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Not Everyone was Happy in Hong Kong

With much of the media ecstatic over last week's Business of Design Week in Hong Kong, Dingeman Kuilman speaks out against the narrow path design seems set to race down.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 18-12-2008

The Netherlands was the partner country for this year’s Business of Design Week in Hong Kong. Forums and presentations spanned the design-topic gamut from commercial to creative with a star-studded line-up of speakers headed by Rem Koolhaas, Renny Ramakers, Marcel Wanders, Kazuyo Sejima, Alain Seban and Hou Hanru.

“It was business as usual, which I personally think is not very good,” says Dingeman Kuilman, managing director of Premsela, the Dutch platform for design and fashion. Kuilman praises and calls interesting some of the individual presentations by Hella Jongerius, Irma Boom and Renny Ramakers. He shudders, however, at the broader solutions both the Dutch and Chinese top officials offered for what design can do to help solve the current economic crisis.

Rather than rethink their values and practices, many of the BODW participants believe that revving up sales is the best step forward. Kuilman notes that both Chinese and Dutch officials lacked vision and even sense. Put crudely, the consensus was that designers need to make ordinary mass products more likable, which will make them more popular, which will mean they sell better.

“It's a crazy way of thinking,” says Kuilman. “A scheme of reasoning that’s out of date and even disastrous.”

Kuilman was more impressed by one of the smaller satellite events that the crew from Index, the Danish sustainability award, and Leimei Julia Chiu, director of global communications at the International Design Center Nagoya participated in.

“But even then the organizers chose the theme of competing,” Kuilman says. “It is such a cut-throat way of looking at things and it really missed the point. When Julia Chiu stood up to speak, she pointed out that what was needed was more collaboration not competition, which is a totally different way of looking at the world.”

In this satellite forum there was more discussion about design values and an acknowledgment that not just economic but social, ecological and cultural concerns should be driving future decisions.

But back on the main stage, discussion got bogged down in simplified marketing talk that, according to Kuilman, causes more problems than it solves. He draws an analogy with the food industry: a bag of crisps is opened and eaten, not because the contents match one’s hunger levels, but because the entire experience is designed from start to finish. “It's like a chemical reaction,” he says. “We always finish the bag while on the other side of the equation you have the health industry building up systems to try to help fight obesity.”

Kuilman sees the same dynamic at play in the mainstream fashion and home accessories world. Designers use colour and shape to trigger a buying impulse in consumers who months down the track feel like they have wasted money on objects they do not need.

“I think the sort of system where objects are designed to be superficially attractive is a big problem,” Kuilman says. “If anything, this new world crisis should force consumers and hopefully designers to look more closely at the ethical and moral side of design.”

Few of those in attendance at the BODW agreed or at least felt strongly enough to speak out.

The design world can't, according to Kuilman, continue as is. “In China today it is just about adding value to mass production,” he says. “And somewhere out of sight that approach is costing lives.”

What Kuilman wants to see happen and would have liked to hear more about in Hong Kong is for Dutch designers, commissioners and policy makers to choose a different way and stand firm. “We have our own culture and our own history,” he says, “and that affords us our own judgment, but I didn’t hear much of that.”

And it is not just our attitude towards China that Kuilman criticizes: other new design frontiers are also up for attack. “What about our deep admiration for Dubai?” he asks. “It is not even democratic and I think more caution should be taken regarding how things happen there and why.”

Kuilman answers his own question by comparing the more evolutionary change of European cities like Amsterdam to the extraordinary pace of construction and rejuvenation in China and the Middle East.

“It all has echoes of Albert Speer’s New Berlin,” he says. “It’s grand and there seems to be this huge sense of excitement and possibility, but it also feels very inhumane. I think the biggest problem is that it lacks criticism. Nobody seems brave enough to defy the politically correct wind and say they don’t like it because we all want our share of this unbelievable wealth and luxury…. We don't even consider it to be political any more.”

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