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Exhibitions > Tradition in Design

Tradition in Design / Renny Ramakers, droog, in conversation with Volker Albus

Albus: So this new ifa show is about tradition in design, and in the show a lot of Dutch designers are included.

Ramakers: And what do you want to tell me here?

Albus: We want to show the different ways in which it is possible to work with traditional aspects. You have to know, these ifa shows, they tour around the world, and I have seen that young designers are not aware of their own culture. So they try to copy the western, the international style. And here, in this exhibition, we have a lot of designers who work with traditional aspects. So I want to help designers to concentrate, to look at their own roots. And I think droog was working in the right way from the very beginning. There were different aspects in the work of droog, and one aspect was also to rework traditional elements, to transform traditional elements into contemporary design.

Ramakers: It's more like elements of everyday culture. Things around us which are not noticed very much - it's about using those elements. The first project I encountered in this spirit was "Set up Shades" by Marcel Wanders, five lampshades stacked upon each other. He bought the shades in ordinary shops, they had ordinary shapes, but by multiplying them by five it became very special. So in that period they took ordinary stuff from everyday culture and especially from Europe.
I once was very struck by a talk by Jurgen Bey. He started with an image of a farmer's room. A farmer and his wife are sitting at a table with, in our eyes, neglected things, or at least not designed objects. They were all just things you don't look at. And for him this was a source of inspiration.
He loved it. He loved these really un-designed objects of daily use and he said: I wish that I could once design such an environment. Then there was the "do-add" chair by Jurgen Bey, which is also an ordinary chair, though one leg is shorter, that's the whole thing.

Albus: Absolutely, yes, yes. I completely agree with you. I visited Jurgen's show in Amersfoort some months ago and one thing I appreciated very much were his tea sets, which were so completely designed. I like this way of working with painting and naming the individual items according to the time it takes to make them, not to motif. This is a very contemporary approach to what design is. So, on the one hand you have a kind of a traditional motif, from a traditional work, and on the other hand you also have a very new way of working. We are also showing this porcelain in this exhibition.

Ramakers: We are now doing a project in collaboration with Traffic in Dubai. It's called "droog al Arab". Jurgen Bey and fashion designer Saskia van Drimmelen have been leading the project. It includes carpets designed by Jurgen Bey. Local people are finishing the carpets they have been preparing.
The final carpets are actually based on the number of hours worked on them. This depends on the people who buy the carpets. How much do they want to pay? How long can they wait? Such carpets could support a whole family for a year, or two years. So this is about time. If the carpet is only
worked on for one day, the buyer gets only a small amount of decoration, if it is worked on for months, the decoration is much richer.

Albus: And what will the decoration be like?

Ramakers: For this project it will be the skyline of Dubai. The carpets are made in the way they make them in the Middle East, but the designer will also bring in Dutch elements, and then Arabian workers bring in their vision as well. So the designer keeps it open for their vision as well, like what colours they would like to use. It's similar to the handkerchiefs in our exhibition. It's not prescribed that
they have to be blue or yellow. People can follow their own interpretation.

Albus: And especially these handkerchiefs, they reminded me a little bit of Pieter Brueghel's paintings. This is very special, and I think it's completely different from the German situation. You mentioned at the beginning of our talk, it's contemporary, it's real life. I still remember this 1980s stuff we did. And when we looked back, there was always a kind of comment in our works. It was very cynical, ironic. And here in the Netherlands, it's very normal. They love this context.

Ramakers: Yes, I think they do love this context. In the first book on droog I wrote about the difference between what you did in the 1980s and what those people did in the 1990s. There was no more comment, no cynicism. Just look at our environment. It's so beautiful.

Albus: I think the Germans like it too. But they keep some distance, because we have these problems with our past. We look back on our parents' homes and we always want to show the distance, the emancipation and this is completely diffrent.

Ramakers: Yes, because of the past. Well, we know the past. And now the Germans keep themselves distanced from that history. And so there is a big gap between the history before the World Wars and more recent history. There is no bridge.

Albus: No, it's forgotten.

Ramakers: It's also because they don't want it to happen again, so then they don't look at it.

Albus: Yes, absolutely. And with the young generation, let's say people around twenty-five or thirty, this is completely different. They really have a new relationship now to these traditional elements. And this cynical aspect more or less disappears. I'm happy about this. With our small show in Milan, the "kkaarrlls-show", there was humour, but there was no cynicism in the show. And that is completely different to my generation. I visited your nice presentation in Milan, and I think this fits perfectly into our talk.

Ramakers: You know we wrote this manifesto? We wrote it on a Friday, after the third day, because we noticed that some people said: "Ok, it's re-used. Ok, we have seen this before, bla bla bla." And we then said - now we need to write down our vision and show the world what we believe in and what really is going on. It started with this thought I had last year. I thought, we are going for this different approach: It takes us two years to develop the product. So a designer designs products, and this takes time. Then it has to be developed by our product development division. And then it has to be produced, of course, in China, because it  has to be cheap. Then it comes back to us, it goes back and forth a few times. So in total it takes at least two years to develop the product. And I was thinking: could we do this in a different way? Let's try. Let's be like parasites on products that already exist. There are many companies, and they produce millions of products. Why don't we take a few of those products and do something with them.

Then the idea came to buy them from auctions, from insolvency auctions, because these auctions now happen all the time. Last year five hundred companies per month went bankrupt, and there are website auctions offering all those items. When we started bidding we concentrated on simple objects. We made a list of all the things we bought and sent it to a bunch of designers and asked them to use it as their source of inspiration, as raw material. And so they made their choice and they started designing and came back with some product proposals. We then developed and produced those products in three months time.

So, we skipped the first part of the production process for this project. And it was all because of the curiosity as to what would come out of it. There were a few items which would otherwise never have been made. If, for instance, we had asked the designers to make cutlery, then they would have thought about a fork, a knife, a spoon, and looked at all the other forks, knives and spoons on the market and come up with something new. And that's already an effort. So I just thought, ok, we deliver the cutlery and then we see what the designers can do with it. The creative energy is focused on something else. And there were some nice and also quite unexpected results.

The next step was to think about where these new products are going. That's why we started the photo campaign to celebrate the new owners, so they can also be a part of the game. We also had different price levels, we changed the prices every day. It started with the mirrors. We had only eight mirrors and they were so popular and I thought, stop, we must raise the price, because I didn't want them to be sold out so quickly. Then there were the handkerchiefs. We offered them on the first day for one hundred euros because we found them so beautiful and so special. At that price nobody bought them, so we decided to lower the price and suddenly we were able to sell them. This means that the consumer plays a role in the whole game. And the mirrors - when we raised the price, we didn't sell them anymore. So the next day we lowered the price again and then they sold again. We started at 400 euros and they went like hot cakes. So we raised the price to 600 euros. Nobody bought them at that price, so the next day we lowered the price to 500 euros, and that was the right price. Of course we have our limit because we have to pay for the production, but within those limits we can play around, and the consumers are part of this game. For instance, the chairs with the nail polish. We only sold two of those.

Albus: The ones with the small paintings on? These folding chairs?

Ramakers: Yes. We think one of the reasons is that they are brown, rather ugly folding chairs and the nail polish didn't change that. So we are going to redesign that. You see that in this way we are also taking care of our waste; if we don't sell our products we have to redesign them. Therefore we redesign on and off. Another part of this project is the community on the website. We place all those pictures of the new owners on our website, so people can make contact with each other and with us. In this way the owners themselves also keep the products circulating, it's like cradle to cradle, in a sense that it doesn't stop. We don't want the owners to throw the products away. They are in contact with the other owners and see how they can exchange or sell or buy or whatever. That's the whole concept. We say we care about where and to whom the product goes and the owner finds
out how to participate. In the meantime we celebrate a new way of producing by stepping into the production process at a later moment, and we involve the consumers in this. We especially think this is very important right now, because nowadays everybody says we need no more chairs, we need no more tables. We have to produce less. That's what you hear, but nobody really does it. At the same time there is a big part of the world that needs chairs and tables, all the new consumers from China, from India, from all those countries there will be demand.

Albus: Absolutely.

Ramakers: So if we are not going to meet this demand, someone else will. So we thought, ok, let's give it a try. We always have limited editions, because we only buy certain amounts of stuff and then we can adapt fairly rapidly. So here we have eighteen folding chairs and maybe when we have to show them in New York, we will have twenty kitchen chairs. And people can see our stuff on the Internet, and they can exchange the products . . . they can be circulated. So that's the whole idea. It's about trying out new business models.

Albus: And will it continue? It's not a limited project, but limited editions.

Ramakers: Yes, we want to show this in our store in New York in September, so we are going to redesign the folding chairs, because they didn't sell.

Albus: There were some products I was absolutely convinced of. All the glass tables were sold. I saw the blue trays with the vases, the flocked vases, the blue items, they were quite expensive.

Ramakers: Yes. This is one of those products we had to make more expensive, because they sold too fast. Maybe they were a bit too expensive, but we can lower the price again. But on the first day people were buying them non-stop so we said we have to make them more expensive. But the folding
chairs, I think we'll keep the ones which were beautiful and we'll redesign the others. Also this time in Milan we asked some local designers to work on other products. We would like to keep doing that when the exhibition travels to other cities. So for example, if we go to Berlin or elsewhere in Germany we would also ask some German designers to contribute. So there will be an exhibition all the time, and it will always be updated. That's the idea.

Albus: I think it's not only these economic aspects which I was fascinated by, but also the emotional aspect of the project. So you see for example these old fashioned handkerchiefs. And normally they have certain patterns, geometrical patterns. And suddenly you see these very fine drawings. So you have this contemporary motif which is definitely not romantic, and it has been transformed by this
old technique, and it has gained something really emotional. In Germany this is "folklore" or "Heimat". And this is what especially fascinated me.

Ramakers: Yes, me too. That's what the designers did with it. We have been working on the system and we found designers to create the products. Especially Jurgen Bey has done a very good job by combining those old fashioned cotton handkerchiefs. Who still really uses those nowadays? And then the other aspect of this product is the news, which is a very fast medium. The news of today is old tomorrow. And the embroidery technique is a very slow technique and that's very clever. Of course we were also very impressed by what other designers did with their material. I think for us this project is all about testing a new business model. By giving the designers something which is already finished, they don't have to concentrate on the fabrication or the manufacturing or technical details, which
are really complicated. The way we got the materials is also really interesting. You see something on the Internet, you visit the auctions and you get all these leftovers. Nobody wants to have them anymore. Often I was the only one who was bidding on them and then they turn into such beautiful,
new products!

Albus: Yes, and especially all those glass objects. Normally they are quite cheap at a flea market. They were so nicely arranged by Tejo Remy. It's a piece of the past, but it's also a piece of contemporary design.

Ramakers: The materials were all second-hand but the outcomes were all new products. So it's something you have seen for ages, but also completely new at the same time.

Albus: The glass jars Tejo Remy took - my grandmother used this kind of jar.

Ramakers: Yeah, they were used for sweets back then. This is how we bought them. And just by turning them over and gluing them to other glass objects they were transformed into a new product. So you get something very new and very simple at the same time.

Albus: This is what we want to show - look at your own culture and your own surroundings, take these things. So, Renny, we have to do only a short interview. So thank you very much.

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