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The Leap from Star Student to the Real World

Joni Neelen shone at the Design Academy Eindhoven and her work was selected for one of Amsterdam's most prestigious design events, but as she enters the real world she thinks being talented wont be enough.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 15-01-2009

Design life after five years at the Design Academy Eindhoven is one fraught with risk and adventure.  Especially for star students like Joni Neelen whose graduation project, “Preparing Dreams” was one of the most popular objects in the graduation exhibition.  It had already been selected by Bernardine Walrecht from Elle Wonen as part of Inside Design Amsterdam’s Lloyd Hotel exhibition in September of last year. Now she is in hush hush talks with a new line of concept hotels keen to use her designs.

“Studying at the academy was great,” Neelen says.  “There I got the chance to play with concepts and form and to find my way through the design process.  I loved that the school has a definite way of thinking which they want to pass on, but that we are also encouraged to search for what suits us best.”

Neelen speaks highly of the intangible influence the recently departed head of the academy, Li Edelkoort, had over her and her fellow students.  “We all felt that she was behind us as a back-up, and we understood what she wanted from us,” she says.  “That was always very motivating and helped to guide us through all the assignments and modules.”

The first big test for an Eindhoven student is conceiving of a graduation project idea that impresses a preliminary panel of judges.  “Until then we are coaxed and assisted,” Neelen says. “But to get the green light on our final project we need an idea that represents us as designers.  It has to be original and strong.”

Double function is a theme that Neelen started to explore from the start.  She had designed lights from old oil lamps and created a lamp within a curtain.  Flipping through the hundreds of sketches she had made on this theme landed her at one of a bed.

Using that as a base, Neelen added and played with shapes until she came up with “Preparing Dreams”, a combined bed, clothes rack, lamppost and side table all bent from metal chrome tubing.  The bed was a hit at the Lloyd Hotel and talks with with a new hotel brand that responded to it’s ability to personalize a small space are underway, albeit veiled in secrecy.

“Hotel rooms never feel comfortable,” Neelen says.  “They are either too much or too little and nobody ever unpacks everything.  It is enough to have one book and one dress hanging just to create a feeling.”

But being creative within the cushioned confines of the academy is much easier than working as a designer out in the big world.  Neelen says the struggle now for her and all graduates is to stay motivated.  “When you leave you realize how much more there is to learn,” she says.  “It is both exciting and intimidating.”  Having her studio in the Atelierdorp church complex helps because it is full of students working on graduation projects.  "I'm still surrounded by that energy."

But as with any career path, success depends on more then just talent.  “I thought some of the most talented students at the academy were the ones who dropped out first,” Neelen says.  “And of the ones who did make it to graduation, there are always a couple of big names and you know they will be fine.  Others will stay small and attract some attention, and the rest will get regular design 9 to 5 jobs.  It depends on timing, luck, motivation and being willing to stay in touch with what is happening.”

Neelen’s hope is to stay independent, but to collaborate with labels on individual assignments.  “Being solo is nice,” she says, “but being able to interact with others is even nicer.”

Obscuring that trajectory is money and concerns over how to make herself commercially viable.  Neelen has been busy working on a double version of "Preparing Dreams" and is depending on a small stipend the Dutch government offers to assist young designers.  But that will only last a few years.  

One criticism Neelen has of the Design Academy Eindhoven is its failure to adequately prepare graduates for running a business. “I know how to design and create,” she says, “but I have no clue about how to run a business. I don’t know how to discuss money with a client, which I think is a big problem.”

In related news, designers at Atelierdorp welcomed in the new year with some good news: the church is safe for at least another twelve months.

Images: from top the frame, lamp, clothes rack, and key embroidered bed sheet of "Preparing Dreams" and "What's behind The Curtains", a lamp embedded in a curtain.

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