Naked bodies, puffs of pickle clouds and a boisterous choir were among some of the more frivolous contributions to What Design Can Do at the Stadsschouwburg in the centre of Amsterdam. The 5th edition covered on-trend themes such as the senses (Sissel Tolaas, Charles Spence and Sam Bompas) and food (Alex Atala and Cynthia Shanmugalingam), and welcomed heavy weights like graphic design maestro Stefan Sagmeister and Brazilian furniture designers Humberto and Fernando Campana. 

An undercurrent of impactful world issues was also clear in the WDCD program with the plight of refugees forming a big topic on the agenda. Day One saw artist Jan Rithuizen presenting his interactive cross-media documentary Refugee Republic which he created alongside photographer Dirk Jan Visser and multimedia journalist Martijn van Tol. Named ‘the most innovative Dutch documentary of recent times’, the film examined the refugee camps as mini-societies, as opposed to the desperate lives played out in tents that the media often portrays.

On day two, Jonathan Spampinato (Ikea Foundation), a representative of UNCHR and Swedish designer Johan Karlsson sat for a round table discussion chaired by the charming David Kester about the Ikea Foundations project Better Shelter. The scheme sees the introduction of a flat pack solution for the refugee crisis world-wide. Better Shelter comes in the form of two flat pack boxes and can be assembled on site in 4 to 8 hours. Each shelter is expected to last for 3 years. When a commercial giant like Ikea, puts its head – and resources – together with designers and agencies like UNHCR, the outcomes can have play a genuine role in changing society. ‘The importance of dignity is not a fluff thing – it is something tangible that really affects people’s lives,’ says Jonathan Spampinato.

Following this discussion was Cameron Sinclair founder of the Department of Small Works. The Department of Small Works is an open source design collaborative that advises non-profits and foundations on implementing building solutions. Sinclair, a veritable veteran of WDCD his 2012 appearance, pretty much owned the stage. Sinclair talked about ‘designing sustainability at the level of survival’. Offering potent facts and figures, Sinclair shared the reality that many refugee camps have a life-span of 17 years putting into perspective what displaced people actually need from these ‘temporary’ shelters. Sinclair’s design practice aims to create a system that can be ‘built, deployed, hacked and work anywhere’. His past projects have aimed to not enforce a solution on a society but to give them the tools that they can build it themselves, giving people ownership and pride over the new homes. In the words so Sinclair, ‘if you’re not willing to live in the shelter that you are designing, you are not an architect.’

Photos Leo Veger