Subversive wit

Polite, modest and conservative: three defining characteristics of the Dutch, a people that has historically embraced pious morality and aesthetic restraint.

The truth of Dutch national character is out of kilter with much of the world’s opinion of the Netherlands as a debauched nation. Relatively sober themselves, the Dutch look wryly on as all nations come to indulge, cut loose and vomit on their neatly swept doorsteps.

In art, the Dutch tend to express a canny perceptiveness that saw 17th-century painters like Johannes Vermeer expose moral diversities between apparently similar subjects. All is not as wholesome as it seems, says Vermeer in paintings like A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal.

Today, Dutch designers are still using their satirical wit to expose our prejudices and confound our expectations about the nature and place of different materials. A huge gift shop hit of the past few years is the 1975 ceramic white plastic cup, slightly crushed, by Dutch designer and artist Rob Brandt. Reach out to grasp it and your senses are baffled by the cool, hard object that you receive. The ceramics’ permanent nature clashes with your understanding of the plastic cup as a disposable item. It is intellectually complex and texturally satisfying.

Brandt is not alone in his subversive design style. In a new exhibition at Flow gallery in west London, eight designer-makers show works from a non-functional paper tea set, by Margo Slingerland, to Debbie Wijskamp’s functioning crockery set made from paper pulp.

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