The Daily Heller: Making Design That is Second Nature (and First?)

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d-o-t-s is a “nomadic research-led studio” in the fields of editorial and curatorial production, founded in 2014 by Laura Drouet and Olivier Lacrouts. The studio’s design investigations focus on alternative social dynamics, off-the-record stories and experimental design perspectives. Defined by the participatory and interdisciplinary approach, d-o-t-s’ work spans writing, exhibition-making, hands-on workshops and design commissions. All d-o-t-s’ projects are either self-initiated or originate from commissions by cultural institutions; they do not work for commercial clients. I’m intrigued by the nomadic concept, but even more so by the theoretical and hands-on nature (with nature) that the duo engages in. So I asked them to explain.

A seven-point call to practitioners and the general public to establish a new sense of respect, responsibility and empathy towards plants. 2020.

You call d-o-t-s a “nomadic research-led studio.” What constitutes nomadic?
d-o-t-s was born out of a desire to mix thinking and doing—archive research and field investigations, writing and hands-on workshops—without being bound to a specific location. Being nomadic (i.e., not having a permanent home) enables us to be flexible, both physically and mentally: We can quickly decide to move somewhere to get closer to the subject we wish to study, but we also become more open to other ways of seeing/thinking. Since we founded the studio in 2014, we’ve lived in six different contexts/regions—in France, Morocco, Italy and Belgium. This had meaningful effects on our curatorial approach and enabled us to have a socially, philosophically and environmentally multi-layered perspective on the issues we deal with in our projects.

Starting this year, we decided to push the nomadic aspect of our practice even further. We moved into an old Mercedes van and we’re now exploring various corners of Europe for a long-term project on the European rural landscape, the result of which should be a touring exhibition opening in 2025. The van is a vessel to go to remote places that we’d not be able to reach with public transport and is also a platform to connect more intimately with the environments we cross and temporarily inhabit and the people we meet along the way.

It sounds as though with this participatory and interdisciplinary approach that you are more of a laboratory than a firm. Are you both?
We do not consider ourselves a firm, and the projects we develop could definitely be considered temporary and open-ended laboratories. We often tackle subjects in which we have little or no previous knowledge, so every project becomes a learning process where we are forced to ask questions to specialists from different horizons. So far, this approach has brought us in touch with cultural institutions such as museums, associations and design schools, but also a botanical garden!

Fertile Grounds at Fries museum. Photos by Reuben Van Vliet Fotografie.

What is involved in “off-the-record stories”? How does this manifest itself?
We try to have as much as possible a journalistic approach to the subjects we study: We go on​​ the field and conduct interviews with people whose voice is generally not heard nor put forward by the mainstream [design] media. We believe that design belongs to everyone and we try to unveil stories​​ that can captivate nonprofessional audiences. When approaching a subject, we also try to get different and contradictory perspectives on the matter; there’s never one single truth.

Fertile Grounds is part of a wider investigation carried out by the studio on the future of European rural landscapes. In 2025, the outputs of the studio’s research will be presented in the form of a major touring exhibition featuring around 15 projects highlighting as many European environments.
Histories de serres. Photo by Steve Ginepri.

Tell me about Fertile Grounds. You write that this is an exhibition presenting a series of plant-based creative scenarios with Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma. What do you contribute to this natural environment project?
The exhibition Fertile Grounds is one of the first chapters of a long-term project we are currently developing that focuses on the European rural environment. We proposed the concept to the Fries Museum (in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands) last year and this involved commissioning a bespoke project to a designer who would have to propose new scenarios for the local landscape (which is facing many conservation issues). It was essential for us to work with a designer who had an understanding of what it means to work with the land and who had a connection with the region. We decided to collaborate with Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma, whose family is rooted in the Frisian region and the dairy farm industry (one of the topics addressed by the project). Christien worked against the clock between January and the beginning of May to develop three concepts based on our initial request, which was to explore the design potential of plants used in paludiculture, an agricultural practice for cultivating crops in rewetted soils.

What kind of research did you do for Greenhouse Stories? Is there a graphic design component?
Greenhouse Stories is the result of a commission by Italian curator Anna Loporcaro, who approached us in 2020 to develop a project in the frame of loop – down the hills, across the land, an artistic program she conceived for Esch 2022—European Capital of Culture. Among the sites that she invited us to explore was a semi-abandoned greenhouse complex in the Luxembourgish municipality of Soleuvre, which instantly fascinated us.

Plant Fever proposes to look at the future of design from this new vegetal perspective, moving from a human-centred to a phyto-centred design. Photo by Olly Cruise,

We took the occasion to continue our investigations on the subject of plants (which we had started with Plant Fever) from a new perspective: that of a [horti]cultural tool, the greenhouse, that had (and keeps having) a big impact on the way human communities relate to the vegetal world but also to the broader environments we all coinhabit with other species. Greenhouse Stories is a multilayered project—it’s an exhibition, a cultural program (with events for adults and children), a series of newly commissioned works and a publication. It is the result of two years of archive research, readings, conversations with specialists and activists, as well as collaborations with local inhabitants and associations. The project focuses on four topics: the cultivation of roses; the cultivation of fruits and veggies; the greenhouse as a space for women’s emancipation; the greenhouse as a colonial tool.

Concerning the graphic design component: We asked Lucile Bataille and Sébastien Biniek of the French design studio Structures Bâtons to craft the visual identity of the project. Their intervention ranges from the exhibition’s signage and visitor guide to the accompanying publication. Besides that, we commissioned them also for an original installation for the third week of our program (the one about greenhouses as spaces for women’s emancipation). We invited them to develop a series of textile banners that would take inspiration from a 19th-century manual (Every Lady’s Guide to Her Own Greenhouse, Hothouse, and Conservatory, by a Lady), the banners used by the Suffrages Movement and the work of contemporary women who use the greenhouse as spaces for self-determination.

A publication about plant-conscious design and philosophy featuring essays by leading thinkers and practitioners who are rethinking the way we relate to the vegetal realm.

You clearly work theoretically, in multiple disciplines, and passionately. Where do you think, or where do you want, this to take you in the future?
We’re conscious that the design world is a very elitist (and white, and European, and male) one. So one of the goals we’ve set for ourselves is to develop collaborations with people from minorities that are underrepresented in this field. But also to keep tackling subjects that are relevant at an international and contemporary level. Another important point for us is to develop projects that can resonate with people from various horizons and not just within the design niche. We’re not bound to predefined outputs, and, in the future we hope to be able to co-develop (with other professionals from different backgrounds) works that take forms as diverse as theater plays, movies and novels, but also temporary cultural spaces (like the greenhouses) and schools. In the long run, our wish is to settle in a rural region and develop an experimental cultural center where creativity and agriculture mix. We met nine years ago at Domaine de Boisbuchet (where we both worked for a couple of years) and that place had a real impact on the way we imagine things.

Studio d-o-t-s. Photo by Olly Cruise.