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What’s in it for my Mother?

05 December 2023

Jeph Francissen
If the work is real and it truly does exist in the world then that existence is radically contingent.

James Dyer and Nick Deakin are part of the Creative Voices selected to both preview and review Dutch Design Week (DDW23) from their own, unique perspectives. Through an Open Call, international creatives were invited to reflect on current issues and the role designers can play in them. The programme narratives that James and Nick were asked to review for Dutch Design Week 2023 are Speculative & Social Design-perspective and the Creating our Living Environment-mission. In What’s in it for my Mother, we follow Nick and James as they dive into this year’s DDW.

Residency for the People hangs annex-like off the back of Eindhoven’s looming St. Catharinakerk. It is a sort-of-art-space, that’s how Lucas Maassen, its creator, describes it: “We're a sort-of-art-space and a bar, it's how we embed ourselves in society.” During the day, the poky main room is lit by street-facing windows dressed in short drop cafe-style curtains. In the evenings, a soft light glows from candles and a few ceiling bulbs. Bistro dining chairs hug the walls and wooden-topped stools hem the tables. A low metal counter serves as a bar. I ask for a beer and make my way back outside. Despite its fringe-like appearance, this place has been in concert with Eindhoven’s design scene for several years. This year they host New Store, a project initiated by the Nieuwe Instituut.

This is the first concrete iteration of New Store. It next appears at Milan’s Salone and will later take more permanent residence in Rotterdam. The project began in May with an open call for designers. Considering its categorisation in DDW’s new programme narratives under Speculative & Social design, it is curious that the open call specifically sought “products” with the capacity to “function” in the store. There is a meaningful difference between, on the one hand, speculative “products” that function and, on the other hand, speculative “objects” that are exhibited to act as if they have the possibility to function. In the former, there is a proto-real-world tangibility, whereas in the latter the designs behave stiffly, like props for provocation. This is a meaningful and exploitable rift in speculative modes of design.

“The thin veil of urgency has been pulled away and underneath we see something plain-speaking.”

“I think it comes from the low-profile, high locality of the work” an enlightened boozer tells me after I described “the rift” to her. Along with a few dozen other design-enthusiasts we are hunkered under an awning at the back of Lucas’ bar; it’s so busy I can’t get a sense of the New Store. Chardonnay in hand, she pulls on a knitted balaclava, lights a damp cigarette from a decorative candle and continues: “This year, the thin veil of urgency has been pulled away and underneath we see something plain-speaking, there is vulnerability in that.” I left for drinks elsewhere. The following day, I kept what she said in mind when I visited the grad show.

This year the show is hosted in the roughly-stripped retail units of Heuvel shopping centre. On entry, a bright circular space is split over two levels connected by a pair of escalators topped by a grubby glass dome. The whole place has a mundane familiarity. The tiled floors, polished from years of milling shoppers, reflect the paned glass barrel-vaulted roof running the length of the walkway; it strains to register as a counterfeit of the Great Exhibition. Moving methodically in and out of the repurposed retail units, it's clear to see a precarious humanity to the work on show, much more than in previous years. Memorable projects like Sea Yourself at Home, Intangible Performance and Content Nausea display a soft-centred quasi-absurdist charm that isn't swaddled in overbearing design-think. Instead, there is an almost-poetic, emotional literacy on show. I hope this is also the case at New Store. I leave Heuvel for Lucas’.

“Without fanfare, New Store gives an alternative context to speculative design projects.”

In the dim, sober afternoon light, I can see more clearly what New Store offers. Piss Soap takes jars of customer's urine and reconstitutes them with used cooking oil and other stuff to make bars of soap, Black Marble has customers contribute (or not) their own light sources to communal areas, and From Ship to Shop offers diners the choice of seemingly identical fish products but from very different sources. Without fanfare, New Store gives an alternative context to speculative design projects that would normally be encountered in magazines, on blogs, or in exhibitions behind display glass. Instead, at the scale of retail, what New Store sells is something interestingly humdrum. They have redressed the mundane into the radical; urinating, lighting, and buying food are (as they always already were) something adversarial in the day-to-day. New Store, as such, is a critical trading place that offers irregular modes of exchange. It’s a place where a designer's work is in action, rather than on display (think 1990s Relational Aesthetics more than 1960s Happenings). The idea, it seems, is to speculatively reimagine banal consumerism and routine currency. They aim to achieve this through something called “regenerative design.” (See also this year’s projects: regenerative ruins, cabinets, and buildings).

With close ties to green, eco, and sustainable design, regenerative design focuses on the living interconnectedness of design in its broadest sense. It is, unsurprisingly, a design concept lacking much consensus in its definition and use. But it doesn't matter as much what regenerative design means than what it affords. And what it affords New Store is the ability to brazenly steal back and revive defenestrated words marked by most critical designers as dirty capitalist claptrap. At New Store, words like consumption and product and retail are used unproblematically and without scare quotes. The commendable result is that speculative designs are made graspable in regular high-street speech.

“I am trying to find the already existing realism in designs.”

It’s early on Saturday evening and I have managed to corner Lucas. He’s a mischievous designer and is suspicious of overbearing discourses and backslapping design chat. It took a few bottles to get into it. Eventually, I told him that New Store feels sincere, grounded, vulnerable, and a tad awkward. He is enthusiastic but also a bit sceptical. I think I would call it design realism, I told him. Before I could say more he cut me off. Pointing his index finger, which also clamps a cigarette, he draws a limp diagram in the air of an ascending staircase (something like Dan Eames' work). “You’re intellectualising realism,” he said, “you are looking for it up here” he points to the top of the invisible staircase, “when really it’s down here” now he points to the bottom of the stairs and takes a quick drag of his cigarette. I insist to him that I am trying to find the already existing realism in designs, particularly ones that are critiquing and creating our living environment. I’m not trying to transcend anything! I want to close that abusive distance between the real and the ideal, to kick what is absent down that staircase and make it present! Think of it like taking a piss in Duchamp’s fountain. “I’m interested”, Lucas said as he moved on to another table. “Come back tomorrow morning at 11.”

It's 7 am the next day. Through an aperture the size of a beer bottle cap I’m squinting at a litter of memories from last-night’s conversational swill. I’m getting nowhere with it. Mud-minded, I head back to Lucas’ in the pissing rain with scraps of poorly penned notes in my pocket. 

Lucas welcomes me with a smile and a coffee, we sit at a quiet table in the corner. “This design realism stuff, I like your passion for it and I see how New Store fits in that frame too, but I wonder, what is it that you are wanting to cultivate and who is it cultivated for? Forget designers for a minute, what’s in it for my Mother, you know? Probably not much, right?” Defensively, I explain to Lucas that what I’m trying to do is cultivate difference, I want the multiplicity of experiences of designs to be recognised and articulated by the people having those experiences, not just by designers. If the work is real and it truly does exist in the world then that existence is radically contingent because it is very complicated and very dynamic to be part of this living environment. I think, in a way, this is what New Store is trying to get at with the “regenerative design” stuff; they want to provoke a sense of radical socio-ecological responsibility, like a creative self-consciousness. But I think we all already agree that nobody should just make a thing and plonk it down and walk away from it. Actually, the designer Anthony Dunn likes to quote Frederik Pohl, the sci-fi author, on something similar. He says: a good sci-fi writer doesn’t just invent the car, they invent the traffic jam. This is what they are doing at the New Store, they have their eyes on the traffic jam while everyone else is gawping at the car. But the trouble is that the way it is framed as “regenerative design” could easily be misread as being something too orderly, overly procedural, prone to the diagrammatic and (pejoratively speaking) logical. It is not often we have a sense of emotional, visceral complexity in these more research-based design projects and New Store is really on the cusp of it. Lucas doesn’t respond. I realise I’ve been staring into the dregs of my coffee this whole time. I look up across the table to him.

“I think when things are complicated in the right way they can be much more understandable.”

“I like simple things,” he said, “and this is complicated. When it is complicated it is difficult to understand and it makes it feel closed off, particularly to normal people.” I don’t agree, I think when things are complicated in the right way they can be much more understandable. Like when you use a metaphor to describe something; you are not making anything any simpler by comparing one thing to something else that it isn’t. Rather, what you are doing is making it much more complicated, but in the same gesture you are also making it more understandable. This is a rare line of poetic thinking in design, I used to look to speculative design for this kind of thinking but in recent years that poetry has really been lacking.

Think of design exhibitions, at every level, there is a seemingly endless carousel of carefully presented samples of grass, hay, sand, mud, mycelium, etc. accompanied by the various technical models and mockups that show what the materials could (speculatively) be synthesised into. These are hard-boiled abstractions often made to simplify enormous issues like climate change, global warming, depletion of resources, local sustainable crafts, and so on. It is important work but after a while it is deadening; we start mistaking the map, as it were, for the territory. Compare this to TIMELESSTIME, the utterly disturbing performance by Maison the Faux. The mud, the sand, the hay is not sealed in petri dishes, it is being kicked by stiletto heels and flung from leather corsets, it is writhed in and thumped against. There is a profound gravity to the experiences felt by audiences at TIMELESS. It is both terrifying and alluring—totally haunting—couldn’t we have more of this in speculative design? “I saw it briefly with my sons,” Lucas says. “There is realism in this too, even though it is clear fiction in theatre, it’s the liveliness and the immersiveness that made it so impactful, right? It’s an intuitive, emotional, ‘viby’ thing.” Exactly! and that brings you closer to the work and closer to the themes the work is presenting. Imagine being able to “vibe” with regenerative design rather than having to “understand” it. 

"They search for the work, or else they think there is nothing here."

“I think this design realism way of thinking could be really appealing to designers, most of them want to do ‘real stuff’, you know? That’s what I do when I work with my sons, my parents, my partner—this is my family and it makes the work real. For sure, it is something like this that New Store is trying to achieve too, to pop out of the bubble. But I’m not sure it is working. It is only the early stages in the development of their project but they are still dependent on institutes for life-support. Even if they are using a sort of plain language, like you said last night, I still think that they have made something that people can’t understand or even ‘vibe’ with. It’s weird. When people come in here they ask to see the work, where is the New Store? They see the billboard — a big beautiful billboard made by OpenStructures — and then they want to go upstairs, or in the kitchen or something, they search for the work or else they think there is nothing here.” Who would have thought, Residency for the People: the desert of the real. 

The conversation mumbles to a halt. “It’s cold in here, do you want a toastie?” Lucas asks. I’m confused. Through a wry smirk he explains: “The grill gets super hot when we make toasties and that warms up the space, it’s regenerative design.” He comes back with a Stella and a toastie, I’m warming up. 

It's my last night in Eindhoven and the last day of DDW. The bars are quiet. Early the next morning I leave for the train station. What felt like a perennial series of designerly dances now slowly fades. A shattering cascade of bottles collected from a bar signals a return to the discomforting realities of the day-to-day, and so on.

James Dyer is a lecturer in the school of Art and Design at Prague City University. He writes eclectically about design and communication.
Nick Deakin is a graphic designer and illustrator who works under the studio moniker Totally Okay and is senior lecturer of Graphic Design at Leeds Arts University.

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