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Sophie Krier Making Sense Of It All

Design, says Krier, has become the little darling of the Dutch government.  That means that now more than ever it needs to be able to define its own ethical and intellectual basis in order to ensure that such important foundations are not defined for it.  But without solid criticism this aim remains out of reach.  A recent exhibition explored the issue.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 12-11-2009

If it is the design industry’s responsibility to define the ethics of the profession then why isn’t happening?

As a reaction to the abysmal lack of proper, hard-hitting academic analysis and criticism in the design world, the Van Abbemuseum in collaboration with Rietveld Academy’s DesignLab curated “Making Sense”, a live exhibition featuring students during Dutch Design Week.   The event was curated to be a part of the "Take On Me (Take Me On) An Alternative Production Factory" and was directed by Sophie Krier (former head of DesignLab), Bas van Beek (current head of DesignLab) and Anke Weiss.

“The problem is that if we don't define our ethics then that role ends up in the hands of politics or market mechanisms,” says Krier who resigned from DesignLab this summer to concentrate on her own design practice. “And as everyone can see, design at the moment has become the little darling of the Dutch government with funding from the Ministry for Economic Affairs.  That’s all fine, but it does mean that they will want to see a return on their investment, which is where things start to get complicated.”

The “Making Sense” exhibition was an attempt to add what Krier calls a “reflective layer” to Dutch design by challenging students to take a critical position and argue it systematically.

It’s a tough time for students of design to have to start thinking about a more serious approach to criticism in their industry. Compared to ten to fifteen years ago when Krier herself was graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven, the industry has become much more self-referential.

“It is so different now,” she says.  “Design has gained enormous popularity.  There are new portals and new magazines that tell you what is going on internationally. This is something that designers and design students really have to relate to.  You can’t just ignore it.”

What Krier is alluding to here is the very different and potentially less profound reference points young designer turn to for inspiration.  In her day it was art, literature, philosophy, politics and science, but today the pool of ideas is narrower and design students turn more to the industry itself for inspiration.  “Those broader fields were more my personal interest of course,” she says, “but at the same time, design discourse wasn't what it is today so you had to look elsewhere for ideas and references.”

For “Making Sense” students were asked to formulate a position on what they saw in the first days of DDW, and then shape their own research assignment that processed that position in a critical way. “It’s really hard to know how to position yourself, recognize and be able to state what your sources are and know how to back up your arguments,” Krier says of the process.  “It’s always easy to voice an opinion, but to be able to go further is a different thing altogether.”

One of the students, Jesse Howard looked at manuals and how they work.  His focus was the usability and readability of some of the works on display. Using his own perceptions and misunderstandings he made some hypothetical manuals, which then told a lot about what the included objects failed to communicate.

Another student, Andreas Ahlqvist reacted angrily early in the week to the abundance of “Do Not Touch” signs arguing that design is supposed to be about usage and interaction.  After all, what is the use of showing design that nobody can use or touch? And can anyone really relate to, or appreciate design that sits on a pedestal - quite literally?  

But after talking to some of the participating designers, Ahlqvist came to appreciate that prototypes and limited editions can’t endure physical manipulation by 80 000 visitors.  So he tried to come up with a more constructive way to communicate an object’s fragility to viewers.  He is now in talks with the DDW organizers about producing a sticker of a human body with different parts highlighted to indicate to viewers how to enjoy the objects – with just their heads, with their hands, or perhaps using their nose.

It’s a tiny step in the right direction. Exhibitions like this, however, as well as the swelling debate amongst a core group of design insiders about how to combat the criticism-vacuum are at least putting the issue on the agenda and as coverage like this shows – people are listening.

Images: top page Sophie Krier, main top "Making Sense", Krier with Bas van Beek, images from "Making Sense".

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