‘Our idea was to put the existing design events together and make it one programme in one month. Then we could tell the world, look what’s going on in Holland.’
Vanessa van Houtum, project manager of The Netherlands’ inaugural umbrella festival, Freedesigndom, explains the rationale behind the new event. It’s a methodology that’s been tried and tested by the likes of London and Tokyo – indeed, London’s own gig has been much imitated in further-flung places than Holland.
‘When the first London Design Festival took place in 2002 there were three other design festivals already on the scene – Milan, New York and Tokyo,’ says LDF director Ben Evans. There are now a score of such festivals around the world. ‘Several have been inspired directly by the activity in London – from Buenos Aires, Singapore and Belgrade to Istanbul,’ he adds.
The difference with September’s Freedesigndom is that it straddled two locations: Amsterdam and Utrecht.
Not that Dutch design is suffering from low self-esteem. In recent years, its profile has got stronger. Grand masters like Irma Boom, Wim Crouwel, Studio Dumbar and Rem Koolhaas have been joined by ad agency Kessels Kramer, collectives Moooi and Droog Design, along with individuals including Hella Jongerius, Studio Job, Jurgen Bey, Bertjan Pot and architect MVRDV.
‘Dutch design has become famous,’ Aaron Betsky points out in his book on Dutch design, False Flat. ‘Dutch architects such as MVRDV are exporting the lessons they learned designing social housing all over the world, and Dutch industrial, graphic and furniture designers are picking up commissions in the US, Europe and Asia.’
While Dutch designers are signing up with manufacturers such as Cappellini, Vitra and BMW, their design style is also having an impact, Betsky says. ‘Walk into the temple of high design in New York, a store called Moss, and Dutch design threatens to overwhelm the classics of high Modernism hailing form Germany and France. For a small country, The Netherlands exerts amazing influence.’
Going international doesn’t seem to have undermined or dampened the Dutch sense of humour. Van Houtum cites Droog as showing this tongue-in-cheek approach to fruitful effect. And False Flat is peppered with examples, like the 2000 graduation catalogue cover for the Design Academy Eindhoven, by Anthon Beeke. It’s a silhouette of standard corkscrew raising its metal ‘arms’ in celebration.
But despite all the big names and the oft-recognisable style, the Dutch authorities think design needs a boost. Ronald Plasterk, Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, last month earmarked €12m (£9.4m) for design. Freedesigndom will be one of the beneficiaries, as it’s organised by Premsela, a design body funded by said ministry and by the City of Amsterdam. In fact, Van Houtum is busy planning its 2009 and 2010 events.
Meanwhile, 2500 individuals and 200 consultancies belong to Beroepsorganisatie Nederlandse Ontwerpers. That’s out of a total of about 46 000 designers from a 17-million-strong population. This is a similar proportion to the UK, where there are 185 500 people employed in design, according to the Design Council, out of 60 million.
As well as bigging up the already big, Freedesigndom hopes to do its bit for lesser-known practitioners. ‘Designers can always be known better,’ says Van Houtum. ‘We have Wanders and Studio Job, but there are many others that aren’t known internationally. A lot of designers who just came from school that are protégés.’
Relatively new talents who might benefit include Maarten Baas, a 2002 graduate of Eindhoven’s Design Academy.
And these youngish guns may also benefit from the fact that Freedesigndom bills itself as a showcase of creativity rather than a commercial event. ‘It’s a platform to stimulate the creative sectors, to show everyone what’s going on,’ says Van Houtum, though it does include Woonbeurs Amsterdam, the selling exhibition and one of the biggest furniture fairs in Europe, under its umbrella.
Dutch design marries playfulness with functionality and an appreciation of design in public life.
‘Indeed, this is what makes so much of Dutch design so good,’ says Betsky. ‘It is part of the everyday landscape. There is no philosophical difference between the way the road is laid out, the signage that tells you where to go, the buildings around the road, and the furniture inside the houses.’
Numbers of designers in different disciplines in The Netherlands
The report Design in the Creative Economy calculated the added value of design in The Netherlands to be €2.6bn (£2bn). It found that the Dutch design industry is estimated to employ about 46 000 designers, with roughly three-quarters in the commercial services sector, 20 per cent in industry and the remainder in the non-profit sector
Fashion designers: 1300
Industrial designers: 4100
Total: 13 900
Advertising designers: 1400
Window dressers: 1700
Illustrators and graphic designers: 24 300
Total: 27 400
Landscape designers: 1500
Interior designers: 3300
Total, all disciplines 46 100
Source for all figures: Design in the Creative Economy report by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), 2005