To Hella Jongerius, ‘our world suffers from colour anorexia’

Berlin – How did Dutch designer Hella Jongerius come to find the true definition of professional freedom? The answer involves innovation, fighting gender boundaries and the ability to stay small.

I have a great need to lose myself in something. Over the last ten years I’ve focused completely on colour. The more I read and research, the less I know about the subject. I feel like a beginner again, and it feels good. In that sense, colour is a metaphor for life itself. I’ve also started painting recently. Not with the pretence of a visual artist, but as a way to experience how colours blend and what the properties of certain pigments are. Once I’ve become fascinated by a subject, I want to understand it to its core. I become incredibly persistent. That’s why I only work with a few companies – ones that offer me freedom. Innovation is only possible if there is room for serendipity – coincidence can push you onto a certain path. I didn’t name my studio Jongeriuslab on a whim.’

I’m not going to sew while the men design real industrial products

My first job was as an occupational therapist. The only resemblance to designing is that you work with your hands. It was mostly a way to escape my upbringing, which had limited room for self-discovery. It felt like an enormous relief when I decided to attend the Design Academy instead. I’d finally found my place. The freedom and non-conformism of the art world drew me in. But I instinctively knew that the Design Academy wasn’t the right place for me, either. There was too much freedom. I’m more practical. Even back then, I was fascinated by mechanical processes. To not just make one of something, but a whole series of those things at the same time. I wasn’t surrounded my much in the way of art and culture as a child. My mother was a patternmaker, so we did have various sewing machines at home. I even had a small one of my own, but I hated it. I thought, I’m not going to sew while the men design real industrial products. But at Design Academy Eindhoven, a world of yarn development, weaving and knitting for the industry opened up. That’s how I discovered I had a talent for textiles, even though I only started with that years later. And when you follow your talent, you’re in a flow.’

Design Academy Eindhoven, which wasn’t even its name at the time, was more vocational then than it is now. I received a traditional education in industrial design. I learned all kinds of manufacturing techniques, such as making ceramic and injection moulds, and weaving textiles. These days, you’re mostly taught how to have an academic attitude. You have to be able to think in concepts and be critical. Personal development is very important of course, but the skills are lagging behind. Students know very well what they want nowadays. They just can’t do it. But for now, almost all products are made by the industry. So if we don’t want our world to be shaped by marketers, we have to sit at that table. Otherwise there won’t be any space for research, for experiment, for quality. That’s why knowledge of industrial processes is essential. I firmly believe that the economic system has to change – and will change. For that reason, economics should be a mandatory course at design schools.’

Immediately after my graduation, or during really, I was picked up by Droog Design in 1992. That was the turning point in my career. My work coincided with a movement, which enhanced its cultural importance. I was also influenced by Droog Design’s way of thinking. I met influential contemporaries like Jurgen Bey and Piet Hein Eek through the brand. And don’t forget the publicity. But in the end, working under the Droog flag became too constricting. By then I had my own fascinations about the mix of industry and craftsmanship, whereas Droog moved towards art design, where huge amounts are paid for often senseless statements. That’s not my cup of tea. The brand’s logical successor was Super Normal, led by Jasper Morrison. Not that I feel much kinship for that, but it is fresh. And at the least it offers an alternative to an out-of-hand production system that continues to pump out new products, each demanding more attention than the next.’

After running a studio for 10 years, it became apparent that I’d created a building that didn’t fit me. Too many employees, too many clients, too much white noise. I could have gone on successfully for years, but that would have just been more of the same. Something wasn’t right, I felt it intuitively. And my intuition is spot on, always. I trust it blindly. The solution was distance. Literally. I closed the studio in Rotterdam and left for Berlin, a city unknown to me. I even wanted to work completely alone at first. In hindsight, this move was one of my best decisions. I like that in Berlin, which has no international design scene worth mentioning, I can work in peace. Luckily, several large clients like KLM and Vitra called in at that moment. Here, I created a new structure and now everything fits.’

I didn’t become a designer just to make pretty things

Our world suffers from colour anorexia. It’s my mission to change that. But I have to admit, during my work for Vitra I discovered how hard it is to introduce new colours. First, the existing colours have to stay available for a minimum of three years, because clients have to be able to replace furniture. This means that you’ll have to have two collections in storage for years. Then there are the technical limitations. A paint fabricator has to develop new pigments. Do new pigments mix well with plastic in an injection mould? And how does that coloured plastic compare to the colours of the woollen upholstery or the varnish for the wood? When that’s been sorted out, the marketing division enters the picture. How will the colours be communicated? As a designer you’re the filter between the consumer and the industry, with an understanding of what is possible and a vision and need for innovation. This process takes years. But big changes always come in small steps.’

With the pamphlet Beyond the New that I launched two years ago during the Milan Design Week with critic Louise Schouwenburg, I put myself in a vulnerable position. Up to the day before, we were asking ourselves: Should we do this? But I feel a responsibility to speak my mind. I’m in a position where people listen to me. I didn’t become a designer just to make pretty things.’

This is an edited version of our interview with Hella Jongerius, featured in full in What I’ve Learned. The book, which also includes conversations with the likes of Patricia Urquiola, Alexandre de Betak and Jaime Hayon, is available for purchase here.

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