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Designer Dialogues: Petra Janssen

17 November 2021

7 min. to read

© Saskia Overzee
BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE portrays different creative makers in their workplaces while interviewed by colleagues. What fascinates, inspires and drives them to do what they do? Especially for, BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE edited the interviews into interesting short stories. For this article designers Anne Ligtenberg and Mats Horbach interview Petra Janssen in the workspace of Studio Boot, the graphic design studio of Petra Janssen and Edwin Vollebergh.
© Saskia Overzee

What made you start such a wonderful initiative like Social Label?

Petra: In 2011, I had stopped teaching after twelve years and was looking for something to do instead. It was a time of dire financial crisis and there was a lot of uncertainty. Banks failed and Greece was on the verge of bankruptcy. No one knew what might happen next. In response, we wanted to bring people together and build something hands-on from scratch. That became the Huttenfestival ‘De Vlek’ at the Spoorzone in the centre of Tilburg. The challenge was to take this abandoned railyard and turn it into a lively village together. Edwin thought of earlier days, when the whole population would come out to watch the fair being built. What if we would start building here with a group of renowned designers, architects and artists? What would happen? Piet Hein Eek made the furniture for instance, the art collective Observatorium took care of the yard in the outdoor areas and the guys of La Bolleur, former students of mine, were brewing their own Boys beer. People with labour market disadvantages were involved as well. All of us together, we built such a beautiful place, with out own hands. It was truly remarkable.

Social Label actually started at the Huttenfestival. One of the participating sheltered workshops, Woodworks from Tilburg, helped the guys of Piet Hein Eek with building their furniture. The people of Woodworks loved this so much that they said: “We’re going to make this in our own workshop as well!” There were no bad intentions whatsoever, they obviously had no idea that someone had designed scrap wood furniture and you can’t just copy it. I simply asked Piet if he wanted to design something for these guys, so they could fabricate it. “Yes, of course,” he said, and that became the first Social Label product.

Isn’t it wonderful how such a large initiative like Social Label can start from something so small? The Werkwarenhuis is another enormous project that you run besides Studio Boot. Did that originate from a simple moment too?

Petra: Those ten days at the Huttenfestival really turned into ten years at the Werkwarenhuis. In 2013, the mayor of Den Bosch asked me if I wouldn’t use my stature to do something for our city. Right around that time, an old factory building had become available at the Tramkade and it was the perfect spot to apply the principle of bottom-up area development we had tried out at the Huttenfestival. The plan we made was carried by a large co-production, which allowed us to rent the entire area in 2015 for ten years. We were handed the keys to this factory full of cattle feed and rebuilt it completely. Piet Hein Eek signed for the architecture and we, as Studio Boot, did the interior. We wanted to set an example. You get a completely different outcome working with small budgets but a lot of vigour and silly fun. 

It has become a place for experimentation, a place where new initiatives can arise and where they can land. This is where we established the Social Label Lab. The work takes place here, the products are for sale, and people who wouldn’t have met otherwise, get together here. It was a precious moment when Queen Maxima opened the Lab in 2018. The place was rubbish and look what the Werkwarenhuis has become today. Of course, I don’t do this by myself. Together with my partner Edwin and Simone Kramer we’ve been working on the Werkwarenhuis for six years and in 2025 we have to leave.

Is that a hard deadline?

Petra: Yes, it is a hard deadline, and rightly so, a deal is a deal after all, in my book anyway. At the beginning I send a real estate agent over for an appraisal, and when we move out, I’ll ask for another one. There will certainly be added value, because of the gentrification that is taking place, and it would be morally right if the cultural people would benefit from the value they themselves created. Or at least part of it. This value is not just about money.

It is also about the chances and opportunities you offered.

Petra: Exactly! And about the chances and possibilities of the young people who come after us. In an already existing zoning plan for the Tramkade our building would have been demolished to make room for new construction. Thanks to our efforts, a new plan was proposed that designated the area as a creative haven and preserved our building. That took a lot of politics. And politics are so slow. We are moving much to fast, I’ve realised that long ago. Right now, inclusivity is an important theme for instance, but it is part of our activities with Social Label since 2011. If the chance arises, you just have to take it, I think. Don’t waste your time talking about it.

Over at Social Label we invite people for their own specialisation and put them together at a round table. We decide right there and then how we will proceed together. I’m fed up with the term design thinking by the way. I hate it. Social Label is design doing. Suddenly, everyone in the business world has to master design thinking. Just hire a designer and pay them, instead of all that nonsense with brainstorm notes all over the place. It is leading nowhere.

© Saskia Overzee

Let’s have a closer look at the design world. With all your experience in teaching design: what is your view on the way design is developing at the moment?

Petra: I’m intrigued by the design of everyday life. In 218, ArtEZ asked me to help set up a Master programme. That became the Master Practice Held in Common. It teaches the students to establish a creative practice based on their own intrinsic qualities and motivation. Because I’m convinced that as a designer you have to be able to take good care of yourself before you can actually be of importance for others. A solid base provides the circumstances that give you the opportunity to improve other people’s lives.

Like they instruct you on the plane, to put on your own oxygen mask first before tending to others?

Petra: Exactly. It sounds harsh, but it’s absolutely not selfish at all. It has to do with the need for balance. I also notice this in my children, you’re only free if you can take good care of yourself, if you’ve created the circumstances that allow you to live and work well. Edwin and I have two children and I always wanted to continue working. So we decided to pick up the kids every seven years and move to a surrounding that best fitted their needs. This way, we could both continue working, fifty-fifty. We are flexible people, I see us as city nomads with an adjusting practice. I do believe you need to reach a certain age before you can work for the benefit of society. After graduation, your first priority is to become self-sustainable. Once you’ve created a position of independence, you can think about ways to share it, make it more profound, and return something extra to society.

Want to read the full article?

You can find the complete interview with Petra Janssen in BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE - issue #4