Dutch Designer Sophie Krier Talks Drive-Thru Crits, the Fame Bubble, and Buster Keaton

Sophie Krier: "En Garde!," Super-8 mm film still, 2003.

Enough about the Netherlands’ World Cup performance: there was another, more positive Dutch-related event this past weekend that merits our attention.

On Saturday L.A.’s Otis College of Art and Design held a contemporary Dutch design forum, titled “Double Dutch.” The speakers were Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden, partners of Amsterdam’s design and research group Metahaven, and Sophie Krier, whose Rotterdam studio “… explores the peripheries of the design field,” with a focus on film, writing, and temporary social interventions.

Top: Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden on stage at Otis. Photo by Michael Dooley. Bottom: a spread from Metahaven's new book, "Uncorporate Identity."

First up was Vinca and Daniel, who presented in an unrehearsed Q&A format. While sitting at opposite ends of the stage, they interrogated each other, having explained to the audience that they’re usually too busy working to stop and talk. One topic was their desire to produce images that reflect uncertainty, within a profession that values straightforwardness. For them, lack of clarity can still communicate, on symbolic and aesthetic levels.

Sophie Krier talked for the second half. Sophie’s studio, which she established in 2001, initiates experimental projects parallel with her commissioned works. She was also head of designLAB at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie Amsterdam between 2005 and 2009, where she developed alternative educational models. Her projects and media are widely varied, and often hauntingly lyrical. She’s posted a number of videos and images, with descriptions, on her site.

She’s now in the midst of a three-week residency at Otis, which includes workshops, lectures, and special projects. And she’s currently blogging about her stay in L.A. What follows is my Q&A with Sophie, who also addressed the merits of confusion and ambiguity.

The event was coordinated by Kali Nikitas, Otis’s MFA Graphic Design and BFA Communication Arts Chair. It was funded in part by a grant from The Consulate General of the Netherlands, a consistent supporter of the Graduate Graphic Design program. And it also conveniently coincided with the school’s bi-annual MFA Open Studio day, a public viewing of student work spaces.

As an adjunct instructor and program coordinator at Otis myself, in the Continuing Education division, I had been curious about the course work, and was glad to finally have the opportunity to hear from the students about their projects, several of which showed not only design facility but sincere dedication to social improvement as well. I’ve posted a few photos after the interview.

Left: Jonathan Muecke, Copper Step Stool. Right: Jordi Colomer, Anarchitekton, Brasilia, 2004.

Michael Dooley: In your presentation, you mentioned confusion as a way of making things more precise; what would be a couple of design examples?

Sophie Krier:
Confusion can make things more precise by forcing you to rethink the way things are.

For instance: Jonathan Muecke, a Cranbrook graduate. He says about his work, “I’m not trying to say this form is meant to be this exact thing.” In other words, within his designs Muecke embeds space for wonder and ambiguity.
Jonathan admits his “Copper Step Stool” [above] is ridiculous, but to me it’s also convincing because it functions as a foretoken of another, yet to be unraveled world.

And for instance: Jordi Colomer’s staged “protests” against existing urban structures. By having a fictive character brandishing harmless cardboard models of real buildings visible in the background [above], and deliberately staying between the feeling of a parade, a procession, and protest, he creates confusion in the minds of onlookers as to what this action is about, forcing the passers-by to think for themselves, and discern and clarify what might be going on.

Buster Keaton: "One Week" film stills, 1920.

So my point is that generating confusion or chaos can be a way to destabilize set conditions and assumptions in a given situation, thereby making room for another way to deal with these situations. It triggers the urge to know what’s going on.

Dooley: Along those lines, you mentioned that designers can learn from Buster Keaton about leaving one’s comfort zone; do you have a favorite movie of his in this regard?

Krier:One Week,” where he and his brand new spouse attempt to put together a DIY house. The house takes on more and more absurd shapes as they endeavor to piece together the perfect home that would match their love. Every decision makes things worse, and funnier. But Keaton always finds an – acrobatic – way out. And the result is beyond what you would ever plan if you would take the easy way.

Dooley: You talked about how education is “a trust contract between two people;” how do you utilize this notion in your own teaching practices?

Krier: Perhaps the best example is the “1-on-1 Drive-Thru Crit,” which I initiated here at Otis as part of my residency. This is my first week, so I can’t tell you if it works. But I can tell you the setup: students who wish to have an in-depth, 1-on-1 critique about their work, ambitions, and methodology can contact me. We agree on a meeting date and time. They decide where to take me: a place in L.A. that matters to them and their work. Time is no issue; for instance, if a student wants to drive for three hours, that’s fine. The point is that we both engage in an adventure of which none of us know the outcome, and that requires trust and commitment from both sides.
A notion related to that of trust is the idea of third space: the space not of the teacher or the student, but the space between two human beings, where an idea is emerging and both put in their own expertise to let that idea grow. That’s how I visualize my classes with students.

Dooley: You said that your return to academia would be “nomadic;” how would that work?

Krier: I plan to reenter the academic world within more or less five years, with an alternative MFA program. I am researching interesting formats at the moment, such as Clementine Delyss’ Future Academy.

What I envision is a program with no building, no long term financial framework, no fixed timeline, no fixed staff. Also, the whole lexicon of student/teacher/class would need to be redefined. Its participants would be designers-in-residence, senior and junior, working on urgent issues in collaboration with local communities. All facilities would gain shape according to the site’s logic. That is, the institution would have to re-invent itself with every topic it’s working on.

But this is all still very much a draft outline! Don’t pin me down on it.

Dooley: You visited Otis’s Open Studio on Saturday; how did the MFA student work impress you?

Sophie Krier addresses an audience of students, faculty, and design professionals at Otis. Photo by Michael Dooley.

Krier: What I liked there was the energy that a lot of the work on display breathed. I think the MFA setup of spring and summer courses, combined with professional practice the rest of year, lends the Otis students a maturity that is very valuable. I also saw huge differences in skills and craftsmanship; some really invest time in what they make, others seem a little too laid back when it comes to detailing and materializing their ideas.

In my critiques I’ll be questioning them mainly about the context and methodology of their work. “Why do you make this work now, today, here? Why you? Is this the only thing you could have done? Have you researched related makers/thinkers/etc.?”

Dooley: How would you describe your social intervention experiments?

Krier: I think what I do is very much in line with the urge to expand the notion of “disciplined” – product/graphic/interior/etc. – design towards “undisciplined” design thinking; that is, design as strategy, as coined by, among others, “Doors of Perception”‘s Director John Thackara.

John Wood’s “metadesign” is another important reference for my practice.

Dooley: And how do you see these experiments in relation to your country’s design heritage?

Sophie Krier and Henriëtte Waal: "Long Live Temporariness Drive-In," 2008. Photos by Margot Oosterveen.

Krier: My focus on temporality, and my refusal – or inability – to stick to one medium, scale or discipline, probably make me the “odd one out” within the Dutch design landscape. But I like being in the margin. That position suits me. There’s plenty of room to play.

In reference to Dutch design history, it’s much richer, much more faceted than the part that the media have picked up over the years, and especially the last two decades, which saw the rise of the “Dutch Design Fame Bubble;” that is, a fame that is nothing more than a bubble.

I think that, ironically, the label “Dutch Design” is what ultimately made the bubble burst, because labels become empty of meaning over time unless they are constantly re-injected with new energy and direction. “Dutch Design” has become a marketing term, and if you believe the media, it equals the creativity of two handful of designers. I find this tendency highly questionable. I don’t question the quality of the cultural climate of The Netherlands – it’s unique, in part, thanks to its economical framework, which enables a lot of experimentation. And this shows in the work that is being made, and in the type of commissions being issued.

Dooley: You spoke of design as a way of mediating, facilitating, and intervening in social reality; how accepted is this perspective among your contemporaries?

Krier: The social responsibility of the designer has always been an important factor. I think Dutch designers – again, if there is such a thing as nationality driven design practices – have been exploring those strategies more and more in the last five years, more or less. An important shift which still has to be made, though, is the general expectation of what a design is or should do; that is, we are still expected to “deliver.” Too often, great social projects become, in the end, an excuse for “another product,” photographed as another iconic shape, against a white background.
Design is social, and is contextual, by definition. Its next challenge is to assert itself as processual form, and to find ways to communicate this, to make this acceptable, to our clients as well as the general public. It demands we claim space for research and exploration, at all risks: at the risk of failing, of starting a research which doesn’t lead to a solution. And, as Michele de Lucchi said in a recent interview, it also demands that we be taken seriously and speak to top management when working with large companies, rather than only talking to the marketing department.

Sudeshna Pantham is an international student and part of Otis's MFA program inaugural class, which will graduate in a few weeks. Department Chair's Kali Nikitas praises her "...intuitive, three-dimensional approach to making work that sets her apart from the typical MFA candidate." Left: Sudeshna at her work station with "This is Not an Explosive," a handmade book. Photo by Michael Dooley. Right and below: "Cover Up," cover and inside spreads. http://sudeshnapantham.com/

Brigiet van den Berg is a professional graphic designer visiting from Holland. Although not an Otis student, she's been sitting in on MFA classes and delivering lectures about Dutch design during the summer. Left: inside spreads for an annual report she designed for VPRO, a Netherlands independent public broadcaster. Right: Brigiet at the Open Studio, with the annual report. Photo by Michael Dooley. http://brigiet.isme.nl/

Related Articles:

ADD A COMMENT

2 COMMENTS

  1. The VPRO annual report was designed together by Brigiet van den Berg and Michèle Champagne, a Canadian student at Sandberg Institute.

  2. Pingback: Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers | My 10 Best (and One Worst) Design Items of the Half-Year