Flax On, Flax Off

The Netherlands

17 January 2018

In Disegno #17, the writer and educator Tamar Shafrir met with the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma to discuss Meindertsma's extended explorations of materials and local industries. This conversation will now be extended in a panel discussion hosted by Disegno at Maison & Objet in Paris on 22 January, with Meinderstma, Shafrir and LABEL/BREED director Stijn Roodnat coming together to discuss how material research and sociological research can be embedded within a commercial product. In anticipation of this discussion, Disegno is delighted to publish Shafrir's original story online.

Why are we drawn to protecting endangered crafts and industries? Over the past 25 years, especially in the Netherlands, traditional cultures of making have come to be seen as redeemers of contemporary design, bringing historical depth and social value to a field that has been rapidly transformed by new technologies and logistical systems.

Historic ceramics industries and artisans including Royal Tichelaar Makkum, Nymphenburg and Arita have launched projects with, among others, Hella Jongerius, Studio Makkink & Bey, and Scholten & Baijings to make claims for their ongoing relevance. Meanwhile, proto-industrial local networks of small- and medium-scale producers have been celebrated in exhibitions like Industrious|Artefacts in 2011 at the Zuiderzeemuseum in Enkhuizen, which looked at the distributed manufacture of ships by ropemakers, coopers, carpenters and other skilled craftsmen. These attempts to reconcile the dynamic, fluid figure of the globally active designer with the geographically situated, traditional maker appeared to model a new relevance for crafts in the present day.

In her extended explorations of materials and local industries, from wool and oak to bone china and flax, the designer Christien Meindertsma positions craft as a way of reclaiming meaning from historical legacy and as a source of yet-to-be discovered innovation. Born in Utrecht, Meindertsma graduated from Design Academy Eindhoven in 2003 with two projects that would go on to frame her practice. She attracted a great deal of attention for the first, One Sheep Sweater, in which she produced knitted garments, each made from the wool of a single Dutch sheep. That design approach, based on one unique specimen or case study, recurred and developed in later projects such as Urchin Pouf, for which each piece used the amount of wool typically produced by one New Zealand sheep, or Tree Track, a wooden train track made from an entire beech tree from the Flevopolder. Today, fragments and prototypes of these projects populate Meindertsma’s home studio in the middle of the Netherlands, revealing the scale of her one-woman design practice amid views of her garden and the surrounding countryside, where the plant, animal and earthen subjects of her fascination are constantly visible.

That quiet scene, however, belies the other side of her practice, which revolves around the complexity of the large-scale industries and systems behind everyday objects. Her second graduation project, Checked Baggage (which she published as a book in 2004), indexed the items confiscated by security at Schiphol Airport as a material consequence of the mounting security in the wake of September 11 and the assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002. This form of investigation would be developed further through projects like PIG 05049, which tracked myriad uses of the parts of a single pig in cosmetics, medicine, photo paper and more. Similarly, in Bottom Ash Observatory, she filtered materials including silver and zinc from 25kg of ash left after waste combustion in an incinerator. In these works, Meindertsma confronts and makes sense of daunting, vast phenomena in the contemporary material landscape by zooming into the smallest isolatable element – from a human, animal, or plant, through to a specific place. These, she dissects as synecdoches.

The Flax Project is a hybrid of these two branches developed over 15 years of studio practice, and investigates the fibrous, blue-flowering plant whose products range from linen thread and paper to flaxseed and linseed oil. Meindertsma’s interest in flax stems from her 2009 collaboration with Touwslagerij Steenbergen, a ropemaker in the Dutch province of Gelderland. Here, she produced a collection of objects in rope and elm wood for the design retailer Thomas Eyck, including extension cords, light cables, coiled rugs and ottomans. From that collaboration, a mission emerged that would occupy her until the present day: “I started the project to find out where the rope fibre in the lamp came from.” In her research she discovered a landscape stretching from Normandy through Belgium to the southern part of the Netherlands, where flax has been grown at least since the time of the Roman empire and possibly as early as 500 BCE – the rough date of the first-known use of the crop in the form of linen sails by Phoenician sailors. By 1,000 CE, this area was the centre of the linen trade due in part to the high quality of the flax grown there, which could be used to make thinner yarns for fine linens (coarser flax fibres are better suited to twine, rope, or filler materials). Meindertsma describes a kind of terroir shaped by two ideal conditions – “the warm Gulf Stream that goes between Great Britain and Europe, which creates the right climate, and the old knowledge of the farmers”.

Christien Meindertsma, photographed in her studio in Gelderland holding her Flax chair for Label Breed.

This climatic affinity of the Dutch coast for the cultivation of flax was reinforced, from Meindertsma’s perspective, by the crop’s deep-rootedness in the culture. “I was interested in flax because we have an incredibly rich history with it. In the Golden Age, flax was a homespun, handmade fabric, like the really fine linen collars you see worn in paintings,” she says. “If you were rich in that era, your cupboard full of linens would be as valuable as your collection of gold or porcelain.” She cites the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the UK in the 18th century – when many machines were invented to automate the manufacture of cotton using resources imported from the British colonies – as the point at which flax gave way to industrially produced cotton, which was cheaper and easier to make. “We are so used to cotton, but if we couldn’t travel, we would just have linen and wool in this area,” she says. “Linen has a strong historical basis in this region and our climate is perfect for it, so I was interested in figuring out what possibilities were left for local production.”

However, as Meindertsma quickly discovered, “90 per cent of French, Belgian and Dutch flax is sold to China” for processing and production. In 2010, she bought 10,000kg of flax from another Dutch region, the Flevopolder, by matching an offer of €3,200 from a Chinese company. This investment would allow her to investigate the flax process firsthand. As she explains, cultivation can be a risky investment for farmers compared to other crops: “Flax needs to sit on the land for a few weeks after harvest, a process called dew-retting. If the weather is too wet it can rot, and if it is too dry the fibre does not separate from the woody straw.” The value of the harvest is thus determined in a critical period that is largely out of the farmer’s control. Later, the fibre is bought by a company that also sells the seeds to farmers. “They take it apart, dividing it into long fibre, short fibre, the woody bits and the seed, and from there the long fibre goes to China,” she says. “The short fibre is mostly used for insulation material – it’s much more environmentally friendly than Rockwool – but it’s a really undervalued material. Considering how much short fibre is available, it would be better if there were more options.”

Samples and research, stored beneath a photograph by Roel van Tour taken as part of Meindertsma’s One Sheep Sweater project.

Although her initial curiosity was oriented towards observation and documentation, Meindertsma also wanted to respond to these unexplored possibilities as a designer. Yet once she actually had the material, the process was less straightforward than she imagined. “Everything was such a detour,” she says. “When I wanted to spin the yarn, I was under the impression that I could do that in Belgium because there are companies there that sell fine yarns, and they also say that they spin them. But when I turned up with my 6,000kg of long fibre, they told me that they don’t actually produce it there. They spin a slightly thicker yarn in Belgium, but the thinner yarns are spun in Hungary or Poland.” Meanwhile, working with the short fibre was a much simpler process: “This route is so short: it goes from the land to Tilburg, where it is needle-felted.” Meindertsma believes that “research as a designer or producer works very differently than as a journalist: you find out more, in a way. Manufacturers can tell you a story, but as a designer you can actually test whether their claims are real.”

Meindertsma’s investigatory techniques have by now been subsumed into a contemporary understanding of design practice, but her work wasn’t always as readily understood. Alongside other touchstones such as The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites, she initially faced considerable friction for projects like Checked Baggage, where the final outcome was not a product, but rather a larger investigation turned into a publication. “My teachers said, ‘What is this? This isn’t design!’ When I was graduating, I just followed my heart – I had no clue that those projects would become my way of working.”

Samples of ax and the composite flax material that Meindertsma developed for Label Breed.

Since then, she has continued to use research to unveil a complex world of material, social and financial networks through books or small series of objects, but these have not always offered an automatic point of entry for new solutions at a larger scale. After 10 years of research, the designer wondered how her work could achieve a greater impact. “I’m trying to do something for the flax industry because I believe in the material,” she says, “but what does it mean to do an exhibition or a film?” That question inspired her to produce an economically viable outcome. “At the beginning, making a product for the industry seemed like a very shallow way of getting involved, but it makes the most sense as a way to prove the whole point – to make an affordable product that works. It’s also the most difficult challenge to make something that’s actually part of people’s lives.”

Although Meindertsma’s investigation began with rope, she soon discovered that her high-quality flax could produce a much finer yarn of up to 24mpg of flax. “A good thickness for a tea towel,” she says. The towels were designed to tell the entire story of their production, the damask linen featuring either the chequered landscape of the Flevopolder or a more zoomed-in plan of the farmer’s field where the flax that made it was grown. Around the border, Meindertsma attached tags that listed each step of the process: scotching, heckling, spinning, warping, dying (in some towels) and weaving. “My goal was to make the product as simple and as local as possible, but these logistics were still necessary. It would be interesting to do this for a normal manufactured product because it would probably be full of labels.”

This effort towards a simplified product did not necessarily make it affordable. Meindertsma’s design retails for €35 to €40, and she was particularly frustrated when she saw a linen-cotton blend tea towel selling for €2 in the Dutch retail chain Hema. “I really don’t want to make ‘art design’ products, but even when I bought a whole plot of flax and followed the process every step of the way with no middlemen, I still ended up with a tea towel that is 20 times what it costs in Hema – and we’re not actually making much money out of ours!” she says. “I don’t think a tea towel should cost €2. It’s a mistake to expect such cheap products. But on the other hand, if you try to make something local and you’re not a big company, it’s difficult to make something affordable. From farm to product, it should be a system that works, but my tea towel will always stay in a design shop because it’s simply too expensive.”

For her next creation, therefore, she decided to tackle an archetype that would be more resistant to economies of scale. She was commissioned by Label Breed, an Amsterdam-based initiative that pairs designers with manufacturers, to design a composite product from a natural fibre. Once again, she found the appeal of flax irresistible. “It is simply the best natural fibre for making a composite because it is extremely strong, so it made sense to bring those projects together.” A few specialised products had already featured flax composites, like the Samsara eco-surfboard made using a high-performance reinforcement textile called biotex flax by Composites Evolution, a sustainable-material supplier based in Chester eld. But Meindertsma wanted to prove that the substance could be used in a normal household product, such as a chair – which is simultaneously the designed object par excellence due to its complexity, utility and aesthetic power, and often used as a testing ground for new techniques. Her Flax chair combines an upper surface of woven long-fibre flax mixed with yarn made of PLA (polylactide, a biodegradable thermoplastic), with a substrate of needle-felted short-fibre flax and PLA. The process was assisted by the expertise of natural-fibre specialist Enkev. Despite Meindertsma’s research stemming from an obsession with locality, she eventually decided to buy the woven fabric from the UK rather than try to start a new industrial process in the Netherlands.

A Donegal tweed that Meindertsma made in Ireland with Donegal Yarns and Molloy and Sons. The fabric is made from woolen bres taken from Meindertsma’s Fibre Market project, which was shown as part of the Fear and Love exhibition at the Design Museum in 2016.

“Technically, we could do it with my long fibres, but for this product it would not make it better,” she says. “I know that the flax in this fabric is either French, Belgian or Dutch, but now that I have researched the whole process, it doesn’t matter that much anymore. Our main task is to perfect the design and get it produced.”The chair – which won two Dutch Design Awards in 2016, was acquired by the Vitra Design Museum and is currently nominated in the Beazley Designs of the Year award at London’s Design Museum – is made from a single sheet measuring 60cm by 100cm. This is cut into three parts – an oblong seat with two U-shaped legs – that are heat-pressed in a mould. Current prototypes are testing different thicknesses and stiffnesses of the material under weight, as well as varying the uses of screws and glue to attach the legs to the base of the chair. Echoing its creator’s guiding ethos, the form is designed to be as simple and effcient as possible, “a logic that leads to something beautiful”. The resulting product costs €400. Meindertsma acknowledges that “it is not a cheap chair, but within the ‘family’ of chairs, it’s an acceptable price.” Her hope is that the chair will demonstrate the potential for local flax cultivation to be directed towards equally local manufacture.

“The only thing that I regret,” says Meindertsma, “is that I did not buy half the plot and follow the other half into China. I would be just as interested in the Chinese factories as in the European ones.” She is not sentimental or nationalistic, but neither does she think we must accept as foregone conclusions the pro t-driven forces of global capitalism. Rather, she considers the situation from multiple angles. The Hungarian flax spinners, for instance, purchased their factory machines from Ireland, where the local linen industry reached a peak at the end of the 1800s, but mostly disappeared by the mid-20th century. Meindertsma explains that the Hungarian spinners were frustrated when a Chinese company bought not only the Irish spinning-machine company but also the rights to repairs and spare parts. “If something breaks down, they have to order the parts from a Chinese company who is also their competitor in spinning,” she says. “So that doesn’t go very smoothly.”

Ephemera in Meindertsma’s studio.

Yet she also recognises the benefits of the Chinese demand for flax. “You could look at the fact that 90 per cent of the crop goes to China and say that has ruined the local industry, but you could also say that it has saved the farmers who harvest flax.” She points to the Chinese production of linen for the Japanese company Muji as one example of a large-scale enterprise that still foregrounds the quality of the material. Ultimately, she has a pragmatic viewpoint motivated by her interest in the crop. “I’m not against Chinese production, but I believe in paying the right amount of money for what we buy. We are surrounded by all of this stuff and we don’t understand what it means.”

In particular, it’s important to approach knowledge and awareness from both sides. On one hand, Meindertsma believes that seeing things being made in the region where they are consumed has power to educate the local population. While the idea and performance of craftsmanship and local industry is normally treasured, consumers rarely connect its survival to the economic conditions they would need to support to make it practical. Local production also has the potential to inspire interdisciplinary experimentation and, even more significantly, to preserve the knowledge of specialists in cultivation and manufacture whose disappearance may not be visible to consumers. The flax in Zeeland is already farmed in rotation with up to six other crops, so it would not drastically alter the landscape if farmers decided to stop growing it. “But there would be no way of getting back the knowledge of the farmers,” says Meindertsma. “That precise knowledge about how to grow or make something is taught between generations and within companies, so when a whole company closes, that information is lost. But apart from the people who buy products directly from the suppliers, nobody notices when these companies vanish.”

As a designer, Meindertsma has carved out a challenging niche for herself. While she embraces the complexities of each industry, she recognises the limitations of her omnivorous interest in craft and small-scale industry. “I can only do so much as one person, so I ask myself, where can I have the greatest effect? But there is always this little voice inside my head that says, ‘It would be better to become an expert in one thing.’ If I had stayed focused on wool, for example, I would be really skilled in working with it by now, but because I do many different projects, I am always sort of an amateur.” Nevertheless, it is this “amateur” quality that provides the necessary counterpoint to inject new possibilities into the deeply entrenched culture associated with traditional manufacture. “The flax industry is very closed, but if you hang in there, you eventually become part of it. You just need some perseverance. Some materials and countries have a very specific culture and it takes longer to open up.” That Meindertsma has dedicated her work to reclaiming local industries, materials and crafts from oblivion reveals her desire to resolve multiple ambiguities in the cultural meanings, methodological frameworks, ethical implications and potential for innovation within and through design.

Industrial Revolution, Monday 22 January, Maison & Object, Paris

A version of this article first appeared in Disegno #17.

Words Tamar Shafrir Photographs Renée de Groot.

Flax chair models in Meindertsma’s space.