Does Dutch Humour Fly in Asia?
To launch Object Rotterdam, design insiders sit down to discuss Droog, China, Dubai, the crashing economy and what autonomous design actually means ...
An international perspective on Droog Design
“I think there is a moral obligation to buy design,” said Lyndon Neri, co-founder of Design Republic in Shanghai, during a discussion that marked the start of this year’s Object Rotterdam. “Like when a doctor tells a smoker to stop smoking, I tell a rich person to buy a design object,” he continued. “We need to tell people [in China] because they can’t differentiate … They just think that if it is expensive, then it is the same. We need to tell them that they don't have taste and then to make them feel guilty about it … just like a doctor does.”
It sounds harsh, but Neri’s words came at the end of his passionately delivered opinions about the importance of design and the heartfelt convictions that working in the industry requires. He sees design as something that can help to change people’s consciousness and he is willing to employ all necessary means to get that message across, especially when it comes to dealing with his fellow countrymen.
Neri was participating in a panel discussion this Tuesday arranged by the Premsela, Premsela, the Dutch platform for Design and Fashion and Object Rotterdam. Droog Design’s international distributors and the company’s co-founder, Renny Ramakers, spanned topics from the crumbling economy and its effect on sales to the way different cultures connect to the Droog philosophy. But as Object Rotterdam tags itself as an international fair for “autonomous design”, just what is autonomous design was the real question everyone wanted answered.
Dry, witty, straight-forward and packed with consciousness is how the panel described the Droog concept. The brand’s objects reveal things that are in life, but which are never really that obvious. Conceptual and clever, they are products that make you think.
“I see Droog as an ideological movement,” says Neri, the most convincing speakers of the day. “We stock it not to make money, but to bring a sense of consciousness to China."
Neri, who thinks China hasn’t recovered from Chairman Mao’s clampdown on culture and is still very much asleep, talked about the reaction Droog Design inspires in people. “They see it and they laugh or they cry,” he says, “which means we have done our jobs.”
And it’s a job that every panelist agreed has nothing to do with money. “If you want to make money, then don't start Droog,” Neri said as Ramakers sat across from him staring at the floor. All speakers agreed that to get involved in conceptual design - a tricky and difficult product, one needed passion and a genuine belief in the benefits of design as an idea. In general. people buy objects, not concepts.
And although Dubai, Tokyo and Shanghai are all very different markets, panelist all saw the cities as new markets in so far as the story is still being written. There is new money, new development and an empowered middle-class who have more international desires than ever before. The struggle for Droog, then, is to penetrate the minds of these very brand-conscious consumers who are, according to the speakers, unable to differentiate on anything except price.
Kou Hattori from the Droog store in Tokyo describes Japan as an immature and still very insular market that like China, relies on brand names for appeal. “Design is still something that fulfills your desire to consume,” he says going on to explain how more information to equip people with the skills to better judge design is what’s needed.
According to Neri, "China is a very strange but interesting market. It's brand conscious to the point where people buy suits with labels on the sleeves and don’t remove them because they want to show their peers that they have status. It is embarrassing but a part of our reality.”
The best selling Droog products in China are the “85 Lamps” by Rodi Grauman and “Milk Bottle Chandelier” by Tejo Remi. “Because there are lots of lights and a lot of bottles,” Neri explains. “And they like the ‘Rag Chair’, but when you tell people they have to use their own old clothing to make it, they don't want to. They want to use Armani and Boss to create an object that feels expensive.”
Hattori points to the humour embedded in Dutch design as being one of its biggest difficulties in Japan. “We just don't have anything like that,” he says. “Our design looks nice but contains no meaning. Superficially Japanese and Dutch design might be similar but the starting point is completely different.”
In Japan it is Droog's Do-Frame by Martí Guixé that sells best. “It is such a new experience for us,” Hattori says. “To use your own hands to complete the design and to have to decide what story to tell. I tell the customer that they can make anything into a very good picture. They expect instructions and are shocked that there are no associated rules.”
Ramakers herself points to the “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memory” Chest of Drawers as one of her biggest sellers explaining that after MoMA purchased one, its popularity increased. She also mentions the most recent worst-seller, a flexible lamp - the first strictly commercial product Droog decided to produce. “It had no story to tell and people said it wasn’t very Droog,” Ramakers explains. “Nobody wanted it.”
The wonderful thing about high-end and conceptual design is that it is a world mostly dominated by people who want to talk about ideas and who feel passionate about what they do. What (arguably) differentiates it from art, though, is that for it to remain relevant, and to even stay credible, it has to make money. It’s both its beauty and its drudgery.
So it wasn’t long before the discussion turned to the economy, especially because Droog opens its first New York store on February 25th. “We started with the plans before this crisis began,” explains Ramakers. “And it was too late to stop.” She calls the risky undertaking an “adventure” and tells a story about hosts who invited (and paid) for her to an exclusive nightclub in Manhattan last week where it costs between $US 5000 and 7000 for a table. “And the place was full,” she says. “There was nothing particular special about it so some people are still spending.”
It’s a reality that leaves Ramakers skeptical about whether this financial shock will really push people towards a more environmental and sustainable way of living, as is the fashion right now to predict. “I really think they will just start spending again like they used to,” she says.
Rami Farook is the founder of Traffic Design Gallery in Dubai and says that in his city, which is made up of 80% expatriates, the scene is changing and for the better. “We had a big boom over the last six years,” he says. “Now only the best companies can survive. The upside is as the big companies fold, people are starting up smaller more boutique ventures, which represents a big shift in the market.”
Ramakers thinks that the best thing for Droog to protect itself against difficult times would be to open her own stores and do away with the other distributors. in other words, her fellow panelists. It’s an impossible dream. “And we can’t lower prices either,” she says. “We are not Ikea and our prices are not based on bubbles. It’s what it costs and even in China production costs are getting higher and higher.”
It’s been her biggest shock – just how expensive things are to make. “Unless you don't care about the circumstances in the factories or the quality of the materials,” she says.
Talk about money inevitably leads the discussion into the controversial world of limited editions. Ramakers thinks limited editions should have more integrity and is against designers simply ordering a dozen items in red, doubling the price and whacking on a limited edition tag.
“It is not me, but the buyers who decide what is a limited edition,” she says. “The Chest of Drawers is expensive so it is limited. A limited edition exists because it is difficult and expensive to produce, or because it has a high art or historical value.”
When it comes to issues of heritage, Neri issues a warning. He complains about design companies like Shanghai Tang and says that too many architects stick a dragon on top of a building to claim cultural creibility. "They are winning projects over other international firms and building rubbish," he says.
Ramakers has deeper visions, however, for the role Droog can play in the heritage issue. Already the Droog Lab has been involved in consulting projects aimed at helping local designers to talk about identity and to devise new strategies and products based on the Droog way of thinking. “It’s about the free flow of creativity,” she says.
And when the conversation died down, one final question was taken from the floor.
“But what is autonomous design”” asked a Polish journalist.
The panelists fell into a long and awkward silence that felt like it lasted forever until the afternoon’s adjudicator, former Philips Design Director and author Marco Bevolo, summoned the wit to conclude: “How very Droog.”
Images: top page Lyndon Neri, this page - the panel, 85 Lamps, Milk Bottle Chandelier, Rag Chair and Chest of Drawers.
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