Design Academy Eindhoven | icon 031 | January 2006

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words Alex Wiltshire

Intimately associated with the conceptual approach that has characterised Dutch design for the past decade, Design Academy Eindhoven is one of the most highly regarded design schools in the world. Now it is shifting its focus and creating a new agenda for the next generation of Dutch designers.

The academy is based in the quiet centre of Eindhoven, in the south-east of the Netherlands, about one-and-a-half hours from Amsterdam. We visit during this year’s graduation show of its bachelor and masters courses, which coincides with Eindhoven’s Dutch Design Week. These graduating students are among the first to go through the programme since the academy began to focus more on industrial design. This is the sort of show that companies visit to grab new products for their collections. For instance, Droog is producing Joris Laarman’s elaborate concrete radiator, which was the highlight of 2003’s graduation projects, while retailer Murray Moss snapped up Maarten Baas, whose burnt furniture project became a runaway success, for a solo show at his New York shop.

The academy has produced most of the best-known designers of the “Droog-generation”. Hella Jongerius, Jurgen Bey, Tord Boontje, Job Smeets (of Studio Job) and Richard Hutten all graduated from its imposing, white-painted, concrete building, a former 1920s Philips light bulb factory called De Witte Dame (“The White Lady”). And many of them have gone back to teach at the academy.

But the mood in Dutch design is changing, moving away from the conceptual or “autonomous” approach – which has been criticised for being too self-indulgent and uncommercial – and the academy is responding by forging a new direction.

“The work became too autonomous, and not everyone is Hella Jongerius,” says Li Edelkoort, who has headed the school for the past six years as well as running her Paris-based, trend-forecasting company. Her ties in business and marketing have been instrumental in pointing the academy in a new direction. “The goal is to change industrial design by applying conceptual, autonomous design [to industrial design],” she continues. “It is an urge to make better industrial objects.”

The academy was established in 1947 as an art school, but since the 1980s it has taught purely design to its 680 bachelor (20 per cent of whom are from overseas) and 60 masters students (95 per cent from overseas). “The design academy supplies us with the people we’re looking for,” says Ron Arad, head of the Design Products course at the Royal College of Art, which takes many of the academy’s graduates on to its postgraduate courses. “For some reason, they are more informed and grazing in the right places for ideas – they’re inquisitive. Though the Dutch style is often emergent in their work – we have a little giggle about that.”

The academy is state-funded and independent, and its eight undergraduate departments have wilfully unspecific names, such as Man and Communication (graphic design), Man and Living (furniture design) and Man and Mobility (transport design), so that while they’re themed according to a general discipline, the students’ horizons are broad. Tutors are all practising designers, and the focus is now on combining conceptual ideas with the knowledge of how things are made. “It’s much more realistic now,” says Miriam van der Lubbe, a furniture designer and tutor. “Previously, there was such a big gap between the school and the real world that it wasn’t working well. The skills had gone and in their place came concept. But you need more than just concept.”

Joris Laarman, who graduated in 2003, agrees that change was needed. “No one makes money from [conceptual design]; the new direction is a good thing,” he says.

Many of this year’s graduation projects reflect an attempt to achieve the change: there are many designs that address the practical and everyday, yet retain the “poetry” that characterises the Dutch conceptual approach. Joep Verhoeven’s project stands out in particular. It’s easy to imagine his crocheted, chain-link fence beautifying the scruffy corners of any city. Edelkoort is particularly proud of the extent to which female students are engaging with technical projects, like Gwendolyn Floyd with her Gray Goods electronic product design (icon 027) and Linda Bos’ remote controls for children. “I now hope to attract girls to the mobility department, which is hugely populated by men,” she says.

The graduation projects are presented like those of no other design school. Product design work at schools such as the Royal College of Art is more characterised by students’ deep study of the industrial process than finished products. But at the academy, the students’ final projects are fully realised and extremely polished. They look great on the podiums at the graduation show and the pictures of them in the catalogue are art-directed and professionally shot. The academy also takes a show of student work to Milan every year. This is a school that knows the importance of presentation.

For Ilse Crawford, head of the Man and Well-being department, presentation is a crucial part of the design process. “Many great ideas are lost through bad communication, and a lot of UK schools fall down with that,” she says.

At the centre of this approach is Edelkoort. “She’s a hardnut in communication to businesses,” says Crawford. “She understands how to present ideas without having to water them down.” She has been instrumental in developing the academy’s 25 “friends”, companies that work with students on projects, including Dyson, Unilever and Nike.

The interest in the presentation of projects can belie the academy’s focus on closely examining social contexts and people. “Its thinking about society is good but there’s a big gap between that and putting design on a pedestal at a show,” says designer Bertjan Pot, who graduated in 1998. “People interested in coming to Eindhoven often just see the graduation show, think that it’s all about the finished object and don’t see all the research and other work that goes on.”

The sheer class of the degree projects can mean that students can become internationally fêted even before they graduate. This introduces pressures. “They’re lifted high and can’t keep up with that – in Milan they’re stars but they have to do it themselves afterwards,” says van der Lubbe. Laarman found it a huge challenge to cope with the interest in his work after he graduated. “It was too much,” he says. “I had to cancel a lot of things, which was hard, but you just don’t have the capacity and I had to spend so much time learning how to organise my own company.” He adds: “It’s not the academy’s job to be a marketing school. It needs individual design – freedom to invent.”

On an institutional scale, the academy faces the challenge of remaining independent while conforming to Dutch education policy. And of course, money is tight. Yet tutors are extremely positive, and the lack of bureaucracy brings freedom: “We don’t do it for the money, and the school really appreciates us,” says van der Lubbe. “It’s a very human place. It’s small and made up of individuals,” adds Crawford. Edelkoort says: “We’re very agile. We’re adaptable. I think that makes us unique.”

What you are seeing on these pages – by the Verhoeven twins, Lonneke Gordijn and others – could define Dutch design for another ten years, and keep Design Academy Eindhoven and the Netherlands at the head of European design culture.

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