UNSCRIPTED with Marcel Wanders: The Currency of Freedom and How to Spend It
by Anmol AhujaJul 02, 2021
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Jeroen JuntePublished on : Mar 24, 2023
It all started so low key in 1992, with a group exhibition by a dozen or so talented design provocateurs in Amsterdam. The transverse pieces of furniture were curated by art historian Renny Ramakers and Gijs Bakker, already a well-known designer at the time. Droog Design was the name of this pop-up presentation of loose-fixed designers. The products were simple, quirky and humorous: or in one Dutch word—'droog'—which means dry. A Scrapwood chair made by Piet Hein Eek was not really comfortable. And a chest made of old drawers by Tejo Remy doesn't suit for big books and photos. Now we are no longer surprised by such a witty play of irony, but in 1993 it hit like a bomb—first in Holland but after their first presentation on the global design stage at the Salone del Mobile.Milano the rest of the world quickly followed.
The impact of Droog—the catchy abbreviation that was used after international acclaim—can hardly be overstated. First of all, it put The Netherlands firmly on the map as a guide land in adventurous but critical design with a dry sense of humour. The austere Calvinist national character, the scarcity of raw materials, and the opportunity to experiment, thanks to a generous, subsidy-providing government—this is how Bakker and Ramakers themselves explain the rising of Droog as a typical Dutch phenomenon in their 1998 monography Spirit of the Nineties (the book is now a sought-after collector's item in itself).
Furthermore, it was the springboard to the international design top for many young designers—from Marcel Wanders and Richard Hutten in the last century to Maarten Baas and Formafantasma in this age. Droog designs have been purchased by the MoMA in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, to name just a few. Beyond the national borders, Droog became synonymous with Dutch design for a long time, and not just because of the phonetic similarity.
What started as a rebellion against the super-strict minimalism from Denmark or the bombastic Italian design, ended up as a challenge of all common notions of design. Far before new technologies such as 3D printing or artificial intelligence came up, Droog experimented with science and technology. In the late 1990s, under the name Dry Tech, designers were linked to scientists of the famous Delft Technical University. A then unknown Marcel Wanders dipped a traditional crocheted rope chair in a bath of liquid epoxy. After the synthetic resin hardened, a sturdy chair of rope remained. This Knotted Chair is not only Wanders' claim to fame, but also heralds a revival of the craft.
In their own provocative way Droog also had a huge impact on the Milan Design Week, the most important design fair that yearly takes place in April. In 2004, for example, they hosted a presentation called Go Slow. In a simple white showroom, a tour of the new products was given by seniors, ordering a cup of tea took about half an hour. In the middle of the cauldron of Milan, visitors were thus forced to slow down and reflect the commercial bustle of this design fair. Every time when the global audience thought they knew what design was all about, Droog changed the focus and with that perspective of design.
This year Droog returns to Milan for the very last time with the show Droog30: design or non-design? at the Triennale di Milano. It will not be a "greatest hits show," says co-curator and former Droog-designer Richard Hutten. "In line with the provocative mentality of Droog the objects on show will be selected by an algorithm. The accompanying text will be taken from the comments on the Twitter-account @droog30
That seems like another era though. It has been eight years since Droog presented itself in Milan. The last real collection is even longer ago: a collaboration with the Rijksmuseum in 2013. Who visits the Droog headquarters in Amsterdam nowadays doesn't see a bustling gallery with shows, book launches or lively debates anymore, just a shop with café, hardly more. Droog has dried out.
So, where did it all go wrong?
Designers just don't need a platform anymore to profile themselves. That’s also why the Droog-designers from the first hour went their own way. Piet Hein Eek runs his own collection at IKEA, Hella Jongerius works for KLM and Vitra. In the end Droog was nothing more than the sum of the individual collaborators. But the attention always went to Droog. It felt like the designers had to ask themselves in a Kennedy-like way what they could do for Droog, instead of the other way around. And there was the endless hassle with royalties.
"Ideas must be 'dry.' Concepts must be correct. Products must function." That was the self-formulated credo of Droog. It all sounded so simple. Maybe too simple. With the success and the rising demand, the paradox in the Droog collection was becoming increasingly visible. The products were indeed extremely original and controversial, but they were in a way exactly the opposite of good design, which is sustainable, functional and cheap to produce. The wry irony is that the ideas of Droog were thereafter dumbed-up and commercialised by others. First and foremost, by its own 'sorcerer's apprentice', Wanders and his successful label Moooi.
For a moment Droog seemed to ride the wave of the so called art design that is still in high demand at Art Basel/ Design Miami and galleries like Carpenters Workshop. But that market is small and hyper-commercial. A Rag chair remains after all a chair made of rags. Collectors ultimately prefer to buy something made of shiny bronze. As for the humour, that was the unique selling point of Droog: a joke is only funny the first time. At some point Droog even opened their own gallery in a hotel on The Strip in Las Vegas. It could have been a brilliant conceptual statement. It wasn't and it failed. That sort of sums it up.
But probably the most important reason why in the end Droog lost its relevance, is the changing mentality in design. Humour and irony are no longer the preferred instruments to tackle big issues such as climate change, social inequality or the flipside of the internet, such as fake news and privacy infringements. Designers have become change-makers, activists even! But mediagenic statements of Droog never had any real impact. Droog never fully committed itself to the real problems of real people. In the end it was foremost design about design. Yes, it opened up the doors—but it never showed the way in.
One may wonder if Droog even could have existed in our modern digitalised era. Who needs a Droog if you can present your ideas on Instagram, for example? As a result, original views and radical trends are now going viral so fast that they can hardly take hold. A coherent view on design as Droog has no time to mature anymore. That is why Droog is the last global design movement. It is right up there with the postmodernist Memphis group in the 80s, the mid-century Scandinavian modernism or De Stijl in 1920s with Gerrit Rietveld.
The conception of design was stretched beyond beauty, functionality, and efficiency by Droog. Nowadays it is completely normal for a designer to make a statement against overconsumption and environmental waste with a chair. It is self-evident to experiment with sustainable materials and self-devised manufacturing processes, averse to efficiency thinking, with an eye on the state of the world. Droog showed us that design can be both humorous and critical—intellectual, and at the same clear for everybody. A mentality that is still often copied but rarely sublimed.
To learn more about the Droog30 exhibition, click here.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)
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