk to the exhibition curator, her good friend and creative collaborator Louise Schouwenberg.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 02-12-2010

The creative collaboration between Louise Schouwenberg and Hella Jongerius is one of the most important in Dutch design history. Schouwenberg – the talkative one – explains how it came about and why it just keeps on working.

Louise Schouwenberg knew nothing about design when she first encountered Hella Jongerius in 1997. “I think I thought it was unimportant and superficial,” she says.  Schouwenberg, an artist and back then a student of philosophy, was working on her sculptures at the European Ceramics Workshop in ’s-Hertogenbosch (EKWC).  Coincidentally, Jongerius was experimenting with her early ideas about imperfection in the very same studio.

“Our connection started on a personal level,” Schouwenberg says.  “I think it was because we shared the same sort of humour, but I quickly became intrigued by her work, mostly because I did not understand what she was doing and I liked the kind of bold way she pursued her research.”

Kilns are usually surrounded by artists or designers waiting for perfection.  “There is always that anxiety,” Schouwenberg says.  “Happiness seems to be the result of perfection.”

Jongerius was the opposite.  When something perfect exited the kiln, her face registered disappointment. It was peculiarity and inconsistency that sparked her excitement.

“We started to talk about it and I discovered that she was studying temperatures versus the thickness of the skins,” Schouwenberg says.  “I really liked her attitude; she was completely unsentimental.”

That study, it turns out, was the early experimentation that resulted in “B-Set dinnerware,” still one of Jongerius’ most important works and what set the tone of what was to become.

Today, Hella Jongerius is one of Holland’s most important contemporary designers.  She is a part of the country’s design generation that started out knowing that they were against the design establishment, but not yet sure of what they stood for.  It was that iconoclastic attitude that in 1993 caught the attention of Droog Design that started to present the unconventional work at international design shows.

Even during her early success as a Droog star, Jongerius stood out due to her focus on material research and her inclination to work with the industry, not just make statements about or against it.  Her specialty would become the quest for individuality within serial production.

Always standing by Jongerius’ side was Schouwenberg who was evolving into her friend’s harshest critic - always posing tough questions and helping Jongerius to better articulate design ideas. Her questions came from a mindset trained outside the narrow corridors of design, which forced Jongerius to think beyond normal design paradigms.

It is an approach that worked so well that Schouwenberg was soon asked by Gijs Bakker to teach at the Design Academy Eindhoven where she is currently an associate professor of Designtheory and Head of the Master’s research programme, Contextual Design.

Gijs Bakker liked to call on artists and theorists from various fields to lecture students. He wanted Schouwenberg to teach them about philosophy and to help them create a link between ideas and design.  She knew that the likes of Plato, Heidegger and Baudrillard would trigger a student’s imagination, but she needed to find a way for them to show their understanding in a non-verbal way. “I ended up asking them to make a chair, for example, for Plato or Descartes that proved to me that they understood the philosopher’s ideas,” she explains.  “The results were amazingly good, some designs even proved to be excellent functional chairs.”

Schouwenberg is dead against designers drawing off designers who in turn draw off other designers, and is adamant about the importance of a fuller education.  “I am always telling my students that good design should reflect something about the world,” she says.  “I tell them not to look only to other designers and design theory, but to politics, to sociology, to philosophy, art and literature. They need to reflect on the role design plays in society.”

Listening to Schouwenberg delve into her own thoughts, hints at the content of what surely might be one of the most fascinating dialogues between designer and design critic this century.  Some of their conversations have been printed and others have been fictionalized (by Schouwenberg) and printed as design debates.  

“Our earliest talks were really me asking questions,” Schouwenberg says.  “I wanted to know what she liked and why.  I wanted to know what was wrong with the designers she disliked and what was wrong with the design world she and her generation were reacting against.  Most of all I wanted to know why she felt this new generation offered something better than, for instance, Jan de Bouvrie and Ikea.”  

When Jongerius first asked Schouwenberg to write a text for her, Schouwenberg balked.  “I told her that I still really knew nothing about design,” she says.  “She replied that I asked the right questions, which mattered more.”

Schouwenberg hit the books, immersed herself in the Droog phenomenon and quickly came to understand the design world beyond Jongerius.

“I discovered that what was happening to design was really quite fascinating,” she says, “and Hella’s position in it was an exceptional and important one.  It seems I met the right person at the right time.”

More collaborations revealed that not only were Schouwenberg and Jongerius a good intellectual match, but they also complimented each other’s skill base.  “She is very intelligent and intuitive, but in the beginning of her career she simply could not put that into words,” Schouwenberg says.  “So how we did it was I would ask questions, listen and  look at what she actually made, and then put it all into words.”

And thus, with no formal agreement, a creative and intellectual union was formed – one that has lasted to this day. Schouwenberg with her vast knowledge of design and art theory as well as her skills with writing; Jongerius with her sharp instincts and exquisite design skills.

And it was her artist perspective that made Schouwenberg especially critical of the emerging trend for designers to openly articulate their artistic ambitions. Jongerius herself was experimenting on the fine line between art and design, a line that Schouwenberg always likes to have clearly defined.  “I find it very frustrating when a design student argues that his work is not functional so more like an art project,” she says.  “That is not how you make art.  When a chair doesn’t function, it is bad design. That is it.”

One of the most important movements in Dutch design has been the reintroduction of craft techniques.  While many designers embraced this quite literally, Jongerius was more focused on translating what worked well in the past according to the needs of the present.  “Hella gave attention to craft, but not in a sentimental or nostalgic way,” says Schouwenberg.  “Her search was an attempt to combine the benefits of both craft and industrial production.”

What this era needs is good design in serial production, but with products that reveal so much more about the care taken in the design and production process. People do not form bonds with anonymous, mass-produced objects making them too easy to discard and replace.

“Hella tries to improve the relationship of users and products,” says Schouwenberg.  “Her work points to traces of craftsmanship, and of humane imperfection, the misfits, because such characteristics prove that somebody has been paying a lot of attention to the making of an object.  It is not just a symbolic gesture, but a genuine search for a fruitful liaison of craft, design and industry.  I think she was the first one to really pull that off.”

“Hella Jongerius – Misfit” was curated by Schouwenberg and has opened in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen to great acclaim.  Not that there have not been some troubles.  A museum is not a natural context for design, which is being exhibited for its cultural meaning not its functional value - visitors are there to think and view, not to use or consume.

At first Schouwenberg wanted to work with a theatre designer on the presentation, but Jongerius did not like the idea.  Nor did she want a fake shop or living room.  “That would end up resembling Ikea,” Schouwenberg says.  

The final decision made by Schouwenberg, Irma Boom and the team at Jongeriuslab was to mount the objects on the walls, in order to solely focus on their cultural value while downplaying their functionality.  It was also decided to remove chronology and any hierarchy between experiments, limited editions and industrial design by presenting the work according to colour.

Schouwenberg says the main criticism she has received about the presentation is that it lacks adequate explanation. “We did that on purpose though,” she says.  “We wanted people to experience the work first and not be grabbing for words immediately.  if they long for extra information, they can find it on the wallpaper on the opposite wall.”

To coincide with the exhibition, a book by the same title, designed by Irma Boom and published by Phaidon Press has been released.  Laid out flat, the book addresses the simple issue of “What is a book?” with very simple and tactile binding.  As with the exhibition the content is arranged according to colour starting with white traversing the spectrum and returning back its point of departure.

It is interesting to note that in the opening pages of the book only a few people are singled out for special thanks – intimate friends and Jongerius’ co-workers at Jongeriuslab. “Hella is very private,” Schouwenberg says.  “She is very focused and loyal.”

That reveals much about the way that she works.  When Jongerius agrees to work with companies like Royal Tichelaar Makkum, Vitra and Maharam, she stays loyal to what they represent.  Her style is to come in, search through archives, discover a consistent framework and work with some consistency with the past – whether that be via materials or sketches.  “She never just comes in with something completely new,” says Schouwenberg.  “She tries to fit it with what was, or utilize what they have.”

At the exhibition opening, Jongerius thanked those people who had geniunely made a differene to her work.  For Schouwenberg she offered a heartfelt thanks. 

“We have trodden a long path together,” Schouwenberg says.  “To a large extent, I became what I am because of working so closely with her and I dare not say it is vice versa, but we have certainly had a very natural influence on one another.”

“Hella Jongerius – Misfit” at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen until February 13, 2011.

Images: small from top: Louise Schouwenberg, Hella Jongerius, “B-Set dinnerware,”
Long Neck and Groove Bottles 2000 by Gerrit Schreurs Fotografie
Nymphenburg sketches – Animal Bowls 2004 (photography by Nymphenburg)
Polder Sofa 2005 ((photography by Vitra)
Layers 2006 (Photography by Maharam)
Frog Table (Natura Design Magistra) 2009 (photography by Fabrice Gousset, courtesy Galerie kreo
Misfit exhibition photography by Lotte van Stekelenburg
Coloured Vases (Gerrit Schreurs Fotografie)
“Hella Jongerius – Misfit” book cover by Irma Boom.

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