Ilse Crawford

Curator for the Netherlands and Belgium

The Low Countries have always had a pragmatic approach to culture and design – the Netherlands is, after all, a nation that designed itself. The region has embraced the modern since the Thirties at all levels of society and there is great interest in design from the general public. At the Design Academy Eindhoven Graduation Show in 2011 there were 30,000 visitors, old and young and from many walks of life.

Perhaps it is embedded. The very notion of ‘home’ was invented in the Netherlands back in the 17th century as domestic space began to be separated from ‘work’. As was the idea that culture is a universal right, not just the domain of the aristocracy. Also with its roots in this region is a celebration of the everyday in art, which began with the wealthy patrons of Rembrandt and Vermeer – often doctors and bakers.

The notion of the authentic individual as an important component of the development of a conscious and innovative society is embedded in the constitution. Government continues to view design as a means to shape the future and is keen to develop innovation and entrepreneurship in this industry – an enthusiasm reflected in grants, tax breaks and ongoing support.

In this part of the world design has historically had a solid partnership with industry. Dutch and Belgian companies have a good track record of working with design, often bringing designers together with manu-facturing early on as opposed to seeing it simply as a marketing device.

The designers themselves meanwhile are both responsive to changing times and cultural values and intensely practical. They are committed to the idea that design can influence the way we behave and feel, that it can connect ethics with aesthetics and can engage with social issues. Economic value too should be remembered – certainly there is a strong mercantile gene in most people from the Low Countries. The Dutch style is never mere whimsy or an exercise in cool – these are designers who think, then make it happen and put their ideas into production. This is evident whether we are discussing the revaluation of craft in industry, as epitomised by Hella Jongerius, or the work of Atelier NL with their projects around the value of place and context, the focus on raw material by Christien Meindertsma or the new colour language of Scholten and Baijings, or even the poetic products of Aldo Bakker.

This attitude is visible in the way design is taught. At the Design Academy Eindhoven students are both encouraged to be strong conceptually as well as to be able to execute and communicate their ideas, while at the Technical University it is the students who decide which teachers and projects they want to do.

In current times designers are rightfully concerned with the content of things. There is relatively little furniture for furniture’s sake being shown at design schools these days. When there is, it has to do something, stand for something, be a genuine step forward – it is not enough for design to simply look good. The two emerging designers who are working here with Nanna Ditzel’s iconic tweedy wool both fall into this category. Léon de Lange looks at furniture that relates to how we stand, lounge, relate and relax today; and Philippe Malouin uses the textile in a highly innovative new structural way. Both open up a world of possibilities.