Oli Stratford Was ist Loos? is hosted in Vienna, a city you’ve never been based in. So what is your relationship with the city?
Ineke Hans I’ve been connected to Vienna for a long time and what’s nice is that my perspective on it changes all the time, because each time I’ve visited it I’ve been at a different stage in my life. I first went there when I was sixteen, for instance, when I had a boyfriend with grandparents from Austria. So we went there and, to be honest, it was a very brief impression—a big fun fair, thinking of some of the larger buildings.
Oli How did you find it at that age? I went when I was eighteen and it felt very imperial. I didn’t immediately think that this was an especially contemporary city with a lot of design going on.
Ineke No, absolutely. There is a huge amount of history, which you always feel in Vienna. It used to be a city of splendor and that is the charm of it. That history is so appealing, especially when I went back to the city for the second time when I was in the third or fourth year of my design education in Arnhem. Bart Lootsma, our head of department, was a total maniac for design history, so apart from art history and philosophy we also had to digest design history. It was a lot, but I loved it! I always felt that I didn't only want to learn how to make things or design thing, but also to understand the thinking around that. I think that education was pretty instrumental in my formation. We had a very, very thorough pre-education before we even made the trip to Vienna, so I knew almost all of the stones of every building. That would have been around 1989.
Oli How do you see that design history within Vienna as playing into contemporary practice? Some of the work and ideas of Adolf Loos and the Wiener Werkstätte, for instance, seem to have been aestheticized over time to the detriment of the economic and social factors that initially informed them. They’ve been de-historicized, which seems to be a topic you’re directly tackling in the title of the exhibition, Was ist Loos?
Ineke It’s something we have to get our heads around. The early twentieth century was a wonderful time that has had a big impact on design, but it is absolutely something that we need to rethink. That period was so important for determining ways of thinking about modernism and ways of thinking about how we should produce, and it also had a very big impact on the Bauhaus, which still has a huge influence on how we educate today. Which is a problem. We now have thousands of schools that are still based on those ideas. I struggle with the idea that those schools cannot really cope with the society we are now living in because they still have one leg in that old time. No matter how much I cherish that history, we have to cut some wires.
Oli Which wires would you suggest cutting?
Ineke We’re living in a time when a designer not only needs to know how to make things, but also needs to know how society works. We need to know about anthropology and we need to know about psychology. To deal with that, we at least need to make design education longer like architectural education and treat it more seriously. I was educated for five years in Arnhem before I came to do an MA in England at the Royal College of Art. Now, most BA courses are three years long and that is too little time to develop an understanding of what you’re actually doing. At least architecture is considered complex—something that you need to study for longer. I think design is at a point when to fully understand what you are doing, and to be able to deal with the subject, you need to have a vast pool of knowledge to draw from. Not to put design on a pedestal, but it is a really complicated thing. You need a lot of knowledge and you cannot put all of that into three years. It’s time to take design education seriously.
Oli What you’re proposing is reform and modernization, however the core of your practice remains furniture and product design—very traditional design fields. How do you square that circle? A lot of emerging designers seem to no longer feel that those disciplines are the most contemporary or valid route into design.
Ineke I agree that the traditional setup for product and furniture design doesn't exist anymore—a world where you are sat at a desk drawing fantastic chairs and hoping that some company will pick it up. That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s a fairytale. If you're working within furniture and product design, you’re now working in a much more social context. You’re not just banging out a single type of chair, but rather you’re trying to deal with the breadth of society. Designers, in any context, have had to become much more the spider in the web. We have to bring people together, because the job is not only thinking about objects.
Oli What do you think has driven that change?
Ineke Society changed. There has been a thing about the individual in the last twenty years—clients want to have the opportunity to have a very individual choice, which led to customization within design and so forth. Similarly, we had many designers who needed to find their own niche—who found that the old system, where you work with a manufacturer and produce thousands of a single product, didn't work anymore. Therefore, designers started to produce themselves. That’s what we had in the Netherlands with Droog in the 1990s.
Oli The idea of the designer maker.
Ineke We started to produce seriously ourselves—even small factories came out like Piet Hein Eek’s—because if you don't have any clients, you have to do it yourself. The next move was that designers started to move into galleries—another niche. Now—and especially here in London, because there isn’t much space—you have so much interest in service design or systems design. It is a form of design that’s almost on a level where you don't need workshops. So you could look at it as a classic path from the designer-maker, through to the gallery designer, and then onto the systems designer. All of this is still dealing with issues where the core is about solving problems. It is all still design, although the emphasis is on different areas.
Oli Was ist Loos has something of the feeling of a state of the union address about it: in light of that timeline you’ve just set out, what is the state of design and where is it going? Why is now a good time to be taking stock?
Ineke Well, that’s very connected to me. I am bored with the current situation and you could call it a bit of a midlife crisis. It looks like I go through seven-year itches in my career; every couple of years I need to rethink what I’m doing, I think also because our profession is so much about how the world runs. You need to take time to open up from your desk and look out into the world. If I was still designing and thinking in the same way as I was twenty years ago, it would be a disaster. However, more generally, I do think we are at a time when designers have tried a couple of paths: the designer-maker, the gallery designer, the designer without workshops, or the strategist or thinker who doesn't know how to hold a saw. These routes have all been valuable, but they have not brought entirely pleasurable or satisfactory results. So it feels like we really need to think about what our position is.
Oli Is there an existential crisis in the role of the designer? The designer is in some sense a producer: even if not producing themselves, their work certainly contributes to what we produce today. Though we are at a point where—at least ideologically—there is considerable sociological discomfort with ideas of production and consumption.
Ineke I found it very interesting that you mentioned younger generations of designers are perhaps not as interested in furniture and products anymore, because where does that leave us as designers? I have always thought of myself as a “ping-ponger” so to speak. I work towards something, and then I have an urge to reflect on that and think about where I want to go next. I am now getting to a stage in my career where I have an opinion on what I should be doing and what design should be doing. As you mature, you can deal with more complexity in your practice. There was a project that I did in Fogo Island in Canada in 2013, for instance, which was a very big turning point. What I really liked about that project was that it felt like I was making sense because I really worked with the people living on that island. Sometimes as a designer you can feel that you are just making products for a catalogue—it just starts from “let’s make a table,” without anyone ever asking if we need another table.
Oli So why was the Fogo Island project different?
Ineke Fogo is an island in the North of Canada, off the coast of Newfoundland. It has about 2,000 people living there and seven villages. The people there mainly worked in the fishing trade, and the boys were going to school until they were nine years old and then helping their fathers fish. It’s a tough life. Then, in the 1960s, the fishing trade collapsed. It meant that the island began to turn grey, with younger people leaving because there were no opportunities. One woman from that island, Zita Cobb, who first left to attend university in Ottawa, and later sold her company in fiber optics, recognized that there was a problem and used her savings to set up the Shorefast Foundation, which is an enterprise to get businesses back to Fogo Island. People could apply for money for businesses they wanted to start up, and the foundation additionally introduced small artist residencies on the island—creating beautiful little buildings where artists could apply to work and live in the villages. They decided to create an inn and phoned me up to ask if I wanted to design some wooden furniture for it.
Oli How did the project progress?
Ineke I discovered that they had this tradition of old Irish spun wicker furniture on the island, which the people were producing from memory. They didn't have a spinning machine, so all the techniques were passed down by word of mouth, and I wanted to work with that typology and tradition. Due to the way they were used to working, however, I had to adopt a different design approach. So I told the guys where the joints needed to be on the furniture, and a couple of other details, but let them decide on the rest of the design for themselves. What eventually happened, however, is that the guys actually found a copy machine they could use for the spinning, and so they started making everything the same—they were so proud, because they had done a form of industrial production, which I really loved. Now they’re still producing that furniture and selling it. So I thought my position made sense—it was about making something meaningful and not just banging out drawings or products.
Oli That’s a social project and one with a sense of narrative behind it, so how do you find that kind of meaningfulness in a more straightforward industrial project?
Ineke What I find meaningful is that something be used on an everyday basis. I did a product series with Royal VKB, for instance, who gave me the theme of “smart essentials.” Every product I designed for that company—I did a garlic press, a nutcracker, and a couple of other things—was done with that phrase in the back of my mind and it had very much to do with using things on a daily basis. There is as much fun in designing that kind of piece as something more ambitious: people like it; it makes people happy to use; what the hell, it’s a nice functioning product. I was going to say I would have a problem if I was only creating decorative pieces, but I actually like those too. For example, I have a little model donkey who has some firewood or toothpicks on his back in my studio, and I love that kind of stuff. It makes you smile and that’s at least something.
Oli So where does that leave you in regards to understanding function within design? Many studios would want to deemphasize its role from the position of hegemony it enjoyed during much of the twentieth century.
Ineke Let’s be honest, with things like the Wiener Werkstätte and the Bauhaus, we’ve had a century of “isms” in which everyone was trying to nail things down. Of course, I’m a child of that century and maybe you could say that my struggle is having come from a time when we thought everything could be rationalized, and now having realized that things aren’t actually like that. So, consider the chair I’ve designed with Thonet, which is on display in the exhibition. What I really like about that design is that it is not only a chair for Thonet, but it has also been designed specifically for the Kunsthalle Wien. The Kunsthalle initially came to me to ask for seating for one of their public spaces. Then they asked me for an exhibition, and when we talked again about seating it turned out that they actually needed a chair for talks and conferences, I decided to link the project to Thonet and make it a round story as a way of making sense. So there’s this whole story of going back to Vienna, of Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner, and it really is a chair that’s about bringing Thonet back to the city of Vienna. That’s a beautiful story, which gives the design more value. But let’s be honest—an object has to manage on its own without me telling all of these extra stories. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t need these little stories to justify what I am doing.
Oli So what is your relationship to narrative then?
Ineke I love it, but I’m also an admirer of the idea that an object has to survive itself. A couple of years ago I was at a graduate show and there was so much storytelling. You think to yourself, “Come on guys, I'm looking at an object and you're telling me a load of bullshit. If an object doesn't do the job, a story shouldn’t be an excuse for a designer having done a shitty job.” What is most important is that an object holds and can hold without these stories.
Oli How do those ideas play out in the themes you assembled for the exhibition? Because those themes clearly do impose a narrative on the objects displayed within them.
Ineke There are three themes—“Making and Making Sense”, “Dealing with the Digital,” and “Less.” These can then be divided further. “Making,” for instance, is about how we make, while “Making Sense” is the idea of meaning. I tried to look at myself and think about where objects start to make sense or have a meaning, which was very much to do with social engagement or situations where products really serve a use. The themes are a way to group my work and try to clarify how I have been working: how I’ve dealt with these issues in the past, what’s going on now, and where we might be moving to in the future. Those are the narratives I’m working with.
Oli One thing that leaps out straight away is that the “Dealing with the Digital” section is very rooted in physical objects.
Ineke Maybe because I'm coming from a dinosaur age! All of the objects in this section were made in a digital way. Eat Your Heart Out, for instance, was a CNC-routed chair created twenty years ago, back when that was extremely progressive technology. I remember there was a joint in that chair that we just could not get our heads around. The problem was that the router was round and we could not get a straight edge where we needed one. Now we do CNC machining so often that the problem is solved—you use a dog bone joint—but realizing that was a little leap we couldn’t make then. In the end, we just made that particular joint by hand, which made the chair expensive as a result. In spite of that, I still think that chair is one of my favorite pieces. I had just moved back to Holland from London and was obsessed with the idea that furniture had to be easy to ship. I called it Eat Your Heart Out because it could do everything that companies wanted at that time—it could stack, it could ship flat-packed, and it was very economical in terms of the sheet material it was made from. Also, the sheet was laminated blue on one side and white on the other, so that all the pieces could be exchanged and you could end up with sixteen different options for the configuration of the final piece.
Oli It was an early example of customization within an industrial context—a design where the customer had some say in the final outcome?
Ineke Right, although I wasn't thinking about customers at that time, although I had just worked for Habitat as a freelancer for three years. I was thinking about what I wanted to do and I was completely thrilled by the fact that I had a design with one production method, and to which a simple gesture like lamination could be added to create a multiple-choice outcome. Another piece that was very similar, from 2002, was Laser Chair, which was about exploring the new technique of laser cutting. Both Laser Chair and Eat Your Heart Out were fundamentally about cutting shapes out of sheet material in as economical a manner as possible. With Laser Chair, I was interested in building the structure through cutting, as well as the decoration. The laser cutter could exactly allow the “wobbliness” of scissors when cutting figures from a piece of paper, and so the decorative shapes that we cut out could be designed to look very handmade—that chair was about playing a game with something that looks chiseled out by hand but at that time was very technical. Laser Chair looked handmade but you could make twelve chairs in a morning. I love it when there is that kind of rationale behind the scenes—I need that to justify what I’m doing.
Oli But why put those pieces in “Dealing with the Digital” when they could just as easily sit in “Making and Making Sense”?
Ineke It’s about playing with words. “Dealing with the Digital” has to do with all kinds of ways in which the digital impacts design. It has an impact on the type of things that we can design, but it also has an impact on how we have to design for the future and the whole process of design—ordering furniture online for instance. We increasingly want things to be delivered to us differently and I think that will change the appearance of furniture in specific ways. You have companies like Hem being set up around the idea of flat-pack, because people want a sofa to be delivered through their letterbox! Now, Ikea has been doing this for half a century now, although companies are very often still used to sending furniture already completed. No one has really nailed flat-pack yet, but it doesn't mean that it’s not something that isn’t going to affect design. I’ve noticed that a lot of clients I talk to at the moment see shipping and transport as one of their major questions. It’s an opportunity for designers to tackle something serious and to get beyond this idea of just giving form. So if I’m tackling shipping as part of my Sudoku puzzle of design, I have to make sure that a piece of furniture is economical, fits into the parcel, does something socially engaged, and is clever with resources. These are the things I’ve been dealing with in my practice and while they’re not rocket science, they are a part of where I am today. In a way, these are topics for design, but they’re also topics through which you can see shifts in design. Thonet, for instance, was the first mass producer in the world and could deliver very cheap furniture because it was so industrialised—they could fit thirty-six chairs in one cubic meter. Now, Thonet’s steam-bending technique is still vital and you can still use it, but as a designer, I have had to work with it slightly differently for the new chair, because we now have huge competition from CNC machines. Thonet’s handwork has become a process that makes its products expensive.
Oli You’re more interested in the effect of the digital rather than the digital per se?
Ineke Well, it certainly has a big impact on how we work and live. The digital has completely changed the work environment, for instance, in that it has made it much more domestic, more flexible and more mobile. We have become more informal and there are only a few industries left where people still go to work with a tie on. Given my interest in sheet material and digital ways of manufacturing, it’s maybe not such a surprise, then, that I am interested in Opendesk, which is a company working in that area and which looks at changes in the workplace. As part of the exhibition, I’m also showing a desk that I’ve designed with Opendesk, which is specifically dealing with flat-packing and digital production. It’s really about looking at how spaces need to be configured more and more nowadays. If you’re creating a folding desk to suit a more flexible workspace, then that piece of furniture needs to be light, it needs to be small, and it needs to be portable. So the Opendesk design has been created so that all of its components are cut from half of a standard-sized sheet, which I’ve enjoyed puzzling on—laying out the components so I’m using the material as effectively as possible and not leaving leftovers.
Oli What do you think that enjoyment of puzzling on a sheet is about? It’s something you’ve mentioned several times.
Ineke The efficiency. I love that! If I were to fail as a designer, you could still ask me to do these kinds of puzzles. I have to work extremely efficiently on a technical level, but also try to make something beautiful. This idea of working productively with “less” is something that keeps me completely busy and which I cannot get my head around, even though I know it will be very important for the future. We are going to consume less, at least in the Western world. We have less space and less financial security. I also think that many people are becoming bored with having things. What I struggle with, however, is that I am an ambassador of production. I am one of these people who adds.
Oli You worry about being a producer, but not only do you design work for other companies but you also actually self-produce the Ineke Hans Collection. That’s doubling down on production and consumption!
Ineke That collection has existed for twenty years and it comes from a time when I had no clients at all. It was really about me having a chance to show my work and I was one of the first designers who started to show independently. That was twenty years ago when my first presentation was at the Tramshed in London. Actually, only ten people came for that opening; I had paid a boy £10 to play the accordion and he ended up playing for two hours because he thought it was so sad that no one had come. It was really a time when showing in that way was not very common for a designer. Eventually people did start coming to me who were in interested in my Black products, which were a series of pieces made out of recycled plastics. I wasn’t able to get those pieces produced by small companies—they didn’t want plastic shavings getting mixed up in the sawdust that was being produced in their general manufacturing—so I had to cut the plastic myself in my studio using a circular saw. The Ineke Hans Collection grew out of that because it was the only way to make some money. As to why it’s still going, well there are pieces in that collection that still work and which give me some money. Also, I find it extremely difficult to kill my darlings. But I don’t like to do commercial shows with that collection; I’m not like Tom Dixon and I’m not a business person in that way. I find it so hard to do shows because I find it embarrassing to say, “Oh, I designed this and you have to buy it.” The collection is a small thing and I only add something new to it when I have something to say. I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to add a new product every half year.
Oli You find it embarrassing to do shows, but you don’t find staging a monographic exhibition embarrassing?
Ineke That’s different! This exhibition is about my ideas, whereas having a collection is about being drawn back into your history—which, admittedly the exhibition does too. I suppose the main difference is that as soon as you do a commercial show, you have to sell. But the commercial part of my work is the least interesting bit for me. I am quite proud that I have a very slow collection, for instance, and I think it would be fantastic if more companies would do it like that—the problem being that you cannot run a business like that, because the press are so focused on what is new. My collection is really saying “fuck you” to the new.
Oli Why do you think there is this obsession with the new? Is it just the nature of commerce?
Ineke I’m not sure, but design has changed a lot. When I was studying in Arnhem, there was a very good fashion department at the school and we product designers were always making jokes about the fashion designers. If they were making a collection it would just be a case of picking a theme—let’s say “garden gnomes”—and then the whole catwalk would be sorted. We thought the fashion designers were a bit flimsy and frivolous, but what I find very interesting is that design and fashion have swapped places a bit since then. There are many fashion designers who are fed up with being seasonal designers. Meanwhile, product and furniture has moved more towards colourful styling and flimsiness. I’m quite a fan of the route fashion is going down. Maybe you could say that fashion is still fashion—it predicts for us where furniture and product will be in a few years’ time.
Oli What do you want to get out of this exhibition, then? As you’ve said, you’re not expecting to solve the issues that you’re tackling or even necessarily to suggest solutions to them.
Ineke It’s the seven-year itch! I guess it’s necessary to do things like this to organise my brain and to say where I’m at now. This exhibition is just my humble opinion about some things that the world needs. I need to do that every now and then and I dare to be a little bit arrogant to say that every designer needs to do that because we are dealing with this world and we have to respond to it.
Oli That sounds very similar to the motivation behind the salon series you ran in London in 2015 and 2016, which was focused on discussing furniture design and its future. How did you see those salons? Did they feel like a different kind of venture, or something that was of a piece with your wider practice?
Ineke What has been very nice is to have had that year focused on furniture, because in the end I’m a furniture person. Furniture is something that is so close to you and it’s really something that we have to interact with—you interact with it using your whole body. This is a bit of a cliché but architects, for instance, will always look at something in terms of a beautiful space that you can walk through and experience, whereas I’m always bringing things back to the body. What I wanted to look into with the salons was this sense that contemporary furniture has a lot to deal with in terms of increasingly small spaces and the changing interaction between workspaces and living spaces. What I wanted to get clear about was a kind of status quo of furniture, and I also wanted to have a debate between more than just designers, because we tend to look at things from a very limited point of view. So we spoke to manufacturers, to retailers and to critics. I thought it was very important that these opinions were mixed, so that you’re not just a designer shouting from your ivory tower. I hoped that that might lead to some recommendations for moving forward.
Oli Like a manifesto?
Ineke I am a bit hesitant about manifestos, because I think we can never know the whole truth. As soon as you say you have a manifesto, people are like “Oh! There’s someone who has an opinion and we have to take it seriously.” That’s a bit too pretentious. I’m working on the topics in this exhibition because I’m completely convinced that they are important, but to take the step of saying that I am the person who knows best about what to do with them is something I want to leave in the open. I am very much aware that my side of the coin is just one side of it.
Oli But surely, someone might consider this exhibition a manifesto of sorts?
Ineke In a way. Actually, I have to be honest—I am working on some conclusions from the salons. Those conclusions are the reason why I say I’m not sure right now, because it interferes so much with what’s going on with this exhibition. What is extremely important for me, however, and why I’m a bit hesitant about a manifesto, is that a manifesto is very often pointing your finger in the air and saying, “This is wrong, that is wrong and this is wrong too.” I am more interested in what we can do, rather than what we can’t. For designers, the way to show that is through your work and through your objects. I’m not at all into football, but this year Feyenoord won the Dutch league and their motto is “No words but deeds.” This exhibition is about deeds. It’s all very well and good to have lovely conversations, but in the end it’s about what we can do with them.
Oli Do you think the salons have changed the way you design?
Ineke They have made me stricter in saying what I do want to do and what I do not want to do. Up until the last few years I’ve always been so happy when someone asks to work with me that I have tended to say yes. Now I think I only want to do things if they make sense to me as a designer.
Oli How successful do you think that will be? How well do you think design is dealing with some of the issues you’re raising in this exhibition?
Ineke I think there are some designers who are dealing with these issues very well. However, I have some real problems with the rise of design art. Maybe that’s because I started as an artist and made a very conscious decision at one point to switch to design, which had very much to do with the fact that I like to deal with people and their interaction with objects. At the same time, we’ve spoken about how I enjoy narratives and storytelling, and very often that’s what design art is engaged with, so maybe I should be very happy with its rise?
Oli An additional complexity is that the kind of questioning and critique you’re pursuing in this exhibition is something that would lend itself quite readily to a more arts-based practice.
Ineke Ah, that’s interesting. When I was a child I was in Holland, there was a television program for kids. It had a magician in it, and he spent his whole life trying to make a camel out of a strawberry. He could never manage it. So maybe you’re right and I’m actually closer to the art world than I want to be. Maybe my aspirations to discuss these issues through industrial design are like trying to make a camel out of a strawberry!
Oli You seem like a realist about these things, however. You’ve said that you’re under no illusions as to how difficult these issues are, but also that it feels important not to abdicate industrial design from the challenge.
Ineke I am convinced that we have to get to terms with these issues. What I want in everything, however, is a touch of reality and by “reality” I mean more than just function. For me, the person you design for is very important and that’s why I’m not an artist. The big difference between the disciplines is that there is a person involved, who is dealing with these objects in some deep sense. You know, design used to be called applied arts, so I like it when it is somehow applied to reality, although of course you then get on a very slippery slope of personal preferences. What I don’t like are these kind of art projects where it’s just research into a material changing from one color to another. That just pisses me off. I’m too much of a punk and I like a more direct approach. Of course, it’s very important we get our heads around materials, textures and processes, but what’s crucial is how that’s then implemented. I think you have failed as a designer if you can show me a fantastic process, but can’t nail down what you’re going to do with it—how you can apply it? If it’s research, fine, but then be honest that that is what it is. Don’t try to make a fantastic fairytale around it.
Oli That seems to feed into what you have hinted at throughout the discussion – that objects are essential to you and are your medium. Do you think the centrality of the object to design is under threat when you now have practitioners like Nelly Ben Hayoun who are fundamentally not object based. Nelly’s most recent project, for instance, is to found the University of the Underground—a postgraduate degree course.
Ineke I don’t think that objects are the only medium. We’re no longer servants to the industrial process who are just there to spice that process up, but rather we’re people who can take action. We have to make conscious choices. A very big part of design in the coming years is that it’s going to become less tangible and more strategic. That’s why I’m such a big fan of Nelly Ben Hayoun—she’s interested in the political power of designers. I am completely with her, I think what she’s doing is important given that designers have come so far and are now taken so seriously by society. The design profession has grown up but our responsibility is getting higher with that and we need more different voices in the room. My ambition is to be a good voice in the room.
Oli What is your voice? What do you stand for?
Ineke What I would really like to do is to keep design on its feet. I’d like to bring in the reality of everyday life, which sometimes doesn’t correspond to the cloud cuckoo land that designers live in. It’s important that we do that, because in the end that’s what we’re here for. We’re working for reality, so we have to ping-pong with that reality. As designers, let’s innovate and move forward, but communicate in a way that the world understands.