Schools of thought - Issue 39 - Magazine | Monocle

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To think of design as just about making things is outdated. The savviest governments, led by the Finns and the Singaporeans, have adopted design into their official strategy for economic development. A growing number of multinational businesses – Philips, P&G, Kone and GE Healthcare included – are wising up to the reality that design reaps financial rewards and has vast competitive potential. This isn’t design in the sense of clever utensils or good furniture, though it’s born from the same idea: problem-solving.

Design education is crucial to this development, breeding a new generation of students who might not be able to make a chair but know how to spot a problem and solve it. Our quest to find this new generation has taken us around the globe. New schools at Stanford, California and Tongji (via the Aalto University in Finland) in Shanghai are two pioneering examples. Strelka, a new independent school in Moscow, has a programme devised by the architect Rem Koolhaas. The Danish Design School, though a historic establishment, is adapting its structure to incorporate business into its craft heritage.

With governments encouraging businesses to hire students with brain rather than hand skills, it’s a valid concern that traditional craft is being neglected. At the other end of the spectrum, we visited the Akiyama Mokko school in Kanagawa to see the master-apprentice training in process and also investigated the efforts of Mittel-European governments to keep their apprentice heritages alive. Design in its updated role might be far-reaching in its scope but it’s equally vital not to lose sight of where it all began.


Strelka Institute


Strelka, housed in part of an old chocolate factory overlooking the Moscow River, opened its doors for the first academic year in October, and while the number of students may be small, the architecture and design institute has big plans.

The institute is funded by Russian businessmen and teaches a one-year masters course that focuses on five core areas: preservation, energy, public space, design and urban thinning. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has devised the programme and plans to travel to Moscow three or four times a year to give lectures and participate in workshops. The rest of the time courses will be led by a range of Russian and international luminaries.

The 35 students were selected from more than 300 applicants. The course was so attractive that many of those who applied were overlooked because they were simply too qualified. Most of the final 35 have architecture or design backgrounds, but there are also a few wild cards, such as an economist and an environmental activist. Tuition is free, and the institute also provides housing and a living allowance.

Andrei Goncharov, 24, says he applied for Strelka after graduating from a Moscow design institute where he was disappointed with his education. “I’m more interested in how things exist in context and how they interact with people, but my university was very traditional and didn’t address concrete issues,” he says. Anastasia Albokrinova, from the Russian city of Samara, says she hopes Strelka will foster better taste among Russians. “Russian designers don’t have well developed styles,” says the 23-year-old. “Most design and architecture here is just kitsch.”

There is a heavy focus on research, practical application and production. The idea is that the projects don’t get stuck at the idea or prototype stage. The goal is to fuse the best ideas from western and Russian design and architecture, giving an impetus to the sorry state of the disciplines in Russia today.

Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper

President of Strelka

What is the balance of design and architecture in the programme?
The amount of design will vary from year to year. This year we’re architecture heavy, but in general we’re producing an educational experiment. The broader the approach, the better. We’re heavily research oriented rather than teaching technical skills.

What is Strelka trying to achieve?
We’re trying to do something that is new not just for Russia but for the world. We want to take the best of what existed in Russia in architecture and design from the glory days of the 1920s and integrate it with the best contemporary global thinking.

How does the education at Strelka relate to the world of business and commerce?
Industrial design requires some industry. But at the moment, most Russian industries are about getting stuff out of the ground and selling it. If economic reforms in Russia are successful, the need for all things design-related will increase greatly. That’s what we’re aiming for.

Strelka students:

Kang Minkoo, 24

“I graduated from Hanyang University in Seoul with a BSc in interior design and I was planning to do a masters in the US. But this course sounded a lot more interesting. I was particularly attracted by the ‘thinning’ theme – mass migration to cities, and what happens to the places left behind. I think what I learn here will be useful when I go back to Seoul.”

Xenia Makarova


“I’ve done a wide range of design work, from designing sets for the Bolshoi Theatre to working as a graphic designer in a multinational company. When I heard about Strelka it sounded like more of a movement than a school. This was a possibility to change things in Russia – we need a new understanding of architecture and design.”


Aalto-Tongji Design Factory


At the Aalto-Tongji Design Factory – a new design school set up by Finland’s Aalto University on the leafy campus of Tongji University in Shanghai – the rooftop sauna is the first sign this is not a typical Chinese classroom. There are no desks; students work at sleek, Finnish-designed tables. In one corner, a 24-hour live video feed connects the Tongji students to their counterparts at the original Aalto Design Factory in Finland.

The Design Factory is a revolutionary concept in a country with little experience in alternative education. The programme, which launched this autumn, partners Tongji students in industrial design, engineering and urban planning graduate programs with Aalto design students in Finland to work on real-life design projects for Finnish companies.

The aim is to encourage Chinese students accustomed to learning by rote to work more collaboratively. For some, the programme will lead to jobs with the Finnish companies post-graduation.

“China wants to move up in the value chain from the world’s factory to a society able to create and produce original, high-value products,” says Yrjö Sotamaa, executive vice director of the Sino-Finnish Centre, which oversees the Design Factory. “And that’s what the Design Factory is all about.”


Jeffrey Ho Kiat

Executive director

Design Singapore Council

Government-run Design Singapore Council is investing SG$55m (€30m) into Singapore’s design industries between 2009-2015.

How important is design education in Singapore?
It’s gradually becoming more important as Singapore moves towards a knowledge-based economy. We intend to use design as an economic growth-driver, which means that we need to be training our people – our workers, engineers, business people – to be able to use design competitively. Singapore has five design schools and two universities that offer programmes in architecture, interior design and visual communications. In addition to that, our newest school, the Singapore University of Technology & Design – run in collaboration with MIT and Zhejiang University in China – is a whole university dedicated to technology and design that will graduate its first students in 2012. We intend to infuse design-thinking from primary school all the way to CEO level – that’s our mandate.

How is this ambitious programme implemented on the ground?
We support design education and also help to grow demand for design by giving grants capped at SG$70,000 [€38,000] to design firms to work with businesses. The grant is 30 per cent of the consultancy fee so design firms can go to companies and say, “Yes we can help you and we’ll give you a 70 per cent discount.”


Yrjö Sotamaa

Executive vice director of the Sino-Finnish Centre

Why did Aalto University export the Design Factory to China?
We wanted to have a permanent presence in Asia. China is the most important country for Finland’s future. To benefit from the tremendous development that is now going on in China is an opportunity for Finland to build a future too.

Is China investing in design education?
It's very strongly on the agenda at the best universities. China is also keen on collaborating with others. China is a surprisingly open society and it wants to learn – it wants to adapt the best practices and build on that.

How does this programme differ from anything else in China?
What we’re doing is very practice-oriented. We aim to have the students produce something tangible. It’s an open learning environment which is very new in a society that is very top-down, that is build on traditions where you’re rewarded if you learn what the master tells you.

Aalto-Tongji students:

Wei Wang, 22, industrial design graduate student

“There is some good design in China but not enough for everyone to have access to it. I think that’s the problem we’re facing. This is the challenge for us, the designers to be. I think this field is quite big and quite open because we need a lot of good design to fill our market and to meet the expectations of our consumers and citizens.”

Xing Jing Qi

21, industrial design graduate student

“Students don’t have many chances to work with other students in their field in China. I spent four years in Sichuan province to get my bachelor’s degree. In my school, there were no chances to communicate with designers from other cities and other countries. But now the Factory gives me these chances.”


Stanford, California

The new home of Stanford University’s design school, the, opened in April and only two months later it was catapulted onto the world stage. At an Apple keynote speech, Steve Jobs touted a news-aggregating app for the iPad that had been created by two students. “We’re about impact,” says founder David Kelley.

The focuses on teaching “design thinking”, which means producing creative solutions to students across Stanford University. “Our goal is to encourage students to develop creative confidence,” says Kelley. Design thinking is catching on quickly in the business sector and Washington, he adds, not because corporations and politicians are interested in design per se, but because innovation is seen as a way to be competitive.

At firms headed by Kelley, most notably IDEO, designers have created everything from the first commercially available computer mouse to a stand-up toothpaste dispenser. He founded the in 2003; at one point it was housed in a trailer. Its new $20m (€14m) building, complete with wall-to-ceiling whiteboards and oversized building blocks, was made possible by a $35m (€25m) donation from German entrepreneur and co-founder of software giant SAP, Hasso Plattner.

Around 500 students from across Stanford take classes at the each year. It is making a name for itself in boardrooms across the country as a place where skills are taught that can make businesses grow. Forty members of faculty offer to teach classes there – for free. “We don’t pay ’em,” Kelley says. “They’re here because they want to be here.”


David Kelley

Founder of the

What’s the goal of the
In the widest sense it’s to make an impact on the world in any possible way. I believe that by helping people to fulfill their creative potential, they become equipped to make better decisions with everything in their lives.

Is design thinking only relevant to design?
You can teach someone to be innovative for every project in their life, whether it’s throwing a dinner party or curing cancer.

How did you conceive of the building?
I wanted it to be as much like a kindergarten as possible.

Why are you based on the West Coast?
California is much more open to new ideas than any other place I’ve been. Failure is a good thing here if you recover quickly – it’s really embraced.

What about your friendship with Steve Jobs?
He came down off the stage [at the June keynote] and hugged me. He and I both survived cancer. students:

Stephanie Tomasetta, 20

“This is human-centred design – it’s not building a machine or a product to solve a problem or complete some tasks.”

William Dong, 22

“We’re taught to understand that failure is as important as success – the first idea is not always the best and often you learn more from the mistakes you make to achieve a better final solution.”


Akiyama Mokko


The apprentices at furniture-maker Akiyama Mokko start their day before dawn. The newest members of the group are up at 04.30 to prepare breakfast for everyone. At 06.00 they jog around the neighbourhood. A couple of hours later, at the workshop in Yokohama, they fan out to sweep the road nearby. Only after that’s done do they take up their tools to work on the orders from luxury hotels, department stores and the Japanese royal family.

Toshiteru Akiyama, the 67-year-old founder and owner, has groomed new talent this way for the past three decades. He started his four-year detchi (apprentice) programme as a way of producing a new generation of shokunin (artisans). Apprenticeships are rare in Japanese business these days but Akiyama’s record of producing some of the country’s top furniture- makers has revived interest in the practice.

Akiyama’s regimen is rooted in Japan’s centuries-old tradition of artisans passing on their knowledge and skills to youngsters who devote years to learning a craft. Part boot camp, part trade school, it is not for the weak-willed. Akiyama’s detchi eat, work and sleep together for all but 10 days of the year. They must agree to have their heads shaved and forgo cellphones and romantic flings. Their meagre salary is spent on room, board and tools. “Almost everyone thinks about quitting,” says Akiyama.

Those who stick it out learn the craft. In the evenings, the detchi take notes, practise for a national skills contest, or work on their own projects. They also gain experience working for big-name clients. On a recent afternoon, the detchi were helping put the finishing touches to display cabinets for cosmetics maker Shiseido. In the past they have built furniture for Peninsula Hotel suites. After their four years are up, the detchi become shokunin and are expected to stay for four more years to teach. Akiyama, who recently won government approval to set up a new woodworking school, views his work in biblical terms. “I’m doing what Noah did for the animals,” he says.


Toshiteru Akiyama


Akiyama Mokko

Why is it important to train apprentices the traditional way?
I am a product of the apprenticeship system. I was poor and couldn’t write my name until middle school. Learning a trade got me this far. My mission is to train woodworking superstars. The difference between a shokunin’s work and an ordinary furniture-maker’s can be measured in millimetres. But learning technical skill isn’t everything. Personal growth is just as important. A shokunin is a well-rounded professional.

How do you foster personal growth?
It might take three years for a detchi to save enough money for tools. Tools are a shokunin’s life. When you have to work for your own tools you appreciate them more. I don’t allow my detchi to take money from parents.

Does the training have to be so tough?
Detchi learn from the hardship. They realise what they can do. I get angry a lot and never praise them because they might become arrogant and stop striving.

Akiyama Mokko apprentice:

Yusaku Yamaguchi, 26

“I have an engineering degree from Nagasaki University. The hardest thing for me was taking orders. I had to bury my pride and do as I was told. It took a year to understand that. Everyone starts off by delivering furniture to the customer. At first I wondered why I was doing administrative work. But I’ve come to realise that it’s an important part of the learning process and will be useful later on. I hope to go back to Kyushu and work in Okawa City, where the largest share of domestically made furniture comes from.”

Living National Treasures

Japan’s incentive and reward

Japan is rightly proud of its thriving traditional arts and crafts and since 1954 the government has been designating the country’s most outstanding traditional craftsmen, actors and musicians as “Living National Treasures”. There are up to 116 individuals and groups at any one time, chosen annually by a jury of officials and scholarly outsiders. The craftsmen and women are artisans of pottery, fabric weaving and dyeing, lacquer, metal, bamboo and wood work, doll-making and handmade washi paper. The award, which comes with an annual grant of ¥2m, marks a lifetime of dedication, but this being long-living Japan, recipients are usually at the top of their profession and a long way from retirement.

Skilled labour

Mittel-European governments supporting apprenticeships

Design schools aren’t the only place to learn a craft. In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, an apprenticeship system offers a framework in which emerging craftspeople can gain skills hands-on.

All three countries have a dual vocational system, in which not only emerging artisans but also bakers and even bankers are trained on the job as they attend part-time theoretical classes. Artisanal apprentices work with a master for three or four years, then are tested for a craft diploma. Some continue to work toward master craftsman status.

It all harks back to medieval Europe, when young people learned trades and crafts with masters in exchange for room and board. Today, apprentices are paid nominal salaries that increase as they become more qualified (in Switzerland apprentices earn a stipend of between $250 and $1,200 a month). Because some professions lack trainees (or trainers) the states offer incentives: the German government supports companies who train “hard to place” apprentices with a lump subsidy of €4,000-€6,000. The Austrian government offers up to €400 a month for companies training girls. In Austria, more than 50 per cent of new apprentices enter the crafts area. Switzerland has unparalleled training in watchmaking. Germany leans toward the mercantile trades.

The system is admired as a way to ensure skilled labour and keep unemployment low. “The best way to learn is with a master,” says Leonid Rath of Viennese glassmaker J. & L. Lobmeyr. “We have three young passionate craftsmen who started as apprentices and are now masters.” A good thing: the company’s bespoke chandeliers grace opera houses the world over.


Danish Design School


The Danish Design School was founded in 1875 and has only recently attained the status of a higher education institution. It’s consequently going through a period of great change – reconciling its hands-on, traditional arts and crafts background with the theoretical, research-based processes required of its new academic status. It is also attempting to increase the business opportunities of its students after graduating. Such changes aren’t easy: on one side are the demands of politicians wanting to churn out nice chairs to sell to the Chinese, on the other the more far-sighted, sometimes abstract goals of an academic design education.

“We have been through a period of being more vocational and orientated to the needs of business,” says rector Anne-Louise Sommer. “But I’m trying to steer us on a path that blends our traditional arts and crafts approach with the demands of our new, more academic status. Ultimately we must always have that close link with the business sector and a real societal relevance.”

With 700 students, the school is large by Danish standards and demand for places is high, with around 13 applicants for each of the 142 places available each year. In a country where it isn’t unusual for students to still be studying full time into their thirties, the average age of the Design School’s students has come down from 25 to 21 in recent years.

“It is increasingly important to get our students out into the work place,” says Sommer. “We are aware that we have a role to play in society. That’s also why we have introduced a mentoring programme: students can be a bit unfocused when they leave the school. It’s part of our agreement with the Ministry of Culture to emphasise employability more.’


Anne-Louise Sommer


Danish Design School

What do you see as the core strengths of the Danish Design School?
Our arts and crafts tradition is still important and we are still very hands-on. We are also strong in design thinking and interdisciplinary processes. So, while some students might still design an exquisite piece of furniture, many end up as project leaders on multidisciplinary teams.

How is the economic mood affecting you?
There is a lot of hype about design by politicians in terms of its importance to the economy but they are reducing our funds by around 5 per cent. Eighty per cent of our research is privately funded.

What do you see as the trends of the future in design education?
Everyone is, of course, talking about approaching things in a multi-disciplinary way, which we are very involved in. If you were to distill what the Danish Design School is about, it would be that our students have a craving to improve the world, rather than impose any one design ideology.

Danish Design School students:

Kenni Kruse, 23

“We can’t all make lambs’ wool cardigans. Society needs beacons for the future. The school is very good at nurturing.”

Sidsel Rudolph, 29

“The school encourages students to get involved with real projects – it is important to work with real people.”

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