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Fantastical Investments in Russia

Droog along with Daniel van der Velden have come up with a fascinating analysis of Russian consumption habits and launched a fictitious brand, Fantastical Investements to reveal their findings.  It is the latest in the Droog Lab project.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 06-10-2011

Fantastical Investments is part of Droog Lab, a Renny Ramakers initiative with an ambition to offer a new vision on the future of global design.

In collaboration with designers, consulting experts and local partners, Droog traveled the globe.  In Dubai they looked at how the ambition to create a new city from a blank canvas can fuse with a design process unhindered by real-world constraints; in New York it was how a service economy could stimulate a bottom-up revival of the suburbs, and in the remote North of Canada, the focus was on how to inspire new urban luxuries and future city concepts.

For Fantastical Investments, the Droog team together with Daniel van der Velden from Metahaven traveled to Russia to study how consumption patterns could establish a future-and fantasy-oriented consumerism.  The dots between the conspicuous consumption of the New Russians and the more humble adoration of classical literature even by the simplest of farmers were connected.

At each city visited for this project the role of social media, the potential for alternative currencies, collaborative design, service design, collaborative consumption, fiction, corruption, sustainability and transparency was explored.

“The series aims not to solve world problems, but to look for creativity beyond the realm of design,” said Renny Ramakers during a panel discussion about the project last week in Amsterdam.  “We hope the projects lead to speculation on the future of design, but also that they stimulate debate.”

In Russia people across the social and economic spectrum consume very differently.  Initially that was regarded as a paradox, but on further investigation it started to make sense and even provide ideas about new models of consumption.

Russia, concluded Van der Velden, is not a “proper capitalist society” and lacks a middle ground – a discovery he found inspirational.  “Here [in Europe] it is about hard work, individualism and a social democratic sense of equal opportunities,” he said.  “There I saw a lot of glamorous desperation and catastrophic optimism.”

But it was that very lack of order and perfection, as well as the more realistic understanding of the world and what it has to offer, that impressed Van der Velden.  “I discovered that for almost everybody there is a total absence of trust in institutions and government,” he said.  “That is a phase which Europe is only just entering now.”

Panel member and Russian sociologist Olga Kuzina agreed.  “Russians only really ever trust close family and friends,” she said.

Europeans and Americans embrace therapy to cope with reality.  In Russia, it seems, they opt for a more extreme and tangible coping mechanism.  “I found that many people there have an intuitive connection between literature and diamonds,” Van der Velden says.

From this, an imaginary brand, Fantastical Investments was formed and each “product” is an interpretation of Russian consumption habits.

 “Time Is Life” is a carpet that spans a lifetime and can be rolled or cut to use over the years.  One of the most popular “products” is the “Excess is Essence” bath – a bath surrounded by a surplus of ephemerals like earth and pigments that are stashed and stored for years of intensive use.

Most of the related products touch on the theme of exuberant abundance versus austerity.  “In the Anglo-Saxon  [design] context, austerity is everywhere,” says Van der Velden.  “It is about extreme self-control and monitoring.  It may have started as a form of free-choice, but it has become a type of new fascism.   It is all very dull and boring with an inherent lack of imagination.”

For “Prescription is Insurance” a wall of supplements provides a lifetimes of pills for real and imagined pains and pleasures.   And in “Fictional Is Survival” jars of food are labeled and named with images and text from classical literature.

Van der Velden’s larger point is that religion gives salvation, consumerism gives satisfaction, but austerity gives nothing.  

Three of the most imaginative “products” that were never realized are “Storage is Armour”  - a diamond encrusted tyre that allows for safe winter driving, but is also a way of saving for a future need.   “Escape is History” – a parachute made from a lifetimes consumption of t-shirts is a way to safe-keep what now might be seen as waste, but in the future could satisfy a need.  “Story is Shelter” runs a motion picture across the frame of a bed.

“In Russia, people say that money is dust,” said Agata Jaworska from Droog.  “Probably because of such extreme inflation, they spend and don't save.  People invest in durable goods, friendships and fiction.”

As to what all this can actually mean, the speakers in the panel discussion agreed with moderator Farid Tabaraki:  “You never know how such a project can become relevant,” he said.  “With the ongoing crisis in Europe, I think we all can learn and benefit from Russia’s consumer experiences.”

Van der Velden took that a step further suggesting that the project should be noticed by designers who need to rethink the point of their profession.  “Designers should be playing a more positive role,” he said.  “I think there is a big danger in the discourse – designers are advertising themselves as advocates for a better world but I notice a big gap between what they say and what they do.”

Eventually, the various Droog Lab projects will be combined into a publication, “Here, There and Everywhere”.  Participating designers include Jurgen Bey (Studio Makkink & Bey), Saskia van Drimmelen (Painted), Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Daniel van der Velden (Metahaven), Cynthia Hathaway and Winy Maas (MVRDV and The Why Factory).

Images: Fantastical Investments Panel Discussion.  From left to right Daniel van der Velden (Metahaven), Olga Kuzina (economist and sociologist, Russia), Renny Ramakers (Droog), Sjeng Scheijen (specialist in Russian culture, Leiden University) and Agata Jaworska (Droog).    Top main - "Escape Is History" (by Droog with Metahaven, Michèle Champagne and Digna Kosse), "Time is Life" (by Droog with Metahaven), "Excess Is Essence" (by Droog with Metahaven), "Prescription Is Insurance" (by Droog with Metahaven), "Fiction Is Survival" by Droog with Metahaven), "Storage Is Armour" (by Totan Kuzaembaev with Droog and Metahaven) and "Story Is Shelter" (by Droog with Metahaven and Michèle Champagne).  All photographs by Alexander Moust.

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