Welcome to the future
Dutch Invertuals Academy was launched in 2020, during the first wave of COVID-19, as a way to keep connected to the global design community.
The year 2020 has long been shorthand for the time when the future would finally arrive. However when we got here it didn't feel much like the prophesied technological utopia — half of all people confined to their homes — the fragility of human life tragically highlighted — unbalanced systems tipped or toppled — relationships reduced to shouting at pixelated screens — all that was once labelled ‘normal’ under scrutiny.
Faced with all of this it was tempting, and perhaps necessary at first, to grieve our best laid plans. For large swathes of the design industry this was reality as studios and schools closed, tools were locked away, and the yearly merry-go-round of design fairs, festivals, PR and product launches ground to a halt.
But as spring flourished – alongside the merciless virus – those of us privalaged to have the time to think, the space to reflect and our health intact observed the deceleration of relentless economic growth, the shrinking of fossil fuel usage, the grounding of airplanes forced and the emergence of a degree of hope for a positive future.
Personally, the pandemic forced me to slow down and focus on my immediate surroundings, the subtle daily (or even hourly) changes in the trees, to be more present and playful with my family and to notice the needs of neighbours who had recently been strangers. During this time, many more people, businesses and, in the rare case governments, also began to reconsider relationships to local identities and adopted more caring approaches to materials, communities and the environment around them. I could sense nature and those more knowledgeable, often indigenous, communities around the world exclaiming that ‘it’s about time too.
BEYOND SAFE HAVENS
Dutch Invertuals has always curated and collaborated with the most innovative local talent in the Netherlands, but Wendy Plomp, founder and curator of Dutch Invertuals, recognised that it was time to take her own advice and ‘go beyond your safe havens’. Using the digital tools that had become so familiar during the pandemic the team decided to share the deep knowledge and experience of their network at a time when people were seeking out new knowledge, skills and connections.
“I do not see this time as negative. It’s a wake up call for all of us to rethink, pause, to do it better”
The programme would be an intensive six week programme of (digital) exchange of, enquiry into and experimentation under the theme ‘True Matter’. Emerging designers from around the world would be challenged to work with materials from their local context, play with their surroundings not only in terms of resources but also in terms of techniques, craftsmanship, politics and traditions.
The Invertuals network would support and guide the designers through lectures and workshops, with weekly group reflection sessions facilitated by me. The aim was to present their final outcomes at Dutch Design Week 2020 in Eindhoven.
22 GLOWING RECTANGLES
Dutch Invertuals are as renowned for their conceptual and tactile exhibitions as much as they are for their collaborative approach, lengthy conversations and debates around tables (and bars) — the challenge was to translate this energy into the immaterial digital realm.
Day 1. Thursday 23rd July. Our Zoom waiting room was full. I clicked ‘ADMIT ALL’ and my computer screen filled with a grid of glowing rectangles filled with the smiling faces of strangers.
‘‘I really was emotional when in this corona time my crazy idea became real and all 22 designers popped up on the screen”
Throughout that session I was humbled by each designer’s unique stories, situations and work. As each spoke I realised that DIA had the potential to shed light beyond individual local identities and also provide insight into what truly matters collectively too.
With an intense timeline the designers were encouraged by their tutors to embrace mistakes, experiments and their design and making skills to learn quickly through doing. Weeks were punctuated by lectures and workshops to inspire and provoke them on topics from ‘mapping’ to ‘mother nature’ and ‘gramshaving’ (if you know you know) and each Thursday all designers came back together as one group.
Every week I had the honour of hosting the group session, tasked with bringing organisation and direction in balance with the chaos and freedom needed. Every week I was inspired by the way in which each designer responded to the challenge. At first we joined the designers as they explored and mapped their environments. We travelled digital through space finding intrigue and inspiration in the minute, a handful of dust from the corner of a room in Bangkok, to the mundane, ad-hoc street furniture in Hong Kong, and the massive, water poverty in Chile.
As the weeks progressed ideas, words and sketches became experiments and prototypes made in myriad materials scavenged, borrowed and collected from each locale. Some reclaimed — oak from a 90 year old desk, leather from mridangam drums, industrial glass waste. Some exotic — molasses, basalt and banana stem. Some more challenging— polluted rain water and human hair. Facilitating this process was not about seeking perfection but promoting exploration and momentum as the group of designers searched for their True Matter and moved towards creating prototypes and their final works .
DOING > LEARNING > DOING > LARNING
From beginning to end the academy was an exercise in improvisation as the team and designers adapted to the circumstance. As Meike Meijer of Studio Meike Meijer and DIA tutor said “I truly believe it’s better sometimes not to have loads of time as a designer, results do not necessarily get any better by it. All our outcomes are straight from the heart of the designers without overthinking it too much.’ The pace of the programme encouraged fast decision making and intuition over talking and thinking with much of the Academy happening in the ‘Experiment! Experiment! Experiment!’ spirit that Niek Pulles from Nike explored in his workshops.
The process was untested and was not always smooth. The digital tools used and their limitations sometimes left people rushed and frustrated with us unable to go the depth and detail some designers craved. However, these same tools created new possibilities that distance, time, money and politics would have previously prevented. As Mieke so clearly puts it “Borders do not matter in an online environment. With Lebanese stamps in my passport I could not have gone to Israel for example. And now I had the opportunity to guide Israelian students!’
The Academy reinforced for me the importance for us to look far outside ourselves and our bubbles to find new collaborators and perspectives. It simultaneously we must look close by and find value and meaning in the most mundane of things. We can find meaning and stories even in the dust around us as Cristoph from Raw colour says ‘enough to keep us busy for a lifetime’ Through constant dialogue with our surroundings and other people and non-human actors around us we can understand and build stronger relationships with the world.
With the first Dutch Invertuals Academy coming to an end, objects and artworks making their way towards Eindhoven, and the coronavirus and the risks and restrictions still in effect, where did we end up and what did we learn? The results are not perfect answers or objects, and neither was the Academy. On both counts what has been created feels more like beginnings. The final pieces are a reflection of each designer’s truth at this moment, a material artifact of their experiences. The first Dutch Invertuals Academy a record of how the collective responded moment and a statement of intent to move us towards a more caring way of being and designing together.