Dutch Design: Take another Look

Dutch Design as a whole is known for its beauty, simplicity, humour and innovativeness. Having burst onto the international scene in recent years, the creative industry now boasts an annual export value estimated at more than 4.1 billion pounds (www.hollandtrade.com).

Marcel Wanders is one of the figureheads of this flourishing world and has been for over 25 years. Now at the zenith of his career, the curators at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk museum have staged the first major retrospective of the prolific designer and art director.

‘Pinned Up at the Stedelijk’ brings together over 400 objects within a gallery space composed of a white perimeter encasing a womb-like ‘black zone’, made celestial by Wanders’ Skygarden lamps (2007). An ethereal soundscape, specially-created by acclaimed classical composer JacobTV, sets the tone.

All of Wanders’ iconic works are represented, including: the poetic Knotted Chair (1995–1996), constructed almost entirely from reinforced rope; Lace Table (1997); the wonderfully bulbous Egg Vase (1997); and Airborne Snotty Vases (2001) (my favourite title).

The title of the exhibition itself is, of course, overtly self-referential. Wanders obviously couldn’t resist the opportunity to poke fun at this dissection of his mutating ideas, frozen in time.

Wanders graduated from ArtEZ, the Netherlands, in 1988. Initially associated with avant-garde, conceptual approaches to Dutch Design, he made his first breakthrough with Knotted Chair. His influential creations are now sought-after worldwide.

The chair was a feat of engineering which married a high-tech material with a low-tech macramé technique, the same knotting technique used to make friendship bracelets. There is something distinctly homemade about the chair, yet at the same time you can only marvel at the perfect, geometrical balance it embodies. I am convinced that the best tree-house in the world would be constructed in a similar way. Maybe someone should tell Marcel…

From one playful project to another, the entrance to the lower gallery is presided over by a mosaic tiled – but fully functional – automobile. In 2004 the car was on display at London’s 100% Design festival (an annual trade event which is open to the public and well worth attending for its cutting-edge wares), and was actually driven out of the building on the final day.

For all the time, effort, and expertise tiling the entire body of a car must require, I found myself more captivated by Wanders’ ‘one minute’ pieces. He conceived of the idea whilst moulding animal-like forms from playdough with his daughter one day. He realized that blowing-up the forms into life-size golden statues would achieve interesting effects. Notably, their flaws and irregularities become something to celebrate rather than suppress. Only the playdough forms Wanders was most fond of were chosen for this purpose, hence the title Lucky One.

Wanders has since transferred this ‘one minute’ approach to pottery. At a distance, his china plates appear to be adorned with intricate, oriental motifs. But this is merely an illusion; the effect is in fact achieved by nothing more than a flurry of rapid, blue brushstrokes. Each plate is unique, capturing a spontaneous moment that we can never replicate.

Although I would be tempted to argue that poetry, art, theatre and opera are, in part, also ‘about functionality’ (see above), Wanders’ words act as a vital reminder that life is enriched where functional design is transcended by artistic spirit. In our throw-away society (I know, that term is thrown around too often), we often take the objects around us for granted. But an everyday object made with love, possessing some creative spark, is capable of firing up the imagination of those who come into contact with it. Chances are, the child who eats her meals from ‘one minute’ plates, especially if she has created them herself, will develop a larger appetite for lateral thinking than her counterparts with their mass-produced tableware.

According to the retrospective’s curator, Ingeboorg de Roode, Wanders has been “driven by a clear and distinctive vision from the very start of his career: to create an extraordinary and sustainable environment though design”. This sustainability, de Roode affirms, “comes from users building relationships with their products, cherishing them rather than discarding them”.

A sustainable outlook is characteristic of the forward-thinking designs which the Netherlands export to the world. This seems admirable, especially when you consider that it’s not necessarily in a manufacturer’s interest to create products that need only be purchased once in a client’s lifetime. Then again, this could explain the gulp-worthy prices on some of the furnishings…

That’s not to say Wanders’ work is only exclusively accessible to the elite few. On the contrary, he has responded to commissions from high-street brands close to home such as Marks and Spencer. He has also been involved in a number of charity projects. One such project, Can of Gold (2001), involved giving soup tins to homeless people, collecting the empty tins to be gilded with 24 carat gold, then assembling them to create a poignant installation full of juxtapositions, co-created by Hamburg’s homeless and with all the profit going to a homeless charity.

In Wanders’ land nothing is ever as it seems. Conventions of functional design are questioned, subverted… as they should be. Art direction is a purposeful means of communication, where poignancy is unhindered by pretension. Wanders’ land is a place radiant with beauty, simplicity, humour and innovativeness. I might also add great business nous and human kindness.

Photographs by Lucy Sabin.

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