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New Agency for New Intimacy

23 October 2020

©Bianca Carague
I’m in my bath on the day, and time, when normally I’d be walking the streets of Eindhoven. As a design writer, based in the UK, I (ed. Robert Urquhart) have had the pleasure of visiting Dutch Design Week (DDW) every year for the last 10 years. To me, it feels like an anniversary, a celebration of time. Together, the festival, the city, and I, have gentrified with age. My hairline has receded as the creative districts have grown. We have all grown ever wiser to the power of design as a catalyst for positive change.

The phone rings. I have an interview with Floris Schoonderbeek who in his car driving from his home in Arnhem to the festival. I am in the bath. Floris is in his car. This is a new intimacy. 
I'm talking to the right person in a crisis. At last year's festival, named Floris as one of the five designers who will save the world. If ever there was a time... “As a designer, I changed direction at the beginning of the year, before COVID-19, because I left my product brand, Weltevree, after 15 years. I was thinking ‘How, in my position as a designer, do I want to work? I was looking to go in a different direction” recalls Floris.
With impeccable timing, Floris decided on fitting out a campervan as a mobile studio, enabling him to travel the length and breadth of The Netherlands when lockdown was lifted. “I was able to meet interesting people and see how they live, in relation to their environment” he explains, “Most of my work starts with my personal interests and the relationship that we all have with our environment. The thing about the whole current situation is that we are all living closer to our home environment, we’ve been forced to re-discover it’ he notes.

Recalculating Route
© Floris Schoonderbeek

As Floris arrives in Eindhoven, I ask him what next after the festival ends. ‘After DDW the road trip will continue. The next six months will be about getting feedback from DDW to develop and to start new field trips' he says, reminding me that for him, DDW is a much-needed meeting point for new relationships and discussion about work.'
Talking to Kiki & Joost about meeting people during DDW this year brings an uplifting response. When I speak to them, they are just about to end their exhibition. They're pleased with their, much smaller, audience. ‘It’s a unique situation, definitely intimate, you can focus on the visitors that are there for a specific reason’ notes Kiki. 'We're allowed to have a small number of people in so we've been inviting some people directly, we've had some really good people in; architects, journalists, collectors, so actually we feel pretty happy’ she says. Joost joins in, ‘now we’ve had more time to speak to people, to explain the work, we are less tired than normal, it’s not too bad to do it like this for a year or so.’

I ask them how working life has been this year. ‘We’ve been hit very hard by this crisis, a lot of projects were cancelled, we had to work from home for two and a half months, so then you see another way of working’ explains Joost. ‘We got the feeling that we want to be more independent, self-sufficient, working with smaller quantities, so we started working more like artists in the last couple of months with more personal and autonomous pieces for the exhibition.’ Kiki adds ‘We were looking at simple materials that we have around us, a series of wall-hangings that are handstitched, from an archive I had, using them in a new way.’
This flexibility in adapting to materials and techniques is something that Kiki and Joost return to throughout our conversation. But it doesn't stop with their studio environment. 'People are more flexible than usual. In the end, this horrible situation can bring us all something positive, the industry needed a change, and a refocus' says Joost.

In what way does the industry need to change? Joost responds ‘Of course in the last couple of decades’ production has risen, luxury in new economies, production of luxury goods and design products has been skyrocketing, and I think you have to be really careful of what you make and the number of things you make, to be careful of the whole throwaway mentality.' Kiki continues, ‘Brands are now being forced to make things more locally, there is an urge now, it can change for good, to do everything a little bit slower, it doesn’t have to be fast as long as it has quality. Warmed to this theme, Joost concludes, ‘I think what you are seeing now is a refocus on the local economy and supporting each other through micro-economies. Local designers with a workshop become the carpenters of the old days – you can create for people that come to the studio – it is rewarding for the client and the studio, I think that this is going to happen more and more.’

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Argentinian designer and entrepreneur, Fede Baroni, has made The Netherlands his new home over the last year and is exhibiting for the first time at DDW with his excellent recycled materials watch product range WALTIC. The watch design is the result of cooperative work between Dutch and Argentinian developers. The result is the world's first wristwatch ever made entirely of recycled plastic. In a conversation that ranges from our over-reliance on the concept of recycling without the proper means to sustainably create a circular manufacturing industry, Fede is keen to explore what the Netherlands has to offer. He's looking to create communities of good practice, working locally to help communities manufacture and recycle more efficiently alongside product development. ‘The main problem that I see Europe facing, in terms of sustainable production, is that all of our design students and design studios send all their renders abroad and we can't work out how to improve our manufacturing or recycle. We're not in control of our materials’ explains Fede.

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Finally, I talk to Bianca Carague, a graduate of Design Academy Eindhoven. Bianca is a Filipino designer-researcher whose work intersects design, healthcare and technology. She’s just spent the last few months creating a virtual community for mental healthcare in the virtual online world of Minecraft.
We've never needed to be closer at a time when we're all so far apart. Bianca's work is vital in opening up a dialogue about how we can harness 'old' technology (old as in pre-COVID) for new means. Next year's graduates will, no doubt, be already adapting and consolidating their past for the future, making the most of their smaller networks and thinking locally, as we all are.
Prior to DDW, I'd been working with students for the London Design Festival exhibition at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. The project entitled ‘New Agency’, was led in, terms of design, by a student Archie Lennon, whose stretched graphics folded together with the experiences of students during the pandemic. This ‘new agency’ that Lemon et al. evoke rings true of all that we’ve witnessed at DDW over the last week. This new intimacy has led to new ways of working and collaborating. This moment has given us all time to have conversations that matter: Resilient designers are focusing in on the things that really matter, and finding new agency, even in these tough times.

Recalculating Route
© Floris Schoonderbeek

Floris leaves me a thoughtful message after visiting Eindhoven ‘The party is always made by the people there. We talked about the work. It's so weird. I think it's important that it was open and to meet those that came. I think the situation is helping us to focus on what we’re already doing, rather than changing’.
DDW, and those that have exhibited, have shown an intimate and vulnerable side. We can choose to keep the best parts of this new-found agency in intimacy, for the future, and lose that which caused us ill: It starts with us.