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How do we want to live? The essential design question, according to head of the Contextual Design Master’s, Louise Schouwenberg. A sculptor, writer, curator and lifelong student, she discusses why the aesthetics and craft associated with the Contextual Design Master’s are just the tip of the iceberg, how she and her team have evolved the legacy of the Master’s beyond Dutch Design, and why school is the best place to be during a crisis. The author is dead, long live the author; the object is dead, long live the object!

Nadine Botha: The Contextual Design Master’s has a long legacy, but perhaps none so mysterious as its name. If we look up contextual design on Wikipedia, there is a description of an engineering process that has nothing to do with Design Academy. What does Contextual Design mean?

Louise Schouwenberg: Design can be so linked to the market, which tends to be very fickle, with a short-sighted profit-driven motives and the pretence of solving problems – a paradigm that has created more problems than it’s actually ever solved. On the other hand, however, there’s an increasing awareness that design is so pervasive that we are really shaped by design, that everything is designed and, as human beings, we can't do without it. Between these two poles of design, Contextual Design at Design Academy is explicitly not about creating or educating designers for the market. It is about confronting the fact that design has an enormous impact by encouraging author designers to take responsibility for the ideology they implicitly embed in their designs. It is about regarding design as cultural critique, and education as a free zone in which to freely play with views on design and scenarios for the future. I feel we educate resilient personalities and that the Master’s is focused on facilitating people in discovering their talents. To do so, they also need to discover their weaknesses and intuition, and expose themselves to different and opposing opinions that invite them to take a well-informed personal stance. To these ends, the whole program is focused on confrontation. Students that come from design and other backgrounds are exposed to a lot of different tutors with different perspectives and approaches, so that they are challenged to go beyond their own assumptions and look beyond simply developing a signature. At Design Academy Eindhoven, Contextual Design is about developing the mentality of an author designer.

NB: What do you mean by an author designer — isn’t the author dead?

LS: The author is absolutely dead but was also never dead. I certainly agree with Barthes and Foucault that ideas have never originated with one person, but as a strategy for making, it does not help to say the author is dead. For makers, designers, artists, it’s absolutely necessary to consider themselves authors while working. It’s the same in science, where we can say that hard truth and objectivity have become outdated notions, but every scientist should nonetheless try as best they can to be objective and find truth. Of course, it’s a provocation, but what it comes down to is that the author designer takes full responsibility for the narrative they tell, for the implications and consequences of their designs, and thus also take full responsibility for the means of making. An author does not hide behind the commission, the problem of the brief, or the industry’s limited arsenal of production means.

NB: It’s striking that you haven’t mentioned the words craft or aesthetics, the two words that might be most widely associated with the Contextual Design Master’s. How do craft and aesthetics emerge from authorship and criticality?

LS: I know that the Contextual Design projects usually stand out as the most beautiful and crafted ones at the graduation show, and that the department attracts students who are doubting whether they are artists or designers. However, the Master’s engages in a holistic approach to design, which means that as human beings, as physical and mental beings, we engage on all levels with the world. Aesthetics and craftsmanship are paramount in combining the physical and the mental. Industrial production veers towards perfection and utilitarianism, and is a very mental affair; whereas craftsmanship is about being open to the unexpected, and experimenting with materials and techniques. By creating possibilities by which your own assumptions are troubled or frustrated, we learn to work with surprises and failures. Serendipity is a beautiful word to describe this. Failing and risking are not only very important in education, but also in developing a different way of understanding the world. Stressing these extremes of this field is what I wanted to do when I took over from Gijs Bakker in 2010. It is by putting material experiments in dialogue with research and critical reflection that aesthetics emerges. Aesthetics have a beautiful power of engaging and then immediately disrupting ideas of good taste, and by extension, the notion of what is design. However, we don’t start with aesthetics.

NB: You are saying that the aesthetics we see at the graduation show are the tip of the iceberg, and that by emphasising the critical and material extremes of design you have evolved the department beyond its legacy of Dutch Design. How have students responded to this evolution?

LS: Droog and Dutch Design were a revolution – maybe not as radical or well known as the Italian design avant-garde, but a revolution in the design world at least. It’s when conceptual projects became legible and a lot of the best projects are good until this day. But legibility also led to some weak designs, which remained at the level of jokes or moralising finger wagging. My early years were really about getting people off these types of projects. Now we see that some of the most interesting projects are students coming from other countries, explicitly stating that they don’t want to learn Dutch Design, and rather using the opportunity of education to investigate their own cultural background, experiment with different values, and explore alternative political and social ideas. At the moment, there are also many students dealing with nationalism and populism, and by bringing together material and critical research exploring the thin line between what is acceptable and what is problematic. The ongoing redefinition of craftsmanship also continues, with students currently interested in notions of the self, collectiveness and repetition. There are also many working on an abstract theoretical level, exploring semiotics and design as a language. Of course, every year the interests of the students evolve, but what is constant is that we are succeeding in getting away from the object while being more about the object than ever. Truth is, I don’t think I could be the head of this department if there were no objects; I love objects! It’s by bringing together the mental and material that objects can get into the inherent paradoxes within humanity.

NB: Besides your passion for objects, what else do students need to know about you?

LS: My career has never been a single path towards a clear destination, rather it has been guided by sometimes accidental choices that felt good at the time. I have an insatiable philosophical interest in humans and life, and have not stopped studying – from psychology and philosophy to literature and history. It is really this curiosity that has often driven my decisions that have taken me through a career as a sculptor, and even for a very short time as a curator at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, to design and art critic and lecturer. It is by studying art that I gained the ability to not be defined by what I do, but rather to make decisions according to how I want to live my life. How do people want to live, is to me the essential question of design. As such, design is much more grounded in reality than art. Designers want to intervene. What brought me to design was my friendship with Hella Jongerius, whom I met while both of us were working at the EKWC, the European Ceramics Work Centre (at the time located in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, now in Oisterwijk). As a sculptor, I didn’t understand design and would ask her challenging questions. She seemed to appreciate the dialogue and invited me to write something with her, because she was frustrated with the design writing only orientated towards legitimising design. You see this to this day in the design sections of magazines and media. Design is a very important cultural field, but is relegated to the optimistic lifestyle pages. Apart from the much-needed exceptions to the rule, design writing usually has an unbearably light and opportunistic quality, like a large part of design too. It's not about critically following developments in the world and putting design in perspective to other fields, but most of all about promoting products for the sake of economic profit.

NB: Before the interview, we talked about how the design media and designers are doing just that with COVID-19, turning it into a marketing opportunity by legitimizing design as a false panacea. How are you and the Contextual Design Master’s responding to the current circumstances?

Looking back at the crises I have lived through – first the HIV-crisis in which so many died, also some of my close friends, and then 9/11 when the West responded with fearmongering – has reminded me that these things pass, but that we need resilience. I'm really happy to see that our students are creatively addressing it. They miss working together, but they also actively find ways of getting beyond it. It’s great that when we video conference, the students have just as many creative ideas as they have problems. We’re also evolving the course to contain more filmmaking, animation and home-making workshops. It’s challenging working like this, but it’s also forcing us to reconsider design’s values and what problems are worth solving. Although the students are not defeated, there are a lot of people who are smashed by this. We can also take these testing times as opportunities to self-reflect. If a crisis is going on, if the whole world doesn't know what will happen and thus doesn't know how to shape the life again after, I can think of no better place to be than in a school asking how we can rethink the world?

Published: 08-May-2020 16:43


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    Louise Schouwenberg, 2020


    Part of the Installation ‘Beyond the New’, realized with Hella Jongerius in 2017