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Jan Boelen in Ljubljana

Jan Boelen is trying a new concept during the upcoming 24th Biennial of Design in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which is celebrating its 50th birthday next year.  Boelen is turning his dislike of design events into something positive.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 12-12-2013

Jan Boelen had lost his interest in glittery international design exhibitions. “70 to 80 per cent of what one sees at every event is the same as what is shown at every other event,” says Boelen who is head of Social Design, a Masters’ programme, at the Design Academy Eindhoven. “These fairs and exhibitions are hardly ever interesting and just make themselves superfluous. They’re also expensive and usually just leave one with a hangover.” 

When Boelen expressed these thoughts during a lecture in Slovenia, home of one of the oldest design biennales in the world, they didn’t let him get away with it too easily. Back home a few weeks later he received a letter, inviting him to come over again to discuss his ideas. He went and realized that many people from the world of design agreed with him.

“I realised that I couldn’t just criticise,” Boelen says.  “I also needed to think about a possible alternative. Many design events are inward looking. Artifacts just refer to themselves. It’s much more interesting if designers and their products connect to the world again. It would be especially fitting for an event in Slovenia, which during the Cold War was a small window between East and West.”

Of course it is true that design events would be far more interesting if they didn’t just show a never-ending stream of products made anywhere and everywhere – products that are simply transported from one event to the next.  It would be better if an event featured something unique that can only be seen at that single event.  It would also make traveling to the best events worthwhile.

So Boelen, who was eventually invited to curate the 24th Biennial of Design in Ljubljana next year, devised an entirely new concept  - one that is partially inspired by his work on social design at the DAE. “We have to go beyond products and consider what the meaning of design can be for our daily lives,” he says.  “So at this biennial there will be no showing of traditional products. Instead, we will be showing new developments. The biennial will be like a laboratory. The fundamental goal of design is no longer the production of yet another chair. it’s a form of inquiry, and of agency.”

Boelen came up with 12 topics, and is looking for teams to tackle each subject as a group. Topics are, for instance, Affordable Living, Knowing Food, Public Water Public Space, and The Fashion System.

“At the time of the first Biennial in Ljubljana in 1964 food production was all about industrialising processes,” says Boelen. “We have to rethink these processes. How is our food produced? How is it stored? And how is it prepared? Perhaps we have to go back to the period before 1964 to see what was worthwhile then and what that might mean for our future.” 
The mentor of the food session will be Dutchman Lucas Mullié, who happens to be educated as both a professional cook and as a designer at the DAE. “Real innovation takes place when different fields start interacting,” Boelen says.  “Mullié can make unexpected connections on his own as he happens to be trained in two different fields.”

Whether this idea can work is still uncertain and Boelen admits this readily. It is, after all, about experimenting and no experiment ever leads to a completely predictable result.

Some sessions might be really productive, others might deliver a core of something that will need further development. Others might only result in the building of networks for designers.

At the same time the format is based on one that has worked elsewhere. “It’s about an attitude that is very strong at the DAE in Eindhoven,” Boelen says. “It’s about the biennial as a thought experiment where possible outcomes are defined, while we have to wait and see what the results might be. The journey is more important than the destination.”  

Some other Dutch designers taking part in this process are Rianne Makkink co-founder of Studio Makkink & Bey and mentor in the Affordable Living session, Aldo Bakker, product designer and mentor in the Water session, and DAE-student, Evan Frenkel who is currently researching open and active clothing manufacturing systems, will be mentor in the Fashion session.

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