Returning from the Edge of Design

One week per year Eindhoven, Netherlands hosts Dutch Design Week where the world of design takes focus on the once tiny town. During this week, the visitors outnumber the locals, lasting professional relationships are born and many designers’ dreams of growing from ‘aspiring’ to ‘recognized’ come true. I knew nothing of Eindhoven before visiting but as soon as I arrived, I felt comfortable. It has Design coursing through its veins.

Eindhoven is roughly 1.5 hours south of Amsterdam by train. The city has a practical, industrial vibe thanks to the rise of industry initially centred around tobacco and textile. The city’s industrial sector grew significantly with the rise of lighting and electronics giant Philips, which was founded as a light bulb manufacturing company in Eindhoven in 1891.

The city boomed with Philips at its helm for over a century, continuing to expand with factories and cultural institutions to match. However, in the late-1990’s, Philips began to move their production elsewhere in the world to remain competitive in an exponentially growing market. This left many large spaces empty throughout the city.

Around the same time, the Design Akademie (founded in 1947) elected Li Eldelkoort (International Trend forecaster in Design and Fashion) to be the chairwoman of the school. Her influence and emphasis on engaging with larger complex social and cultural issues led to industry leaders from around the globe taking notice of the student concepts and designs. After graduation, many designers elect to stay in Eindhoven, spreading throughout the city into the numerous vacant buildings left by Philips.

Dutch Design Week (DDW) started twelve years ago in 2005 as a non-commercial fair where design, industry and business could talk to each other on ‘neutral’ ground. The event has grown rapidly each year with more than 250,000 visitors attending in 2013.

DDW is not a typical Design fair. In their own words,“DDW is different from other design events, because it concentrates on the future”. Although every imaginable discipline and aspect of design is on offer, the emphasis is on experimentation, innovation, and crossover. Each year exceptional attention goes to the work and development of young talent.

Innately, Eindhoven is full of fresh and vibrant ideas. Many designers focus on specific concepts and are rigorous in their execution. Sustainability, the human experience (health, food), and the future of the planet were topics that came up again and again — issues so fundamental that we sometimes forget to discuss them when speaking about products.

One of my favourite pieces at the show is by a young designer, Kristaps Politis, who created a “Printstrument” to help children learn about music. It is a simple concept: the child downloads an app that offers various elements of a wind instrument which can be 3D printed and fitted together like lego. As the child adds more pieces to create a longer and longer instrument the pitch of the music gets deeper. This experience helps the child understand the fundamentals of how music and sound work. And the best part is that if any of the pieces are ever lost they can simply be re-printed. 3D printing shops were as common as cafés in Eindhoven, coming across as a fundamental tool for daily activity.

Another incredibly beautiful project was proposed by Simon Dogger. He created camera glasses to be worn by the blind. The glasses send images of a conversation to an emotion recognition app, which in turn sends vibrations that are felt in the palm of the wearer’s hand. This allows someone without sight to be able to “see” the emotions of the person they are communicating with.

During our visit we were introduced to a host of locals who were welcoming and informative about their city, their process, and their passions. There is a tangible sense of community amongst the designers working in Eindhoven — it feels like a fresh and fruitful place to live and create. I would even go so far as to say that they live in a kind of Design-haven, where all their basic needs are met so they can concentrate on higher questions like “What is Design?” and “How can Design improve our lives?”.

Designers give and receive much support from the overwhelming sense of pride that the residents of Eindhoven feel for the Academie and its designers. The celebration and conversation about design continues all year long, creating a welcoming environment for young minds to develop. I’ve seen the heart of the future of design and couldn’t be more excited!

Short list of select designers and exhibitions from DDW