After completing her MA in Furniture Design at the Royal College of Art in London, Dutch designer Ineke Hans happily returned to her hometown of Arnhem in 1998, where she set up a studio and developed her design practice In 2015 she went back to London – initially for a year – to try running the design studio from there, along with an ambitious research salon. But just like many other creative entrepreneurs based in London who hail from all over the world, she now finds herself in an awkward Brexit situation. DAMNº visited Hans and sounded out the depth of the issue.  

DAMNº: Your decision to come to London was made before Brexit happened. How was it to wake up in this new reality?

Ineke Hans' STUDIO | SALON in London
Ineke Hans: It was good to set-up my studio in Arnhem after the RCA. I could not have done what I do now if I’d have stayed in London. The pressure to make money is high and you have less space to play, explore, and ask questions. However, I always felt I would like to return at some point. In furniture design, many things are changing in exciting ways, but in my Netherlands studio I never found the time to deal with these or get my head around them – a lot of the changes are related to urbanisation, mobility, and to work and living spaces. In a metropolis, these issues are magnified. So I decided to go back and explore them, which is how the salons came about.

The Brexit decision in June came as a surprise to me, as it did to many others, although I also think the Brits owe it to themselves a bit; they have always been half-hearted towards Europe, not wanting to accept the Euro and often negotiating exceptions for themselves in the European Parliament. I wonder if this Brexit outcome would have happened had they been more dedicated to Europe from the start. Many Brits have a fantasy that their great British empire can still be a reality. “Wake up and smell the coffee”, I say. Personally, I find it unbelievable that in an increasingly global world people think you can do that on your own, without cooperating with others. Even now – a few months after Brexit – some Brexiteers are confident that the UK will strike a good deal with the EU “because the EU needs the UK”. I find this a kind of arrogance and it’s hard to understand.

Cuckoo Eggs - rethinking and updating furniture at V&A for 2017 and beyond. 2016, Installation in Victoria & Albert museum during London Design Festival, by Ineke Hans.
DAMN°: Do you feel that the British look at you differently now, and does that influence your work as a designer?

IH: The relationship between the UK and the Netherlands is well preserved, so personally I haven’t experienced anything annoying yet. This summer I went on holiday to all the Brexit areas of the UK where the mining, ceramic, steel, and textile industries started-up or where the major ports used to be. London is different than the rest of the UK. All my friends here were in deep shock when the Brexit vote was announced. But I also had conversations with the nice builders from Albania and Romania who take care of maintenance in the warehouse where I live and work. Some have been here more than 20 years and have raised families here. London has a housing problem and the UK needs these men to deal with it: there’s a shortage of British builders! But – like other East Europeans – they sometimes receive remarks. I have since decided to stay longer than my planned year, but if the UK is going to make it hard for certain groups to remain in the UK, even if I would be allowed to do so, it will mark the end of my stay here. I felt very welcome when I came back last year and I still do. But in London many people are in mourning about the Brexit situation. Some of my friends feel totally ashamed. Other citizens are upset that they might lose the right to travel freely throughout Europe, and worry that the education exchange between the UK and different EU countries will disappear. Friends with European partners are now trying to get EU passports for their children or themselves, in preparation for these scenarios. 

salon conversation at the V&A
salon conversation at the V&A
DAMN°: Instead of establishing a large studio in London, you chose a small, precious space in East London, near the canal. Do you organise your entire production from here?

IH: Being on my own is really a treat somehow; it allows me to concentrate and get into a good flow. The production of the collection mainly takes place in my workshop in Arnhem, while the salons are held in London. I try to get to Arnhem once a month. Working like this is very possible nowadays. Here in London I have a desk and a super small workshop where I can develop models if needed. I can shut myself off from everything – sometimes I don’t leave the studio for a week. Still, if I want to, I can participate in what’s continuously happening in London, like fairs, events, exhibitions, talks, etc. The salons run for one year and each time we discuss very specific issues related to furniture design: changing means of production, economics, space, work environments, social context... We live and behave differently than we did 50 years ago. Back then, people dined at the table with the family; now, family members pop home when it suits them and usually end up eating individually in front of their laptop. From cooperative, rural communities, we have slowly changed into urban-oriented, individualised personalities. But the youngest generation seems to be more in the sharing mood. We live in a society where cultures are mixed, where we live longer, and where things are less formal. We are digitally switched-on 24/7. Personal space has become the workspace and the workspace has become portable. We buy goods online, shops are changing, products get delivered to your door, and all this has an effect on the furniture typologies we need or desire. So the position of the designer is also changing. Digital and technical progress allows us to tackle some big global issues like the management of water, energy, food, waste, health, and well being. Designers are playing more and more of a role in processes that aim to deal with these issues, both as problem-solvers and as strategists, trying to find sustainable solutions at small and large scales. This must be absorbed into the creative process. Otherwise, we won’t create meaningful products anymore. I love to design, but if you ask people how often they buy a new table, the answer does not relate to how much stuff we produce. A few years ago I was involved in a project for the Fogo Island Inn in northern Canada. I worked with the local community that had turned grey and was suffering, as many rural communities are. Through social projects, people returned to the island and small businesses emerged again. This felt very rewarding to me as a designer. More-so than when you work for a client and the only purpose of the project seems to be to ‘produce something for the fair’ or to ‘fill a catalogue’.

DAMN°: So, as an experienced designer from the Netherlands, you are now holding salons in London on the meaning of design for an international audience of dedicated professionals, who – because of Brexit – will soon not be there anymore?

IH: The salons began with informal gatherings of about 20 people in my small studio, but these now take place in a different East London studio each time. Professionals from the design scene (designers, writers, manufacturers, curators, etc.) participate in the discussions, and it’s really a bonus to all meet together rather than each group being on its own. Apart from that, I get loads of help from wonderful people like Gareth Williams, Daniel Charny, Johanna Agerman Ross, Max Fraser, and Anna Bates – who chair/moderate the salons. During Clerkenwell Design Week and the London Design Festival I curated talks for bigger audiences at the V&A and other venues, which involved on-stage conversations between UK and NL designers. I also started-up a project with young designers and Opendesk, an online open-source platform. We investigated the future of open-source production and the workspace. In addition, I made an installation in the Furniture Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum called Cuckoo Eggs, rethinking and updating furniture at the V&A for 2017 and beyond, where I placed drawings, notes, and remarks on the permanent displays, tapping into the history and future of furniture design. The visitors were interested in those reflections, and it proved a nice way for me to organise my brain. I think we need to pose questions in order to become better designers. Some might say it’s a very Dutch approach, but I believe this questioning is something that has meanwhile become a habit in other places too, and even the world of Dutch design has moved on from being an isolated situation like Brexit. Dutch design is not an island on its own, and London is a good spot for my salons.

exhibition view 'Cuckoo Eggs' at the V&A.
Furniture is Not Working, at Brompton Design District London a popup exhibition during LDF, by Ineke Hans Salon, Opendesk and 4 young UK-NL designers
popup expo Furniture is not working, at Brompton Design