13 January 2017 -

Report on the Dutch Design History Society’s annual symposium, 9th December 2016.

Speaker: Alice Twemlow

Over the last five years there has been a shift within design history away from the preoccupation with national studies in design, towards interrogating the constructedness of culture and national identity as such (eg Engelke & Hochscherf, 2015; Gimeno-Martinez, 2016) and furthermore with rethinking design within a complex set of global or transnational networks and contexts (eg Adamson, Riello & Teasley, 2011; Kirkham & Weber, 2013; Huppatz, 2015; Margolin, 2015; Edwards, 2015; Fallan & Lees-Maffei, 2016; El Maasri, PhD 2016; et al).  This scholarly shift is also tangible in the re-cataloguing and re-display of design objects in museums, as was apparent in curatorial presentations at the Taipei-based International Conference on Design History and Design Studies on ‘Building Trans/national Contemporary Design History’ held in October, for example.

The annual symposium of Designgeschiedenis Nederland (Dutch Design History Society), held on 9th December 2016, also reflected this shift.  The event, entitled ‘From De Stijl to Dutch Design: Canonising Design’, held at Utrecht’s Centraal Museum and organised by Jan de Bruijn, Frederike Huygen, Joana Meroz and Rosa te Velde, aimed to address current concepts in thinking about national design and the development of national design canons. 

Designgeschiedenis Nederland founder, design historian Frederike Huygen opened the symposium before handing over to Joana Meroz (Design Cultures PhD candidate, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) to introduce key concepts in thinking about national design and to give a historical overview of Dutch design’s canonisation processes.  Meroz proposed a distinction between design ‘in’ the Netherlands but used elsewhere, design ‘of’ the Netherlands but made elsewhere and design ‘for’ the Netherlands regardless of provenance.  She argued that ‘Dutch design’ as a category was defined by and through a set of historical discourses, that no processes or products could be considered intrinsically Dutch or having essentially Dutch characteristics, but were only recognised or constructed as such.  This, she asserted, contradicted the earlier thinking of art historians such as HLC Jaffé who wrote about the ‘Dutch spirit’ and Droog designer Renny Ramakers who described the characteristics of ‘Dutchness’.  Meroz concluded with the reflection that if Dutch design has been discursively constructed it can also be re-constructed when subject to revisionist histories.  Ida van Zijl (former curator at Utrecht Centraal Museum) spoke next about the way in which chairs designed by Gerrit Rietveld and collected during her thirty year career as the Museum’s curator and vice-director have reflected patterns of design canonisation, as well as wider shifts in the perception of De Stijl, from early connections with a wider international modernist avant-garde, to ideas of typically Dutch art.  Rietveld’s work, as van Zijl showed, had regularly been appropriated for purposes unrelated to his work or to the ideas of De Stijl.  Next up, Jeremy Aynsley (Professor of Design History, University of Brighton and Chair of the Design History Society) spoke about the complexities of displaying previously canonised design movements, taking the recent conservation and re-interpretation of Bauhaus houses at Weimar and Dessau as case studies that reflect the impact of changing priorities in design curatorship and scholarship.

Alice Twemlow (co-head of the MA in Design Curating & Writing at Design Academy, Eindhoven) spoke about open-source, distributed design criticism in the twenty-first century, arguing that events like the new London Design Museum’s crowd-sourced design exhibit and reviews of design products on Amazon were an important part of the new design landscape, with a potentially profound impact on processes of design canonisation as shaped previously by professional museum curators, design critics and scholars.  Cyril Tjahja (PhD candidate at Northumbria University) explored the value and meaning of the ‘I Love SU’ t-shirt among the Surinamese-Dutch population in the Netherlands as an opportunity to challenge established views on Dutch Design and its canon, and to reconsider what is commonly accepted as ‘Dutch’ and even as ‘design’.  His research has included a review of Dutch Design Awards winners (2003-2014), with the startling conclusion that 95% of (or 162) winners have been autochtonous (or indigenous) Dutch, 1% (or 2) winners allochthonous (or incoming) Dutch and only 4% (or 6) winners have been non-Dutch, with only 1 designer neither based in or educated in the Netherlands.  His conclusion was that these awards promote an essentialist view of Dutch design.  Gonçalo Falcão (designer and visiting professor at University of Lisbon) spoke next about the way that four popular studies in graphic design have shaped and reinforced a selective and partial understanding of the design canon.

Speaker: Jeremy Aynsley, Chair of Design History Society

Timo de Rijk (Director of the Stedelijk Museum’s-Hertogenbosch and Designgeschiedenis Nederland board member) opened the afternoon sessions with reflections on the state of Dutch design and audiences for it.  Anne de Haij (project manager of Mondrian 2017 at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague) spoke next about what the current collaboration between NBTC Holland Marketing and Dutch museums signifies for design in the Netherlands.  Then Renilde Steeghs (Ambassador for Cultural Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) spoke about the importance of promoting culture and design within an international diplomatic context, citing various international projects which have drawn on Dutch designers or, more importantly, a ‘Dutch approach’ (for example, in the aftermath of natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy) which, she argued, could now be considered a more significant design export than Dutch design products.  For the final part of the day, three designers - Susana Cámara Leret, Mario Minale and Laura M. Pana - spoke eloquently about the impact of design promotion on their work and careers, with work focusing across areas which might be defined as critical design, product design and social design respectively.

The symposium attracted a stimulatingly diverse audience comprising of design scholars and students, design practitioners and curators, and provided an excellent platform for a dialogue across professional boundaries within design, including some very engaging discussion between the speakers and a strikingly expert audience.

Dr Harriet Atkinson, University of Brighton; Trustee and Research Grants Officer, Design History Society

Designgeschiedenis Nederland (Dutch Design History Society) was founded in 2009 to encourage research and publications about design history. The foundation’s website is at:



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