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His opinions buck current trends and are likely to ruffle a few feathers, but Freek Lomme from Onomatopee is serious when he says designers need a mentality update and design needs more criticism.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 03-11-2010

The current crop of Dutch graphic designers takes itself extremely seriously to the point where sincere attempts to talk to designers about their work often fails.

Freek Lomme nods knowingly.  “That’s Amsterdam,” he says.  “People think I am crazy for staying here in Eindhoven, but it is to avoid exactly that: here, at best, you just have a bit of what I refer to as middle-class design literacy and not as much of the fashionably new.”

Lomme is the leading spokesperson of Onomatopee, a foundation that exists to research and criticize the parameters of design culture. Projects are presented as exhibitions and with accompanying publications – and they each penetrate contemporary designed culture by mediating between the theoretical and the actual for both a general audience and professionals.

Lomme uses a lot of jargon, infuses his talk with academic references and rarely smiles.  He is, however, surprisingly egalitarian. “I am interested in things that socially engage people,” he says. “If we don’t manage that, then we are at danger of remaining a hobby of the leftist elite.  It is really important that the design community stays open and stands for participation and the democratization of knowledge.”  

The leftist elite remark refers to a now famous quote in Holland uttered by Geert Wilders.  “The government now has to cut rigorously in all those leftwing hobbies like the billions being spent on the European Union, development aid, environment and art subsidies,” he said.

Given the very esoteric nature of his work, rather than shun the populist label, it is something that Lomme craves.  It is, after all, better to be mainstream than irrelevant. “If we want to be a domain for actual cultural production,” he says, “then we need to act responsibly and be clear to a general audience.  Even my grandma should be able to touch it.”

During Dutch Design Week, Onomatopee launched “Kapital G”, a project that will look into how commercial attitudes are formed.  The premise of the project is that via branding and design, people already have a definitive opinion regarding a product’s worth before they’ve even touched it.  Arguably, a capitalist economy is based on this sort of imprinting – it’s how we are targeted and thus how we make our commercial decisions.

Lomme has put an international call out to cultural producers – to everyone from product designers to graphic designers to participate in this research (the call remains open until 01.01.11).  Designers need to come up with ways that enable consumers to engage with the process that ultimately traps them.  The end goal is to produce a manual that helps consumers to understand their own purchasing decisions.

Also for Dutch Design Week, Sophie Krier presented the first of her “Field Essays”, a series of journals about the dynamics of the design process. This project maps the work and the motives of innovative design practices juxtaposing them against the ideas of contemporary thinkers.

The first issue is devoted to the work of LucyandBart, an ad hoc duo from Eindhoven and Amsterdam. LucyandBart work close to the body, and their mode of operation is impulsive; they generate ambiguous images depicting our skin as an interface between our self and the world. will review the associated publication of this event in the coming weeks.

The problem now for Lomme is that it isn’t clear how much (or if any) funding he will receive.  As with all government-funded Dutch creatives, the foundation risks losing much of its already small budget.  “I don’t know if we will get one year of funding or nothing,” he says,  “and even if we get three years, we are still insecure because the new government is now saying it can take arts money back if they need it.”

But unlike much of the cultural community, Lomme sounds somewhat sympathetic to the government’s financial situation.  He even voices frustrations at how many people and organizations are responding to news that cultural funding will be slashed by 20%.

“Some people have been talking about beauty,” Lomme spits.  “What does that mean and what end does it serve?  We need to be telling the general public here is where we are at, and here is what we can offer you. Art is not about beauty; it is cultural production that comes from the edges of experience and knowledge.  I really think it needs to prove itself.  Funding should go to those who create meaningful things and that add progressive notions to the vocabulary of experience and knowledge.  Onomatopee is only about cultural production.  It utilizes an aesthetic, but that is not equal to beauty.”

When Lomme heard one actress suggest that it was good that some cultural production only be enjoyed by an elite, he exploded.  “The stupidity of it!” he says.  “There are elites – let’s call it specialists with a progressive offering -  who produce good work, but that work should be more accessible – it should be clear and it should be argued better.  That is the responsibility of the elite.  If they are acting responsibly, they won’t be trying to sell consumers another chair or treating them like sheep.”

One recent Onomatopee project that caused some fuss was “The Form and the Frame,” an event that delved into editorial design and the notion that how an idea is presented (or designed) clearly affects how it is accepted.   Two respective editorial boards were invited to research the editorial design of both a left and a right wing opinion magazine.  From there they had to come up with an analysis of the design, presented in an advertisement format.  The point was to revitalize the relationship between a magazine and its readers.

To communicate its results, Onomatopee bought advertising space in various publications including HP - De Tijd, a popular culture publication.  HP - De Tijd fancies itself as a very liberal, and transparent publication.  They were one of the first media outlets to speak out in favour of De Telegraaf’s hugely controversial decision to print an interview conducted with Ruben, a small boy who lay in a hospital bed in Libiya after his whole family had been killed in a tragic plane crash.

On the purchased space, Onomatopee tried to have text printed that resembled a “letter to the editor” with the purpose of confronting the way headlines and layout create meaning.   “It wasn’t an attack, but an analysis,” says Lomme, “and despite their liberal reputation, they wanted us to utilize the space differently.  They tried to edit the material, which was very interesting and says a lot about opinion and the role of design in our media culture.”

Stress over funding aside, Lomme’s more important issue from an intellectual standpoint is finding ways to legitimize Onomatopee’s research.  “I am supplying the space to doubt,” he says,  “and that is the only way to keep cultural institutions credible.”

 Images:  Lomme, Krier's "Field Essays", Kapital G, Onomatopee.

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