Most designers work alone. How did your collaboration come about?
We graduated during the last economic crisis, so we took any interesting project that came our way. We gradually started doing more projects together. At some point, we decided to commit to this partnership, start a company together and really go for it! We first thought about the things we expected from a company individually, and what we wanted to accomplish in our working lives. From there we looked at how to realise those goals. Apart from setting up a design studio we had to figure out how to co-operate and establish a work relationship. It wasn’t always easy but now we both know where we stand.
There are more design duos, some of which resulted from love affairs. To me it seems pretty hard to find the right symbiosis. What is your secret?
People sometimes think we are lovers or roommates. Thank goodness we aren’t, we see enough of each other as it is (both laughing). We’ve become a real team by now, and we found an effective way to work together. We divide the projects in our studio, for instance. One of us starts with a project and then the other one takes over. In other projects we assign control. In those cases, we can ask each other for a different perspective, but in the end, only one of us is responsible. It is more time-efficient and makes it easier to communicate with the client.
Besides, it’s important to give each other some space. You need to be open to each other’s input. It may lead to frictions and discussions at times, about the vision of the company or the colour of the material. But we can have a hearty, open conversation about it. And then we’ll have a beer together.
Speaking of beer: we’re sitting in the building – with its own bar – of NUL ZES. Are you co-founders of this collective? What is it exactly?
NUL ZES actually arose out of necessity, but it grew into a tight community. After our studies at Design Academy Eindhoven, we were looking for an affordable workspace where we could share facilities, knowledge and networks. So, we tried to find a place where we could literally open the front door to connect with the neighbourhood and the city. We wrote a proposal for the municipality at the time, as a group, for the next ten years, and we found someone willing to invest in it. By bringing people from all these disciplines together this way and by joining our forces, we have proven to be a benefit to the city. These kinds of initiatives are usually being pushed towards the city limits, while they can actually make a town more interesting.
How important is it for you to participate at a fair like Collectible or Salone del Mobile?
In a sales presentation like the one we had at Salone del Mobile in 2018, we try to provide an insight into the way we work by showing our archive. Each research project results in samples that we collect in our ever-expanding archive. It was rather exciting to present it this way. Would it go down well? Would potential customers understand it, or would they think we were a couple of art students? But the contacts that matter most to us, the large companies, they got it right away. So, it’s very important to give customers a clear image of what you can do for them – and fairs offer that opportunity.
And how about Dutch Design Week?
We operate internationally, but our studio is in the Netherlands. So, we feel it is important to present our work here as well. Not to participate in DDW is out of the question. Our studio is already based in Eindhoven, which makes it easy. Many guests and business relations from abroad will be here as well, giving us the chance to sow a few seeds for the other fairs. There are more research-oriented presentations at DDW and not just the actual end products like you see in Milan for example. That is why this fair is unique, and why it is an important moment for us as well.
So, who would be your ideal client?
There has to be some space within a project for us to innovate. We want to develop something new, based on our own style or what we are good at. So, there has to be a certain budget. But instead of developing something for a millionaire’s apartment in Manhattan we would prefer a location where many people can experience it, a public space for instance. In addition, we would love to investigate the space itself, how it is being used, how people pass it, et cetera. One of the nicest commissions we had was the window blinds project for the room of Minister Van Engelshoven at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.
But isn’t it harder to design for the government?
No, it was actually a smooth process. Art advisers relate the work to the minister’s policy, so the project allows the Minister to demonstrate how education, art and culture coincide. The project is a conversation starter. We directly involved the Secretary General, the most senior official at the Ministry, in the project. She was kept in the loop and made some significant choices. In addition, you need to involve the users, who are responsible for the use of the room.
Something that came up repeatedly during the interview is collaboration. The two of you together, the studio with its NUL ZES neighbours, and the studio with other companies. Is it fair to say that collaboration is essential to you?
Yes, it is, actually. How our designs are being applied, but also how we make them: it’s always a collaboration. It’s fun to work with different production companies, with their equipment and expertise. That way we learn from them and they learn from us in return. Sometimes we push things a little, to draw them out of their comfort zone. Quite often, a lot more is possible than they think.
We also find it interesting to collaborate with someone who speaks an entirely different language. It requires that you develop a common vocabulary in the process, to make sure you are talking about the same thing. Sometimes they do something they assume we want, or something really unexpected happens that we investigate further. The best projects come about by solving this puzzle together.
The full interview with Alissa+Nienke can be found in the second edition of BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE. You can follow BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE here.
Interview: Niek Schoenmakers / Photography: Maarten Coolen / Tekst editor: Mats Horbach / Translation: Nanne op ‘t Ende