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Column: The Magic Number

16 October 2021

10 min. to read

Less is more - that’s the simple translation of The Greater Number, the theme of this year’s DDW. However, the theme is not just about reducing. We need more solutions for the climate crisis, privacy violations and social inequality. Which is why it is very reassuring that various design programmes and their students are studying The Greater Number. After all, they are the generation that will soon be standing knee-deep in water if things don’t change. 

Column by Jeroen Junte |

Under the catchy title Slowductivity, the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences dusts off forgotten qualities, such as slowness, boredom and manual labour. Slowing down must eventually lead to connection because they design human contact instead of products at the university. With Greater Less, Greater More, Artez Academy from Arnhem researches the role of technology like mixed reality in reducing consumption. For instance: why should we own 173 different items of clothing (the average amount in Dutch wardrobes) if we can change their colours or patterns with AR glasses. 

Not less, but better. In other words: quantity over quality. You could also call it The Magic Number. DDW is going against the grain of design events, where it is all about new, and therefore more. But less consumption, production and discarding requires a drastic change in mentality. And how do you design such a mentality change? Leave that to the brand-new DDW ambassador and former government architect Floris Alkemade. He does not make it easy for visitors of Klokgebouw with Labyrinth, an exhibition that, according to Alkemade, teaches us ‘the art of changing direction’. Visitors have to find their way through a corridor system of pristine white canvases, in which artwork is hidden as indicators. For example, there are pictures of an indigenous tribe from Zimbabwe whose hunters constantly adapt to the behaviour of their prey or the weather conditions. We, too, will have to train ourselves to go astray. 

The final piece is a work of art by Atelier van Lieshout with the apt title ‘Apocalypse’. This awaits us if we do not adapt, is the bleak message. However, there is an alternative route, as befits a maze. You can exit via an equally impressive work by Constant that depicts the humo ludens; man at play who can get by with less, due to a new balance between work and leisure. 

Playing can be our way to The Magic Number, as artist/designer Arne Hendriks shows with his Hara Hachi Bu village on Ketelhuisplein. Here, you’ll find a circle with eleven sheds (‘a symbol of self-reliance’, according to Hendriks) where he playfully explores how we can reduce our waste. Hara hachi bu stands for the Japanese principle that 80 per cent can also be enough: don’t eat until you’re full, but until you’re satiated. Perhaps this process of collectively taking a step back should start with the basics: learning to walk backwards under the guidance of a professional choreographer. It also includes more appreciation for everything already available. Visitors can do this by shaking hands with algae to express their gratitude for these fast-growing organisms. After all, algae are a sustainable raw material for building and eating. 

The philosophical labyrinth of ambassador Alkemade looks at the mind as a winding road to change. And Hendriks quite literally gives hands and feet to the need to reduce. But Nienke Hoogvliet and Tim Jongerius make an appeal to the heart with their interactive installation Value/Values. Before we start making products, perhaps we should ask ourselves what it is we value. An animal-friendly way of producing? A fair wage for the makers? Sustainable raw materials? By letting us choose between two woven rugs - one from the Netherlands and one from Armenia, the birthplace of weaving - we are connecting to our values. How much are we prepared to pay for a product made locally from Texel wool? Or is it more important to us that drudging artisans from a relatively poor country like Armenia can make a living? Whatever you choose, it’s essential to allow our values to play a more critical role in determining the value of the things we surround ourselves with.

Ultimately, the necessary mindset shift of The Greater Number is not about having more or less, but about having enough. And this quest need not be arduous. In fact, thanks to the imagination of designers, our lives have become more playful and joyful. Perhaps it can even enchant us. Maybe enough is ultimately about The Magic Number. 

More on The Greater Number

The first Greater Number Session takes a look at the origin of the concept The Greater Number and how this theme was translated in the Milan design triennale 1968, curated by Giancarlo de Carlo. How was the theme received at that time and what was the focus then?

Read about the theme