Going Dutch

Two recent books ask why design in the Netherlands is so good - but is it?

Ask what makes Dutch design so good and you risk unleashing a torrent of invective from the international design world. The subtitle of Aaron Betsky’s new book False Flat (Phaidon, 2004), ‘Why Dutch Design Is so Good’, is provocative not because of the claim it makes (everyone loves Dutch design) but because of its smug tone and the issues it touches on regarding the state funding of design: how typical of the comfortable, publicly subsidized Dutch design community to affect introspection alongside self-satisfaction!
Earlier this year the Dutch design institute Premsela invited the American graphic designer Michael Rock to lecture it about itself. In a talk entitled ‘Mad Dutch Disease’ Rock argued that the indisputable virtues of Dutch design were becoming little more than a desperate attempt to gloss over national collapse, a branding exercise that has turned the Netherlands into an ‘international design theme park’. Reviewing the practice of apparently socially engaged Dutch designers such as the architects MDRDV and the graphic designers Experimental Jetset, he found irony, parody and a lack of ideology. The content of this lecture is not particularly remarkable: an American designer tired of being buffeted by the vagaries of the market system vents his spleen at his state-funded-to-their-eyeballs Dutch counterparts. What is noteworthy, however, is that it was staged by a government-funded design body, and the text is published on their website. It wouldn’t happen at the British Design Council, let me tell you (but then, very little happens there).
In False Flat Betsky rehearses familiar arguments about Dutch design, chiefly the notion that in retrieving their land from the sea the Dutch designed themselves into existence, and they have made a point of it ever since. His bias is towards architecture, and in telling the story that I am most familiar with, that of graphic design, he makes some significant omissions. In particular, the lack of reference to either Jan van Toorn or Gert Dumbar seems rather peculiar. That said, he has a smoothness of tone and an exception-that-proves-the-rule style that leaves me in no doubt these figures could easily be encompassed in the flow. Betsky’s bid to say something new comes at the end of his tale. Discussing the changes in Dutch society brought about by globalization and immigration, he argues that the nation’s designers have created a model that could be applied across the world. While many (including Rock) believe that these forces will blow apart the pretty world of Dutch design, Betsky insists that the designers will be saved by their native awareness of the artificiality of the environment, their will to experiment, their self-reflexivity and their openness to international youth culture. Far from becoming redundant, they will ‘map out a better world that we can collectively inhabit’.
Designed by Irma Boom, False Flat is, unsurprisingly, a handsome book. Its most notable graphic trait is its variously sized font,
a feature that came about in a manner that is quintessentially Dutch. Having completed his text, Betsky handed it to Boom and his co-author Adam Eeuwens. They set about scouring his words, searching for cues for appropriate images and judging the relative worth of each paragraph. Sections that merited liberal illustration or were particularly interesting were blown up large; those that suggested fewer pictures or were deemed to be lagging were set in smaller type. The author had no input in this process and saw his text again only on completion. Effectively the book thus carries an in-built critique.
Mark (2004), the catalogue to the exhibition of ‘Municipal Art Acquisitions in Graphic Design, 2003–4’ at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, displays a similar kind of graphic self-reflexivity. The product of a jury selection, the book has a page for each submission but omits the content of all but the 20 successful entrants. With its long runs of empty frames the publication bespeaks as much as failure as success. It brings to mind the celebrated Dutch polder model and the conviction that argument and compromise are required in the process of self-invention. The final selection is very impressive – Dutch design is so good – but the catalogue invites the reader to think about the chaff as much as the wheat. It’s hard not to smirk at disparaging remarks in the introduction about displays of ‘smugness and navel-gazing’.
On a slightly less twisted note Mark could be viewed as evidence for Betsky’s proposition that Dutch design can provide a service for the rest of the world. The only requirement for entry was that the designer should have at least one Amsterdam client, and as well as Dutch graphic designers the acquisitions therefore encompass practitioners from France, Switzerland, Britain and Israel. The existence of public money for design obviously plays a significant role in drawing these designers to the Netherlands. It’s not quite the future that Betsky imagines, but by paying out so generously the Dutch are creating an international safe haven for design experiment. And this is something that shouldn’t be sneered at, either by the Dutch themselves or by anyone else.

Issue 88

First published in Issue 88

February 2005

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