The Dutch designer HELLA JONGERIUS (1963-) works on the cusp of design, craft, art and technology to fuse traditional and contemporary influences, high tech and low tech, the industrial and artisanal.
Standing in the Design Museum Tank on the riverfront was a wooden table laden with food and illuminated by five lamps with ceramic bases and silk shades. On closer inspection it was apparent that the 'food' - a loaf of bread, fish, fowl, sausages and artichokes - was made from hand-blown glass and the lamps were embroidered with images of the animals, inspects and birds printed on the silk. Stranger still, the floor was covered in rich brown soil.
It was The Silk Menagerie, an installation created for the Design Museum by the Dutch designer-maker Hella Jongerius. Inspired by a visit to Hermes' silk archive in Paris, it combines many of the themes that have dominated Jongerius' work over the past decade by juxtaposing the old and new, craft and industry, high tech and low tech.
Born in De Meern in 1963, she studied industrial design at the Eindhoven Design Academy and has since combined elements of that discipline with those of traditional craftsmanship in products, textiles and ceramics. Many of her early designs were manufactured by Droog, the influential Dutch design collective, and she now puts her own work into production through Jongeriuslab, her Rotterdam studio, as well as developing products for manufacturers such as Maharam, Royal Tichelaar Makkum and Vitra.
See Hella Jongerius' work at jongeriuslab.com
Q. When did you first become aware of design? And how did you become interested in it?
A. I started to study carpentry but, in the end, it was too much about making. I realised that I was more interested in creating the design of the object.
Q. Why did you decide to study industrial design? And after studying it, why did you decide to become a maker as well as a designer?
A. Industrial design was perfect for me because I was afraid of the freedom you get if you study art and the big questions it poses about work and life. So, I chose a subject that dealt with with practical questions and one that bordered on a profession. Right now, playing with these questions, those borders and art are my inspiration. For me a designer is a maker, it's like ping-ponging between the head and the hands.
Q. How would you describe you role now? As a designer? A crafts(wo)man Or both?
A. I am a designer. Craft is a theme in my work. Mixing it with the industrial process is like mixing high and low tech, mixing first and third world cultures, mixing tradition with a contemporary language, different ages and techniques. I am trying to find ways to make unique pieces from industrial processes and using archetypal forms in new techniques or materials.
Q. You were one of the first designers to collaborate with Droog. How did you become involved with Droog? What role did it play in the development of your own career and in that of Dutch design in general during the 1990s?
A. When I graduated in 1993, Droog chose one of my products - a soft bathmat (a 1993 polyurethane bathmat) - to produce for their collection. A month later, I showed them the Soft Vase (a 1994 polyurethane vase) and, again, they were enthusiastic. After that, for years every product I designed went into the Droog collection. It was a very luxurious position: all I had to do was design and Droog took my work around the world. I'm very lucky - and maybe talented - to have been on top of this wave during the 1990s.
Q. How have your preoccupations as a designer changed since then? Why did you decide to stop working with Droog and to produce your own work through Jongeriuslab?
A. I still have the same preoccupations I had in the beginning of my career: unique/industrial, high/low tech, 2050/1700 etc. But my work is also less sober than it was in the beginning. It's richer. There's more celebration of the materials, more decoration, more colour, more comfort and more sex.
Q. A recurring theme in your work is the fusion of craftsmanship with industrialisation in Giant Prince and Princess (a 2000 series of embroidered ceramic vases produced for Museum Het Princessehof in Leeuwarden), for instance. How did this preoccupation develop? And how do you see it developing in future?
A. The craftmanship comes from the romantic, down-to-earth farm girl in me, and the industrialisation from the metropolitan power woman.
Q. Similarly, much of your work deals with the relationship between modernity and traditionalism - in 7 Pots/3 Centuries/2 Materials (a 1998 limited edition of ceramic vases), for instance, or your recent Delft project - again how did this preoccupation develop? And how will it progress?
A. In general, I'm not really interested in history or old stuff, but when I started designing I realised that there were lots stories and layers that I wanted to add to products. At a point, you need to decide on a form to contain all this information. This is for me is always the hardest part - which form should I make? There are already so many forms, so I started looking in old collections and found the best archetypes. While digging into history, I also discovered traditional types of craftmanship which are beautifully detailed and in which you could see how much time the craftsman had spent on the product. In industrial processes, time is money and the products miss this quality. I am just starting this study, I have a lifetime to go. Up until now, I have worked on this as a self-initiated project from my own studio, but I would love to develop my ideas and to manufacture them on an industrial basis with random proccesses and forms. I don't want to fake imperfection - something my clients always see as a goal - because it's too expensive. First, I would love to design the machines to manufacture my ideal products.
Q. Often you have worked in media, such as ceramics and textiles, which have traditionally been perceived as feminine. Was this a conscious decision? Is there a sexual political sub-text to it?
A. I'm aware of the history of textile and ceramic workers: that they're mostly women. But I design in the medium which tells my stories the best. My handwriting is a robust, kind of dirty realism. Sometimes the combination of materials is sensitive and seductive. The concept is smart, well thought-out and very disciplined. Which of those qualities are male or female?
Q. The My Soft Office project represented a new departure for you. How did it come about, and develop? What are the parallels between My Soft Office and the rest of your work? And the differences?
A. My Soft Office was commisioned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York for the Workspheres exhibition which opened in February 2001. The brief was to design a home office. First of all, I looked what kind of home offices my friends had: usually an iMac on the kitchen table. I decided to design a marriage between furniture and technology by combining technology we use every day, like typical screens and keyboards, with domestic situations such as sleeping and eating. The parallels with the rest of my work are the unorthodox use of materials, applying them to new fields and working with archetypes. Also, I wanted to add the human touch (you could call it craftsmanship) to technology, because all computer products still smell like nerds. A computer offers so much more than suffering in an office on stupid work projects. All the information on hobbies, entertainment etc is available on computers and fun to do at home. For me, My Soft Office is still in its first stage: I would really like to merge the technology more with materials and objects.
Q. And how did The Silk Menagerie come about?
A. I visited the immense attic in Paris where Hermes stores every item in its collections including the objects that inspired them. I found myself in an ornamental scenery from the past. It reminded me instantly of hunters' galas and 17th century still lives in which tables are loaded with fruit, oysters, glassware and a lot of dead meat symbolising all greater subjects in life from sexual enjoyment to fear of poverty and decay. I wanted to integrate this experience with Hermes silk in the Design Museum Tank.
Q. How did you do it?
A. From the collection of scarves I picked four prints that had animals as a topic and played my own game with them: mixing silk with porcelain, enlarging the insects, having a bird meet a dog almost like mating. The animals on the scarves feast on the porcelain by continuing the silk decorations in embroidery which also serves as the connection between the two materials.
1963 Born in De Meern, Netherlands.
1988 Enrols at the Eindhoven Design Academy to study industrial design.
1993 Graduates from the Eindhoven Design Academy and participates in the first Droog Design exhibition at the Milan Furniture Fair with Bath Mat.
1994 Designs the Soft Urn and Soft Vase series of polyurethane vases for Droog Design.
1995 Work exhibited in the Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
1996 Participates in the Self Manufacturing Designers exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the Thresholds in Contemporary Design from the Netherlands exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, New York.
1998 Teaches industrial design at the Design Academy, Eindhoven.
Develops the b-set collection of intentionally imperfect industrially produced tableware for Royal Tichelaar Makkum.
2000 Produces a collection of embroidered ceramics for the Pseudofamily exhibition at Museum Het Princesshof in Leeuwarden, Netherlands.
2001 Develops the My Soft Office series of futuristic office furniture for the Workspheres exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
2002 Designs the Repeat series of upholstery fabrics for Maharam and the Crystal Frock chandelier for Swarovski.
Creates The Silk Menagerie installation for the Design Museum and Hermès.
2003 Wins the Rotterdam Design Prize for Repeat.
Publication of a monograph, Hella Jongerius, by Phaidon Press.
Exhibition of her work at the Design Museum.
2005 Designs a sofa and stools for Vitra and the Non-temporary collection of earthenware for Royal Tichelaar Makkum.