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The “Favourable Poison” of Dutch Humour

After her successful participation in the International Visitors' Programme, Noriko Kawakami talks to about the bond between Japanese and Dutch design and what the rest of the world can learn from Holland's bold take on the deeper issues.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 05-08-2009

Premsela – Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion, and Mondriaan Stichting coordinate the International Visitors' Programme, created to nurture the exchange of ideas between Dutch design and the wider international design community. One recent visitor was Japanese journalist and curator Noriko Kawakami.

“I think exchanging views is very important,” says Kawakami, associate director of 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, a research organization and exhibition site she helped to set up in 2007 with Issey Miyake, Taku Satoh and Naoto Fukasawa.

Kawakami traveled the Netherlands visiting design academies and the studios of both emerging and established designers. She is of the very Japanese belief that the unique character of a particular design expresses the background from which it was produced and cites Takram and Naoto Fukasawa as two designers from different generations who are creating some of the best designs in Japan. “Takram is a young design firmand their work is characterized by an exquisite marriage of design and engineering,” she says. “Even when they develop a very technological product like a phone, they never fail to also appeal to our more emotional needs.

“I really believe that future designers of all nationalities will need to be able to combine different elements seamlessly,” Kawakami continues. “Engineering and design, systems and products, engineering and emotion ... This mix will require a new way of thinking.”

Visits to ArtEZ, the Design Academy Eindhoven and the Rietveld Academy all convinced Kawakami that the Netherlands has it right when it comes to nurturing talent. “In the schools, but also in the way the government supports young designers, I found the Dutch design industry to be very multifaceted,” she says. “When I visited Eindhoven Academy, some students talked to me about the very unique programmes they were pursuing. It wasn't just about learning design methods, but making full use of the body and all its senses. It was really amazing.”

And although the Japanese and Dutch design mentality might seem quite different, Kawakami points out that the two industries also share common ground. “I think both Japanese and Dutch design is based on a lot of exploration and research about how people will relate to objects in the future,” she says.

On the differences, Kawakami manages to succinctly capture two contrasting national aesthetics. “I guess one could say that Japanese designers tend to be more meticulous," she says. "They manage to reconcile and integrate different elements in a way that is very unassuming and at first unrecognizable in terms of materials and techniques. There is always a great emphasis on aesthetic finish and a strong sense of unity.

“On the other hand, Dutch designers seem much more energetic in terms of starting with strong concepts,” she continues. “They tend to successfully match different elements more boldly without losing site of the idea.

“This kind of very flexible and constructive way of thinking fascinates me. I also see a very Dutch brand of humor in that boldness … it is maybe a sort of favorable poison, and is completely different to Japanese humour.”

Kawakami goes on to say that it is a Dutch designers confidence in said boldness that makes them so popular in Japan. “At its best, Dutch design embodies original ideas concretely,” she says, “and always boldly expresses cool, but profound thoughts.”

For Japanese designers, Kawakami feels that the Dutch can offer inspiration on how best to reevaluate what is worthwhile. “Things are very different now to what they were in the 20th century,” she says. “Over-consumption, economic difficulties … the way the Dutch are responding to all this can give the broader design world a lot of hints on how to cope.”

Full of compliments and overwhelmed by the passion she says she found in many Dutch design studios, Kawakami points out her visit to Chris Kabel’s studio in Rotterdam as amongst the most memorable. “He was experimenting with plastic and form and showed me the early prototypes for his Seam Chair series," she says. "Later, I saw a new chair in that series presented in Milan and because I had seen the whole process, I was really quite moved by it.”

Thankful for the human network she built whilst in the Netherlands, Kawakami refers to her visit as a huge success. “When we consider design more deeply, we become more aware of how it can link diverse elements together," she says. "Materials, resources, history, chemistry, science, medical science, engineering, economy, and international exchange. Design is closely tied to people’s lives so exploring its role and realization in other cultures is very important. It helps me to understand how design can better solve today’s problems.

“And of course design should give pleasure to people," she concludes. "The role of any designer is to explore all of this and to expand possibilities. I believe this is true of designers everwhere."

Images: large from top Kawakami, Haco de Ridder (from Mondriaan Stichting) and Thomas and Nikki from Thonik, Chris Kabel’s studio, Chris Kabel, Richard Hutten, with Ineke Hans, Maarten Baas teaching in Eindhoven and Kawakami lunching with Baas.

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