by Julian Ellerby
The year 2020 has long been shorthand for the time when the future would finally arrive. Now here, it doesn’t feel much like the prophesied technological utopia — half of all people confined to their homes — the fragility of human life tragically highlighted — unbalanced systems tipped or toppled — relationships reduced to shouting at pixelated screens — all that was once labelled ‘normal’ under scrutiny.
Faced with all of this it was tempting, and perhaps necessary at first, to grieve our best laid plans. For large swathes of the design industry the reality was closed studios and schools, tools locked away, the yearly merry-go-round of design fairs, festivals, PR and product launches ground to a halt.
As spring flourished – alongside the merciless virus – those of us privileged to have the time to think, the space to reflect and our health intact observed the deceleration of relentless economic growth, the shrinking of fossil fuel usage, the grounding of airplanes forced and the emergence of a degree of hope for a positive future.
The pandemic forced me to slow down and focus on my immediate surroundings, the subtle daily (or even hourly) changes in the Sycamores and Silver Birch that shade our home, to be more present and playful with my family and to notice the needs of neighbours who had recently been strangers. During this time, many more people, businesses and, in the very rare case governments, also began to reconsider relationships to local identities. Adopting more caring approaches to materials, communities and the environment around them. I could sense nature taking a deep breath in (or was it a gasp) and sought out guidance in the words and wisdom of those more knowledgeable communities that have known these things all along.
Beyond Safe Havens
“I do not see this time as negative. It’s a wake up call for all of us to rethink, pause, to do it better” stated Wendy Plomp stoically when we spoke early this summer. The founder and design director of Dutch Invertuals was reaching out to discuss the first Dutch Invertuals Academy.
Dutch Invertuals has always curated and collaborated with the most innovative local talent in the Netherlands, but Wendy recognised that it was time to take her own advice and ‘go beyond your safe havens!’. Using the digital tools that had become so familiar the team decided to share the deep knowledge and experience of their network at a time when people were seeking out new skills and connections.
The programme would be an intensive six week programme of (digital) exchange of, enquiry into and experimentation under the theme ‘True Matter’. Emerging designers from around the world would be challenged to work with materials from their local context, play with their surroundings not only in terms of resources but also in terms of techniques, craftsmanship, politics and traditions.
The Invertuals network would support and guide the designers through lectures and workshops, with weekly group reflection sessions facilitated by me. The final outcomes to be presented at Dutch Design Week 2020 in Eindhoven.
22 Glowing Rectangles
Dutch Invertuals are as renowned for their conceptual and tactile exhibitions as much as they are for their collaborative approach, lengthy conversations and debates around tables (and bars) — the challenge was to translate this energy into the immaterial digital realm.
Day 1. Thursday 23rd July. Our Zoom waiting room was full. I clicked ‘ADMIT ALL’ and my computer screen filled with a grid of glowing rectangles filled with the smiling faces of strangers. As Wendy later described ‘‘I really was emotional when in this corona time my crazy idea became real and all 22 designers popped up on the screen”.
Throughout that session I was humbled by each designer’s unique stories, situations and work. As each spoke I realised that DIA had the potential to shed light beyond individual local identities and also provide insight into what truly matters collectively too.
From Mapping to Making
With an intense timeline the designers were encouraged by their tutors to embrace mistakes, experiments and their design and making skills to learn quickly through doing. Weeks were punctuated by lectures and workshops to inspire and provoke them on topics from ‘mapping’ to ‘mother nature’ and ‘gramshaving’ and each Thursday all designers came back together as one group.
At first we all travelled digitally through space as designers explored and mapped their environments. Together we found intrigue in the minute – as Kawisara Anansaringkarn investigated a handful of dust from the corner of her Bangkok room. Together we found inspiration in the mundane – Wen Zhan’s photographs bringing new attention to ad-hoc street furniture and homelessness in Hong Kong. Together we were humbled by hyperobjects – as Carolina Pacheco Glen brought our attention to immense, systematic and interdependent issues of avocado farming and water poverty in Chile. ‘Each person’s urgency was greatly determined by their place of residence be it women’s rights, drought, or countless disappearances of indigenous women’ emphasised Xandra van der Eijk, one of the tutors.
As the weeks progressed ideas, words and sketches became experiments made in myriad materials. In Copenhagen Elly Nielsen discovered a 90 year old desk that would have her focussed attention. In Chennai, design duo The Architure Story made up of Deepak Jawahar and Justine De Penning, explored the history and potential of mridangam drum leather. In Tel Aviv, Tal Preger Galili and Shahar Kedem, collected and adapted the basalt rock prevalent in the landscape. The group of designers searched forward for their True Matter, prototyping, testing and continually questioning. As van der Eijk explained ‘In the end, every one of them has really dug deep to find that one thing that truly matters to them, and made an honest attempt of translating that subject into something physical.’
The Academy was an exercise in improvisation with the team and designers constantly adapting at pace. As Mieke Meijer of Studio Mieke Meijer and DIA tutor said “I truly believe it’s better sometimes not to have loads of time as a designer, results do not necessarily get any better by it. All our outcomes are straight from the heart of the designers without overthinking it too much.’ The pace of the programme encouraged fast decision making and intuition over talking and thinking with much of the Academy happening in the ‘Experiment! Experiment! Experiment!’ spirit that Niek Pulles from Nike explored in his workshops.
The process was untested and was not always smooth. The digital tools used and their limitations sometimes left people rushed and frustrated with us unable to go the depth and detail some designers craved. However, these same tools created new possibilities that distance, time, money and politics would have previously prevented. As Mieke so clearly puts it “Borders do not matter in an online environment. With Lebanese stamps in my passport I could not have gone to Israel for example. And now I had the opportunity to guide Israelian students!’
For me the Academy reinforced the importance of looking much further outside myself and stretching outside my bubble to find new collaborators and perspectives. Simultaneously I learnt to look more intently at my space. As Christoph from Raw Color says ‘in one meter square, or even one cm, we can find enough for a life’s work’. Through constant dialogue with our surroundings, other people and non-human actors around us we can understand and build stronger relationships with the world finding new value, new truth and new meaning.
‘They created works with symbolism, crafts, new materials, new traditions’ says Wendy Plomp finally surrounded by the work in the Eindhoven base of the Invertuals. The first Dutch Invertuals Academy is at an end. Objects and artworks have made their way to Eindhoven. Coronavirus risks and restrictions still in full effect.
The final pieces are a reflection of each designer’s truth at this moment, a material artifact of their experiences. Neither these works or the Academy itself present perfect answers or solutions but suggest new beginnings. As Mieke Meijer hopes that ‘Like previous Dutch Invertuals exhibitions it won’t be about individual final results but it will be about the story as a whole: how a pandemic can inspire to spark new initiatives like this academy’.
I am left with optimism, even more questions than when we started and the feeling that this is a beginning not an end. Perhaps the Academy is best seen as a prototype itself – demonstrating approaches for how we might map, questioning and experimenting ways for us to move towards a more caring way of being and designing together. The first Dutch Invertuals Academy is a record of how the collective responded at this moment, responding to restrictions and change, embracing the spirit of experimentation, people opening themselves up to new communities and ideas, and ready to make mistakes and keep learning from them.
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Dutch Invertuals B.V.
Bram Vanderbeke – scenography
Edhv – graphic design
Invertual network – tutors & lecturers
Julia Veldman – documentary
Julian Ellerby – moderator & article
Laura Houseley – copy designers
Mark Brand – web development
Raw Color – campaign visuals
Roos Pollman – sound design
Schimmel & Schweikle – 3d visuals