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Self Unself
Salone del Mobile Milano 2014

In Milan two worlds meet. In the city center the opulent Duomo catches the evening light. Next to it stands a huge palace of commerce, the 19th century shopping gallery Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II. The material meets the spiritual.

The two contrasting structures come together on a public square. If you go into the Duomo the light exterior crosses into a dark interior so abruptly that it feels like a transition of one world into another. The Gallery is the opposite. It’s a passage. You don’t go in, you go through. You enter without realizing that you have entered. You just feel a gradually growing sense of richness – in architecture, in window- dressing, in commodities – that you unknow- ingly have become part of. Where the Duomo excites wonder, the Galleria excites desire.

In 1988 the Design Academy Eindhoven changed it’s perspective, shifting from industrial design to man-centered design. A humanist stance that fitted the time. Post-modernism and punk were fading away, together with the youth unemployment of the eighties. A brighter future called for brighter design: post-post- modernism, super modernism or happy modernism – whatever we call it. Design was playful, ironic and low tech.

In 1993 a first generation of the academy’s new-style graduates were presented in Milan by Gijs Bakker and Renny Ramakers under the name Droog. Conceptual design with an ironic twist brought life to the Salone del Mobile. Although I wasn’t part of it myself – I graduated in that same year at the Rietveld Academy
as a graphic designer – I have always felt that it was my generation that was presented there. Soon after, all of us came together in an exhibition in Germany. The exhibition was called Mentalitäten, because it was not so much a visual style that connected us, but a way
of thinking, a mentality.

When Tonny Holtrust and I were appointed last year to direct the academy, we started questioning the man-centered design per- spective. As a first impulse we interpreted man-centered to mean student-centered.
We are an institute for student-centered design education. Each year we bring a group of young talents together from all over the world. We handpick them, selecting for talent, motiva- tion and personality. And then we try to help them develop their talents. This was the same when I entered the Rietveld Academy 25 years ago. And it is still essential to our academy now. So what is new?

‘Self’ and ‘Unself’ are two words that popped into my mind when trying to identify and analyze what is new. Our students present self initiated projects with an unselfish inclination. Many projects raise social issues and are geared towards the collective good. This seems fitting in a time of growing youth unemploy- ment. Career recipes have gone, the world is no longer straightforward, the beaten tracks have become overgrown. The new generation is exploring new economic models.

‘Self’ and ‘Unself’ are opposites. In my mind they form an axis, a dialectics. As a decentration: as if we stepped out of a self-centered position to start thinking in terms of relation- ships. Since coining the term ‘Self Unself’ last year at graduation, I have been using it to research present positions in design. Part of this research was done in a practical sense by curating shows at the academy, at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, in Shenzhen and in New York.

And now in Milan. Milan is a bazaar of things. Thinking about Self Unself in Milan means thinking about objects, things, commodities. But many of our students stray away from objects or excel in other forms of expression like performances, films or debates. We want to show the one and the other.

In Milan two worlds meet. In the exhibition this means that next to objects we offer a program. Next to ‘presenting’ we offer ‘happening’. The objects on show sit on pedestals of varying height in order to make room for interventions. Self Unself presents a sort of public square where objects and issues meet.

Thomas Widdershoven

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Published: 08-Apr-2014 16:34
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