The View From / Berlin
The legendary industrial designer, Hella Jongerius, on how we can design our way out of overconsumption.
Parents often want their children to find sensible, well- paying jobs, rather than pursuing “risky” careers such as art. Hella Jongerius’s folks, however, didn’t need to worry. “My friends were going to art academies,” says Jongerius from her Berlin studio. “But I was very much afraid because of the freedom and lack of boundaries in the art world.” This, explains the veteran designer, was driven by growing up on a farm in the Dutch countryside, where pragmatism and economy were not only encouraged but essential to her family’s livelihood. “I was too practical.”
As a result, and driven by high unemployment in the Netherlands in the late 1980s, Jongerius spent her years after leaving school picking up a range of hands-on skills through courses on everything from carpentry and plumbing to bicycle and house repairs. Then, at the age of 25, she “discovered” industrial design. “It’s a discipline that is practical and connected to the market so I could easily understand it.” Graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven in 1993, she immediately struck out on her own, establishing Jongeriuslab, an industrial design studio that fuses craft and industry, bringing a human touch to hi-tech production methods. “I wanted to bring imperfection and traces of human scale back into industrial production,” says Jongerius. “It was gone from the industry in the 1990s.”
The result? Products such as the B-Set porcelain crockery made for Royal Tichelaar Makkum in 1997. Deliberately fired at too high a temperature, the clay would buckle slightly, giving every set its own unique and imperfect form. It proved a hit, with other designers soon copying the process. And it wasn’t long until big players came knocking: Swarovski first, then Vitra. Her works are found in the collections of Moma, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk, Centre Pompidou and London’s Design Museum. All of this has meant that over the past 28 years, Jongerius has developed a reputation that is respected across the industry. So where does she see the design world heading next?
“The big topic that has changed in recent years, and what I’m focused on, is designers realising the role they play in overconsumption,” she says. It builds on an issue that the designer has been talking about for the better part of a decade: that designers are stuck in an endless cycle of making new products of poor quality, prompting consumers to buying more and more. “We don’t know how our products are produced and are quick to throw them away,” says Jongerius. “We have a sick relationship with them as a result.” Which begs the question: if we’re sick, how can we heal?
It’s a quandary that Jongerius has set herself the task of answering, resulting in a career shift to focus less on making and more on research-driven exhibitions, including a recent show at Berlin’s Gropius Bau. “I want to understand why some objects are sticky, why we want to keep them and not throw them out.” Her initial diagnosis? That the “sticky” quality comes from consumers seeing a human element, such as a slight and deliberate “imperfection” in a clay vase, or understanding how a product fits together, so that they are able to maintain and repair it easily. This, Jongerius says, will be key to limiting overconsumption; the market, it seems, is starting to agree.
“For a long time, designers were not briefed to account for maintenance and repairs. Now, you have to design for maintenance and so it can be repaired.” All of this makes Jongerius hopeful. “You see young designers and they all have this goal to design our way out of this shit.” So if designers are enlightened, maybe all that’s left is to get consumers up to speed when it comes to maintenance. If only we’d all had the same hands-on upbringing as Jongerius – then we’d be moving faster in the right direction.
Hella Jongerius’s CV
1963: Born in de Meern, The Netherlands
1993: Graduates from Eindhoven Design Academy and sets up Jongeriuslab in Rotterdam
1995: Work first shown at New York’s Moma
2008: Moves Jongeriuslab to Berlin
2013: Designs interiors for klm’s business class cabins
2021: Woven Cosmos exhibition at Berlin’s Gropius Bau