Female Heroes
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Female Heroes

Design his-tory?

Els Kuijpers: I’m utterly serious about my task. On breaking through the tricky business of identity politics and badly-told history: how Dutch Design success story can be problematic, and how simplicity can become a straitjacket. On the method of equality and practising ideas through design.

Els Kuijpers lecturing. Photo courtesy of Els Kuijpers

[introduction: Anna Duszczynska]

Els Kuijpers has been lecturing and teaching at the Royal Academy of Art in Den Haag (visual culture and design theory: history, discourse, method). She is an art historian, design critic, and curator in the field of culture and visual communication. Amongst numerous publications on communication design, she is the author of renowned books about the contemporary masters of Dutch Design: Jan van Toorn and Ootje Oxenaar. (And/Or — Extended, On Contradiction in the Work of Jan van Toorn, Nai/010 Publishers, Rotterdam 2013; Ootje Oxenaar, designer + commissioner,010 Publishers, Rotterdam 2011).

For our creative dialogue, she invited me to her home city — Den Haag. In the midst of the pandemic, on a small bench, in a big and noble Clingendael park, surrounded by rather curious Heron birds, and even more curious passer-byes, we opened up the communication lines.

[AD] We have been living in a world designed for (and by) men. Caroline Criado Perez puts it bluntly into the mainstream debate in her ‘Invisible Women’ book. Here we are — just about to talk about the world that would not pass that ‘visibility’ test. The world of great and famous designers.

[EK] Of great and famous male designers, right?

It is highly problematic that women are not represented enough in this story, in this ‘his-tory’. History is written by men as you imply, it is designed by men, and we can and should dig up the pieces of it to tell another story, too.

I remember the book published in 2007 by Dutch art historian — Marjan Groot: “Vrouwen In de vormgeving 1880–1940” [Women in design]: the result of long-lasting research on the forgotten role of Dutch female designers. It introduced female designers I had never heard of before. Something new in humanities, one of the first within the field of applied arts addressing this painful lack, from a gender perspective.

[AD] If women visibility in design ’his-tory’ is somewhat new — what do we make of it … historically?

[EK] In the history of the West: was there a time when it was very different? Thinking of the 17th century Golden Age of Dutch painting, culture and tradition I belong to, being born and brought up in this country — it was all men of course: Vermeer, Rembrandt, Steen. Still, there was Judith Leister: extraordinary, exquisite lady painter from Haarlem — but it was not prominent, it was not dominant. It is all part of the written history, to which ‘enlightenment’ belongs, too: with the position of men — the high-rank men, nobility.

It is very important to realize how history, including contemporary history, is told: badly, I am afraid.

Like Frederic Jameson urges us to do: ‘always historicize’: understand a particular situation in the complexities of its time. Quite relevant given the contemporary amnesia…

[AD] Okay…[laughs] Here it is: Els Kuijpers defined. Many points of view — before we even start.

[EK] [laughs] Well yes, I think it is important to nuance a bit. Even if women are not that visible (in the public domain for instance), it does not mean they do not have influence: the effects of what they do, the results of their actions are substantial, colossal even. That’s the first nuance. Another nuance or side remark: gender being part of identity politics. I do not favour this perspective. I am not sure it will help in understanding our position as women. I doubt if it will be effective in the long run, in empowering us. Taking gender as the dominant criterion for defining oneself is a tricky business. Remembering Eric Hobsbawm’s warning to never define yourself by ethnicity, I understand: never by nationality or religion, race nor gender. I am afraid that this gender perspective is part of an ideology connected to neoliberal politics. This new discourse of identity allowed politics to focus on the individual only, on our differences instead of what we have in common. The moment this ideology developed, somewhere in the ’80s, the issues of power and control grounded in socio-economic conditions were put aside deliberately. This seems to be forgotten by my feminist compatriots. Looking for liberation and emancipation, we now risk becoming victims of these identity politics. Many female artists are reduced to victims, and that is not at all what we were up to with liberation and empowerment.

[AD] In the Dutch Graphic Roots series, we read tales of great ‘design heroes’. Amongst those stories (out of which female designers count as less than 10%), there is one tale that stands out. The story of a male designer: Ootje Oxenaar. Here we read about children’s books, a rebellious princess, dreams of utopia, freedom, and the fantasy world. Almost to a giggling point — we read the story of the person who wrote it: the story of Els Kuijpers — and not Ootje Oxenaar. Why did you decide on such a narrative?

[EK] I remember Dawn Barrett, Oxenaar’s wife (and a graphic designer herself), making remarks about the Roots series on Dutch Design: ‘Wait a minute, this is a very good initiative, but as far as I can see…’ — and I still see her critically inspecting the portraits on the Roots covers –

’it is all about men.

The history of design seems to be a history of men in design only’.

To reflect on your remark that my essay is exclusively my story, not Oxenaar’s: I fully acknowledge that this is something the reader decides upon. It was not my intention to be personal. I genuinely wanted to come close to Oxenaar, to write about his work, about its nature, the attitude it is born from. At the same time, as a writer, you should realize there is always a perspective because there is always someone who is talking to you. You simply cannot ignore that. That would be naive, politically naive, that is: a text produces. Maybe I exaggerated a bit in the Roots essay — producing this effect you speak of, Anna. I tried challenging Roots’ more or less traditional approach to historiography as neutral, documenting facts only, with the usual uniform, generalizing effects, not always that informative in my opinion.

[AD] So … what, do you think, we are we missing on here?

When you write it is really important you rethink what it means to write. Choice of the genre, or — stupid term — style, format: they all correspond with the answer to this question. Writing turns out to be a structuring process of trial and error that forges the relations between all those conflicts layered into a convincing story. I would say, rather similar to what a designer does. Before any visualization starts, she re-thinks the brief. That’s what I did in my Roots-essay on Ootje — taking my task utterly seriously.

Robert van Rixtel, founder and editor of the series, initially was not convinced about that. He suggested adding an introductory paragraph — but I had to refuse. It would completely miss the point. And so, I said:

this is what I do: this is my task,

this is what I am, this is what I write.

This is it for the Roots. Whether you will publish it or not:

I cannot change a word.

In the end, he was generous enough to publish. Designer Gert Dumbar, when reading the story, concluded: ‘Finally a contribution in this series to enjoy, I think I’ll keep this one’. Ootje too, thought the story hit the nail on the head. I was content. I very much hope van Rixtel was, too — although, he never invited me again to write in his series. I remember a well-known and respected Dutch Design critic who also did not want to review it.

[AD] Why?

[EK] Because it was different from the standard at that moment in time.

I was not interested in the history of famous design works,

of famous genius men,

of great movements, everlasting truth and value.

I wanted a history of mentalities in design.

My second, larger book on Ootje, tried to take the next step in that direction. By the way, this book has faced similar problems during production. It was seriously delayed when the Prince Bernhard Fund rejected funding it. Art historians in that committee considered it improper to write about design the way I did.

[AD] So: it’s not your story …it’s your point of view. Do you think you being a female or having a female perspective gave it substance?

[EK] You cannot step away from the facts of life, me being born a woman, in a particular family, with a skin of a particular colour, being socialized into a particular culture. That’s a given, I cannot help it. Therefore, for me, the notion of identity is not a distinguishing property.

What matters are the actions, how you deal with the situation you are in. Subverting that cultural pattern, trying to break through it –it means trying to liberate yourself: a process that may be particular for the female perspective — because we are so familiar with that.

I have many male friends who are true feminists, and I know women that I would not consider feminists. If I would try to articulate the nature of my writing about Oxenaar as connected to the female experience, then, I would say — a kind of light-heartedness, pleasure and joie-de-vivre — stressing things as becoming, evolving in dialectic relation with the monumental, official culture: monumental mentality… monumentality… [laughs]: that stable status quo in which everything remains in place.

I consider my essays on the work of designer Jan van Toorn as the next step in my professional development as a design publicist.

[AD] Jan van Toorn, another great hero of Dutch Design. You worked alongside Jan since the ’90s. You are the author of an analysis of his work, in which you focus on the …contradictions. Your book — “and/or. On the contradiction in the work of Jan van Toorn” was co-created together with the designer. ‘And’ — stands for coexistence, cooperation, inclusion. ‘Or’ — stands for the opposition, mutually exclusive elements that cannot co-exist. Why did you decide to challenge readers with such a title? What is it that you wanted us to see?

[EK] It’s an enigmatic, very strange title, I agree. But of course, this title was not meant to make things utterly strange — unless you would take that as a reference to the famous Russian formalist technique of ‘making strange’ [‘ostrenanie’]. It refers to what communication is: you try, the way we do it now, trying to find words: this is how it goes. That’s the way van Toorn sees communication: a condition in life, essential for our survival, therefore a central notion in his design practice.

Rather stutter and stammer than this fluent, spectacular and glamorous speaking of today’s mainstream design.

Although a Dutch success story, this design is highly problematic for me.

[AD] Why?

[EK] Well, everybody needs to earn a living — nothing wrong with corporate business and making money- design and the creative industries are making very good money — in corona times, digital design more than ever. But this design is instrumentalising, colonizing the ordinary, reducing it to a boring, aestheticized life. Design became this industry. And it plays its role in this system of consumption and production: it reduces, in my view, the potential we all have. I hear my students [at a design dept. in an art school in Den Haag]: “Oh, the beauty of simplicity”.

Simplicity? I think it is a lousy answer to doubts.

It reduces the potential of communication.

It’s a formal straitjacket,

it’s a straitjacket, I think.

It functions, it communicates like hell — but it is like hell: this slick, seamless communication. Because it is consumption only. We should break through this shiny superficiality and remain human. Why not address things that really matter?

[AD] We went to the dark side of beauty, perfection and design. Design is communication. The design reproduces through communication. You said: it can communicate as hell. Could design reproduce ‘the hell’ of bias, inequalities, stereotypes, prejudices?

[EK] Talking about the work of van Toorn that tries to open up to the real, to the ordinary, everyday life, to experience, this is a method of equality.

For me as a theory teacher [at a design dept. in an art school in Den Haag] that is an inspiration: how to train design as a strategic process of practising ideas — content or ‘matter’ as form. My students, coming from everywhere in the world, ask about climate change, this crisis, this inequality in the world. We do not train them in how to deal with that. We address those topics, we address it from the context, but not from the way how to deal with that in the actual visual research. We are highly interested in all kinds of ideas: ideas from philosophy, sociology. It’s not good enough. How does that kind of democracy you have in your head look?

Content, the real social issues: I think this is really important. I think we should practise our ideas. That is liberating for sure…

[AD] Ootje, Jan and Els…. you all have a dreamer soul in common, and maybe a bit of a utopian point of view? As a design theory and design history professor: moving forward, what guidelines could you give?

[EK] You are a true dreamer — you want something. What else is there in life? You want to go for that! It’s only human to have your dreams. So — let’s dream.

A hero does not make everything become true. The talent is more: how you deal with the restrictions you face, in your life, in your profession, in your time. And what you can achieve within those restrictions. What you can achieve with your dreams. I doubt if that is a utopian position…

About the author: I’m a brand strategist and the founder of A.D. new world — brand design consultancy for social enterprises, B-corps, Zebra start-ups and impact brands. Through my work, I want to contribute to building a better, more equal and inclusive creative industry.

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What can we learn from the presence (and the absence) of the female heroes within the creative industry? What mentalities are involved in how our stories are (un)told? We’re looking for answers through creative talks with the female heroines of today’s design world.

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Anna Duszczynska

Anna Duszczynska

Brand Strategist | Branding Consultant | The Founder @ A.D. new world — brand design consultancy for social enterprises, B-corps and Zebra start-ups

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