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Is Dutch Design Education on a Dead-end Track?

Dutch design education needs to go back to its roots. It needs to stop celebrating the designer and instead focus again on the design itself as well as the user, says design critic Timo de Rijk this week in a fierce attack on design education in Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 14-02-2013

One of the most celebrated Dutch designs last year was a device called “Mine Kafon”.  It’s a large wind-blown ball with bamboo spikes created to safely blow up land mines. The story behind the “Mine Kafon” is very personal as its creator is 2011 Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Massoud Hassani who grew up in Afghanistan, a country filled with landmines.

“Mine Kafon” made it onto CNN and into the collection of MoMA in New York, which calls it an “outstanding example of [the] vitality and diversity” of design.  

This shows exactly what is wrong with Dutch design and Dutch design education, writes Timo de Rijk  this week in a personal op-ed in NRC Handelsblad - the Netherlands (supposedly) highbrow newspaper. Timo de Rijk is professor of Design Cultures at the VU university in Amsterdam and  a regular lecturer at Delft University of Technology.

If the “Mine Kafon” had been a good piece of design as a demolisher of land mines, it would have been bought by the Pentagon. But it wasn’t. Instead it was bought by the Museum of Modern Art.

The work produced by designers in the Netherlands has become more and more personal and conceptual since the nineties and this has made Dutch design world famous, writes Timo de Rijk. Instead of making mass-produced usable objects, designers have preferred to exhibit in galleries. In doing this, design moved away from its social context.

Design schools realised they couldn’t continue along this artificial route. Design needs to be used in a social context, which is exactly why “Mine Kafon” has been so celebrated. There’s an “irresistible feel-good” side to the story of Hassani and his devastated homeland, admits De Rijk. 

“But let’s be clear - these social qualities are for appearances only, and this design is unfair and immoral,” writes De Rijk. “The designer promises more than he will ever be able to deliver.” In other words - the design doesn’t work, as shown by the fact that no military shows any interest. Walking through a minefield after the “Mine Kafon” has rolled through it is the equivalent of playing Russian Roulette with life.

“The Mine Kafon is simply unbearable because it’s a deadly product. The success being celebrated here is not about hope for a safe former war zone, it’s about media attention for Dutch Design. All people involved know exactly what’s wrong here.” 

“But in Dutch design too many people – from teachers to governments – have started to believe in their own media success leaving design schools on a dead-end track. Design schools should start taking themselves and their tasks as educational institutes seriously again and develop sincere views on design that give centre stage to man, not the designer.” 

Next week will report on the industry’s reaction to Timo de Rijk views. 

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