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Job Smeets and the Holocaust

Job Smeets has responded to the uproar his recent TV appearance on talk show DWDD spawned. This time his work misses the mark.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 22-12-2011

Dutch design has hit the mainstream press from Holland to Israel this week over an appearance by Job Smeets on a popular mainstream TV show, DWDD.

Presenter Matthijs van Nieuwkerk challenged Smeets and partner Nynke Tynagel to explain two pieces on their oeuvre.

One piece is a tablecloth printed with a schematic concentration camp.  Studio Job designed this for a lounge in the Groninger Museum to be used for private events.  The museum rejected the work.

The other is a fence and gate for a private collector in Amsterdam that is yet to be realized.  The piece consists of two chimneys joined by an arch of smoke with a bell hanging from the middle.  Inscribed in Latin on the bell are the words “To Each His Own”.  Translated into German this reads “Jedem Das Seine” – the words that adorned the gate to the entrance of Buchenwald, the largest Nazi concentration camp on German soil.

“It is ridiculous that in the museum you can show dicks and vaginas with no trouble,” Smeets told the panel about the Groninger Museum refusing his cloth,  “but just fifty meters away in a private lounge they say no to my cloth.”

About the fence Smeets explained: “The task was to make a fence.  We had to ask ourselves, why do we need fences in our society? It’s not something to be proud of. So we looked for the most powerful icon of fences and ended up with this.”

During the DWDD debate design critic Tracy Metz was unconvinced.  She dismissed the work as a cheap PR stunt put forward to garner publicity.

Bas van Beek, head of designLAB at the Rietveld Academy agrees: “Designers only get this sort of exposure when they get political,” he says. “It is just a strategy.”

Design criticism is difficult terrain to tread.  “The relationship between designers and the media has for so long been wrapped up in a mutually beneficial public relations game,” says Timo de Rijk, Premsela Professor of Design Culture at the VU University in Amsterdam.  “This lack of proper criticism actually ends up being hostile to Dutch design and it suffers as a result.  Dutch designers are not used to criticism because there is no professional tradition of it, and that must change.”

“Well why the fuss?” wrote Smeets in one email.  “We were using an iconography that is part of our history.... these pieces express the opposite of what you think they do .... please open your angry eyes!”

Smeets went on to say that Studio Job is more about art than design and thus prefers to ask questions than devise design solutions.  Beautifying our surroundings is not their aim. On top of that he wants to provoke - to stretch his field of work.  “These pieces are an attempt to break through the taboo or dogma,” he says.  Presumably that would be the taboo of using the Holocaust theme lightly – like for a tablecloth, for example.

Lastly he claims to want to express the “fear of repetition. Lest we forget the price our parents paid for the freedom we take for granted, but which is often threatened.”  The Holocaust is “without doubt the most terrible, horrible, and frightening period of Europe’s recent past.”  

Point taken, but that would turn the projects into monuments, which are usually not taboo or dogma crushing as that would distract from a monument’s main purpose.

“We never meant to harm anyone,” are Smeets’ final words on the issue.  

Any design that concurrently tries to commemorate war while being taboo-crushing is going to run into difficulties. That symbols and images come loaded with deep-rooted cultural and political significance seems to have been willfully ignored.  

The issue here is understanding how to work with symbols that reek of tragedy, but also of having a genuine purpose. A designer can not just pilfer such explosive imagery and icons for dramatic effect or shock value, without having a clear purpose.

If this happens, the work becomes superficial, which is the criticism against these particular Studio Job projects.  The tablecloth and the gate are needlessly controversial. A lot more thinking was required.

Dutch design has been made infinitely more interesting and successful thanks to impressive contributions made over the last decade by designers like Job Smeets.  More debate and open communication about the industry, its responsibilities and future direction are imperative to keeping it alive and relevant.

In the mean time, reports on these Holocaust designs has taken off internationally. The Jerusalem Post reported on Saturday that CIDI, a Hague-based watchdog on anti-Semitism, has written to the city of Amsterdam, urging it not to issue a permit for the “offensive fence, which is an attempt to attract attention regardless of the pain [it causes].”

In his own defense Job Smeets wrote to “We hope survivors of the Holocaust will see these works in a proper perspective.”

Note: This article is a revised and updated version of last week’s Studio Job piece, which is no longer available.

Images: screen shots from Smeets' DWDD appearance.

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