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Timo de Rijk Sparks a Good Debate

Timo de Rijk’s op-ed last week damning Dutch design education for its self-indulgence has unearthed an interesting debate about the problems academies now face.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 21-02-2013

Reactions to Timo de Rijk’s rather damning assault on the Dutch design education system have been pleasantly calm, and unusually cerebral.  It seems most people can at least empathize with the main views. The media, by all accounts, is also accountable.

At one extreme you have those who feel that design education should be about stretching the reach of design via research and experimentation.  Design education should ignore limits, push forward and in so doing create fresh ways for design to play a bigger and broader role.  This comes through creating possibilities, which can only ever be the result of trial and error.

“I think the discussion could be interesting except Timo is confusing education and the marketplace,” says Jan Boelen, head of Social Design, a Master’s programme at the Design Academy Eindhoven since 2010. “A great graduation project stirs up discussion, and that Massoud Hassani’s project has been tested by several military outfits is already an enormous step …. And even if it never eventuates, the Pentagon spends a huge amount of money on researching ideas that amount to nothing.”

Boelen also argues that value is not only financial.  “2008 showed us that,” he says.  “The cultural, the sustainable, the human value of things must also be taken into account.  I think Timo is too stuck in a traditional way of thinking.  Design is so broad now, but he seems to only acknowledge a 20th century paradigm.”

Head of the designLab at the Rietveld Academy, Bas van Beek, also feels that De Rijk is missing the essence of where design has come to. “I love and embrace the danger and perversion in design,” he says referring to De Rijk calling Hassani’s Mine Kaffon “perverse”.  

“What we should be mindful of are academics, designers, hippies and their offspring who preach for change from a moral and idealistic point of view,” says Van Beek.  “Their beliefs are not tolerant and they fail to see that design does not develop in a progressive linear way towards utopia. It develops in multiple non-linear directions, left to right, top to bottom, good to worse, safe to dangerous. Mr De Rijk seems to be in denial of is own humanity.”

Others contacted are fluctuating on both sides of this evolving debate.  Although many say (off the record) that De Rijk took a cheap and easy shot that diminished his valid points.

“I do not feel like the article speaks to me,” says Jurgen Bey, Director of the Sandberg Institute.  “I would not have said it like he did, but he is making a good point.  And it probably wasn’t very fair of him to use this one graduation project to illustrate his argument, but I am sure he [Massoud Hassani] can handle it given all the great press he has received.”

Bey thinks the way to move forward in education is not to solve problems, but rather to find diversions that create new directions.  “I don’t like arguments about who is right and who is wrong,” he says.  “But I definitely agree that too little attention is being paid to industrial design in schools ….. in the end a lot of projects are promises that can never come true.”

Bey and others point that this issue lies at the core of the DAE’s current troubles.  And who is eventually chosen as the new creative head will reveal a lot about how this issue will be dealt with.

Marty Lamers speaks to us as an independent designer and not as Head of Man and Identity at DAE.  “I totally agree with De Rijk,” he says.  “It is all about asking what design is about and I think it is high time we admit that we are past the gilded cage era of design.  We need to see reality.”

Lamers points to Western Europe’s all but dead industry and claims that students are not interested in addressing this, but rather aspire to become stars, designing limited editions for galleries.

“I think the media is also to blame,” Lamers says.  “And that includes”

Lamers still supports conceptual thinking, but wants it coupled with more perspective and context.  “Bring concept and context together,” says Lamers, “and that is what I call reality.”  At the same time he agrees with former academy head Li Edelkoort’s claim that the world can’t have too many dreams.  “My role is to give my audience, consumers and spectators fantasies,” he says, “but it should not be the fantasy of a single individual designer. I think this was Timo’s point.  These students are too free to be completely personal because they have had it so easy, but the world has changed and designers have not come up with any answers …. Nor have bankers or politicians.  Everyone needs a new way of understanding the real world.”

But it was Garech Stone – one half of the Stone Twins who head up the Man and Communication Department at the DAE who had one of the most interesting takes on the whole issue.  He says he was initially amused by De Rijk’s article, but later came to be more understanding.

“I wondered what Timo knew about the DAE, its curriculum and education model,” Stone says.  “But actually I think this is all about perception and the perception problem the academy has is its own fault.”

Stone is highly critical of how the graduation projects are presented.  “It is all so homogenized and sterile,” he says. “None of it reflects the individual spirit of the designers and I blame, Items, and the whole cultural media for this.”

Graduation projects are of course only ever works in progress and it is true that we often celebrate them as finished products.  The imagery and critique are therefore misleading.

Stone points out the huge difference between the earliest images of the Mine Kafon “Where it was clearly about landmines, danger, explosions and lots of dust,” he says, versus the latest images that make the object look more like a poetic sculpture.

The result is to strip the object it of its potency.

“I think Timo got it wrong in so far as everyone knows that something like this will need years of research and development to be useful, but we are having a bigger conversation at the academy than he probably realizes.  I am not saying we have not become complacent in our own success though, and we definitely have a lot to think about.”

Main: Graduation Show 2012 at the Design Academy Eindhoven
Small: Timo de Rijk

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