words Anna Bates
“You need to be an absolute ideologist idiot to do this,”says Li Edelkoort, former director of Design Academy Eindhoven. She is talking about her new mission: to ship design academies to the Emirates, South Africa and Poland.
Edelkoort wants to build schools in emerging economies using “the DNA” of the highly successful Eindhoven school. She is adamant that when the recession is done and the rebuilding starts, “we can’t go back to the 20th-century idea of feeding everyone the same shit. We need not only local flavour, but local production and economy.” By bringing designers in different regions up to standard, she hopes to truly globalise and diversify design. But is this idea of a global school teaching local design a contradictionin terms?
Edelkoort is not alone in her challenge. Across the Atlantic, Tim Marshall, the dean of Parsons The New School for Design in New York, is planning to set up schools in China, India, South America and Japan. He says it’s to “get experience from different cultural perspectives. The design profession is changing, we have to keep up with that.”
Design schools have set up campuses abroad before. But the surging economies of Asia are creating more and more opportunities to branch out into increasingly exotic locations, and for seemingly tempting rewards. “We’ve been approached by everyone from a truck company in India to a university in China to set up a school,” says Marshall. Also in demand is London’s Royal College of Art, recently approached by a group of Chinese entrepreneurs who wanted to buy the entire brand, while Swiss design school Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne (ECAL) was asked to set up bachelors and masters courses in Dubai. The RCA and ECAL declined, but Parsons and Li Edelkoort have jumped at the idea. Regardless of their stance, there is one problem that all schools agree on: How do you take a Western school with a Western philosophy to a completely different culture, and make it work?
“You can’t do the same school in Cape Town, Lausanne and Dubai – you have to realise and respect the culture of that country,” says ECAL director Pierre Keller. “We make very good cheese in Switzerland – like gruyère. But we don’t need to make gruyère everywhere. The best gruyère is grown in Switzerland, not in Dubai.” Christopher Frayling, rector of the RCA worries about implied colonialism. “I was teaching in India after the Gujarat earthquake,” says Frayling. “And I said ‘look at the design challenges on your doorstep, don’t you want to design for that?’ But they all said, ‘we want to be Philippe Starck’. It takes strength to say ‘this is what’s needed here’, and help them get there without being colonial. To turn people into design-art superstars would be so hideously inappropriate.”
So a curriculum must be designed sensitively. “You have to bring something with you otherwise there’s no point,” Marshall says, “but taking exactly what is here and just plonking it there is myopic and will create more problems than it will respond to.” Similarly, Edelkoort wants to teach her concept of design – a process that produced heavily conceptual designers such as Maarten Baas, Studio Job and Marije Vogelzang – in regions such as South Africa, but yield local results. “I don’t think it will be the same because we have to adapt to the country’s needs – that’s the point. We all agree that we can’t Starbuck design education.” The danger is that while Edelkoort has no intention to Starbuck design, she might inadvertently Pizza Express it, creating superficially local fit-outs that simply resort to cliche.
Marshall and Edelkoort think the way to ensure this doesn’t happen lies in the faculty – something both schools recognise will be their biggest challenge. Marshall has already tried and failed to establish campuses abroad, and admits: “the reason I baulk is – can you find the faculty to deliver the programmes you think you can deliver? That’s three-quarters of the game. There aren’t the depths of faculties in some countries.” Their plan is to use a mix of local teachers with Western qualifications, alongside teachers from the original school, to get a diverse range.
While the concept makes sense, Frayling’s concerns lie with the standard of the graduates. “The RCA as a brand depends entirely on our control of the quality of work that comes out of it,” he says.
As design is a fairly new subject of study in emerging economies, the RCA rector and Keller are worried that local students would start at a disadvantage, and if they couldn’t catch up, the validity of the school’s qualifications could be diluted. It’s a concern that doesn’t bother Edelkoort: “Why do they have to be comparable? I don’t see how it would affect the brand, other than to receive huge sympathy that we are trying to reach out.”
Yet there is an inherent contradiction in globalising the local – it is globalisation, of course, that results in everything being the same. Edelkoort says that “the more local you are, the more global you can become – you are doing both at the same time when you focus on the local.” But with so many possible ways to fail – risking the reputations of great schools – why bother?
Money is one answer. “We’re tuition-driven,” says Marshall. “We live off the money students pay us in a very direct sense.” Then there’s the perk to the existing faculty of working abroad. But there are also nobler motives.
“It’s out of a form of altruism, and the need of design education,” says Edelkoort. “There is enormous creative potential in these countries but it isn’t shepherded in the right way. You know, creative individuals exist all over the planet, and you can break them in the same way. I want to design new design schools that take the regional identity and bring that onto the world stage.” This, she says, is particularly important during the global crisis, which has made self-reliance more desirable than importing skills.
But for Marshall and Edelkoort, setting up a global network of schools is an exchange that will work both ways. “We’ll receive as much as we give,” says Edelkoort, brushing aside questions of neo-colonialism. Looking at the resources of these emerging economies, the benefits of such an exchange become quite apparent. While South Africa boasts a healthy textile industry, Poland, the school that looks set to receive a Design Academy first, has huge manufacturing potential. Neither of these resources are currently being used to a fraction of their potential, but a global network will make local resources available to designers at all sister schools.
The network would also give designers a needed global perspective, “because designers are now operating in a totally global way,” says Marshall. Parsons currently has “primers” in countries such as the Dominican Republic and Korea, preparing students for the New York school. But Marshall says the New York school doesn’t know how to deal with “the diversity in the classroom, right in front of us.”
By having proper campuses in emerging economies, with local teaching staff, Marshall hopes to respond more directly to the changing face of the design world: “We’ve adopted such a universal approach to design that it is basically one cultural perspective. Now that design is seen as thinking in strategic processes as well as making processes, different cultural perspectives become critical to the development of design.”
Despite the state of the global economy, the timing makes sense – as these economies emerge, so does a country’s awareness that design is necessary. Frayling can see the attraction in the plans: “If you catch a nation at just that moment, when they’ve understood the importance of design and they want to get it right, it would be a very exciting time to be there. We are all a bit jaded in the West.”
But as much as Frayling and Keller say they would like to believe that this is for the good of society, they suspect that there is some ego involved. “These schools that rush in, they just want to be the first to do this collaboration,” says Keller.
You can understand the rush. Until now, designers have been mostly American, European or Japanese, but there are now 1,200 design schools in China. Could education be the West’s last design resource? “I like to think it’s entirely altruistic,” says Frayling, “but there maybe an element of – look, it’s going to happen anyway, why don’t we get in there.”