Since its launch in 2003 the Design Academy Eindhoven Master programme has researched and revealed the ever-expanding role of the design discipline. But it was never an easy trajectory.
Two of the current departments - social design and contextual design - entered the school’s fray around 2010 under the guidance of Gijs Bakker, who launched the post-graduate programme.
Bakker had a strong vision and enjoyed a great relationship with the heads, but from the outset the departments had to vie for recognition alongside the more famous and media-friendly Bachelor graduates. In 2011 Information Design was added to the mix.
"We grow intellectual, curious and conceptual design skills in our students and we challenge them to take an autonomous position in the design field," Bakker said in a symposium held at the school just before he left in 2012. "We prepare them for finding new connections between science, education, and society so they can play an unexpected but essential role as designers in business, education or elsewhere."
A clash with the school’s management in 2012 over its interference with the heads’ creative autonomy led both to Bakker’s early departure and even more dramatically to the resignation of all three department heads - Jan Boelen (social design), Louise Schouwenberg (contextual design) and Joost Grootens (information design).
"Everything has to be questioned… based on the not knowing, the unanswered questions, the confusions, and the questioning of one’s own beliefs"
Eventually the proposed reforms entailing more levels of management and less control for the heads on how to educate and mentor their students were scrapped. The rebellious trio agreed to come back, and forged forward with their commitment to broadening the scope of design from within education.
“Our aim is not so much related to a position as it is to a mentality,” wrote Bakker. “Everything has to be questioned… based on the not knowing, the unanswered questions, the confusions, and the questioning of one’s own beliefs. What I am trying to do is change a way of thinking and by taking away axioms, both interesting inquiries and connections arise.”
Now, perhaps even more than then, this thinking is paramount. Drawing lines or at least tracing connections between reality and design academia remains a colossal urgency in all schools. And what the most recent crop of Design Academy Eindhoven Master graduates showed in their final exams is that not only was Bakker’s vision attainable, but the defiant head’s position was well worth the fight.
It takes more than just a few years to build a department, a culture and a way of educating students. In all the exams, including those from the newest department - Design Curating and Writing (headed by Alice Twemlow) – we saw impressive projects that (dare I say) now outperform their Bachelor counterparts.
Information design graduate Mar Ginot Blanco focused on the intra-European mobility that European Union policies have created, inviting 40 young European citizens who had moved from their place of birth to address the question “How does Europe influence your everyday life?”
“Is Europe ready to face a new crisis?” asks Mar Ginot Blanco (information design). Her research focused on the intra-European mobility that European Union policies have spawned and promoted, and the culture of acceptance (or not) that people encounter.
Ginot invited 40 young European citizens who had moved from their place of birth to address the question “How does Europe influence your everyday life?” Due to their geographical movement, none of the participants’ identities were defined or limited by boarders. Each was given a disposable camera to document their answers.
Ginot edited the 800 resulting images into a film to reveal a story of rising nationalism, personal fear, but also general comfort and content.
“My generation has grown up as a direct result of European Union policies,” Blanco, who is Spanish, told me. “Everyone has a clear idea of what Europe is, but there is little correlation between the opinions. I started this project wondering if it was possible to feel European and the answer is yes. My generation feels European, but two movements are on the rise: a pro-EU movement versus a type of conservative nationalism at a European level.”
Each of Ginot's participants was given a disposable camera to document their answers, and she edited the 800 resulting images into a film
Back in 2015 information design department head Joost Grootens talked to me about his aims: “We question the students about the urgency of their research. Why is it important to study that topic now at this moment in time, and why is it essential that the topic even be researched by a designer at all?”
And it was across all departments that this issue of timing, urgencies, and design’s broader relevance was spot on.
The research behind Anna Aagaard Jensen’s (contextual design) series of legs-astride-women-only chairs includes a film montage of women attempting to sit comfortably on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. One woman after the next walks onto the familiar set to be interviewed but struggles to sit, struggles to get comfortable, struggles to connect her body to the available object. The resulting chairs she designed find a linearity between a lack of any sort of physical connection to a social and then even an intellectual connection to the immediate context.
“They all look so confined and uncomfortable,” Jensen says. “I wanted to re-sculpt the notion of the body and in that way the project did evolve into a comment on gender.”
Anna Aagaard Jensen created a series of legs-astride-women-only chairs, paired with a film montage of women attempting to sit comfortably on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Of course Jensen’s timing is immaculate, especially as she began her research long before the #metoo movement hit the headlines. “The way everything happens at once shows that so much more needs to be discussed,” she says. “We need to rethink who has the power, and how can we better merge positions.”
Louise Schouwenberg, the outspoken contextual design department head, once told me in an interview:
“We guide students to a greater awareness of the implications and responsibilities of their free imagination and wild choices so they become aware of the demands and friction of every context. We explicitly ask them how the world might benefit from their ideas and designs.”
Which is exactly what Jensen has done. “Research to me is not academic,” she says. “It is about looking outside and connecting everyday life to art and design, and also to work that has come before.”
I first encountered social design graduate Kuang-Yi Ku last year in a bizarre panel discussion between him and Italian product designer Marco Romanelli. Romanelli presented a power-point of candle sticks and vases. Ku followed with a deadpan presentation about his oral implants designed to enhance sexual pleasure. The juxtaposition was both awkward and hilarious.
A trained Taiwanese dentist, Ku has taken his speculative approach into the culturally specific yet scientifically questionable terrain of traditional Chinese medicine. But more than just posing questions or imagining iconoclastic scenarios, he blends approaches to make his speculations possible.
For centuries the tiger penis has been believed to increase virility. “It is probably just a myth,” Ku tells me, pokerfaced. “But maybe it isn’t. The rhino horn has specific chemical compounds that have proven scientific benefits, but I think that is not the point. In ancient cultures the wisdom of our ancestors has credibility; it’s a way of respecting our intangible heritage, and I think it should be preserved.”
Kuang-Yi Ku pushed his speculative approach into the culturally specific yet scientifically questionable terrain of traditional Chinese medicine – focusing specifically on the tiger penis
But given that tigers are endangered, killing them for their penis prowess is no longer an option. So to find contemporaneous peace in the conflicting desires of preserving both a species and a culture, Ku collaborated with Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven. There he experimented with emerging biotechnologies to create hybridized animal parts for medicinal usage. He then combined into the results existing popular herbs.
“I synthesize the tiger penis with an octopus and an oyster,” he explains. “All animals that symbolize sexuality in different cultures …. Everyone knows an oyster is an aphrodisiac but also an octopus is a sex symbol in Japanese pornography. So I am proposing a sex organ that combines the strength and beauty of all three. But I also use what already exists and people feel familiar with – the herbs.”
Jan Boelen, head of the social design department and curator of the upcoming Istanbul Biennial says:
“In an essay on speculative design Benjamin Bratton said that the job of design in the 21st century is to undo (much of) the design of the 20th. Now it is necessary to undo what exists, but also to design and reconfigure the normative relationships between things … because design has the powerful faculty to create new meaning. Simulation, resistance, reappropriation, and negotiation are only a few of the strategies designs with a critical attitude can apply to produce other narratives, what one might call it a form of critical imagineering.”
Ku collaborated with Baltan Laboratories in Eindhoven, where he experimented with emerging biotechnologies to create hybridised animal parts for medicinal usage
Ku’s Tiger Penis project has clearly absorbed this position and takes globalisation, melting traditions and environmental hegemony into a potentially happy new beginning.
The much newer Design Curating and Writing department had their third set of graduates this summer.
There has always been an interesting discussion on the merit of objects that merely “represent” an idea. The associated imagery becoming necessarily more important and circulated than the actual work. But with the Internet and specifically social media many objects, and especially those acquired by museums, face a similar quandary - namely, that an object and its related image take two unrelated trajectories in different environments.
“I call it an object image,” Delany Boutkan, who researched the problematic notion of representation in design, says. “It’s a hybrid of an actual object and the image that represents it.”
Boutkan’s larger query is how museums will address the influence of the Internet and if and how a 2D image can be considered as relevant or taken as seriously as the original object. “Institutes need a whole new digital way of looking at things,” she says.
It is a heady proposition – and one that demands a critical approach, a language, and a method that somehow remains connected to the original 3d existence. Or does it?
Delany Boutkan’s queries how museums will address the influence of the Internet, and if and how a 2D image can be considered as relevant or taken as seriously as the original object
“Ultimately I think the whole notion of a collection will have to change,” Boutkan says. “Just the first stage will be how to communicate the digital impact of things within a museum environment.”
She uses as an example the recent exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, curated by former director Beatrice Ruff. In it an enormous chunk of the museum’s permanent collection was displayed in an almost digital style - chairs positioned on shelves alongside paintings from different eras. “I think this said a lot about how a collection is constructed,” Boutkan says. “But it also connected to how we browse and gather information in a digital age to find connections and new understandings. But in reality it is still the physical object, not the image of it that matters.”