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Bluffing, guts and the desire to storm forward!

28 September 2021

5 min. to read

Floris Alkemade © Martin Dijkstra
A conversation with DDW Ambassador Floris Alkemade about the state of affairs in the Dutch design field.

Designers as problem solvers

For several years now, DDW has focused on the problem-solving capacity of design. We look at the role that designers can play in major social problems. However, when these problems are discussed and solved, no designers are invited to sit at the table. That table is dominated by politicians, businesses and lobbyists.

Floris Alkemade: “For a long time, designers were not at the table, but now they are joining us again. Moreover, the relevance and urgency to do so are greater than ever. Over the past few decades, perhaps the last century, the world has been very successful in market-oriented thinking, propelled by political brainpower. But today's issues require a different frame of thinking. In the current market, investments should ideally pay for themselves within 2 years. However, all major social issues require an approach that looks at least 20 years ahead. That does not fit in with the current rhythm of politics and business. And that's exactly where the design world needs to step in.

Designers can make connections, regardless of the political domain and the market. And therein lies the value of design. It's really like the third power, next to politics and the market.”

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Red lights due to dominant liberal thinking

In the 1960s and 1970s, politics had a much broader and strongly socialist agenda than today, which did not necessarily have to pay off. Then designers were invited to help plan and make decisions. But that social idea has disappeared. And with it, the designer at that proverbial decision table.

The former Government Architect sees that the Netherlands is run like a company. “The Netherlands BV, that’s the dominant liberal thinking nowadays. And that may be profitable in the short term, but it causes so many problems in the long term. You can see that on many levels. You see it when it comes to the insensitivity of the benefits scandal. The way we deal with our farmers concerning the climate crisis. And it's also visible when it comes to making choices about environmental issues. You can see it with all the red signals. We can't go on like this. That's why we need to find a new language in which we see necessary changes as attractive. And that's what I blame the politicians for the most. The only language politicians speak is what will help them to dodge all kinds of issues. Or a language of reproach: 'Well, other countries first.' The immense cowardice that speaks of that ... that politicians do not see that we are driving straight for the ravine ... Designers have to work together and talk about this. At the table. Otherwise, things go really wrong.”

Attitudes among designers and clients must change

Designers must also see these possibilities at the same time. Dive into that space and reinforce their position (again). The question is whether they are able to do so. Alkemade sounds cautiously optimistic: “That is starting to happen. But designers are still far too submissive, so much so that it is sometimes pitiful. That's a major flaw in the design world's abilities. Not being able to wrestle oneself from a commercial agenda that is focused on nothing more than just making money. That hurts the profession. The few who do not adhere to that commercialism are dismissed as irrelevant and powerless. The others are labelled 'beautiful.' Someone who makes sure that something has a nice colour. That attitude really needs to change among clients. And designers shouldn't accept that label either.”

World improver with daring

In the past – of course – everything was different. Floris Alkemade started as a young architect in the 1980s. “When I started, we had tremendous bravado as young architects. 'We are going to improve the world!' The pride! Extremely confident, but based on nothing. That's such a great combination! Bluff, guts and the desire to storm forward. And we were able to achieve a lot with that. I miss that with the current generation. That daring not to go along with what people traditionally expect of you, the daring to do something different. To search for new forms, new language, new ideas. I hope this mindset changes slowly but surely. And I see hopeful signs there. Awareness is starting to seep in that things are really going wrong and that designers have to take responsibility for that. I describe that hope in my essay ‘The art of changing direction’, and I’m translating it into my ambassadorship for DDW.”

Labyrinth

As ambassador, Alkemade designed an enormous labyrinthine installation in the Klokgebouw. This labyrinth comprises various themes, such as amazement, control, solidarity or the dream world. Alkemade sees a clear link between designers and the theme of control. “Designers are by definition the ones in control,” explains Alkemade. “They make the plans, determine the shape, the colour, the material. But the most important thing for me is that we link the concept of solidarity to that idea of control. Because how much do we designers know about the people for whom we design? Do we know that 12% of the Dutch population cannot read? And what impact does that have on someone's life? Do we know what this social segregation means? Often we don't. And yet we design houses, residential areas and cities for them. As if everyone lives the way designers live. So that's what I think about: designers, make sure you pay more attention for whom you are designing.

Fear of looking to the side

The same applies to the theme of the dream world, according to Alkemade. He takes Constant Nieuwenhuys as an example, one of the artists whose work can be seen in the labyrinth. Alkemade explains: “Where others would have stopped, Nieuwenhuys dared to think everything through without shame. He always wondered: why? And how so? For example, why should we work? The idea that unemployment is a blessing, not a punishment. I find these kinds of questions incredibly interesting. Constant believed that the problems society encountered did not arise from the limitations that lay there but rather from the limitations we imposed on ourselves. Our inability to cope with freedom. We can do a lot more than we think. As if we can only play on 2 keys of a piano when there are so many more keys. And we don't even see those keys! Not because we are blind, but because we have a fear of looking sideways. Fear of that which you do not see.”

A new balance

Whether there is a comparable person today? The DDW ambassador thinks that's difficult. “We specifically chose the labyrinth to link different artists to the design world that DDW represents. That link between different disciplines, artists with designers, musicians or writers, has always fascinated me," says Alkemade. “You could see this clearly with pre-war artists who did not work exclusively in one discipline. They worked together. They made connections between the different ideas, and that resulted in the most beautiful things. Watch The Style (Art Movement of the early 20th century, editor). New worlds were invented there! With a lot of passion and an incredible sense of humour. That feeling of liberation. That should come back a bit more in the current design discourse. That dreaming, and that quest, that's what The Greater Number is all about for me. Finding a new balance in a completely different way.”

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