Co-founder Gijs Bakker, jewellery designer and professor of design at the Eindhoven Design Academy in The Netherlands, was in Sydney this August during Sydney Design 06 to launch the exhibition Droog Design: the human touch at the Sydney Opera House.
His compatriot Kees Dorst, design professor at University of Technology Sydney, hosted a public forum at which Bakker spoke about Droog, design and the need for meaning. He said the whole idea was born out of a reaction to the glossy, consumer-driven design that had taken hold in the late 20th century.
‘Italy was still dominating the scene, but before that it was Scandinavia,’ said Bakker. ‘Design became too luxurious, expensive, distant, slick, and too far from normal people.’
What was needed was a return to ordinariness. In 1993, Bakker and Renny Ramakers, art-historian, design magazine editor and Droog co-founder, put together an alternative exhibition of designers’ work. ‘We took a mishmash of quirky objects to the Milan Furniture Fair. Some of them got chucked out by cleaning staff. They thought they were rubbish!’Rubbish that generated international interest and established certain products as iconic of the early 1990s.
Some objects are reminiscent of third world bricolage with their eccentric use of materials. Others poke fun at functionalism and postmodernism. The objects are almost always funny, and it’s this dry or ‘droog’ humour that makes the objects accessible to a wide range of people. But therein lies the danger, says Bakker. ‘If it’s only humour, that’s terrible. I’d prefer to say irony. It helps you think in another way, and helps you to get more ideas for yourself.’
Droog’s iconic products include the Rag Chair, made of used clothes bound by metal strips; the Heat Wave wall radiator which turns invisible central heating into a baroque arrangement of curlicues, and the 85 Bulb Chandelier – a bunch of 85 naked light bulbs transformed into an object at once basic and opulent.
The Bookcase uses 20 recycled drawers, piled up and bound with a belt; the Rietveld Chair is re-built in Lego and the Knotted Chair is macramé soaked in resin to form a rock-hard chair. There are wine-glass doorbells, soft polyurethane wash basins, napery with perforated folding lines and a range of Pantone mugs in every shade of coffee and tea. And even a T-shirt with underarm printed flowers to celebrate the sweat.
At the Eindhoven Academy, the traditional divisions of graphics, textiles, furniture have been replaced with person-centred courses: man and living, leisure, work, transport etc. The courses attract post-graduate students from all over the world. Kees Dorst, a design professor himself, was interested in how Bakker managed to produce students free from the restrictions that bedevil industrial and furniture design courses. Bakker agreed it was a challenge. ‘They’re so pre-cooked in their attitudes, and it’s hard to open up the brain. But it’s also a fantastic opportunity. Why should a Chinese student be making slick square products’ It’s ridiculous. So we get them to explore their background in a conceptual way.’
Droog has had commissions from china giant Rosenthal, from Bang & Olufsen and Mandarina Duck. They’ve designed street furniture for the former East Germany and worked with architects at home. Bakker insists that the work is always designer-led, not market led.
‘This puts the designer in a different role. Nowadays you have industrial designers and author designers. For me the author designer develops a vision – that’s highly important. Many companies are fighting to create identity and vision. They need author designers that can give direction.’
The word ‘author’ reframes the design process as verbal, echoed by the importance Bakker gives to the product’s ‘story’ and how that governs the selection criteria he and Ramakers use. ‘A product needs to have a story that tells its content. The way Renny and I work, we select the products, get exited about them. We sit together and try to write in one sentence a rationale, to catch the content of the concept. If we can’t, we say ‘ Chop! It’s a good test that goes beyond our intuition.’