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‘What young designers currently add is the candour of their position’

Annemartine van Kesteren talks about curating Beyond Generations

Her exhibition Beyond Generations (Van Abbemuseum, until 5 November) shows the dialogues that shape education at Design Academy Eindhoven. Dialogues between objects, between lecturers and students, between then and now. An interview with curator Annemartine van Kesteren about silent exchanges and intense conversations: “It’s a school close to my heart.”

By Gert Staal

Beyond Generations is the first of a series of five exhibitions with which the Design Academy Eindhoven will move towards its 75th anniversary in 2021. This could be viewed as a self portrait of the Academy in five annual chapters. As the first curator, how difficult was it to set the tone of such a phased portrait?
‘In my talks with the Academy’s board it was instantly clear that this would be the start of a series. However, I didn't consider myself to be an extension of my client, and therefore didn't come at this exhibition with an overall plan. Beyond Generations builds on my own experience with the Design Academy Eindhoven. I'm often invited along as a guest lecturer, to take part in discussions or to get involved with examinations. I visit the Graduation shows and regularly work with designers who have studied in Eindhoven. I’m really familiar with the school, at the same time though I still consider myself enough of an outsider to retain a fresh view. That's the position I've adopted.’

What strikes you most when visiting the Academy?
‘I love the school's atmosphere. I studied design at the Delft University of Technology and perhaps that's why I enjoy teaching here so much. Here at the Academy they have a completely different approach to design. It always strikes me how intense the exchanges between lecturers and students can be. That is what I’m seeking to express with this exhibition: how design is discussed within the Academy. Sometimes it's very public and consciously univocal, reminiscent of the highly successfully period when Lidewij Edelkoort was at the Academy's helm. However, at times it can also be quite modest and intimate, with people searching and in personal dialogue with one another. Whenever I'm in Eindhoven I can observe this process up close, and even when I’m not actually there I still tend to do this, just with a bit more distance. It's a school close to my heart.’

The exhibition makes a connection between work that is directly linked with the Academy's development and the Van Abbemuseum's art collection. What is your intention here?
‘I view a school like Design Academy Eindhoven as a sort of melting pot; a place where students can retreat to for four or five years. A place where they are allowed to develop, sheltered from the world. Discussions are mostly with fellow students or their supervising lecturers. All forms of education and academic life run the risk of isolation, of too much navel gazing. At the same time however, a school occupies the heart of society and students must inevitably enter and relate to this world. The Van Abbemuseum has been a key factor for me when compiling Beyond Generations for exactly that reason. The museum's collection is by necessity a mirror held up to the outside world which in this case works to ensure students avoid developing professional myopia. At the same time, the museum also lends wealth to the dialogue: both at the school and within the exhibition.’

How self-evident is such a collaboration between Academy and museum?
‘Every year the museum gives the Design Academy Eindhoven the run of the place for a couple of weeks. I hope that the Academy realises just how generous a gesture this is by the Van Abbemuseum. When you work in the museum world, as I do, you know that such opportunities are actually quite rare. So I believe it was highly significant to take the museum's context as a serious factor. I also think I understand the museum's collection reasonably well, and that played a role in my choice of not shunning a confrontation with the visual arts. Of course the exhibition is first and foremost about what happens within the Academy's walls, but art has always provided a window onto the greater world. For generations of students and lecturers the visits to the Van Abbemuseum have been that window. You only have to study the museum's exhibition history for a few moments to identify the watershed moments in modern art. These also happen to mark out crucial phases in the development of design.’

It must have been a difficult choice to make I would think. From the thousands of works in the collection you can select just a few works which represent the story of the visual arts.
‘That's true. I've limited my selection to eight pieces, appropriate to the eight conceptual frameworks which I distinguish in this exhibition. However, I did not use the works to represent a development in art. I see them more as indicators of new approaches and interests, as ideas which at a certain point in time were expressed in both autonomous work as well as in the applied arts.
When speaking to all kinds of people during the preparation phase, I realised that the following subject raised its head time and again: That some past exhibition had changed their ideas or where perhaps for the first time a notion was confirmed which had lain dormant or buried somewhere inside their own work. By selecting works that invoke an image of an era I hope to rekindle that moment of discovery; that light-bulb moment!’

You talk about conceptual frameworks. Can you explain what these frameworks are and how we should understand these?
‘I wanted to represent an overarching view of seventy years of work in the form of a dialogue across the various generations. This means you quickly arrive at moments in which that dialogue becomes exciting, because changes were afoot: those watershed moments I spoke of earlier. Look at the earliest period, from 1947. In those years the Academy courses were geared to supporting industry. The market had to be conquered, and the profession needed to be emancipated. Everything was about professionalization. By the 1960s, development had travelled as far as opening doors to divergent voices and schisms set in. The emphasis shifts from the collective to the individual, at exactly the same moment this is reflected in society. It's a time of rebellion, insurgence, particularly among the young. The conceptual framework or contextual backdrop for that particular period I have termed Democratic Space. As a designer you select your own individual niche in the democratic space, independent of the socio-political groupings that had honed society up until that moment. The democratic space was formed through the work. Individual freedom becomes the guiding principle. Such a development cannot be teased apart from the period of Professional Image, the conceptual framework that preceded this. The profession as a body first needed to establish a position or base-camp before the individual designer could claim credibility. The exhibition sites eight conceptual frameworks on a timeline between 1947 and today. What I find quite striking and positively remarkable is that none of these frameworks actually get lost. They remain in existence, adjacent to each other, only the content changes.’

Can you provide an example of this?
‘Take Democratic Space once again. While the exhibition roots this conceptual framework in the 1960s and introduces other frameworks after it, such as Free Form, Social Transformation and System Thinking, there are still visible continuous traces of the Democratic Space in students' work today. It has once again evolved as a discreet theme, particularly over the last few years, for example with the rise of the internet as a new public domain. Discussions on gender, on the meaning of local development as opposed to global systems; there are numerous subjects in the current design discourse which closely connect with the Democratic Space framework similar to those which were confronted in the 1960s. The debate has broadened out today and the approach may be different, however the essence remains remarkably intact.
Let me put it a different way; almost as if it takes on the form of an assignment for current students or for visitors to the Graduation Show. Try looking at the 2017 graduation work through this prism of eight conceptual frameworks. I would say that each of the graduates' final projects fits comfortably into one of the frameworks. At the same time it will become visible that the thought process within each framework has evolved over time. For example, a conceptual framework such as Story Space is traceable in Maarten Baas's burnt furniture icons as a direct revolt against the modernist doctrine in design. However now you can see how designers also use stories as a remedy against social conditioning. The personal has become so much more political.’

For each conceptual framework you selected a number of key pieces from various periods which symbolise dialogue. The Auping ’Auronde’ bed (1972-73) by former lecturer Frans de la Haye opposite Chris Kabel's ‘Stack Ring’ incites the discussion about the professional market and the transformation this market has undergone. In Free Form you put the ‘Eva’ table (1987-88) by Joke van der Heijden and Martin Visser next to the ‘Set Up Shades’ (1989) by Marcel Wanders. In this exhibition, how do you distinguish between the various periods and viewpoints regarding such themes?
‘Often one of the objects in a space marks the position of a lecturer, while the other object is a development from the following, younger generation. They show the current day reflection on the theme. This allows the discussions within the Academy to resound in the exhibition and how these translate into the work produced there. The work from the Van Abbemuseum collection connects with the world beyond the school. There are also drawn portraits of lecturers with accompanying characteristic quotes, clarifying that really it’s all about the person behind the design and that the objects truly express what they had in mind when creating the work. The layout of a space can be seen as a quiet dialogue.’

If I understand you correctly, all conceptual frameworks within the Academy are represented currently, and the youngest generation relate to all of these themes; some perhaps stronger than others, and again others more implicitly. How, as an informed outsider, do you look at their contribution to current developments?
‘What young designers currently add is the candour of their position. You quickly notice that they’re not obliged to relate to a past. Their work reflects life as lived at the moment; manifestations of the ‘Now’ if you like. Possibly the notion of an “instant generation” applies. They reject all systems and consequently utilise and absorb every opportunity they come across to make choices for themselves when realising their own work. This conscious temporariness is of course also vulnerable, as well as attractive. A lack of memory can become a trap however. I have reintroduced memory in the exhibition, thereby making visual the quality of the Academy's system.’

Has digging in the archives provided you personally with any surprises?
‘Absolutely! What immediately comes to mind are names you no longer hear mentioned on a daily basis. The ceramic work by Paulus van Leeuwen for example, from the 1980s. I knew his work from our Boijmans Van Beuningen collection, but suddenly it struck me again how well this fitted that period. Or an exquisite series of cabinets by Peer de Bruijn. And from the best known students the Academy has produced we often came across work that predates their later successes, such as Hela Jongerius's porcelain stool.’

Looking at the broader picture, what should Beyond Generations bring about?
‘I would consider it an achievement if the exhibition could make the 'silent' discussions that take place within the Academy both visible and audible for visitors. Make them realise that there’s quite a bit more to it than a publicity machine churning out success stories. Hopefully visitors will identify the school's exclusive quality if they understand how layered and special the contact is between lecturers and students. There’s always space for the human component. Indeed, the names given to departments is no longer “man & living” or “man & identity” as it once was, but for me man's key position in Eindhoven's design education is still very much at the core.’

(This text was written for the Graduation Catalogue Mined, Design Academy Eindhoven 2017)

Published: 20-Oct-2017 11:45
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