|Dutch Design //|
|Dutch Design ready to go
It’s an English expression, but it could almost be the national slogan of Dutch design ingenuity: “necessity is the mother of invention.”
In other words, circumstance forces people to be creative. Could this explain why this small nation leads the world when it comes to design?
The Dutch have a long tradition of innovation. Long ago, the threat of inundation by the angry sea led the Dutch to develop sophisticated networks of canals and dykes. Then the need to keep the low-lying areas behind the dykes drained of water led Dutch engineers to perfect the windmill – a structure that has become one of the country’s most cherished symbols.
More recently, Dutch architects have emerged as among the most creative in the world, partly because the need to adequately house people in this densely populated nation without destroying the landscape – and without spending a lot of money – drove them to create ingenious solutions that have been copied around the world.
Similarly, the pre-eminence of Dutch design today is to a large extent the result of deliberate efforts to overcome difficult situations. Compared to other European countries with strong design cultures such as the UK, Germany and Italy, the Netherlands does not have a critical mass of innovation-driven industries such as car-making, aerospace or computing that require a constant supply of designers to keep their products up to date.
So Dutch designers had to invent a design culture for themselves. Starting with the Droog collective in the nineties, they did it by completely rethinking what design meant in industrial societies – ie, the belief that design is something that serves industry by giving it new and better products to manufacture.
Instead, Dutch designers looked at industrial design in a different way, relying only on what they could do themselves rather than what some far-off factory might be able to produce. And – perhaps to distract attention from the crudity of their production methods – they started to think more deeply about what the product meant, rather than only what it did.
The result was “conceptual design” – perhaps the most influential design movement of the past quarter century, combining art-world sophistication with pre-industrial craft techniques.
A good example of Dutch conceptual design is Jurgen Bey’s Tree Trunk Bench designed in 2000. It consists of the trunk of a felled tree impaled with chair-backs cast in brass, confirming that the rustic log is indeed there to be sat upon and turning an object that you would happily sit on in a forest into something grand and precious enough for an interior.
Conceptual design also displays the Dutch genius for self-promotion: objects like Tree Trunk Bench quickly started to knock the super-slick-but-dull Italian design that had ruled the roost for so long off the magazine pages, and heralded the era of the designer as superstar and the chair as pin-up.
But there is more to Dutch design than conceptualism. The Netherlands is one of the most free-thinking off all nations, with deep traditions of individualism, self-criticism and progressiveness: the Dutch are not a people to obey the rules. They are renowned for their sense of humour, and are one of only a handful of nations that openly laughs at itself (a trait they share with the British).
Yet the country also retains a strong sense of pride in its own identity, with the result that young Dutch designers are not embarrassed by their cultural legacy. Quite the opposite: they are fascinated by their own traditions and seek to reinvent them whenever they can. Witness the number of times that windmills appear as a motif in contemporary Dutch design objects.
In the last few years Dutch designers have pioneered the appropriation of history as the basis of a radical and highly influential new aesthetic, with figures such as Marcel Wanders, Ineke Hans and Hella Jongerius taking old-fashioned techniques and materials such as lace-making, crochet, ceramics and the famous Delft blue style of decoration and using them to create new forms.
Niels van Eijk’s Bobbin Lace light is a great example of this: the designer took a lace-making technique that originated in Flanders in the fifteenth century but which had almost died out, and used it to weave a net-like form in fibre-optic threads. The result is a product that is utterly of its time but which is also undeniably Dutch. At a time when there is widespread concern that globalism is diluting local cultures, the Dutch have shown that contemporary design can in fact be the saviour of tradition.
In the Netherlands, this is facilitated by a network of organisations and companies that seek to find common ground between designers and tradition. To give a few examples: the European Ceramics Workcentre at Hertogenbosch, one of the world’s leading centres for innovation in ceramics, regularly offers residencies to leading designers, who use the time to pioneer new ways of working in this ancient material.
Ceramics company Royal Tichelaar Makkum – the oldest manufacturer in the country – also repeatedly commissions leading talents to keep it at the forefront of innovation. The Groninger Museum at Groningen regularly mixes exhibitions of historic visual arts with radical new commissions, most famously commissioning young designer Maarten Baas to burn a series of antique furniture pieces from its collection.
Dutch institutions also work hard to ensure designers are brought to international attention, with bodies such as Premsela, the Mondriaan Foundation and Design Academy Eindhoven – widely regarded as the most progressive and important design school in the world – organising exhibitions of Dutch design around the world. In this way Dutch designers are given access to international markets and the Dutch design brand remains in the media spotlight.
Not many countries could get away with such an approach without being accused of putting style ahead of substance. But Dutch design, more than any other, has both substance and style in abundance.
Marcus Fairs is editor of online design magazine dezeen.com and author of Twenty-First Century Design.