Tord Boontje on leaving the RCA


27 June 2013

Last week Tord Boontje announced that he is stepping down from his role as head of the Design Products course at the Royal College of Art after a four-year tenure. Now, he talks to Disegno about the reasons behind his departure.

The announcement of Boontje's decision coincided with the opening of the RCA's annual graduate show and his resignation will take effect from the end of September. Boontje assumed his role at the school in 2009, succeeding the designer Ron Arad who had held the position for 12 years.

Below, Boontje reflects on his time at the RCA, explains his fascination with new forms of education, and discusses the effect that changes in government funding have had on the institution, the courses and the students.

When the announcement of your departure was made, you cited the pressures of combining your RCA responsibilities with your own studio work. Did you anticipate those pressures when you joined?
Yes, but it’s been more than what I anticipated. I knew it would be difficult because I’d seen with Ron that it wasn’t easy to do both and I had anticipated that it would be like doing two full-time jobs at the same time.

But things changed very quickly after I arrived here because of the recession, then the new government increasing the fees enormously and reducing college funding. The college had to find other ways of generating funding, which meant taking on more students. All this changed the reality of being here a lot. That I’m disappointed about. But that’s not something that was my choice or in my control.

How did you balance your time, did you have a plan when you accepted the role?

I planned to be here three days a week in the first year and then after that, two days a week. And I’ve stuck by that, which I’m very pleased about. When I started here I was moving back from France to London. So, there wasn’t much project work going on in the studio for the first year, which allowed me to focus on the Design Products role. And then in subsequent years I started to take on more work in the studio, which took up more time. But the division was always quite clear, although I couldn’t just leave the RCA and go to my studio and immediately be creative. It takes maybe a few hours to really acclimatise.

What was your vision for the department's direction when you joined?

Well, partly to maintain a very high level of creativity, and individuality, which I think is very important for a very diverse way of looking at design. But I also had a strong feeling I wanted to make the content of the course more issue-based; dealing with real issues that are happening in the real world. So, what are the social issues, or production issues, or environmental issues? Really looking at design for the real world.

So, have you managed to implement that change during your tenure?

I think so. In the first year I introduced this kind of debating tool here that I called the "three strands" or "three subjects", which were extreme functionality, the social manifesto and the fantastic. These are tools to analyse and talk about design. They also describe and engage with the functionality of design. The aim is to not only see it as a luxury of the western world but as a global activity that includes people. And also as a fantastic art form, a very highly cultured arena to work in. This definitely had a lot of impact and has been absorbed by the student. Before there was more of a “design for a gallery” culture in place. And I think that kind of shifted to more functional work, more social work for sure. Less gallery obsessed.

When I came here I don’t think we dealt very well with pure industrial design or product design whereas I think now the course is very engaged in those areas. Platform 14 is very much dealing with industrial design and Platform 17 is very concerned with consumer electronics. So I think that old-fashioned industrial design production is definitely back within the course very strongly.

Is that aspect of your tenure what you’re most proud of?

And to have been able to create a very creative environment here. On the one hand it’s very sheltered for the students, so they feel completely free and able to experiment and take risk, and on the other hand ensuring they engage with the real world, real manufacturers, real clients, outside of college as well. To have a sense of realism. I think that balance is really good. I think that’s something I can be proud of.

But four years seems a relatively short tenure in academia.
No I think its quite long! No, I think if you are practicing design or art as a professional and then alongside that you also teach - then actually it’s a very good amount of time. And it’s also, I think, good to have change. You could say, “well do you really want to have somebody who comes in here and stays for 20 years?” It might get stale. I think it’s very good to have change. I mean change is an enormous part of creativity, its necessary. I’ve always said that I would do this for four or five years. It’s been four very intensive years.

What would you like your legacy to be?

Well “legacy” is not right way of looking at things. It’s too serious. The best way to look at it is to see what the students think about this time, because that’s why we are here. And if they had a really good time at RCA, and if those 2 years they spent here could help them to go forward maybe 20 years then that’s a great thing.

How does the RCA currently compare to rival schools like Design Academy Eindhoven or ECAL?

Well, it’s always quite a difficult comparison to make. It’s interesting because those are probably the most comparable institutions, but Eindhoven is mainly BA course with a small MA, whereas this is only MA. So you would say Eindhoven is much more about learning how to design, and the method of designing. Whereas here we hardly deal with that at all, it’s more about why we design. The people we take in are already very good designers. It’s much more about allowing them to develop and really become their own personalities. People are really able to think about their own interests, and understand their own creative process, through their own method of working and thinking approach.

You’ve expressed an interest in exploring new forms of education, could you elaborate on why you are fascinated by things like massive online open courses (MOOCs)?
I was at an artificial intelligence course not long ago and about 160,000 people subscribed to it. It’s amazing. I think MOOCs are really interesting. That’s one of the things that this increase in fees has generated, this whole “looking at alternative ways of education.” I think education is very important, I feel very lucky that I had a very good education, I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t had that.

How do you see institutions like the RCA adapting to new forms of education like MOOCs?
I think they are adapting fairly badly. There is a lot of benefit of sitting all together in one sort of studio. That kind of chaos, having so many creative people around you, all from different backgrounds is very, very, nurturing, fruitful, productive, inspiring. I think there will always be a place for that in education. But it’s not the only way of getting a really good education.

So do you think the college needs to change or adapt?

It would be very nice if the college could share the experience here with a much larger group of people. But, I mean, it’s easier with very direct knowledge transfer courses such as a language or engineering. That’s what MOOCs courses work really well with. I think creativity doesn’t translate so well. I can set a brief on the Internet but I can’t really give everybody feedback on their projects. It just becomes too big and the scale doesn’t translate. But then, say, interactive masterclasses, they work very well for.

So I can imagine if you’re a young designer now, if you finish an undergraduate course, instead of putting all your money into doing one Masters course at one institution, you might also want to travel around. Use some of the time to do your own experimental projects, do some masterclasses, and I think that becomes a more and more viable option to look at for education. It would work very well, say, as a supportive aspect. So maybe for reading, history of design, for example, or some basic engineering knowledge. That would work, that would translate.

What challenges is your successor likely to face?

Recruitment is a big challenge. We have already seen that the number of UK applicants has really gone down compared to, say, three years ago. So we will now see the impact of much higher fees for UK students and I think that’s a real issue, which needs to be dealt with. A lot of this comes down to restructuring things, but there is also an underlying tendency within design schools to focus more on the engineering side of design, because there’s more government funding available for that. I think its very important that the cultural side of design has equal value within that. A challenge will be to really champion the creativity of design and the cultural side of design.

Will you play any role in identifying your successor?

No, and I think that’s quite good that it’s left open. I don’t think it would be right for me to have anything to say about it. You are either here or you’re not.