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Salone del Mobile 08: Showpieces discussion report

Two designers, a curator and a journalist discuss the new phenomenon of limited-edition design showpieces.

By No author / 17-04-2008

Two designers, a curator and a journalist discuss the new phenomenon of limited-edition design showpieces.

Dutch design has set an adventurous course lately, imbuing objects with unprecedented symbolic qualities. This year, Royal Tichelaar Makkum takes things further with variations on a 17th-century flower pyramid designed by Jurgen Bey, Studio Job, Hella Jongerius and Alexander van Slobbe. These unique pieces of traditional craftsmanship have found a place in the new international market. But who needs these new showpieces? Where do they come from, and where are they leading us? Panel members were designers Jurgen Bey (JB) and Ineke Hans (IH), curator Gareth Williams (GW) of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Author and journalist Tracy Metz was moderator of the discussion.

TM: These showpieces are so spectacular, they are sold for so much money and they get so much international attention that they have really begun to dominate the debate about design. And in particular the debate about Dutch design, because Dutch design really made its reputation from its low-key, democratic, egalitarian, affordable image. Now something has changed. Dutch design has become big and expensive and spectacular. And that’s what we are going to discuss today. Jurgen could you talk about collaboration with Royal Tichelaar Makkum?

JB: It was difficult work, Makkum wanted something that was of the very highest quality so it was hard to make. Our approach was to try to build up a whole world with the piece, a kind of cabinet of curiosities. We also thought about the idea of ‘collecting’, what drives people to collect? The beauty of collecting is that once you start it you always want more. It becomes a way of living. Our vase started with buckets which developed into vases. We tried to be extreme as possible.

TM: Ineke, what do you think of the Royal Tichelaar Makkum ‘showpieces’?

IH: I view it in two ways. Tichelaar Makkum are a company that are able to do fantastic stuff. They are good in choosing partners to work with, and that they cherish technical knowledge is also very important. It’s also important in this day and age, when we are surrounded by ‘stuff’ that we think about high standards. Royal Tichelaar Makkum really pushed themselves to their limits with this project, they are really showing off their skills. Plus, I heard that the designers who were involved in the project were also quite exhausted by the end of it. But personally I feel that that isn’t a problem, as I feel designers have to solve problems. It’s not just about showing off beautiful objects. We are designers, not artists. I have a problem with pieces that are beautiful but may be extremely badly made, or that I can’t use for anything. I think we should take care to make fully rounded projects.

TM: Are you saying that these Showpieces are beautifully made but that you wonder what problem they are solving? Jurgen, are you an artist? What problem are you solving?

JB: I’m a designer, not an artist. Of course I’m not going to solve the huge problems in the world by making a vase. The problem is much more small scale, thinking about a vase and how can small and large flowers fit into it. But here we are talking about a ‘showpiece’, with a company showing how far they can go, how good their craftsmen are. This show was not about solving a problem, it was about the theme of collecting.

TM: To what extent do these showpieces solve the problem of maintaining craftsmanship, especially in these days when we do seem to outsource this work to cheaper factories etc?

GW: I think that is indeed one role of showpieces and I think certainly in the case with Royal Tichelaar Makkum I think that this is the way this company is able to promote and enrich their skills and preserve these skills for the future, and that’s what sets it apart from product design and more general furniture design. The added value definitely comes from the craftsmanship. But I don’t think it’s the only thing. Looking at the question earlier about whether some of these pieces are functional or not, well that’s not necessarily a characteristic of a ‘showpiece’. Showpieces have a long and established tradition in the decorative arts. But I do object to when pieces are ‘dressed-up’ as having an importance. The media also has a role to play in the building up of showpieces, being part of the cultural design machine, which in turn is driven by the fashion system. The ‘Showpieces’ we are talking about today are effectively ‘couture’. Fashion designers see their couture work as a wonderful way to express their craftsmanship and talent. And that’s really what we’re looking at here with design as well.

TM: Does this development feel like an anomaly or as a normal development?

GW: It may seem to have appeared quite suddenly, but if you look at the history of decorative arts, there’s a tradition of rich, symbolic, less functional works of art and ceramics, and then you can see a continuum. There was a great rupture of course, with Modernism. But I do think the fashion industry, in particular the fashion cycle is having an effect on contemporary design, with it focus on novelty and constant change, ever more impressive work and ‘newness, newness, newness’.

TM: How do you feel about this ever fast changing cycle that seems to be in fashion now? Is shorter and faster good for design or do you feel hunted?

IH: Well, it’s probably good for business. But for me personally, I don’t feel the pressure. In fact I feel that it’s the opposite; I want to slow down. Today at the fair I saw an interesting presentation by a German company who didn’t show anything new. I think that’s a very brave thing to do in Milan. Taking your time and concentrating on the moment is better than driving yourself to find something super sexy and new every year. I think that’s admirable.

TM: Why are so many Dutch designers at the forefront of the Showpiece ‘movement’?

GW: Dutch design viewed from outside the Netherlands does seem like a rather homogenous group of people pursuing sometimes very similar trajectories. Plus there are very organised bodies behind it and I think it’s a very slick operation! There has obviously been two generations who have come through the Dutch design schools in the last 20 years who have had this very conceptual bent. They are also very eloquent designers, trained at producing very eloquent objects. So they fit very well with the ‘design/art showpieces’ idea. At the same time I think there’s a huge contemporary art market which is very rich and satiated and swilling over the edges, and people are now looking for fresh new voices in another sector.

TM: I’ve heard a more cynical explanation, that artists simply can’t keep up with the demand, especially in the countries with a new wealthy elite. Therefore these collectors are now spilling over into the design market.

JB: There is a demand to produce more work, but clients need to be choosy too. Sometimes galleries just say, make some more tables and lamps because these sell well. But I think the potential of the designer can be used to a better advantage. The good thing is that there is money in the market. This ‘new’ money also brings more work and new developments.

GW: I think there’s also a lot of stuff being produced which is being passed off as important now, but won’t stand the test of time.

TM: What about the issue of money? There are now unbelievable amounts being paid for design, often for limited editions, which is making the design market look much more like the art market. Is there any relationship between the prices being paid and the symbolic value of these works?

GW: I think that’s a redundant question. It’s impossible to counter it and anyway, we’re not really discussing the moral issue whether art is too expensive or not. Designers accommodate to the market and the market finds the prices, that’s how it works. There have always been rich patrons involved. Money has always been one of the forces that controls the look and appearance and value of an object. It always has done. And I find it rather a strange idea that this should be thought of as something new. Whether we like it or not is much more a question of our own taste. If you’re saying, ‘no, these things shouldn’t be so expensive’, well that’s simply not going to happen.

TM: But another problem is that all these expensive objects are disappearing into private ownership, meaning that museums etc are not able to buy them and they won’t be in the public realm.

GW: But they are not going to disappear altogether and they’re also looked after. The buzz around a lot of this work is because it looks amazing. Some of these designers involved are very good and have been given the means to really flex their muscle and stretch themselves.

TM: Being able to flex these Dutch muscles is in some (large) part because of Dutch government support in subsidies etc. I wonder if with these super successful designers, earning such large amounts- is their any talk of giving back?

JB: We all have responsibilities. I also work on projects where no money is involved and for projects with the public. So, maybe that means I can sleep better at night….

GW: I think that Dutch design has given a lot back in the sense that it has created a cool international image for the Netherlands, and that may be difficult to evaluate in terms of actual money.

TM: Well, to round it off we could say that we are all busy promoting the brand ‘The Netherlands’ with Dutch design.

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