Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson reports on how Dutch Design Week 2022 shows how to raise the level of debate

NOBODY DOES industrial chic quite like Eindhoven. I knew this to be true long before I actually visited this reinvented Dutch ‘company town’. A town made by electronics giant Philips in the 20th century, and then almost broken by them in the 1980s when they announced thousands of redundancies, having relocated its HQ to Amsterdam and manufacturing elsewhere. But what they left behind – crucially – was a population of skilled engineers, designers and electricians. With minimal budgets but lashings of ingenuity, they have reclaimed and repurposed the abandoned factories and laboratories as homes, studios, hotels, bars, restaurants and workshops. And let’s not forget the design colleges: the company’s rich research and education DNA is still visible in numerous design schools, the most remarkable of them being Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE).

It is DAE’s activities that form the cornerstone of the annual autumn Dutch Design Week (DDW), one of the oldest and most visited design festivals in Europe, with over 370,000 people typically turning up to poke among the weird, wonderful and innovative exhibits from the school’s graduates and alumni as well as the wider Dutch design community. DAE has long been a hotbed of multidisciplinarity, fusing design with science, tech and art. Its alumni include some of the most provocative and pioneering designers of the last few decades, such as conceptual art/design maestro Maarten Baas, plastic recycling pioneer Dave Hakkens, Kiki van Ejk (of Kiki & Joost, designers for everyone from Hermes to Haagen-Dazs) and wacky furniture designer Marcel Wanders.

Philips returned to its Eindhoven roots to showcase 3D printed lamps made from recycled fishing nets. A great theme of DDW 2022 was the search for sustainable, eco-friendly materials. Image Credit: Veronica SimpsonPhilips returned to its Eindhoven roots to showcase 3D printed lamps made from recycled fishing nets. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson

But the moment for wacky furniture or wasteful manufacturing is well and truly past. So what do we find inside the repurposed laboratories and workshops at DDW 2022? Fortunately, the sustainable design flag is well and truly hoisted this year and the initial signs were good. Around the central former factory area called ‘Strijp S’, there was a strong sense of urgency around finding new materials that are less toxic for the planet – though few of them were especially new or radical. We’ve seen algae-based plastic before. Mycellium (mushroom spores and their fibrous networks) have also been inspiring designers and artists for some time. Somewhat troubling was a sense that none of the big manufacturing companies or even research institutions are picking up the sustainable materials baton and doing anything useful with it in ways that might convert consumer impacts or behaviours. Philips was there, funnily enough, exhibiting a lamp made out of recycled fishing nets – a great excuse for clearing junk out of the oceans. There was one display on ‘Caleyda’, a ‘natural plastic substitute…without the disadvantages’. Made by bacteria, harvested from the aeration tanks of wastewater treatment plants, and also broken down by bacteria, it was encouraging to see that the research into this product was supported by local government as well as water treatment and research organisations. But whether the product would be viable – or desirable – if produced at scale is another matter.

There was an outdoor pavilion canopy made of solar panels but no information on how much of any of the resulting power was being provided by these panels to the festival. Like any body of student work, I guess, it can all feel a bit pie-in-the-sky. But there were some very viable-seeming propositions in the DAE graduate show. Highlights included Thomas Norman’s VTBF invention – a sustainable, strong and lightweight furniture material made from high-density bio-foam with a hard outeredge wood veneer. Virgile Durando offered a solution to the invasive Japanese knotweed plant by reworking its dried form into a tough, woven material. And Gereon Wahle has found a way to repurpose the 2.49m tonnes of waste leather produced each year, by bonding shredded leather with biological hide glue to create new furnishing and upholstery ready material.

Sites such as abandoned power stations have been repurposed as homes, studios and bars. Image Credit: Veronica SimpsonSites such as abandoned power stations have been repurposed as homes, studios and bars. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson

Pragmatic solutions were presented elsewhere, especially in furniture designer Piet Hein Eek’s factory space – a fabulous retrofit incorporating Hein Eek’s own design workshop along with studios, restaurant, a shop filled with covetable items (some of them, like Freitag, made from re-used lorry tarpaulins, sustainable to the core) and a small but elegant hotel. One of his exhibitors offered a stone-like material made from compressed rubble, which looked ready for specification (StoneCycling). This attractive site of retail, rest and production must do more, year-round, than any week-long fair to disseminate the importance and appeal of good, sustainable design.

But one of the benefits of this annual design focus is the audience it draws – in half-term week, the exhibition spaces were full of families and the design-curious, with many workshops provided for them to deepen their understanding. The Dutch seem to be better generally at communicating the value of design.

And that impression intensifies when we visit the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven’s prestigious contemporary art museum. Here, a fascinating exhibition has been curated, taking a radical new position for an art museum; it’s mixing design in with art, thanks to the imminent acquisition of conceptual design pieces from former DAE chairwoman (1999–2008) Lidewij (‘Li’) Edelkoort, who remains a leading trend forecaster and sustainable fashion advocate.

Working with the museum’s head of collections, Steven ten Thije, items from their art archives have been placed in dialogue with Edelkoort’s collection in ways that emphasise the cultural significance of both. As ten Thije told me: ‘Dutch design marks a moment in history where designers worked in a more conceptual and experimental way, focused around concepts which reflect society, in a playful but powerful response to what is happening.’

Artist Kick Stals presented powerful illustrations against consumerism and waste. Image Credit: Veronica SimpsonArtist Kick Stals presented powerful illustrations against consumerism and waste. Image Credit: Veronica Simpson

Called ‘The Collection is…’, each room displays eclectic objects that resonate along themes that are both specific to the work and universal. Edelkoort spoke to me about one of her pieces by star Dutch designer, Helle Jongerius, which incorporates different eras of making and materials in timeless tableware.

Says Edelkoort: ‘She brings fragments of archaeological finds to create the new of today and the future. To link the past to the future is what is most important. And to include the past in our thinking constructing our future, I think that it’s crucial.’

So true. And it’s not just in Eindhoven that you will find t his thoughtful approach to design, art and making. We visited Tilburg’s Textiel Museum, and its exhibition ‘To Dye For’, looking at natural plant dyes and proposing a whole different approach to colour and fading. The Dutch design community may not have all the answers, but they do seem to be asking a lot of the right questions.

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