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Hello World

International Herald Tribune design critic Alice Rawsthorn’s new book “Hello World” is a great and important read.  A few of the most interesting names in contemporary Dutch design make it into her narrative on how design can be best embraced in a modern world.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 02-05-2013

Good design makes people’s lives better. The seemingly very trendy question of what design is and what design can do is answered quite simply in Alice Rawsthorn’s new book “Hello World”. A good design is one that responds to the problems we face.

The book is a tour through the world of design with an emphasis on how the discipline has evolved to touch much more than the chairs and tables we use.  Design moulds lifestyles and affects the way we interact and organise our private lives.

We were keen to see if any Dutch designers made Rawsthorn’s cut, especially as it has become so apparent that design more typical of the 90s, which the Dutch did so well in, is really no longer relevant.  Design today must (apparently) have a social core.

Design has always been part of our lives, whether conscious or unconscious. Good weapon design and well-designed tactics can be the difference between life and death, glory or failure. Rawsthorn explains this more encompassing definition of design using the example of King Ying Zheng from Chinese antiquity. Unifying the design of the weapons of his army was one of the smart policies that distinguished him from his competitors, making him stronger and finally becoming the legendary first emperor of China. Design made a difference because archers with different home made bows and arrows were not nearly as formidable a force as archers with all the same weapon who can borrow each other arrows. 

It was during the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth that design started to become a more conscious, cerebral activity. “Building a better world” so to speak was often part of the ideology espoused in modernist movements like De Stijl in the Netherlands or Bauhaus in Germany.

De Stijl and it’s most famous member – Gerrit Rietveld – is the first mention of Dutch design in the book, but even though modernism was extremely important in the Netherlands, it’s not the Netherlands’ modernist protagonists who Rawsthorn chooses to highlight.

Rather, she focuses on the more designer-as-author-types. Designers who have created freedom for themselves to experiment with form not just for form’s sake, but as an intellectual pursuit.  These are the individuals that impress her most.

Like Hella Jongerius who, influenced by Japanese aesthetics, creates room for imperfectness in her designs.  Ceramic objects don’t need to be perfectly shaped.  This is a concept that has long been accepted and used by Japanese ceramists to their advantage.

The actual book “Hello World” is designed by Dutch typographer Irma Boom.  Boom has made a career for herself designing original and almost deconstructed books. She has made books printed on coffee filter paper, and a book with edges hacked off using a circular saw. She involves the reader in her designs by making them break perforations and use the book in more the just the traditional cover-to-cover way.

Modern society becomes a topic in what Daniel van der Velden has termed “speculative design”. “Rather than waiting for commercial clients to set a brief,” Rawsthorn writes, “they identify an issue that intrigues them, such as a political or economic phenomenon, and conduct an unsolicited design exercise.”  

Christien Meindertsma’s project PIG 05049 could be seen as just such an exercise. Analysing the 100+ products a pig ends up in, from cosmetics to foods, the project confronts the consumer with the consequences of his or her behaviour.

The last major name that made the cut is again a typographer, Joost Grootens.  Grootens has earned enormous respect for the way he manages to convert information into a decipherable visual. For Grootens any information can be visualized. And he has not limited himself to the content supplied by those who hire him - after a decade of commissioned assignments he then turned this decade of his own working life into a book visualizing his career. “Convinced that people stop looking at books as soon as they start reading,” Rawsthon writes, “Grootens presents the visual information first.”

Rawsthorn’s preference is clearly for designers who might be able to help us find solutions to the issues dominating our times - the environmental, the economical and political issues we’re facing. “Design […] is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to resolve problems, providing it’s deployed intelligently,” she writes.

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