Mad Dutch Disease

Summer 2003. Dingeman Kuilman, then head of the Premsela Institute in Amsterdam, invites me to give the first in what would become an annual lecture series. The idea is to have foreigners comment on the state of so-called Dutch design from some distant perch. A regular visitorto Holland, I have been a visiting critic at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht for many years but I am hesitant to claim any special insight into the national character. I am especially tentative when Dingeman announces that the exclusive audience for this talk will be stacked with many of the very subjects I would be dissecting.

After a long period of procrastination I decide the only way I can attack my assignment is to refocus from Holland to America. The neo-liberal privatization debate is in full escalation: the government postal service PTT is swallowed by the private company TNT, Air France absorbs KLM. So the qualities that made Holland so special — to my starry eyes — are increasingly Americanized. There is a concomitant explosion of so-called Dutch Design — at least in stylistic terms — worldwide. I am curious about the simultaneity of these two trends and wonder if they could be conflated.

Fall 2012. I now see many of the predictions I made here were wildly inappropriate. I don’t mind; that was the point. Others, however, proved to be if not prescient, at least accurate. Dutch Design is a global phenomenon. Quintessentially Dutch designer Hella Jongerius is redesigning the interior of KLM’s business-class cabin to re-inscribe its Dutchness. Museums in China sponsor fullscale exhibitions of Dutch Design as instruction to the emerging design community. Development at Ground Zero creeps forward. And the privatization wave has radically transformed the social landscape.


Some caveats to start:

I am an American and everyone knows Americans are self-obsessed.

I am a designer — linguist Roman Jakobson famously quipped that asking a writer about literature was like asking an elephant about zoology — so I am inherently unqualified to talk about design.

I am not a theorist even when I sound like one. I have tried to keep this talk as jargon-free as possible. A few times, however, I accidentally fall into it. It’s an affliction.

I am not an expert on Dutchness: an amateur, an interested observer, an enthusiast even, but no expert. Much of what I put forth will be naĩve and oversimplified. My examples will seem obvious, canonical, irrelevant or clichéd. They will represent the oddities, not the norms, of Dutch design. I not immersed in enough work to speak with real nuance. But that’s part of the point, isn’t it, to hear the view from afar?

I come from a big, messy country. We have plenty of land so we are thrilled to waste it. When we get sick of something, we simply move on to something, or somewhere, else. At the same time, we are obsessed with the idea that our government is wasting our hard-earned cash. So while politicians like to appropriate money they hate to use it in ways that look too fancy.

In your country this is public infrastructure.

In my country we settle for more modest solutions.

When our government had to come up with a design solution for a possible terrorist attack, their advice was duct tape and plastic sheeting. So what right do I have to criticize? In fact this is not criticism. This is a love song.

It is as much about America as it is about Holland, and perhaps as Holland becomes increasingly Americanized — read: privatized — it is a kind of cautionary tale as well.


Maybe we just got bored somewhere along the way. Maybe we just started to believe in our own irrelevance. Or maybe, after years of trying to get people to like what we do, we just gave up our attempts to win friends and influence people and retreated into our little private club where we know everyone and everyone knows us. But, whatever the reason, somewhere along the line we just stopped trying to really change anything and we settled for simply changing DESIGN itself.

I call the convoluted, challenging, intelligent, difficult, self-reflexive, coy, clever, often staggeringly beautiful work that results from this exhaustion Dutch Design. Dutch Design is not restricted to work generated in the Netherlands; I consider Dutch Design a category, a type of work, or even a brand, that could, theoretically, occur anywhere at any time.


Dutch Design’s natural habitat is the Netherlands because of its special environmental features — a culture that understands design, a well organized design profession, a rich design history, a wealth of well-educated design students — and because so much money is injected into the system to support design experimentation. (In America the high-tech bubble created a brief moment conducive to such work.) But any work that demonstrates the peculiar combination of irony, self-deprecation and thinly veiled egoism can earn the title of Dutch Design.

There are several key themes to follow: the rise of branding, the decline of nationalism and the public realm, and an emerging form of overt authorship; and some broad shifts, from public to private, from large ambition to small concerns, from optimism to irony. The form, however, will be blurry. What follows are the briefs for ten potential lectures on my own misreading of contemporary Dutch Design.


My first visit to Holland as an adult was in 1984. I distinctly remember thinking that this was what my design professors were talking about. Good, modern design was everywhere. Signs had real typography. Bright yellow, orange and green were actually used by serious companies. Public buildings were challenging. Holland seemed like a designer’s dream. I think we American designers are fascinated by Holland because real design actually seems to get built here. You don’t know how novel this is for us (especially when the work is commissioned by the government).

To plan and build a country using design as a key instrument is unfathomable to us. When we see a picture like this, the condition and the opportunity are completely foreign.

Wait, scratch that. We are now dealing with a Dutch project, Ground Zero, and the process is a fiasco.

For whatever reason — maybe our country is just too big or our culture too eclectic — we have never really believed in the notion of planning. In America, consensus is for wimps. Individualism and raw power rule. “Action is typical of American style,” wrote Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, “thought and planning are not.” (I realize you may see this consensus culture as problematic, but in America it is cited, continuously, as an unattainable utopia.)

Our commitment to private over public represents a vast difference between the ways we view the issue of design. To understand that difference, you must realize that in America, design is always considered suspect: effete, luxurious, intellectual. America tends to be a deeply anti-intellectual, anti-aesthetic place. So if our government builds something, it must look as awful and as cheap as possible, signifying that 1. precious tax dollars weren’t wasted on it and 2. no fatuous egghead “concepts” were passed off on an unwitting public. We have no tradition of aesthetic functionalism. We are suspicious of modernity. Modern smells expensive

From the outside, the situation in Holland seems to be the opposite. While it’s almost impossible to get a real number, by my crude estimate various Dutch governmental agencies dole out tens of millions of euros per year to architecture and design foundations. That’s for a country with roughly the population of greater New York City. Some percentage of that money supports contemporary, experimental design work. In 2000, the U.S. government granted a whopping $400,000 in design grants for a country of about 280,000,000 people.

In contrast, the 2003 defense budget was about $355,000,000,000. Of course, some of that could be seen as a kind of design subsidy — it’s just that the designers tend to be Boeing and Lockheed Martin and the experimental projects tend to be jetpropelled. The point is that Holland uses subsidy to support projects overlooked by the market; America subsidizes the market.

That official sanction of Design as a valid, vital cultural activity seems to create an atmosphere here wherein designers actually consider themselves valid, vital contributors to culture. This is not always the case in America, where designers tend to be much more insecure about our professional value. A fully privatized market simply will not support the kind of design culture that exists in Holland. (The dissolution of the PTT’s art and design department may prove that this is increasingly the case here as well.) Maybe the designer is less valued as a business asset than as a cultural asset.

And all that subsidy and support has had an effect — maybe not a direct financial effect — but a psychological one. When I scan a Dutch cityscape, or a poster kiosk or magazine rack, the array of designed infrastructure is staggering: stations, government buildings, museums, urban planning, conferences, institutes, festivals. But, I wonder, what is the function of all these elaborate or exotic designs to the state that promotes them? I suppose when something is so obviously designed it suggests a social democratic commitment to culture, to the life of the nation. An exotic building or an unconventional book or a loco logo says: We’re a good government! We invest in culture! We’re daring and creative! We care about our people!

In Holland it seems that any object, be it a building, a bus or a bottle, must clearly be designed — colorful, oddly shaped, or of unexpectedly material, absurdly dysfunctional, surprisingly mundane — to suggest that the government and the major corporations are progressive and committed to cultural improvement. In America, if something challenging is designed, it says: “Your government wasted YOUR hard-earned money on something as frivolous as this.” In America color is waste.

The Dutch landscape is littered with fragments of contemporary international design, indexical signs of an engaged, thoughtful, benevolent state and corporate governance. This fragmentation may be aggravated by the current tendency to break up big projects into small commissions, encouraging young designers to make a name for themselves through some especially innovative design.


Strange buildings either crash-land in empty fields or get crammed together in conglomerations of urban renewal. So much Design in one place creates an aggregation of exacerbated difference. I wonder now, after a twenty-year ejaculation of making, whether individual design doesn’t need to signify anything anymore; it simply needs to look different from other designs. In that way, design shifts from ideology to a kind of branding strategy and enters its fully linguistic state. The Dutch city becomes a Vegas version of a Dutch city with its myriad contemporary “attractions.” It’s Holland as International Design Theme Park.


So all that government incentive, corporate investment and cheap design education has paid off. Over the past two decades, Dutch Design has become simultaneously hot and cool. (Hot as in popular, cool in that it doesn’t seem to try very hard or care too much.) What was once a local take on modernism has grown into a global brand.


But how did design become so central to the image of Holland? The cliché is that Holland is manufactured territory, that the construction of dykes and polders and the reclamation of land suggest a kind of artificiality underlying the Dutch psyche, that the landscape itself is the great design project of Holland. I’ll spare you that well-worn story. My question is not nearly so profound. I am simply curious about the idea of identity and the way designers construct it.

I love this picture:


Here’s a group of hardworking young men planning the overthrow of the Dutch aesthetic landscape. Their generation would take on all the major efforts of visual reconstruction: the airport, the telephone and postal systems, the rail and highway system. With that much money, time, effort and talent thrown into design, is it any wonder so much was done? The name they chose for themselves speaks volumes: Total Design. It could be a philosophy for the nation.

That first wave of Dutch corporate identity in the ’50s and ’60s may have been a knock-off of the work being developed in Germany and Switzerland at that time. Total Design loved Gerstner and Müller-Brockmann’s hyper Swiss-German rationalism. But an increasingly Dutch form of identity found its way into all sorts of designed objects: stamps, posters, trains, money, buildings, ships, highways, and airports. And in Holland, more than anywhere else, much to our envy, corporate and government commissioners would actually choose good design over bad.

It seemed like everything in the postwar Netherlands was being rethought. The process of identity design, with its emphasis on analysis, was one more type of rethinking. If there was any question that Holland was a progressive, modern state, the proof was everywhere: pull out some money, lick a stamp or pick up a phone. The Dutch remade modernism in a more eclectic, more tolerant version. Dutch design not so much Swiss-lite as Swiss +.

The branding of Holland seemed to be overlaid with other, unassailable values: efficiency, legibility, economy and beauty. At least in the ’60s these values were still discussed seriously; there appeared to be an honest belief that the injection of design into the built environment would make it a better place. So, like the social democratic politician demanding that the building be a good building, public-information work demanded good design — which was usually interpreted to mean, more or less, Total Design modernism. And this form of rational functionalism became the standard of design education as well.

Somehow the heads of Dutch corporations and Dutch government agencies embraced the notion of not only the value of modern design but also the promotion of Dutch talent through commissions. Certain things are possible in a state where the money looks like this:

or this:

If the most staid organization of any state, the central bank, is sponsoring design like that, what is left to rebel against? In America we still feel it’s our duty to try to inject good design into the fabric of a culture that is generally resistant to it. In Holland that cultural fabric is saturated, and it’s a small country. But are all big projects done? Is Holland a country where EVERYTHING is already designed?


The answer, of course, is yes and no, and, at least in the late ’60s, the thing to rebel against was Total Design’s totalizing effect. In trying to understand the Dutch work I find interesting now, I keep going back to the oft-cited debate between Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn in November 1972.

I realize this debate has been mythologized to the point of canonical sheen but, on the surface at least, the opponents seem to represent the extremes of an irreducible contradiction that still undergirds Dutch design. Perhaps the flow of history, however, has slowly reunited them.

The much-touted contrast between van Toorn’s design for the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and Crouwel’s work for the Stedelijk Museum seems not nearly so pronounced in the branding era. Crouwel seemed to argue for a seamless, rational rendering of information — the designer as information channel, the perfect expression of the “new objectivity.” (His position in America was mirrored by the likes of Rand and Vignelli.) Van Toorn, on the other hand, argued for the designer as editorial shaper, the one who adds content to content. Van Toorn sees the designer’s role as political commentator, even preaching “hindrance” rather than clarity. In van Toorn’s view, the designer accepts his distorting role and uses it to forward a specific social agenda.

But what we have learned in the meantime is that 1. neutrality is a myth or, at least, a brand message in itself, and 2. hindrance and dissent as a method can also become a brand device. So van Toorn’s claim of eliminating of house style while working with Jean Leering at the Van Abbemuseum is as much a house style (no style as house style) as Crouwel’s work for the Stedelijk (which relied on one master grid for every piece of communication). Each institution used the figure of the designer, or his purported absence, as an aesthetic expression in itself. By injecting van Toorn and his wellknown political agenda into the message of the work, the designer himself becomes a kind of authorial presence, an emblem for the client. But despite their aesthetic, methodological and political differences, both Crouwel and van Toorn end up coming off as humanists. Both are working at the so-called makeable society: one from the position of efficiency, modernization and objectification; the other from the position of agitation, dialectic and the enlightenment of the masses. So Jan and Wim end up not in opposition but as two sides of the same Dutch coin. Both assume a patriarchal belief in their role as guardians of culture. (You rarely miss an underlying rhetoric of social value, no matter where you scratch the surface of Dutch design.)

The ideology of a dominant culture consumes all discourse contained within it, including the discourse of resistance. So their difference now, in the age of what Max Kisman has dubbed the “style of styles,” seems to be primarily formal. This disintegration of distinction does not in any way lessen the real ideological differences between the two men in 1972, but instead demonstrates the way in which the visual expressions of ideology have been absorbed into one master system that strips the meaning of all aesthetic gestures and reduces them to easily exchanged visual clichés. (See, for instance, Experimental Jetset’s ideology-free regurgitation of Crouwel’s work. It’s not accidental that the political power of the original work has been replaced by a history of conflicted dramatic “personalities.”)


Speaking of personalities… For Americans the ideological debates of the ’60s and ’70s were more or less invisible. We had our own conflicted relationship with Switzerland to work out. True, Dutchification crept into our consciousness much later, and this “tagging” of official agencies was profoundly affected by one figure: Gert Dumbar.


While we were following Jan van Toorn, Karel Martens, Anthon Beeke and later studios like Wild Plakken and Hard Werken throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, this one designer — through his burgeoning studio stocked with legions of stagiaires — seemed to impress his subjectivity on every aspect of Dutch culture. For most of the rest of the world, Dutch graphic design in the ’80s became synonymous with Dumbar Design.

Dumbar seemed to impose a kind of irrational exuberance on the staid institutions of Dutch culture: the post office, the railway, the police station. Dumbar neatly synthesized the two competing strains of Dutchness: the systematic and the wonky. And he seemed to be able to sell his institutionalized wonkiness to even the most conservative commissioners. (As outsiders, we secretly couldn’t believe any self-respecting country would allow their government officials to wear such outlandish outfits.)


By 1995, Chris Vermaas, capturing this sensibility, warned that the continued application of Dumbarism to the organs of the state threatened to turn Holland into a LegoLand:

“The Dutch policeman seems attached to his motorbike sitting on one big plastic peg and has a head that can spin around 360 degrees and come off in one piece.”



Working from a palette of tried-andtrue elements — brightness, offkilteredness, geometric abstraction, angularity — Dumbarism became a kind of brand in itself that could be applied to anything, anywhere. Rather than an expression of a client’s values, Dumbarism became a value in itself. (Critics complained that he supplied visuals for companies without their own story to tell.) To associate with Studio Dumbar meant adopting certain values suggested by Dumbar’s own mythmaking apparatus: basically a systematic modernist approach to corporate identity peppered with a sprinkling of playful design elements. This approach allowed conservative, often privatizing clients to have it both ways: Dumbar seemed to promise both efficiency and individuality or freedom.


(As an aside, that double-sided rhetoric also served Dumbar’s ends: the studio’s ubiquitously published “wild” ’80s design that captured the attention of the world was underwritten by conventional corporate-identity work, much to the chagrin of the legions of Cranbrook and RCA interns drawn by the studio’s public image only to find themselves composing corporate-identity manuals for a bank or an insurance company.)

The effect of Dumbarism and the frenzy of identity designing during the ’80s and ’90s seemed to make Holland one continuous sea of logos. Everything was done. Everything was styled. The country took on a quality of a Gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art and design. Like some Art Nouveau dream, every surface of the country was fondled. It recalls Adolf Loos’ description of the bourgeois gentleman subjected to the all-consuming design of his Art Nouveau environment:

“The happy man suddenly felt deeply, deeply unhappy… He was shut out of future life and its striving, its developments, and its desires. He felt: Now is the time to learn to walk about with one’s own corpse. Indeed! He is finished. He is complete!”

Are young graphic designers living with the corpse of their parents’ Dutch design? Did Dumbar finish it off with terminal, nationwide overdesign? If not, what is left? Is there any room left for the Dutch design imagination?


During the ascendancy of Dumbarism and Dutch Design as an international brand, the country itself was getting harder to find. Branding is a late-cycle phenomenon, the next step once the thing itself is no longer enough. When the consumer needs added impetus to choose one more or less equivalent product over another, the package becomes almost as critical as the product. Does a thinning Holland need an ever more robust package? Is there a relationship between the rise of branding and the disappearance of a nation?

Like countries everywhere, Holland is under intense pressure. The contemporary nation is stretched, as Mark Jayne wrote in Cities and Consumption, by the “domination of information, media, and signs, the desegregation of social structure into lifestyles; the general priority of consumption over production in everyday life.”

What is Dutch anymore anyway? Clearly the meaning is changing. (The conservatives resort to the sly phrase “Dutch values” to disguise an overt nationalist/racist appeal.) The demographics are brutal. The timehonored story of the battle between Catholic and Protestant is dissolving fast. What percentage of the country is Muslim? Who can speak Dutch and who can’t? While no one was looking, Holland became a porous concept.


The famous emblems of Dutchness dissolve through merger and hostile takeover. The money first, then the post, then what? As production fades, Holland transforms into BeNeLux or MainPort: Europe’s airport, seaport and warehouse land (with its own special logo).


It’s the country as conduit. All that Delta Project territory to create land to store and move someone else’s things that are headed somewhere else. There is a shift from commodity to experience. Everything — time, space, services as well as goods — becomes branded.

Some products are so inextricably linked to their nation they take on a quasi-public role. But a subtle but profound shift happens when major cultural figures privatize. Air France swallows KLM, although the deal is couched to make it seem like an equal marriage.


PTT becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of TNT, based in Australia of all places. These great public institutions, flagships of the nation, become profit-driven corporations, subsidiaries of international conglomerates. What once was an expression of Dutch pride — PTT showcasing the best of Holland in the design of the stamps and phone cards, for instance, or KLM with their slow motion swans and painfully matter-of-fact blue-suited flight attendants — either simply disappears or flips to clichés of Dutchness, turned back on the nation as marketing tools. The public institution represents the state; the private one attempts to represent the taste and lifestyle of its own market. It’s the McKroket strategy

Multinational McDonald’s customizes its internationally consistent commodity to appeal to vernacular tastes. The McKroket is McDonald’s going Dutch. The privatized standard-bearers of the Dutch culture repackage the emblems of Dutchness as a branding strategy to maintain the loyalty of their consumers (the contemporary word for citizens). So Dutchness, and Dutch Design, become tools for globalized, capitalist corporations to market to the Dutch audience. Dutch design as branding tool and constructed signifier of Dutch values becomes as quaint and charming as windmills and tulips.

At this moment of deep internal ambivalence, the nation is embarking on a major initiative, building signature embassies in world capitals. Once content with low-profile generic office space, Holland now uses embassy design to make an international show of strength, to shore up the Dutch Brand. (Branding is the last grasp of the desperate.) Whatever is happening at home, Holland keeps up appearances. The embassy project is pure boosterism, reassuring yourselves and the rest of the world that you are still here, and you still matter.


I began by discussing the progression from an optimistic design culture, ready and willing to engage in the major challenges of rebuilding Holland, to a hyper-design state with increasingly less room to maneuver. Now I want to look closely at contemporary reactions to the state and the concomitant rise in the desire for self-expression.

To explore that shift from public to private a little further, I turn to two big Dutch books: Wim Crouwel and Jolijn van de Wouw’s PTT telephone book of 1977 and Irma Boom’s commemorative book for the SHV corporation of 1999.

Specifically, I am curious about the relationship between the designer and the work in two settings: the utterly public and the obsessively private.

The telephone book may be the ultimate utilitarian object: it is both open to, and includes, everybody. Its function is clearly stated and simply tested. The social contract between the designer and the public is clear and simple — I need to find a name, the number needs to be legible. The designer has a responsibility of clarity, legibility and efficient production. Nobody wants personality or parody in a phonebook. So far, so good. This fits comfortably into the definition of Graphic Designer as problem solver, scientist of information.

But despite claims to the contrary, the phonebook is an expression of a kind of ideology, a belief that it is good for the public to read a certain way, a typographic aestheticism disguised as altruism. Under the cover of neutrality, the designer asserts his position. For instance, Crouwel uses the limited character set of phototypesetting to justify an all-lower-case alphabet, a long-time dream of modernist designers who saw different upper- and lower-case letterforms as an untenable illogic.

Then how do we make sense of Irma Boom’s role with SHV corporation (for whom Crouwel’s Total Design had created the original house style in 1965)? The Director of SHV commissioned Holland’s most celebrated book designer to create a special volume commemorating the centennial of the company. Working for over five years, without specific or designated content, Boom shapes a narrative out of raw data, documents and found objects. She authors by collage. The meaning, then, is not a product of words alone (or words at all) but of selection, page sequence and image cropping, the essential devices of design.

Boom’s big book is fundamentally a different genre from Crouwel’s big book, and the role defined for the designer is so antithetical as almost to demand a different title. The SHV book is a project for one man, representing all the power of his corporation, produced in a hyperlimited edition. (In typical Dutch pseudo-modesty, the extravagant display of conspicuous consumption is hidden from view by limited distribution.) The book makes the signature of the designer part of its branding strategy. The book says: we are an enlightened company, we are rich, we are cultured, and we know the value of Irma Boom. The corporation uses its association with her unassailable brilliance to advance its own image.

The difference between the two books, I think, is the difference between a hyper-Dutch and a hyper American project. The two books represent the move from the public to the private. In both cases, the association with the designer has meaning. Crouwel disappears in the phonebook; the PTT makes an overt commitment to Modernity through a connection to Total Design. SHV licenses Boom’s aura and Boom grafts her identity onto the content of the SHV book. (In an interview, Crouwel opined that a recent Boom book on Otto Treumann was “in fact a book about her, not Otto Treumann.”) A book that large and complex, with every page shaped by one person, becomes a kind of autobiography. Boom is a constant, ghostly presence. It’s not JUST a big book. It’s an Irma Boom book. The designer, as author, supplies brand value or celebrity endorsement.


I’ll get back to that trend, where the designer makes a guest appearance in the work. But I actually think those cases of the overt reference of author/designer are anomalies. Holland poses a special condition and the Dutch designer has a conflicted relationship with the idea of authorship (in the same way the Dutch seem to have issues with ambition and authority.) There’s the divided lust for expression on one side, and moral rectitude and modesty on the other, both of which seem to generate a range of singular behaviors.

To assuage, or at least to mask, the ambition and ego necessary to build the figure of the author, the Dutch designer positions him/herself not as originator, but as one who marshals undeniable economic, legal, textual, demographic and civic forces and follows them to their irrefutable conclusion. By this technique, the designer eschews celebrity, feigns anonymity, and assumes the role of systems manager.

This bifurcated relationship — dividing the desire to express from the drive for reason — is already present in Crouwel’s description of a rational design process: “The content determines the form, the typeface, the format, the cover, the binding. Every assignment can be divided into several factors, which are all interrelated. With each commission, as it were, you have to plot those factors along a horizontal and vertical axis, stretch out a string and then see where it takes you”(1961). The image of the matrix is brutal; its findings, absolute. Notice the passivity, the submission to the data. You wait to see where the data take you. His experiments in type design test the same formula. He sets up the system but then slavishly follows it to some logical conclusion.


This matter-of-fact, hyper-pragmatism,surrendering to the omnipotent effect of the diagram is present in all manner of Dutch work. Perhaps the strategy derives from a natural reaction to a country in which every centimeter is regulated by preordained rules. But the buildings of architects like MVRDV, and their attendant documentation and reliance on so-called Datascapes, stretch Dutch rationalismto absurd, even parodic results. Research and analysis form a diagram and a diagram derives a building. The designers are represented as bystanders or objective scientists watching with grim satisfaction as their convoluted theories give rise to even more convoluted forms.


See also Koolhaas’ plan for New York’s MoMA that simply uses the given zoning envelope as form generator — coupled with the title “Architecture without Architects.”

Or OMA’s Seattle Public Library in which the Dewey Decimal organization of the library books drives a diagram that drives a building.

Critic Thomas Daniell put it nicely, comparing the method of the Japanese architect and the Dutch architect. I’m paraphrasing here: the Japanese architect begins with a poetic concept and refines it into plausibility; the Dutch architect begins with analysis and ex-trapolates it into poetry. These Dutch buildings have a kind of self-evident brutality to them. Of course they’re brutal — current conditions, objectively measured, don’t necessarily render beauty. Beauty would imply a subjectivity. Facts are facts. You make the building the facts give you.

Perhaps many of the novel shapes of recent Dutch buildings can be attributed to this devotion to the diagram, and the authorial absolution it grants. By taking traditional Dutch pragmatism to absurd, deadpan extremes, the designer generates new, wholly unexpected forms. Some of Droog Design — which has been so publicized it doesn’t need any more publicity from me — embodies this absurdist hyperrationalism. The designer simply continues to apply the system until the form appears in all its strangeness.

This authorial avoidance strategy seems to have spawned enthusiasm for the generic, the recycled, the already done, the under-designed and the preexisting that dominates contemporary design debates. Much of recent Dutch design seems intent on erasing the sense that any designer imposed any subjectivity. Take Pascale Gatzen’s reworking of photographed clothing. By copying an existing item — not even the original but the ad — remaking it, and then re-photographing it and readvertising it, she calls into question the origination of the object. Is it her work? Or take Klavers Engelen, who makes a simple change in orientation into a defamiliarization strategy. Or Hella Jongerius’s textile, “Repeat,” which uses pre-existing traditional textile designs reorganized by curious juxtaposition and unifying overlays. Or Experimental Jetset’s project that samples the work of a previous generation, overwriting new meaning.

Or Archis magazine’s use of found typographic style, absolving it of a sense of subjectivity, eliminating the designers’ presumed responsibility to create a distinct, unique identity. (More on that shortly.)


But if it is a Dutch Design trait to disappear into data or a system and feign, at least, a lack of real ambition or subjectivity, there is an emerging tendency in which the designer assumes a central role as a character in the work. This tests the way the treatment of given material — what van Toorn might call the critical perspective — amounts to a kind of authorship.

Many designers have enthusiastically embraced the idea of authorship in hopes of dipping into the authority traditionally granted to authors. But designers have generally misconstrued the idea of the author as a power strategy, a way to wrest control
over their projects from the various forces intent on limiting it. Most design use of the phrase links authorship to a kind of artistic expression or selfexpression. But I am interested not so much in trying to recuperatethe prominence of the designer through
the application of authorial principles, but in trying to pick out the way the figure of the author (which is always fictionalized) meshes with branding strategy.

(In all cases it’s important to remember that when I use the term author, I am never referring to the writer but to a fictional figure that serves to unify a whole variety of diverse texts. The author is a function, a term of exchange.)

Dumbar could embody one model of the designer as auteur, managing an army of underlings to impress his stamp on the broadest possible canvas. Dumbar — actually NOT Dumbar but Dumbar’s studio — creates Dumbar signature work. Dumbar as flamboyant stands for the work, gives it a public face and a branded “personality.” Irma Boom working with SHV represents another model in which the designer uses the tools of design to construct meaning. But more recent work engages the subject in more complex and nuanced ways.

I want to turn back then for a moment to look closely at one project: Archis magazine and its transformation from a somewhat straight, analytical professional journal to an international style magazine whose subject happens to be architecture. (Since the magazine was recently celebrated again with the Rotterdam Design Prize, I think it safe to assume that it is an example of what some consider to be the “best” of contemporary Dutch design.)

While the core of the magazine is still articles, reviews, critiques and editorials, the magazine adopts another voice that appears spectrally among the articles, offering choices, garnering information, asking questions and making jokes. But whose voice? The editor? The designers? A phantom that haunts its pages? Who is the “I” of Archis? Since that voice ostensibly has nothing to do with the delivery of the content — that is, the articles and items that make up the body of the magazine — it would seem at first to be a van Toornian hindrance strategy. The designers editorialize by shaping the material. But the Archis authorial presence has none of van Toorn’s desire for social reformation or political agitation. The Archis voice is the court jester: it’s about richness, pleasure, irony, humor, i.e. value-added content and shading.

Archis furthers that relationship between author and reader through a series of specific shifts and moves. The voice asks questions directly, leaves blank spaces to be filled, supplies forms to fax back, overwrites other texts and generally interferes. (And it can be maddening,like an annoying friend reading over your shoulder, making snide remarks.) Some pages are perforated, suggesting reader-driven mutability, that the presented form is merely one incarnation, not the finished state. It invites its own disfiguration.



The voice of Archis moves the magazine from a writerly to a readerly text. By goading readers to literally fill in the blanks, the Archis “I” implicates them in the design itself. This gesture culminates in the recent move toward organized public events that suggest a completely user-centric forum, where content is specifically formatted in direct response to an audience gathered in a specific spot at a specific time with the Archis author assuming the role of maestro, conducting.







One well-publicized example of the fictionalized author can be discerned in Jop van Bennekom’s self-initiated Re magazine. Van Bennekom links his magazine — which started as a school project at the Jan van Eyck Academie — to a “typical Dutch approach… A conceptual position of self-irony and self-questioning.” Bennekom positions himself as both the originator and subject of the magazine. Through this overt form, the magazine is dedicated to his interests, proclivities, possessions, friends, life events. The magazine generates a fictional presence — the designer Jop van Bennekom — who permeates every aspect of the project. Even as he moves from sole proprietor to executive editor to a single individual, van Bennekom serves as both author and subject in an intensely autobiographical project.



And then this. Visiting the recent AMO/OMA exhibition at the National Gallery in Berlin, I was greeted by a special Rem Koolhaas doll that artist Tony Oursler had created for the exhibition. Koolhaas can be read on several levels, as literal author and as coalescing figure — the ringmaster — marshalling the forces of a broad, decentralized, international cast of collaborators whose work is unified under his name. Oursler’s figure of Koolhaas floats spectrally over a smashed and decayed pile of garbage and broken design elements and reads, over and over in continuous loop, his article “Junkspace.” The Rem doll makes a perpetual celebrity appearance, endlessly spouting his famous, branded rhetoric.


In typical Dutch fashion, no one dresses up to make an appearance. The Dutch author arrives disheveled. His or her presence is padded with irony and self-deprecation. There seems to be a close connection between the rise of the author, of subjectivity, and the un-designing of design.

But what drove that shift to the undesigned design in the ’90s and the attendant Dutch Design explosion internationally? While part of the shift is clearly a reaction to the slickness of the ’80s and the early ’90s, I nominate one man, Joop van den Ende, as the real source of inspiration. Joop van den Ende is of course the father of the worldwide global phenomenon known as Big Brother and bubble-gum television. The basic tenet of Big Brother is that compelling television may result from simply sticking a bunch of unlikeable characters in a house and filming the ensuing friction.

Reality TV has exploded in the U.S. and around the world. Television producers love it because it’s cheap, easy to make, easy to serialize and, most important, easy to localize. It satisfies the grim desire to inspect your neighbor’s dirty laundry. In Holland it seems to have a special resonance, perhaps because the whole country is a kind of artificial reality of closely packed neighbors, or perhaps because of the brutal efficiency of the concept. It seems to embody the “not one penny more” credo.


Recent work focuses on the banal: the areas untouched by Dumbarism and the sweeping over-design gestures from the years before. Van Lieshout’s AVL Ville is a kind of artificial reality TV. The work refers to the standard, accidental items of an in-between space, but always with some ironic twist. Actually, it’s a romanticized banality. This work ignores the corporate, globalized reality of Phillips and PTT or Rabobank. The romanticized reality focuses on the generic apartment, the refugee camp, the abandoned embankment and the vernacular language of the do-it-yourselfer.


That same aesthetic is repackaged by agencies like KesselsKramer in campaigns for the likes of Diesel and Ben. Their own sly, funny website perfectly embodies the methodology. It adopts all of the familiar clichés of the web, injects them with style, and produces a new form of writing that is part reference, part narrative, part playacting. Of course this casualness is so enormously cultivated and finessed that it is immediately recognizable as design with a capital D. No one would miss the joke.

The question is: does banality have an agenda? Is anything advanced except the blasé, detached bemusement of the designer? Has Holland become so comfortable, so completely designed, that the only thing left is ironic commentary on the act of designing itself? Does anyone think about a kind of makeable society, or have we just given up? Design may have become a free-floating reaction, all verb without direct object.


Just against… but against what? Note this remark from Experimental Jetset:

“What we have… drawn from postmodernism is the realization that there are no objective, neutral or universal values. But that does not discourage us from pursuing those values; that is our modernist inheritance. In the end, we’ve actually arrived at something of a synthesis of modernism and postmodernism; working with a utopia in mind, while being fully aware that we will never achieve that utopia.”

We have all gotten used to accepting whatever comes along, whoever is in the house. One will get voted off each week, but don’t worry, the whole thing will start again next season. It’s just a game. It’s as if after twenty years of absolutely relentless shifts in style, and years of being berated for their lack of political commitment by their May ’68 professors, young Dutch designers simply turned inward. The kind of Dutch design that captures our attention now almost always has a layer of humor and reference that seems to say, like Experimental Jetset, we don’t really believe this, but let’s pretend anyway. But, more striking, for a country once known for big, bold, broad public initiatives, Dutch design seems to have taken to tackling small issues. The designer has cast his/her gaze on something so low, so insignificant, it imbues the object with almost mythic power.





Let’s turn briefly to a contemporary identity project: Daniel van der Velden’s project (government-subsidized, of course) to develop a brand for Sealand, a single abandoned North Sea defense-platform-cumprincipality. Whatever the merit of the design experiment — to create an identity for an entity without substance, a pure data space — it may be poignant as a metaphor: Dutch designers may have turned their attention offshore, given up on the mainland, given up believing their work can affect the “real” world. Maybe there is no running room left in Holland. Maybe the “makeable society” is simply the basis for parody.


The production and consumption of style has accelerated so quickly, been broadcast so widely, that trends and countertrends develop simultaneously. Action and reaction are linked inextricably. This is due, in part, to the fact that you really do have a culture of design here, a culture of experiment, discourse and discovery.

I’ve titled this talk “Mad Dutch Disease,” an obvious allusion to Mad Cow Disease or, more officially, bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The scourge of Europe, Mad Cow appears when cows eat feed that contains the remains of other cows. When our diet starts to be restricted to the point of devouring ameridam: the dutchification of america and regurgitating last week’s trend, we are in serious jeopardy of succumbing to a similar fate.

But as I mentioned at the beginning, I don’t see Dutch design as confined to the Netherlands. This is happening everywhere. It’s just that due to advantageous conditions, it seems more pronounced here. In the States, our flights of fancy are constantly quelled by the market. Because of that we use Holland as a kind of breeding ground, carefully observing what is sure to happen everywhere else sooner or later.

Or perhaps this is a better way to put it: I wonder if we have worked ourselves into a trap of our own making. We have been tirelessly chasing this thing called design theory or criticism for twenty years. Have we been building an elaborate contraption of self-reflective meta-design culture, only to realize that we may be its ultimate victims?

When it comes time to hit the switch, who knows what the result will be.

Published in Multiple Signatures: On Designers, Authors, Readers and Users (Spring 2013)

© Michael Rock