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Thomas Widdershoven

Design Academy Eindhoven "needs to get a grip on technology"

News: technology and food have replaced products and furniture as the new frontiers for designers, according to Thomas Widdershoven, creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven (+ interview).

Young designers today want to make a difference in the world and are moving away from the ego-centric creations of the previous generation, Widdershoven said in an interview with Dezeen during Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven.

By contrast the idea of designing products or one-off creations for galleries is "not as avant-garde and pioneering anymore," said Widdershoven, who joined the highly influential Dutch design school in March last year following a turbulent period of in-fighting and resignations at the academy.

"At the moment the idea that we are product designers, or that we create collectables in a sort of gallery or cultural field, is shrinking very fast," said Widdershoven, a graphic designer who co-founded Amsterdam studio Thonik.

"I see students much more focused on the world at large, not so much only on the cultural sector,' he said. "And I see them addressing real-world issues. They really want to make a difference in the world."

Widdershoven said he wanted to make technology a core element at the academy, which until now has focused on craft skills.

Thomas Widdershoven
Thomas Widdershoven speaking at the Design Academy Eindhoven graduation show

"The Design Academy needs to get a new grip on technology," he said. "The studios at the academy are more places for craft. But technology is not so strong in our academy."

"Before, technology was really something for industry, and now we're getting into a place where technology can be for people," he added. "The individual, the designer, can make a difference."

Widdershoven is forging links with technical universities in the Netherlands and has curated an exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven exploring the difference between the way designers and engineers think.

The Sense Nonsense exhibition compares the approach of designers to that of engineers and responds to a recent critique by Dutch writer Timo de Rijk, who argued that Dutch designers were narcissistic and the education system was irresponsible.

"If people accuse us of creating nonsense, let's take it up as a positive word because it gives us freedom to think, freedom to act and freedom to make without all of the responsibilities of problem solving," said Widdershoven.

Widdershoven has already introduced a new department at the design academy called Food Non Food, headed by Marije Vogelzang, which encourages students to engage with the food industry.

Widdershoven said that food and technology were "definitely" important new fields for designers to address, along with service design and interaction design.

Here's the transcript of the interview:

Marcus Fairs: You became creative director of Design Academy Eindhoven in March last year. Tell us about the changes have you made at the academy and what your vision is for creative education.

Thomas Widdershoven: Can we make the question a bit smaller and start by talking about the two exhibitions I've curated in the Van Abbemusem. They reveal a lot about my position.

Marcus Fairs: Okay, start by telling me about Self Unself, the exhibition you curated at the museum during Dutch Design Week last year. That explored the contrast between the way designers today work both on self-initiated projects - which could be accused of being selfish and even useless - and on functional projects with real-world applications.

Thomas Widdershoven: Basically I think that at the moment the idea that we are product designers, or that we create collectables in a sort of gallery or cultural field, is shrinking very fast. That whole market is shrinking very fast. So I see students much more focused on the world at large, not so much only on the cultural sector. And I see them addressing real-world issues. They really want to make a difference in the world.

But despite that we still educate students to be individuals that have a real impact on the process. So even if they don't make products, they will be acting in situations where the individual makes a difference. That is what our educational system focuses on. So we pick students with talent, with motivation, and with personality.

And we try to develop them over those four years [of the degree programme] or those two years [of the masters programme]. Now the self is quite important, but the students have to be open to the world, they try to share things with the world, they try solve problems in the world. That made me think of the world "unself" as an opposition.

So you can make an axis of self to unself and somewhere along that line our students position themselves as designers. Because even if they go to extreme unselfish positions, they are still going to function in a situation where the individual makes a difference.

Phonebloks by Dave Hakkens
Phonebloks by Dave Hakkens

So if [Design Academy Eindhoven graduate] Dave Hakkens gives his project [Phonebloks concept for a modular mobile phone] to the world as an open-source project, without an economic model, he is challenging existing economic models and acting unselfishly. But it is still Dave Hakkens the individual designer doing it. There will always be a moment where his personality is part of the whole discussion.

When positioning yourself along this axis of self and unself, I think it's quite fair to say that we are also talking about the relationship between design and art. Art is much more self-conscious, self-initiated, but also solipsistic. Design is much more open to the world.

So that is why we did this research on self and unself in a museum, the Van Abbemuseum, because that is where you find art and where you can also find design.  So we tried to show projects where designers and artists take a position between self and unself. We included work from designers who are obviously a little bit older, who have a strong personality, and have a personal fame - like Hella Jongerius. From her we chose the KLM project.

"I think they're weird; they think I'm weird" - Hella Jongerius
Hella Jongerius' business-class cabin for KLM

For that project Hella was initially only asked to design the business-class interior. In the business-class interior you need the autograph of a famous designer and then there is quite a bit of freedom for that designer because it has to look designed. But later she was asked to do the economy class. And that means that she really understood something about KLM because in economy class, her name will not make a difference. So it really has to be a design that a large group can understand and that KLM can understand.

She changed the colour palette of KLM. And colour is the most important identifier for them. She moved away from the blue because she thought that the whole atmosphere should be a lot warmer, and went into aubergine colours, browns and purples.

So for me it's very interesting that a strong designer who gets a lot of freedom makes something that the client can understand, that is really functional for them, but yet challenges the way they are. So there is a strong relationship between the client and the designer. It's a little bit of a battle I'm sure. I checked with Hella and she agrees. So it was quite a fierce thing. So even in her practice I see this axis of self and unself and that she is moving up and down it.

Marcus Fairs: What about this year’s exhibition?

Thomas Widdershoven: This year I thought that the Design Academy needs to get a new grip on technology. The studios at the academy are more places for craft. We do wood, we do metal, we do ceramics and fabric. But technology is not so strong in our academy. I think in this day and age technology is really having a great, great impact on our lives. And I think that the Design Academy Eindhoven way of thinking could help there. If we want to address that, then we need to consider the more serious design side: industrial design.  Also I hear people like [curator and critic] Timo de Rijk criticising us for being irresponsible, saying that we're narcissistic and even that we're dangerous.

Marcus Fairs: Timo de Rijk wrote an article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handeslblad attacking design education in the Netherlands of being irresponsible because it produces students that are more interested in expressing themselves than solving problems in the real world. Tell us more about that.

Mine Kafon mine detonator
The Mine Kafon mine detector

Thomas Widdershoven: He wrote an article on the Mine Kafon [a wind-blown device for clearing mines designed by Design Academy graudate Massoud Hassani]. His argument was that the Mine Kafon, which looks like a dandelion blown by the wind, does explode mines but it doesn't, of course, make a minefield safe. To me that's so obvious that I don't think anybody is going to step into a minefield where the Mine Kafon has been. But Timo argued that people might think it's safe and that it's bad that it was bought by MoMA and not by the military.

And I argue there that first of all the military will never buy anything to help civilians but only to help themselves. So in that sense he does not have a good view on society. But also the Mine Kafon does explode mines. It's not only about awareness. There are mechanics involved, it is functional, it just doesn't completely clear the minefield. But it is functional. And in that sense it is a step towards maybe another way of clearing mines. It's a step in-between.

One of the first things I did when I joined the academy was to invite Timo in to have a student debate about what he meant when he said that we were being irresponsible. I walked away from the debate thinking that my main point is that Mine Kafon makes sense. While Timo is saying we make nonsense. So if I just say "Hey, I like making nonsense!" then I'm not responsible; I'm free.

In this way if people accuse us of creating nonsense, let's take it up as a positive word because it gives us freedom to think, freedom to act and freedom to make without all of the responsibilities of problem solving. So let's say: "Yes, we make nonsense!" and let's say to the engineers: "Yes, you make sense!" and see if we can connect.

Wim T. Schippers, Le Taxi Cabossé, 1982, courtesy Kröller Müller Museum
Wim T. Schippers, Le Taxi Cabossé, 1982, courtesy Kröller Müller Museum

But then of course, if you start thinking about nonsense, what we put in this show [at the Van Abbemuseum] is a dented car [Le Taxi cabossé] by Wim T. Schippers. He was asked to do an art project with a new car so he smashed it up. The client, Renault, wanted a sort of signature on the car, or an arty painting on the car, but he smashed up the outside of the car.

He wrote a little text saying it looks like a dented car, but actually it's very handy because when you come out of the showroom, the first metre you drive will drop the price of your car immensely, and the first dent will be something you're totally afraid of. But if the car comes pre-dented you don't have that problem. So actually it's a problem-solving car. So here you have a car that really makes you laugh if you see it, but it's actually solving a problem.

Nuna 5. Photo by Hans Peter van Velthoven, via Delft University of Technology
Nuna5 solar-powered car. Photo by Hans Peter van Velthoven, via Delft University of Technology

Then we included the Nuna5 solar car, which is made to go as fast as it can on as little energy as possible. It looks really avant-garde and innovative, but basically it uses old techniques - solar cells and aerodynamics. So it's as flat as possible to take as much sunlight as possible. That's the thinking behind it. So it looks really innovative, but it is actually not and it also strips back all the necessary functions of a regular car.

Because normally people can sit in a car and there is some space for luggage. In the Nuna5 a man can barely fit in, and only exists to serve the car.  The car's only purpose is to enter a race. So it's a challenge, which is already, of course, a world of nonsense.

Slow Car by Studio Makkink & Bey
Slow Car by Studio Makkink & Bey

Then the third car is by Studio Makkink & Bey. They made a very clumsy and slow car, which looks like nothing but nonsense until you really start to think about it. It only drives at 30 km/h, which is the average speed that we drive. The point is if a car can’t go faster you're not in a hurry, you're not stressed and you have so much time left. And you can actually work and have mobility in the same place. Jurgen’s vehicle merges domains: work and mobility.

Now that is real innovation. So although it looks clumsy it is probably the most sensible of the three cars. So in the solar car we have a little bit of nonsense in sense.  In the pre-dented car there's quite a bit of sense in the nonsense.  And then the real innovation lies with Jurgen where domains meet.  There you have sense in nonsense.  In this respect I think that we are having a whole new dialogue about how different fields can cooperate.

I made one mistake though [laughs]. Last year I invited all of the artists and designers to the museum to see the Self Unself exhibition. And they came running in because they love that platform, they love that place, they love to have that interaction. And this year I invited all of the engineers to the museum. But the engineers don't give a shit (chuckles). It's not their place.

So I think the axis of sense/nonsense is a good way to start talking with engineers about where we stand and how we can work together. Putting it in a museum is a really good way of experiencing it, but it's not the right way of getting the dialogue started with engineers because it's not their domain. So we have to find a new common language where we can work together.

Marcus Fairs: And how does that feed back into what you were saying about the academy and needing to engage with technology more? Is the Sense Nonsense exhibition a research project that will feed back into the school?

Thomas Widdershoven: Yep, that's exactly the whole point.

Marcus Fairs: And so what have you learned? Do you know how you'll integrate technology into the academy?

Thomas Widdershoven: Well, what I did learn is that, while it was so easy to talk about art and design in the museum, I did learn that we can make a great presentation and think about the engineers and designers, but that we have to find another platform to work together. So now I'm directly contacting the Technical University Delft and seeing if we can find a common language and work together.

Marcus Fairs: This year for the first time the technical universities are taking an active part in Dutch Design Week alongside the design schools.

Thomas Widdershoven: They are here, and actually I was sitting here with them at a table only ten minutes ago. So yeah we will start this conversation. It will be the next thing for the coming year. Because Eindhoven is of course a very technologically advanced city, and it has design, and it has the Design Academy, which is quite an out-of-the-ordinary part of design. We don't aim to be practical. We're more poetic. I don't want to use the word "creative" because that's old school. We're just more… "out-of-the-box," which is also a horrible term. Marcus, help me here! What's a nice English word for what I mean [laughs]?

Marcus Fairs: Okay, so you're going to make a formal bridge between the Academy and the technical universities, is that what you're saying?

Thomas Widdershoven: Well, there are some links already and we're going to strengthen those and also build more. Because now we only have links to the readership and we also want to have links to the bachelor and master's programs. And then we just have to see how we can work together, with a university that is very strong in interaction design and technology while we are stronger in concepts and a personal approach to design.

Marcus Fairs: And why do you need to bring those two things together? Why do you need to integrate technology into the academy? You get a lot of good students, a lot of good press. What is the need for technology?

Thomas Widdershoven: The thing is that, for me, I really have a feeling that technology can be effective, for the first time, on a smaller scale. Before, technology was really something for industry, and now we're getting into a place where technology can be for people. The individual, the designer, can make a difference. And for the first time in history, that is possible with technology. It was possible before, when people were pioneering to make the first cars, which were made in small workshops.

Now, of course, making a car is such an immense, such an intense undertaking that's it's impossible for one person to make a difference in that process. But I see a lot of technology at the moment being smaller, and you have, of course, 3D printing but also programming and also apps. It's all done by small groups in small places. And there, our designers, with their mentality, their upbringing, and their education, can make a difference.

Marcus Fairs: How will you integrate it into the academy? The departments of the academy are based around not professional disciplines, but areas of life. How would technology fit into that structure?

Thomas Widdershoven: We did make some changes already. Okay, so in the bachelors programme we have eight departments. Last year Tonny Holtrust, the director of education, and myself, the creative director, made changes. We merged two departments - because we are only a school of several hundred. So we don't want more departments. A group of eight heads is a really nice group to talk with about the whole field of design. So we decided to merge two departments to create space for another new department.

We merged Public Space and Living and we called it Public Private and we started Food Non Food. For me it's very important that we're not a cooking school. So it's really about processes in the food industry that are becoming bigger and bigger in scale, and at the same time it's also downsizing. Downsizing seems very familiar for us, and probably we will be doing most of the stuff on a small scale. But we attracted Marije Vogelzang as the new head, and she's also involved with big industry. So she's also trying to change the industry. That's exactly the same as Hella Jongerius. She wants to change big industry to make it more personal and to make it more human.

So my hope is that Food Non Food will bring us into processes that are so important in such a fundamental field of life as food.

Then, as technology is so important, it would be extremely interesting if we could have a whole department devoted to it. We've always had food in the departments. We also already have technology in the departments. So it's not that it's not there, but if it is possible to have its own new department, that would be great.

But we would also need to find a head that can really stand for that, which is of course one of the most important and difficult tasks. Finding Marije, who is really an internationally renowned designer with a whole field attached to her, as head of Food Non Food was for us a big success.

And knowing how difficult it is to find the right person for the right position I'm not sure that we will have a head of technology and a new department of technology or whatever it will be called soon, but it would be great if it were possible.

Marcus Fairs: Is there any other design school - or non-design school, to use your terminology - in the world that is a role model that is already doing this, or is something you feel the academy can initiate?

Thomas Widdershoven: I think I still have to visit all of my colleagues, but I think technology is a bit more incorporated already at the Royal College of Art [in London] and ECAL [in Lausanne] than it is in our place. So I'm hoping to visit those schools in the near future. And then of course you have MIT.

Marcus Fairs: You said right at the beginning of the interview that the phenomenon of designers making objects for galleries is declining. Why is that?

Thomas Widdershoven: It's simply declining because it's not as avant-garde and pioneering anymore. This idea that design could be interesting in itself as a cultural product is something that happened at a certain point and then it attracted a lot of new energy, and then at some point it became established. And then it attracted a little less energy. So it's just in the natural course of things.

For me it's not dramatic. I still see a lot of students making really beautiful stuff that I think: "Oh! That will be in Milan next year." And I'm really happy to see it. It's not that the quality is less. The quality is not less. But the moment of discovering a new field of design is not there anymore. This is an old field. And that is where it loses a little bit of attention and energy.

Marcus Fairs: And the new fields are food and technology?

Thomas Widdershoven: Yeah, but also services and interactions. Definitely.