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A brief history of dutch design


  • This is what weve been waiting for: nally, an unprecedented critical analysis of the history of Dutch design. Mienke SimonThomass Dutch Design is a book to have and to read: an importantand richly detailed study of the cultural, economical and social-political context of twentieth-century design in the Netherlands.

    Wim Crouwel

    From the colourful abstraction of the Rietveld chair to the dry wit of the milkbottlelamp produced by Droog, modern design in the Netherlands has always been ahotbed of experimentation. Dutch designers have consistently pushed the limits ineverything from posters to postage stamps, home furnishings to street signage,ceramics to city airports. Indeed, in the last decade or so, Dutch design has become aworldwide phenomenon, almost a brand in itself, with regular publications in magazinesand books promoting the remarkable creative output of this small country.

    This book takes an in-depth look not just at Dutch designs themselves but also the history and culture behind the works created throughout the twentieth centuryand beyond. Mienke Simon Thomas provides a compelling thematic account, guiding the reader through the beginnings of crafts education, the debates of design as art, the moral and social ideals of modernism, the new profession of industrial designer, state-sponsored initiatives, and conceptual design objects and anti-design.She argues that Dutch design seems to have been inspired by the wish to be functional, simple and affordable, but she also reveals how it has simultaneouslyembraced luxury, decoration and even exclusivity.

    A much-needed introduction to Dutch designs and their creators as well as theclients who commissioned them and the state initiatives that supported them thisbook will be essential reading for designers, historians and the general public with aninterest in design.

    with 171 illustrations, 83 in colour

    mienke simon thomas is Senior Curator in the Department of Decorative Arts and Design at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and the author of Dutch Ceramics, 18901940 (2002).

    Cover: Tejo Remy (Droog Design), You Cant Lay Down Your Memory, chest of drawers, 1991. Photo: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

    reaktion books ltdwww.reaktionbooks.co.uk


    Mienke Simon Thomas






































    uk 17.95 rrp/us $35.00

    spine 19mm


  • Dutch Design

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  • Dutch DesignA History

    Mienke Simon Thomas

    r e a k t i o n b o o k s

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  • Published by Reaktion Books Ltd33 Great Sutton StreetLondon ec1v 0dx, uk


    First published 2008

    Copyright Mienke Simon Thomas 2008This translation was supported by grants from The Prince Bernard Fund and The Mondriaan Foundation.

    All rights reservedNo part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

    Printed in China

    British Library Cataloguing in Publication DataSimon Thomas, Mienke

    Dutch design: a history1. Design, Industrial NetherlandsI. Title745.209492

    isbn13: 978 1 86189 380 2

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  • Contents

    Introduction 7

    1 New Art, Old Craft, 18751915 13

    2 Design as Art, 191540 49

    3 Good Design, 192565 89

    4 Design as Profession, 194580 133

    5 Design for Debate, 1960s to the Present 183

    Conclusion 237

    References 241Bibliography 256Acknowledgements 261Photo Acknowledgements 262Index 263

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  • Studio Mijksenaar, visual statistics in the TNO Report Design in the Creative Economy(Vormgeving in deCreatieve Economie), forPremsela and the Ministryof Economic Affairs, 2005.

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  • 7

    In 2001 the Dutch government set up an Interim Advisory Committee onDutch design to map out the infrastructure of design culture. The aim wasto use this information as a basis from which it would be possible to makemore specic recommendations on design policy in the future. The com-mittee advocated more synergy between the social, cultural and economicsectors involved in design, and the establishment of a new design institutethat could offer guidance. It reasoned that the Netherlands has alwaysenjoyed a design tradition in which great attention has been paid to socialideals and cultural values, but less to economic concerns. Four years later,in 2005, the last hypothesis was put to the test by the information researchgroup tno, which needed to know the precise importance of design as partof the creative economy. This exhaustive study produced remarkableresults: the astonishing conclusion was that, when grouped together, Dutchdesigners were as important to the national economy as the prots accruedfrom air transport or the petroleum industry.1 This made a very surprisingoutcome indeed if we consider the prevailing image of the thrifty Dutch with their supposed lack of ostentation and small-scale production system.

    The way these two reports came about invited criticism. First, theAdvisory Committee set up in 2001 was composed entirely of people fromthe cultural scene, who had a limited knowledge of economic affairs. In2005, on the other hand, professional flower arrangers were assessed in thetno study alongside industrial designers a mismatch that many saw asdetracting from the validity of the conclusions. In short, a scholarly, value-free analysis of design culture is an extremely difcult task, even using themost modern research methods. These reports proved that an assessmentof the design sector depends to a large degree on the perspective, aims and


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  • sources at the researchers disposal. This was no different in the past. Therewas, for example, a hidden agenda in 1878 when the senior ofcial of theMinistry for Home Affairs, Jonkheer Victor de Stuers, and the State Commis-sion he installed were asked to judge the state of the Dutch art industry.2

    The same held true in 1945 for the designers Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema,who had just as many predetermined motives when they drew up theirreport on the future of industrial design in the Netherlands.3

    These examples show that writing a historical survey of Dutch designculture can be a hazardous undertaking. The primary sources at our dis -posal usually throw light on just one side of the story. Even the secondaryliterature still in existence has its limitations, since until now design histo-ry in the Netherlands has mainly been the province of art and architecturalhistorians. It is only natural that they have mainly described the history ofdesign from an artstylistic perspective. Only a small number of studies hasapproached design from a different angle, by, for instance, taking an inter-est in economic, sociological and political-philosophical views.4

    In this book the central focus is on Dutch design culture in the twenti-eth century. This means that our attention will be xed primarily on thecultural, economic and political-social context of design, and only in thesecond instance on the products and designers that gure within theserealms. The main theme is the development of design in modern Dutchsociety. We shall look at the relationship between designers and manufac-turers, at the artistic and moral mission designers thought they had toproselytize in the discussions they held on the subject in their specialistjournals. The content and organization of the design academy courses willalso come up for discussion, as well as the role of the Dutch government inproviding subsidies and commissioning work from designers. Finally, weshall examine design criticism and to a certain extent the Dutch con-sumers opinion about design.

    The subject will be divided up into ve themes that cover the subjectsor issues that were foremost in peoples minds when thinking about design,and as such provided the ideological framework within which designerscarried out their work. The main thrust of these themes occurs in differenteras and by dealing with them in chronological order we shall cover theentire century.

    The rst chapter addresses the theme of artisanal design, an issue thatwas of central importance at the beginning of the twentieth century, butcrops up again regularly afterwards. In this chapter we shall discuss thestrange paradox that during this period, despite increased industrializa-tion, the interest of Dutch designers (then still called decorative artists) was

    8 Dutch Design

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  • mainly in producing products manually, with the Middle Ages providing animportant source of inspiration. Even when design education was reformedand the Vereniging voor Ambachts- en Nijverheidskunst (vank) was set upin 1904, it was initially handmade crafts that were the focus of attention.Thus around 1900 Dutch design was in a certain sense conservative, but itwould, surprisingly enough, be proudly presented to the following genera-tion as part of the developmental history of typically Dutch Nieuwe Kunst(New Art). At the same time this traditional, crafts-based movement was ofmarginal importance for the growth of industrialization, and for innova-tion in a wider sense. Unopposed, modernization continued its course.

    In chapter Two some light will be shed on the designers in the 1920sand 30s who made frenetic attempts to promote their opinion that designshould be art. All the same, some of them did begin to see at this point thatcollaboration between designers and industry was inevitable, and possiblydesirable, but nevertheless for many of those involved the products result-ing from this collaboration still had to remain art. This was the opinion ofmany vank members at the time and was also common among designersof the Amsterdam School, but was apparently also upheld by the moreprogressive artist-designers of De Stijl movement and members of theBond voor Kunst in Industrie (bki). In these circles their great longing forart and artistry continued undiminished. So for a long time, and in a cer-tain respect up to the present day, they have recognized a fundamentaldifference between artistic products emerging from a collaboration betweendesigner-artists and ordinary industrial bulk goods. Only a few progressivedesigners, like Piet Zwart and Willem Gispen, had already managed toliberate themselves from these artistic aspirations before the SecondWorld War.

    An important theme that dominated Dutch design throughout almostthe entire twentieth century was the need to make the world a better placethrough beautiful design: beauty and ugliness in the Netherlands haveoften been synonymous with good and bad. In chapter Three it is arguedthat the main thrust behind this issue is modernism before and after theSecond World War. This Moral Modernism concentrated on the virtues:simplicity, honesty and functionality. The politically committed architectsof Nieuwe Bouwen (New Building) and the designers connected with themwere motivated to aspire to what was morally classied as a good form byadhering to these values. The same held after the war for architects anddesigners involved in the reconstruction of the Netherlands. The GoedWonen Foundation is the clearest manifestation of this Moral Modern ism inthe 1950s and 60s.


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  • The exhibition Dutch DesignPort by Rotterdams VIVIDgallery at the InternationalContemporary Furniture Fair(ICFF), New York, 2007.

    Chapter Four deals with the way in which, from the 1950s onwards, theNetherlands brought the process of professionalizing design as a disciplineto completion, and in so doing made industrial design a factor of real socialimportance. Design culture in the post-war reconstruction years was char-acterized by, at long last, the arrival of a flourishing industry, more andbetter design courses, enthusiastic designers and, above all, far more prod-ucts made with the involvement of a designer. The Instituut voor IndustrileVormgeving (iiv), with its showroom in Amsterdam, played a major role ingiving design culture the necessary exposure. Industrial design became animportant part of the policy pursued by manufacturers of electric house-hold appliances and was gradually adopted by the furniture industry too. Itseemed as if the whole of the Netherlands was being redesigned in thoseyears. There was evidence of this at Schiphol airport, in trains, at stations,on motorways, the money in our purses, in post ofce design and products,in supermarket design and packaging, and in department stores designsand wares: well-considered modern design was ltering through on allsides. For that matter we must not neglect to mention that in getting thepublic to accept modern design an important role was reserved for a fewlarge design studios, as well as stores such as Metz & Co. and the Bijenkorf,and later hema and ikea.

    In the last chapter reactions to the issues handled earlier come up fordiscussion. It then becomes clear how much some themes have constantlycontinued to dominate the design culture debate. In addition, we shall alsosee that in the last three decades of the twentieth century a number of design-ers and critics begin to loathe the perfect, but boring Modernist design inevidence all around them. Running parallel to this reaction is their criticismof the over-commercial character of design and designers, and the total lackof concern shown by manufacturers for conserving the environment. Thissparks off debates and counter-cultural or oppositional movements all overthe place. At the same time, the dividing lines between design, fashion andart become more indistinct. New anti-design becomes internationallyfamous thanks to the generous, progressive subsidy policy pursued by theDutch government. Thus Dutch design currently stands for critical, ironicand conceptual in other words, intellectual design. However, the questionposed at the beginning of this book about the concrete economic impor-tance of design at the start of the century could equally well apply topresent-day, celebrated Dutch design.

    10 Dutch Design

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  • The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 offers a useful starting point for aview of Dutch design at the turn of the twentieth century.1 The Dutch entrygives an idea of the products then considered in...