Contemporary Design from the Netherlands

Good design is a timeless concept, exemplified best by an object that is soundly manufactured and beautiful, works efficiently for its purposes, and suggests ideas that transcend its form and function. Beyond these criteria, at various moments in history quality of design has been defined within parameters unique to the time. Ours are times of concern and awareness. Fueled by a spreading preoccupation with the environment and other social and political issues, today's design is valued for its economy, simplicity, and sensibility. Designers have embraced this stimulating intellectual exercise and have begun to produce objects that are durable, reusable, and useful. Contemporary design is less indulgent and flashy than that of the eighties, more experimental in its use of materials, and often inspired by genuine necessity. Still, it sustains elements of surprise and deep intellectual beauty, because it relies more on invention than on the elaboration of styles.

Examples of these trends can be found all over the world, but a group of designers from the Netherlands has in recent years responded to these expectations with a unanimity that merits particular attention. Many of them celebrate ingenuity and economy in their work, transforming these qualities into a coherent minimalist aesthetic. Their objects' apparent modesty has made them emblematic of what political correctness in design should be. Not all of these designers are formally associated with one another. Some belong to separate generations or have attended different schools. Others are officially organized, although these groups are often only nominal, formed in a spirit of strength in unity. Nonetheless, they all share a similar sensitivity. The objects they design are so visually spare as to look "poor"—an illusion reflected neither by the manufacturing process, nor by the retail price. These products, with their recycled pieces and mechanistic compositions, often look industrial, yet in reality they are frequently handcrafted and made in very limited series. These Dutch designers represent the expressionistic and extremist wave of a more general global trend, and an exhibition of their work is a way to address some crucial issues in contemporary design.

In good recent design, ethics are as important as aesthetics. All the objects in this exhibition reflect a strong moralistic attitude. At first glance, individual style appears to be absent. It is as if the designers never felt the need to mark their work with a personal signature beyond the objects' very presence. But understatement is a Northern European inclination that, conversely, becomes a style in itself. In a further ironic twist, this understatement can become almost overstated, as in the elegant poverty and refinement of the eighty-five naked lightbulbs that Rody Graumans clustered in a chandelier, or of the bare table that Djoke de Jong covered with blackboard paint. Most of these works are formally austere but are made playful by their use, like the oil and vinegar bottle and the letter scale by Arnout Visser. Ultimately, their modesty is only on the surface, but it is not coquettishly false.

While it would be easy to relate such severity to the Calvinist culture of the region, a closer examination places this particular current within the broader context of Dutch visual culture. In his excellent essay "Mentalities Instead of Objects," the critic Bart Lootsma positions contemporary Dutch design in continuity with Nieuwe Abstractie (New Abstraction), an interdisciplinary movement of the sixties and seventies. The members of the Nieuwe Abstractie, given its name by the artist and critic Frank Gribling, focused on the attempt to "objectivize the creative process," and continued the study of rhythm and repetition in the tradition of De Stijl.

In Lootsma's words:

The influence of Nieuwe Abstractie on the visual culture of the Netherlands would be hard to overestimate. Its propensity to objectivization meant that the ideas of Nieuwe Abstractie were exceptionally well suited to bureaucratic arrangements such as subsidies and "percentage art" (art commissioned under a scheme that earmarked one percent of the budget of any public building project), and to the formulation of art college curricula. Its ability to cross disciplinary boundaries made it perfect for designing house styles. Abstraction accorded with the Dutch tradition of a country shaped largely artificially under the engineer's aesthetic, and its implicit references to the utopian programmes of the Bauhaus and De Stijl made it ideal for a country in the formative days of social-democracy. State corporations (as they then were) such as the PTT, the Dutch railways, and the Nederlandsche Bank adopted the style avidly.1

And while Lootsma sees this scheme slowly being eroded in most visual arts, he recognizes its persistence in Dutch product design.

Renowned jewelry designer Gijs Bakker was one of the New Abstraction artists. Together with design critic Renny Ramakers, he initiated what has become another cultural phenomenon—Droog Design, or "Dry Design." It began in 1993 with a collective exhibition at the Furniture Fair of Milan, in which Bakker and Ramakers grouped a number of talents who all shared the same essential, minimalist approach to design. "More a loose federation than an aesthetically coherent group," as John Thackara puts it,2 Droog Design's visual statement had the strength of a manifesto. It was the right thing at the right time, demonstrating yet again the exemplary resourcefulness of Dutch design. Many of the objects in the present exhibition were introduced in the collection that carries the Dry Design label. They are quirky, smart, simple, and at times pungent, like Richard Hutten's Crossing Italy I couch. Droog Design was celebrated by the press worldwide, and the objects have been in unexpected demand. To use Lootsma's words out of context, "Nieuwe Abstractie was always hard to criticize," because it was so abstract as to be beyond good and evil. And so seemed to be Droog Design. Still, this new abstraction has been the object of both praise and criticism, from inside and from outside its own circle. Droog Design is an open system which has changed many times since 1993. Designers and objects shift in and out of the collection, polemics arise, and the experimentation continues.

While the Voorburg-based company DMD (Development, Manufacturing, Distribution) manufactured several of the pieces in the Droog Design collection, many are still fabricated by the designers themselves. This is another distinguishing characteristic of Dutch design, and one which has generated at least one other spontaneous grouping, called Kobe (Gate to Heaven) after promoter Esther Wollheim's one-time trip to Japan. Kobe, which declares itself a "movement," shares some of its members, like Tejo Remy and Hugo Timmermans, with Droog Design. It is a reaction against the "producers" and their power to decide on the basis of marketing calculations which objects will be manufactured. Once again, the idealism of such an intellectual and political position highlights a worldwide trend.

Contemporary design employs an intriguing combination of high and low technologies. The most innovative materials range from soil and carbon fibers to advanced ceramics and reused milk bottles. Interestingly enough, both categories of materials call for a craftlike attitude. Experimentation requires a hands-on approach, and the flexibility and novelty of contemporary materials and manufacturing methods has stimulated the exploration of numerous possibilities. Traditionally, after the experimental phase is completed, a big industry should take over the production of a series. This is typically every designer's dream. It is fascinating to think of the designers of Kobe as disinterested, detached, pure. Few of the objects in the show are commercially competitive on the worldwide market, although the Netherlands is also a country of giant corporations of international reputation.

When compared with the larger picture of design in the Netherlands, this selection of objects appears isolated. Only some Dutch architecture is so subtle and understated. Dutch fashion is often aggressively iconoclastic and has embraced the deconstruction of traditional aesthetics that has been celebrated by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Graphic design in the Netherlands is often light years away from the essentialism of De Stijl, as is multimedia design. The jurors of the Rotterdam Design Prize, which was established in 1993 and which considers all design categories at once, have been fighting more over aesthetic philosophies than over the real meaning of the nominated objects. The objects chosen for this exhibition do not represent the whole panorama of Dutch design, which is also rich with vibrant postmodern realizations and with sophisticated industrial products. Among the many objects manufactured in the Netherlands during the past ten years, on display are only some of those that manifest the minimalist and economical attitude toward design so evocative of current ideas. This exhibition is not, therefore, conceived to size up industrial design, but rather to celebrate the ideas at the basis of the contemporary design attitude.

Paola Antonelli
Associate Curator
Department of Architecture and Design


1. Bart Lootsma, "Mentalities Instead of Objects," in Lootsma, G. Staal, C. de Baan, eds., Mentalitäten. Niederlandisches Design; catalogue of exhibition at Securitas Galerie, Bremen, Germany, November 7, 1995, through January 8, 1996.

2. John Thackara, "Droog Design," I.D. Magazine, January/February 1996, p. 54.

This exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from The Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam. Additional support has been provided by The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art.

©1997 The Museum of Modern Art, New York