Agatha Haines’s portfolio has 3D-printed organs, hyperrealistic (but artificial) flayed faces, and surgically altered infants. The collective We Make Carpets has a rug composed of 6,000 paper drink umbrellas. Formafantasma has vases and tables made from volcanic rock. The differences in these designers’ work is obvious, but the less-apparent similarity is the focus of Dream Out Loud: Designing for Tomorrow’s Demands, an exhibition of white-hot Dutch designers at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
To Lennart Booij, a curator at the museum, all three projects embody the socially driven philosophy that will cement this generation’s place in design history.
“I call this a Dutch makeover,” Booij says. “What we have seen over the years in Dutch design is this specific ironic element, this twist that was a signature in Dutch design. To [me and the jury that curated the exhibition], it was a surprise that young designers are changing this attitude. They are much more interested in the story behind the design, the material: ‘Is this sustainable?’ ‘What do I want to tell to the audience?'”
When the Dutch design collective Droog launched at the Milan Furniture Fair in 1993, critics were instantly excited by its brand of witty tongue-in-cheek furniture and defined a generation of practice in the Netherlands in the process. Until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the designers in the inaugural Droog collection were starting to become active, the Netherlands was known mostly for graphic design, not products and furniture. The critics applauded the minimalist collection’s dry humor, which was a rejection of the general excess of the 1980s. In the book Droog Design, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli said the collection “appeared to be design accidents”: a stack of rags belted together to become a chair; a chandelier made from 85 standard lightbulbs and sockets strung together; a chest composed of mismatched drawers. It rejected austerity and celebrated wit. Subsequent designs in the late 1990s and early 2000s followed the anything-goes approach, and the objects became more elaborate and aesthetically provocative. The objects–often limited-edition pieces–fell between the intersection of design and art and quickly entered the domain of galleries. Often, the conclusion to a piece’s story would be as a showpiece in a wealthy collector’s trophy case.
The luxurification of design into an art object came to define the last couple of decades. “It was only there to create the impression of luxury in a gallery setting,” he says. “We saw the younger generation coming with inventive ideas and strategies to start another conversation.” The new generation of Dutch designers is intent on producing pieces that are mechanisms for social progress–in addition to creative expression.
As Booij sees it, the economic crisis between 2006 and 2008 catalyzed the recalibration of Dutch design. Many of the designers represented in the show were students at the time and were confronted with a sea change culturally and politically. There was distrust in the global capitalist system; new means of fabrication challenged the notion that mass production by large corporations was the only way to create consumer goods. Additionally, study after study proving the effects of climate change turned global warming into an international conversation; a reaction to the consumptive behavior–and resulting environmental degradation, like pollution–followed.
The Netherlands isn’t the only country to grapple with the fiscal crisis that impacted the globe, but one of the differences Booij points out is how the government responded. “I don’t know the situation in other countries, but I do know that the economic crisis in our country was debated heavily in a more societal context regarding the need to overthink our systems,” he says. “It was Richard Sennet with his book the Craftsman in 2008 who pointed out the need to regain power as a designer over both the innovation and the production process. and [Dutch sociologist] Saskia Stassen, his wife, who acknowledged the need to change the financial systems in order to obtain a more sustainable future.”
Sennet and Stassen’s ideas were taught and discussed at the Dutch design schools–and students took note.
“A lot of young designers think that the big structures we’ve been building in the western world are coming to the end of their cycle and we have to reinvent the systems,” Booij says. “The great breakthrough of ‘high’ Dutch design of the 1980s is a clear signature, but the younger generation is building on its shoulders–they’re more creative and more open to new approaches in how they produce and the materials they choose. They feel responsible for the whole process, and that’s absolutely promising.”
Technological advancements, like 3D printing and synthetic biology, have fueled the work of many designers in the show. But rather than exploring tech for tech’s sake, it’s a tool for expression.
“[The designers] embrace them as long it helps them to fulfill their dreams and as long they can master the technology and [use it to] control the production chain,” Booij says.
Digital Artifacts, a 2014 project from Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Bart Hess, imagines how technology can fuel personal expression and upend the fashion industry through print-on-demand garments. Instead of relying on outside designers and retailers for clothes, individuals could create their own. The “cyborg couture,” as he calls it, is produced by melting wax over a pool of water and using a mechanical harness to slowly dip a human body into the substance. As the wax cools, it yields a sculptural form that looks like fabric. Hess imagines the process to be like 3D printing directly onto human skin.
Marjan van Aubel’s dye-sensitized solar cells turn renewable energy into a thing of beauty and shows how an everyday object like a window could be rethought as a mechanism to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.
How technology can spur more sustainable behavior comes into play on Next Nature Network’s The In Vitro Meat Cookbook, a collection of recipes that uses lab-grown meat–a way to produce meat that some scientists view as more sustainable than feedlots and more humane than slaughterhouses. The goal of the project isn’t to make synthetic meat tasty or commercially viable; rather it’s an invitation for us to take a hard look at the current system of food production.
Similarly, Agatha Haines’s engineered body parts aren’t necessarily about the functionality of the organs themselves, but about the questions that arise with the ability to design humans. “She’s opening a debate as this medical research is already happening,” Booij says. “Designers, like Haines, are aware of ethical debates, and they want to be a part of it.”
While high-tech design is a through line in many of the items in the show, low-tech objects provide a seemingly skeptical counterpoint to the rapidly digitizing world. The convenience of technology comes at a price, whether it’s in the form of unethical labor to product consumer goods, the pollution that results from industrial manufacturing, or big business keeping intellectual property close to the chest instead of making it part of our collective understanding.
Jesse Howard’s Transparent Tools project shows how common household appliances–like toasters–could be produced by individuals rather than solely from big companies. “He is underlying how we have 120 years of technical knowledge that can still be owned by a company, but it’s really such simple technology that you can make the products yourself and own [the knowledge] yourself,” Booij says. “It’s all about bringing ownership to the consumer instead of being dependent on corporations.”
Similarly, Fairphone, a company founded by Bas van Abel, aims to increase transparency on manufacturing by showing consumers that it’s possible to ethically produce electronics. Mineral mining–which is critical for electronics manufacturing–is often carried out by slave labor. Van Abel is offering knowledge about the supply chain and through selling the phone–which was designed by Seymourpowell–he hopes to show bigger manufacturers that there’s demand for socially responsible design.
So you may be thinking, what do wax garments and DIY toasters really have to do with the reality of design–are they all still conceptual one-offs destined for a pedestal, but now with loftier intentions?
“This is a debate right now–are these just gestures or designs that can be used?” Booij admits. “The first thing to underline, in product design is there are evolutionary steps to be made. The Eameses started in the military with a wood splint, and it took them years to adapt the process into a final plywood seat. No one would judge the first prototype; you have to give designers time to make the steps. The first bike didn’t have a chain, and it took 40 years to get there.”
So while Marjan van Aubel’s exact stained-glass windows might not make it into our houses today, it could be a showpiece in the living room of the future. (We’ll shy away from hot-wax apparel, however.)
“I hope the exhibition dares people’s minds,” Booij says. “There’s a very big hunger for a society where imagination and creativity are more present than it is today.”
See more experimental Dutch design in the slide show above.
[All Photos (unless otherwise noted): via Stedelijk Museum]