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Foreign Designers who call Holland Home

Feiz, Pakhalé, Libertiny, Carbonell, Minale-Maeda, Marzano: some of the most acclaimed names in Dutch product design today were born outside The Netherlands. What makes Dutch design so unique is that it has such an international face. Literally. So why is the Netherlands so popular with foreign designers and why do they choose to stay?

By Jeanne Tan /asdf 08-04-2010

This article is featured in the new magazine Connecting The Dots which presents all the Dutch exhibitions in Milan this year during the Furniture Fair.

Perhaps you've gradually noticed it, but the face of design from The Netherlands has been slowly changing over the past few years. Literally. Alongside surnames of Dutch designers containing numerous unpronounceable syllables and guttural Gs, you'll find surnames of designers hailing from all corners of the globe: these days more and more foreign designers are deciding to call Holland home. Some of these names might ring a bell: Khodi Feiz, Satyendra Pakhalé, Tomáš Gabzdil Libertiny, Nacho Carbonell, Minale-Maeda, Julien Carretero or perhaps the CEO and Chief Creative Director of Philips Design, Stefano Marzano.

International designers usually end up in The Netherlands for work, study or love and many end up staying here in the long term to establish a design practice. The land of the Low Skies is renowned for its liberal nature and international outlook and for an expat living in The Netherlands, it’s an accommodating, welcoming environment. Most importantly, design is recognized as an important part of Dutch culture and well supported by government, making this the biggest benefit of working here. Despite recent political conservatism that sees The Netherlands and (Western) Europe for that matter, lose some of its liberalness, the Dutch design community continues to celebrate its openness – no ‘design’ integration test required here.

Dutch design institutions like The Rietveld Academy or Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) are magnets for international designers - in 2009 at DAE there were 42 nationalities represented. "In the last decade, The Netherlands has become a very popular destination for foreign designers," says Gijs Bakker who heads the IM Master program at DAE. "We don't have a deep tradition in manufacture however what we do have is a strong creative climate and a supportive government. Even without the industries, we can still play a global role in the design world." In this creative climate, an openness in design thinking characterizes the education. It is a supportive environment particularly for those with an experimental approach. "The Dutch system has little hierarchy, so designers here are taught to think as individuals, which is in contrary to many other parts of the world, especially Asia." Bakker continues. "In The Netherlands, there is much more debate around what design is, could be and will be,” says Andrea Trimarchi from Italian design duo FormaFantasma. "In Italy because of the past success of Italian design, people seem to know what good and bad design is, based on the criteria of last century." The other half of the duo Simone Farresin comments, "On the other hand, I think in Italy there are much more interesting companies with more knowledge and experience. If you live in a city in Italy you can easily find craftspeople and companies to help develop your projects just by looking in the neighbourhood." This is the third year for duo working in Eindhoven which is where they established their studio after graduating from the DAE IM Masters program.

Complementing an openness in design thinking is the possibility to work in an independent manner. Without having to rely on the commissions of manufacturers and assisted by initiatives supporting creative industries and some government funding, designers are able to run their practices independently. It becomes an environment that also strongly supports self-production. Latvian-born designer Mara Skujeniece relates it to one of The Netherlands’ best-loved symbol: the bicycle. "Theoretically, if your car or the train doesn't work, then you can always bike! In the design process here, it works like this also. You have the freedom to move using your own force, (only don't get a flat tyre!) but you can still move. You're your own engine." Young designers are respected in The Netherlands, which is one of the major differences with many of the designers’ home countries. Farresin and Trimarchi add, "If you work in your country you can of course easily create your own network. Despite this, here we feel free to do what we like. Sometimes we think people don't understand how special it is that so many people are working as independent designers in The Netherlands."

It could be expected that the international designers would congregate in Amsterdam however surprisingly, (partly due to reasons of economy and space) they work in various cities in The Netherlands including Eindhoven, Rotterdam and Utrecht. What's most interesting about this situation is the impact that operating in a Dutch society has on the designers' work and the cultural exchange. "The Dutch are very critical and question everything,” says industrial designer Khodi Feiz. “They love to work hard, and are not easily satisfied. As a result, I've learnt to be much more self-critical in my work. It keeps me on my toes!" Iranian born/US-educated Feiz relocated to The Netherlands to work for Philips in the mid 90s, thinking his stay would last only a couple of years - it's been 19 years since. "I like the confidence in Dutch people, not in an arrogant way," continues Skujeniece. "Being here has given me the confidence and curiosity to explore, and the freedom to experiment. In Latvia, you follow more the rules." Skujeniece came to study at DAE in the mid 90s as there was no design course in Latvia, and has remained ever since. Thinking the other way around, what can Dutch designers learn from their international colleagues? "It's of course much easier to learn from another culture when you travel and experience these cultural differences first hand,” says Damian O'Sullivan who has French/Irish roots. “As a consequence I think that Dutch designers do not always learn as much from their foreign counterparts as the other way around. From that which I’ve observed over the years teaching at DAE, the things they may pick up are, in particular from Icelandic students; a form of quirkiness, from Israeli students; dedication and from Japanese students; humility."

Living in a country with one of the highest population density rates in the world means having probably the highest density rate of designers in the world, which equals more competition. “I don't feel like I have to partake in the competition because I'm not Dutch so I can just do my own thing more easily,” comments Skujeniece. However every disadvantage does have its advantage. "There's just no space here!" remarks German-born designer Doreen Westphal. "In Germany it feels like things happen more further apart. The 'scene' here is much more condensed but that has to do with how little space there is. And because everything is so close together, everything influences everything else much faster, so it's much easier to incorporate other disciplines into your work." Last but not least, the accessible location of this compact country in Western Europe is a big plus. "Both Israel and Japan are quite isolated from the rest of the world,” comment Boaz Cohen and Sayaka Yamamoto from Eindhoven-based BCXSY. “Going, for example, to exhibit in Milan is much more complex from there than it is from the Netherlands." Israeli-born Cohen - who has Dutch roots - and Japanese-born Yamamoto, have been living in The Netherlands for nine and five years respectively, and are both graduates of DAE.

So do the designers prefer to be called Dutch/Dutch-based or by their own nationalities? "I really don't mind. My Czech grandmother lived in Poland before she moved to Germany. I grew up in East Germany and I lived in the UK for five years before I moved to The Netherlands," continues Westphal. "I feel European with the need to connect to my local environment. Since a few weeks that environment is Eindhoven." Damian O'Sullivan echoes a similar sentiment. "I identify most strongly with being a European designer, although that’s clearly not an easy label to wear. I prefer the work to bear that out." Mario Minale and Kuniko Maeda from Rotterdam-based Minale-Maeda: "Sometimes we get called Dutch and it doesn't bother us but we both carry our baggage, so we think it more appropriate to call us Dutch- or Netherlands-based and otherwise Japanese-Italian, although it is a bit complicated as Mario grew up in Germany…" According to FormaFantasma, "People are obsessed by the idea of national identity while things are much more complex: our graduation project (Moulding Tradition) is about cultural ambiguity. Sometimes we have been defined as ‘Young Italian designers’ and other times as ‘Dutch designers’. These definitions are simplifying a more complex scenario where identity is not anymore only related and defined by geographical factors."

For now, the designers feel completely at home in The Netherlands - the only major drawback being missing the food from their home countries. But if they were ever to leave, what would they take with them? Minale-Maeda sum it up best: " For sure the openness in design and thinking and the Dutch working mentality and method - the approach that nothing is ever impossible that you get when you make the land by yourself."

Reproduced with the permission of Connecting The Dots.
To receive a copy of Connecting The Dots, please visit the Tuttobene website.

Photography main image: Collective Exposure
Back row (L>R): Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin (Italy) – FormaFantasma; Sayaka Yamamoto (Japan) and Boaz Cohen (Israel) – BCXSY; Mario Minale (Italy/Germany) and Kuniko Maeda (Japan) – Minale-Maeda
Front row (L>R): Janne Kyttanen (Finland) – Freedom of Creation; Mara Skujeniece (Latvia); Doreen Westphal (Germany); Nikola Nikolov (Bulgaria) – Studio-Re-Creation

Image 1: Damian O'Sullivan
Image 2: FormaFantasma
Image 3: Doreen Westphal
Image 4: Joana Meroz
Image 5: Khodi Feiz
Image 6: Tomáš Gabzdil Libertiny, photography: Collective Exposure
Image 7: Mara Skujeniece
Image 8: Minale-Maeda
Image 9: Nacho Carbonell
Image 10: Studio-Re-Creation

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