In 2010, designer Christien Meindertsma bought 10,000kg of flax from a farmer in the Dutch Flevopolder (a region of reclaimed land) by matching an offer of €3,200 from a Chinese company. Today, 90% of European flax heads straight to China. “If you have too little of any material, you can’t really make a dent in the industrial process,” she explains of her ongoing commitment to make everyday objects that have a cost and value that are more closely aligned. By buying the crop she had enough to pursue a proper material investigation plus produce a product for the market.

Meindertsma trained at Design Academy Eindhoven, graduating in 2003. It was an era when students were less focused on the politics of the Institute, and more on simply designing.

“It was really hard work there,” she says smiling. “I remember Matthieu Meijer’s colour classes. We would paint all night using different combinations until our sight changed. We didn’t sleep before presentations. Then sometimes the next day Matthieu would come in and say it was all totally horrendous. But that was art school education back then and the more open and naïve you were, the better it worked. It was hard, frantic, adventurous, completely overwhelming, but also a playful preparation for the real world.”

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


Plus the work ethic acquired there stuck – the high demands for exactness, ideas and beauty characterize Meindertsma’s practice today.

“In one class we had to start with square pieces of white paper and make architectural sequences” she says. “The lines had to be dead straight and that is really hard. Still today, every time I am folding and cutting paper I think about this class and that the cut has to be perfect.” Meindertsma rails at the more institutional attitude in art and design education today. “The coaching is cleaner, more careful and the words and consequently the ideas more controlled and filtered.”

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


For her graduation project Checked Baggage, Meindertsma conducted research at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam in the nervous months after 9/11 to discern at what point one becomes safer. “Everything that is confiscated at check-in is later sold off,” she explains. “I went to one of the auctions and for 800 guilders bought a whole shipment.

“It was so much money for me at the time and I felt quite ashamed,” she continues. “I just had this feeling that my thinking and my approach to design could amount to something. Nobody knew what I was doing, but I was trying to show how strange it all was and thought that using what existed was better than designing something new. So I collated and indexed all the findings and made a book.”

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


Over the years and with subsequent projects she perfected this sort of methodology as a research strategy. And for her, research was design – the two lived together, enmeshed in an inseparable marriage. One becoming the other.

People started calling it ‘documentary design’. Now it doesn’t need a name – it is how many designers design. One might say Meindertsma was instrumental in normalizing this, but she modestly plays down the suggestion. “I just like to have an open and non-judgmental way to work,” she says. “I wasn't even sure myself when I started down this path. There was just something about the categorizing of objects removed from their contexts that brought me closer to their owners.”

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


What Meindertsma is describing is how a broader positioning of design can be a way of understanding and making sense of the material world and its social connections. “To me one storyline feels like one opinion,” she says, “and I like to work in layers. I want the process to always be visible, but always in an artistic way.”

For One Sheep Sweater she produced knitted garments, each made from the wool of a single Welsh sheep and for Tree Track she made a wooden train track from an entire Dutch beech tree.

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


Then there was PIG 05049, a book she made to index all the possible uses of pig parts from candies to paper and cosmetics. For another publication, Bottom Ash Observatory, she filtered 25kg of ash left behind after waste combustion into separate materials like glass, steel, zinc, copper, and silver.

The recurring process is to collect, sift, isolate, and analyse. It is as if by zooming in on a single element Meindertsma gets more acquainted with the broader material landscape.

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


In the last few years Meindertsma moved back to the Betuwe countryside where she grew up. “I swam in the summer and skated in the winter on that lake over there,” she says, pointing to an impossibly picturesque stretch of water surrounded by weeping willows. In the closest village there is a motorbike store, a florist, and a baker.

In her sun-drenched studio, it’s her material research that dominates – oak, bone china, flax, textiles, colours, samples, and prototypes. Sitting in the centre is the best example of an object that boasts everything Meindertsma represents as a designer – the Flax Chair. Designed in 2014, it was a collaboration with natural fibre specialist Enkev and initiated by Label/Breed. As a limited edition it cost €600 a piece, and it exemplifies her drive to embed material research in an end product sold at a price that stays fairly and accurately to its value.

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


Of course, the issue is that the everyday object and furniture market relies on a harsh and globalized business model. It’s fast, it’s big and it requires participation in a closed system that tolerates limited effective rebellion.

Her very real humility means the conversation stops there, but her eyes dash across towards her various flax products, a lot of which have been copied and then mass-produced to be sold relatively cheaply. In collaboration with Dutch rope maker Touwslagerij Steenbergen, for example, she made a collection of chandeliers from flax rope that have been heavily ripped off albeit in different materials – turning a heavily researched aesthetic into a cheap(ish) product that looks like hers minus the stories she is focused on telling and sharing.

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


“I am always trying to say something,” she says. “It is most often about materials. I want people to connect and to feel the transparency in my work.”

For most of the products that make daily life possible, much is hidden and closed source. The systems are impenetrable to the point where we lose all intellectual and emotional connection to how things work. Meindertsma’s politics is almost always made clear in the work – it is clear that she would never work with factory-farmed pigs. It’s also clear that she derides the disassociation too many people have with the toils that go on behind the scenes to make our lives possible.

For the KleurEyck exhibition in Design Museum Gent, which will travel to Lille at the end of spring next year, Meindertsma is showing Fibre Market. A research project she did together with Wieland Textiles and Valvan Baling, it uses the Fibre Sort Machine that efficiently and accurately scans and sorts clothes based on yarn type. The concept was to cross check 1000 labels on jumpers that show what percentage of wool is used. The finding, which you may or may not be surprised by, was that almost none of the garments from the various brands tested were really made from the wool percentages stated on the labels, but rather a blend of different yarn types. After sorting, the sweaters are shredded into fibre, ready to become something new.

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


Also exhibited is Donegal Tweed, a project borne out the Fibre Market. Irish Donegal tweed is typically adorned with tiny coloured flecks. Historically this was a process developed to make the most of the scarcity of colourful yarns – peppering them throughout a textile for decorative effect. Meindertsma instead used the leftover colour-sorted yarns from Fibre Market to make the flecks.

In 16th-century Holland a linen cupboard was used to position a household’s wealth right alongside its stash of gold and porcelain. Back then, textiles were mostly wool or linen because sheep and flax did well in the climate that stretched from France, across Belgium, and into the Netherlands. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution in the UK that cotton really took over – the new machines manufactured cotton brought across from the colonies at unto then unprecedented speed.

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


“Cotton is much easier to spin and work with,” Meindertsma explains, “but it also needs an enormous amount of water to grow so the agricultural practices are much harsher on the environment.

To successfully merge research and product design, Meindertsma really needs a client equally committed to the sorts of reforms that interest her. “And companies don’t want anything too difficult,” she says, “even when they agree that it matters, they have to work to deadlines. They need to communicate, and obviously it all has to end in a profit.”

The fully biodegradable Flax chair was done for Label/Breed. The Flax tea towels – embroidered with maps of the European flax region – are distributed through Thomas Eyck and sell for €38, a difficult price point.

“Of course H&M and IKEA can do it cheaper,” Meindertsma says, “but this is an honest price. This is how much it costs to design, make and distribute locally without that horrible gap between what things actually cost to produce and what people are paying in cheap stores. It's a huge problem for us all, for designers, for the environment, especially when you consider that from that €38 nobody is making very much money.”

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


Meindertsma wants to stay independent and works with no assistants or interns. “I like my company to stay small, light, and flexible. I like to have space to wonder around in the research and to allow myself to take detours,” she says. “It works because all projects are collaborations, so I never really work alone, and it is important to me to work in a horizontal way.”

How people valued linen in the 16th century was more closely aligned to its actual value. “I don't want my work to be pointing fingers or blame,” she says. “I also have kids and have to dress them, so I understand well that it is almost impossible to step out of reality.”

But surely it's the responsibility of designers to be making at minimum a dent in that reality. Because someone in the capitalist model has to step it up to change the course.

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


“Exactly,” Meindertsma asserts. “Only 250 of my Flax Chairs were produced. It is about redesigning reality. But a chair is an industrial product, and to have the infrastructure the company needs to be a certain size. Now my chair is moving towards a bigger producer that can make the numbers, but the possibilities to do it this way are few.”

And on whether this approach and results is art or design? “I don't like it when people call it art,” Meindertsma says. “Personally I find the highest possible goal is to make objects that are a part of real life. To do a really good job at just that is hard enough.”

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


Meindertsma’s next project has been heavily delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ten artists were asked to explore typical craft techniques from 1620, when the first pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower to the USA. “I guess I was asked because there were some British people who came from Leiden, a small town in the Netherlands, on that ship,” she says. “I am doing a collaborative project with Elizabeth James Perry, an American artist and member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe. Her product is a beautiful cuff made with traditional beads made from shell and glass beads.

“Of course you have to be very careful with this kind of collaboration,” she continues. “Anything you do or say is probably insensitive. There is no getting it right because so much of it has already gone wrong in history. But I do think it is important to do projects where your own way of seeing things is challenged and where you are forced to be open, to learn from others with different perspectives, even if that is risky.”

All images by Samira Kafala, except installation view


The interactions with the other artists involved have made Meindertsma reflect very personally on her Dutchness. “In early conversations I kept thinking and occasionally saying how my own ancestry doesn't interest me that much,” she says. “I was struck by how everyone told me how Dutch and privileged that was in itself, and how it goes hand in hand with how assertive we can be in the Netherlands. [As a Native American] Elizabeth James Perry told me that her people prefer to preserve their culture to winning. This comment really hit me.

“I have always striven for total transparency,” she continues, “because I thought that was what would make the world a better place, but I have also come to understand that people can benefit from a lack of transparency too.”

Because the truth behind the commercial system is a blend of murky and complex. Too often it’s easier to just not know. “Properly focusing on what is wrong with the production chain is hard because it requires making different decisions that are more about taking care of people and land,” Meindertsma concludes. “It would mean paying fairly for materials and finished products, and most importantly making and consuming much less.”

by Gabrielle Kennedy

This article appeared in DAM76. Order your personal copy.