Dezeen Magazine

"The Design Academy is dead, long live the Design Academy"

As Design Academy Eindhoven searches for yet another creative director, a group of alumni is urging the school to make a choice that enhances the influential school's creativity, rather than its business model. Former student Jules van den Langenberg explains why.

Design Academy Eindhoven has been without a leader for seven months, since its former creative director stepped down in October 2016 after resigning in June earlier that year. The situation makes for an urgent reflection on the limitations of the Dutch school and the future of design education. Simply put: can the Design Academy give rise to a new avant-garde?

One of the most important incubators for design, arts and architecture of the last century was Black Mountain College in North Carolina, USA. The school prioritised an interdisciplinary arts education as central, but also strove for self-sufficiency with both students and faculty working together on the farm, in the kitchen and on construction projects.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the educational institute attracted teachers such as Josef and Anni Albers, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, while graduates included John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. The communal responsibility to develop the curriculum and the school in general led to a conducive learning environment that would give rise to many of the 20th-century pioneers that revolutionised modern art.

The situation makes for an urgent reflection on the limitations of the Dutch school

The contrast between Black Mountain College and today's design schools, such as Design Academy Eindhoven, is stark. The increasing corporatisation of tertiary education and the commodification of qualifications is leaving less room for students and faculty to develop and stage distinctive creativity, personal growth and radical innovation. While these financial and management limitations are not unique to design education, what is at stake when it comes to design and creativity is the very skill that differentiates human intelligence from artificial intelligence.

What has preserved some degree of creative autonomy for students and teachers of Design Academy Eindhoven up until now is that it has not been led by a manager, nor an education specialist. Steering the institute and challenging department heads has always been a creative and cultural figure. It makes all the difference and is something we need to evolve.

One of the biggest controversies in the academy's recent past was when that creative control was threatened and the school was put into the hands of a manager. In 2012, all heads of the master departments resigned in response to the educational reform in which power over admissions and course content would shift from the heads of the masters programmes to management figures such as the school's dean of education.

What is at stake when it comes to design and creativity is the very skill that differentiates human intelligence from artificial intelligence

However, there is little room for nostalgia. In progressive colleges, the question of governance and structure is always more intense. From my perspective as an alumni, the search for the future of design education at the Eindhoven-based school began in 2008. I entered Design Academy Eindhoven as a first-year student with an opening speech by Lidewij Edelkoort, met Alexander van Slobbe the year after, presented work to Annemieke Eggenkamp during my third year, and left the school in the first graduation show directed by Thomas Widdershoven.

This brisk succession race brings to mind the origins of the saying "The king is dead, long live the king", which was coined in order to prevent civil war erupting over who the successor would be. No time was ever allowed to reflect or rethink before the next king took to the throne.

In the case of Design Academy Eindhoven, the hasty transfer of power from one freely elected creative director to the next meant that the world kept turning but the development of the academy as an institute froze. This could be seen as a case of "The Design Academy is Dead. Long live the Design Academy".

One would think that the current seven-month delay in appointing a creative director has given the room for that vital reflection and strategising to happen. Instead, the crucial vacancy has been posted online with the aplomb of an internship listing.

What is the bigger issue in the published vacancy, which can be seen as exemplary of the culture of the people and system currently governing the school, is the amount of time and level of influence that the new director will operate. The academy requests a visionary approach and long-term commitment, yet initially allots only one or two days per week (paid 20 per cent full-time) for such a role. That amount, especially at the beginning of the job, seems unrealistic given the goals.

Furthermore, Design Academy Eindhoven is a layered institute; currently, the creative director is meant to work with an educational director in an executive board that steers and controls the curriculum. Each department has a head, coordinator and tutors that collectively form a self-steering organisation. The structure of meetings within the academy ensures regular contact between tutors, coordinators and heads of the various departments. The supervisory board is legally required and independently appointed to oversee the executive board: they appoint its members and approve its budget. There is always friction between the demands of education and official policy, and the freedom and vision of creativity. The school thrives off that friction, but it is not easy. The creative director has to be strong, determined, willing and able to stand up to that battle, while allowing the school to flourish and not sink from it.

There is always friction between the demands of education and official policy, and the freedom and vision of creativity

As part of the alumni of the academy, the future of this Dutch school concerns me greatly. For this reason, I initiated a gathering in January involving graduates from the years 1996 to 2016 to frame our knowledge as a key contribution to the process of electing a new creative director. Recent graduates participated, as did a those with a longer track record, such as Atelier NL, Formafantasma and Chris Kabel.

The transcript of the alumni discussion was presented to the chair and secretary of the supervisory board, as well as the student council. They gratefully accepted our text and, only after we requested a more substantial response, informed us simply that the board took the information into consideration while creating the vacancy profile.

Alumni are a key element of the academy and its position. The gathering was an opportunity in which our knowledge and opinions could alter the established ways of thinking within its governors and attract relevant candidates for the vacancy. The possible candidates brought up during the gathering, in alphabetical order, were: Paola Antonelli, Jurgen Bey and Rianne Makkink, Jan Boelen, Ole Bouman, Alastair Fuad Luke, Joseph Grima, Hella Jongerius, Alice Rawsthorn, Thomas Rau, Job Smeets and Jan Tichelaar.

Since no further engagement was possible with the supervisory board and the process, we have independently solicited contributions to a discussion around these questions of what design education should be, and what role the leader of a design school should play in realising that vision. My hope is that the alumni gathering and this publication will contribute to the search and appointing of a new creative director, by informing possible candidates and the selection committee.

If anything, it has been a labour of love and the start of a larger debate on design education and the involvement of alumni in the further development of Design Academy Eindhoven.

There is one week left before the application date closes. I hereby invite Dezeen readers, students, teachers,
stakeholders of design education and a professional audience to publish their constructive opinions in the comment section. This public library could prove to be insightful for the selection committee of the academy. I am confident that all discussions will help to inform candidates beyond just the job advertisement.