The Relationship Between Design and Populist Politics
Design often gets a dud wrap for being an indulgence of the urban elite, a gang lauded from the inside or denigrated from the outside for being nihilistically left-wing and elitist.
Daniel van der Velden disagrees. In a long and imaginative essay recently published in the NRC Handelsblad, he presents his hypothesis that design is everywhere and that the gap between the left-wing inner-city elite and the more conservative suburban dwellers is smaller than is generally recognized.
Van der Velden points to the way populist right wing politicians like Pim Fortuyn, Geert Wilders and Rita Verdonk have designed and packaged their positions as proof of his central thesis. “They cannot acquire any power base without having a hold on the middle class,” he says going on to say that while in the past, extreme right-wingers and neo-Nazis looked and sounded scary, this trio of populists wrap (or wrapped as is the case with Fortuyn) their nationalistic and racist policies in well designed and cleverly positioned campaigns that make the essence of their convictions feel more palatable.
Rita Verdonk calls her party, Trots op NL (proud of Holland), and her logo is a medieval shield with strips of red, white, blue and orange. She also produced an image of a soccer ball with an orange map of Holland on it, drawing on the patriotic (that spills into nationalistic) sense of unity the country only ever feels during international soccer matches. The logo of Wilders’ Freedom Party is a free-floating bird in the national colours red, white and blue. His trusted right hand woman is Fleur Agema who earned her Master’s degree as an architectural designer.
Van der Velden’s thesis goes along the lines of as the middle classes get wealthier, demand for designed and luxurious objects like expensive shower nozzles, sofas and espresso makers increases. The more one has, however, the one more one has to lose so the more susceptible people become to fluxes in the social and economic environment. “The middle class has become vulnerable precisely because of their wealth,” say Van der Velden.
Which is exactly what populist politicians most appeal to via policies that promise to protect petit bourgeois aspirations from menacing outsiders, like Moroccans and canal-living intellectuals, for example.
And it is not just in graphic design commissioned to win populists elections. Keeping out the bad guy and physically demarcating “us” from “them” can be seen in public design throughout Holland. Tall fences with wire bent into intricate lace patterns, and large-scale gated communities like Haverleij in Den Bosch, an architectural wonderland designed to resemble a Disney style medieval castle. “I call it security aesthetics,” Van der Velden says.
When design.nl caught up with Van der Velden, who co-owns Metahaven, a studio for design and research, he talked a lot about this relationship between design and politics - two worlds he sees as interconnected beyond the merely visual. He agrees that design is a prism through which politics and society can be interpreted.
“Of course it is,” he says. “If we could not do that, design would be created, but also experienced or even consumed, in and for a world other than ours. Involuntarily or voluntarily design speaks a great deal about what typifies our world, and vice versa.”
But what we see more of now is a combination of aesthetics and management. “Current populism is not just a weird offspring of Pim Fortuyn and general conservatism,” Van der Velden says. “It’s more deeply connected to the way we have developed as a post-modern society. You could even say that Wilders is not about repoliticizing the public as is often argued, but about even further depoliticizing it.”
Dutch politics has a reputation for being quite technocratic, meaning that lots of consensus building exists, and it was this characteristic that Pim Fortuyn took most issue with during his ascension. According to Fortuyn, the leaders of all major parties did not understand the needs and worries of the losers of globalization – their worries about livelihood, immigration and the disintegration of their traditional sense of community and identity.
“In pointing out these issues, Pim [Fortuyn] brought back a sense of conflict which overrode the coexistence of differences as promoted by the idea of the multicultural society,” says Van der Velden.
Since Fortuyn’s death in May 2002, just nine days before the general elections where he was predicated to win a substantial share of the votes, the right-wing populist cause has been taken up by Geert Wilders. His position is to dismiss politics as irrelevant going so far as to suggest it should be destroyed altogether. Last month he won 17 percent of the European Parliament election using a campaign that stressed just one thing: to abolish the European parliament.
Wilders’ “party” has no members and thus no meetings. It has no elections and thus no internal conflicts. It denies form and celebrates function and is used as a vehicle for promoting its leader. Wilders voters seem not to care that he refuses to debate or even discuss issues. They seem to prefer to express themselves instead through consumerism and boredom, and by purporting a complete disinterest in, and distrust for politics and all politicians – except for their own leader.
“This ties in with the symbols they are using or the lack thereof,” says Van der Velden. “The way that these populists have designed themselves is obviously not political, it’s managerial, which has very effectively tapped into Holland’s depoliticized public.” The sort of design that shapes people’s lives has been adopted by politicians to shape their campaigns. “The populist right can be distinguished from the extreme right by having a more designed sense of legitimacy,” adds Van der Velden, “and a sneakier use of design and the media.”
Further evidence of Holland’s depoliticized voting public is the complete failure of another Dutch populist, Rita Verdonk, in her attempt to use the tactics that worked so successfully for Barack Obama during his “O” presidential campaign. Verdonk’s invitation to supporters to log onto her website and actively contribute to her policy making mirrored the way Obama used social networking and digital tools. “But Verdonk’s version, which she called Politics 2.0, totally failed,” says Van der Velden. “It has turned out that people are either unwilling or unable to collectively find an acceptable political programme.”
Post-war Holland offers other interesting insights into this link Van der Velden builds between design and politics. That era was renowned for its clear and very penetrable modernism. It was honest and optimistic. “People like Wm Crouwel and Willem Sandberg designed as if to declare their faith in the public aspect of Dutch society,” he says about two icons of modern Dutch culture – Sandberg being the first postwar director of the Stedelijk Museum, and Crouwel doing all the museum’s graphic design throughout the 60s. “Crouwel’s work in particular was very systematic,” he continues, “which communicated a reliability that people could trust and believe in.”
That carried on into the 70s and after a lull in the 80s, Dutch design came back with a vengeance in the early 90s. This era ushered in the dry Droog movement and its various comments on design, particularly the way the field had become more publicly visible and privately owned.
“The contribution of Dutch design during that decade was to ironize, to create jokes and new scenarios in a society where politics and conflict had disappeared,” says Van der Velden. “A lot of this design departed from the idea of private ownership. The best example is Tejo Remy’s collection of drawers, which could be read as a poetic and artistic comment on the whole concept of owning a piece of furniture.”
On the very topical subject of just what the next big movement post-Droog will be, Van der Velden starts to think out loud. “You can see what is happening,” he says. “You have architects who are refusing to build in Dubai and who are worrying about social and political embedding of their discipline.”
He points to how Zaha Hadid was invited to a tribunal in London recently where she was supposed to defend her politically, socially and environmentally unsustainable projects against Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and the Open Architecture Network.
“Of course she didn't come to the occasion, but what was scary about it was that the cultural value of what she has designed was jettisoned as well,” Van der Velden says. “I’m very skeptical of this.”
In the meantime, throughout the broader world of design, clients are demanding more open source logos and less top-down work imposed on brands by authors. “There is a demand typologies that are much more socially shared,” Van der Velden says. “The centrality of the single author is really being discouraged or needs reconfiguration.”
Again the best example is the “O” campaign employed by Obama’s team during the last presidential election. The O means nothing and potentially everything. “It can stand for many things,” Van der Velden says. “One of them is an unspecified idea of optimism.”
In that way it has become more important for design to recognize the great complexity of the contemporary world, and work with that while hiding part of that complexity in order to be functional and useful. “It is about that kind of tension,” says Van der Velden.
The design zeitgeist then is about less central control. “This does not mean that the result is more democratic,” Van der Velden says, “but that things are decided according to a more diverse set of criteria and positions. I think that is the new ism.”
Images: Images: Pim Fortuyn, Fleur Agema, a lace fence, Rita Verdonk's logo's, Haverleij, Tejo Remy's collection of drawers, Barack Obama's poster by Shepard Fairey, and posters Metahaven created for Affiche Frontière in 2008, plus two earlier works he created for the Holland Festival in 2005 and 2006 with Maureen Mooren.
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