Kiki van Eijk, The Joy of a Playing Child

Interview with Kiki van Eijk

Eindhoven, 19.09.2016

Kiki van Eijk is an artist, craftsman and designer who does not follow any trends. She is incredibly versatile, working with fabric, ceramics, glass, metal, wood and other diverse materials with ease and control. In her design she fuses art and craft, knowing she can turn a loose drawing into an object that cannot only be functional but also artistically appealing. When I think about her design it is immediately clear that she is a creator who intuitively knows what is wrong and what is right for each piece.

A graduate of Design Academy Eindhoven, Kiki concentrates primarily on her own collections, but also has worked on projects for, among others, Design Academy Eindhoven, MOOOI, Häagen-Dazs, Bernhardt Design, Forbo Flooring, Venice Projects, Hermès, Nodus, Rijksmuseum and a number of private collectors.

KK: How do you define design?

KvE: First of all, I think design has only existed since the Industrial Revolution, because before that it was artists who would make everything. They would make paintings but they would also do special commissions like a lamp or a chandelier for a church. So for me, in the past artists were also designers. Design is about creating things; it always starts from a concept and some sort of research, and the end result should be something that communicates without having to tell the whole story.

KK: Are you a designer or an artist?

KvE: I always find that a bit of a difficult question because I don’t care what label people use. I just create things. I happened to graduate from the Design Academy but I could just as well have gone to art school. I found the Design Academy more suitable. It’s not that different from an art school, though—only a bit better organized. But before I went to the Design Academy I used to have an atelier where I would paint on canvas and sculpt things.

KK: What is it like to design in Holland? Why is Dutch design so good?

KvE: The most important thing is the mentality. Regardless of what the objects look like, there is a kind of free mentality here. If you look at our history and what the landscape looks like, we always have had this problem with water. We’re below sea level and the land is very flat so we have had to think of inventive ways to cope with and live with this. We never have had natural resources; we had tulips and potatoes but nothing else we could actually export. So we have had to cooperate with others. This is where the polder model comes from. The Dutch always try to find ways to make everybody happy. As for design, in Eindhoven, for example, we had a lot of production companies and they all needed designers. That is why the Design Academy was built, to educate people to design for the companies. What’s nice about Eindhoven is that there is also an industrial area where people literally still have space to be creative.

KK: How does Dutch design affected the way you work, the way you think about design?

KvE: The main thing is the big freedom in Dutch design. Even if you look at DROOG design, which is quite minimalistic and quite dry and maybe a bit strict in a way, it still feels quite free.

KK: Do you consider yourself a responsible designer?

KvE: I always find that a difficult question because in a way everything humans make is bad for nature, it’s something extra. But on the other hand everything I make, I make with honest intention. I spend a lot of time making it and I know people won’t throw it away after two years. They only buy it when they fall in love with it, and they keep it. And if for some reason they don’t want it anymore, they give it away to someone. I hate throwing things away. I use natural materials; I’ve never used plastic, for example. I’m not saying I won’t but if I had to, I would use bio plastic. It’s a difficult question because everything can be made better. But, for example, if I were to design for a mass production company, I would want to know where they produced, the working conditions of employees and what materials they would use. In that sense I think I’m responsible. In general, this is something we need to challenge ourselves on; we all need to take responsibility.

KK: So what would you like to achieve with your design?

KvE: My goal is to produce things that people will buy and want to keep for a lifetime. We can never be sure, but we know that a lot of people buy my work for that reason. Also, I don’t think you have to make things that sell and that everybody can afford. For example Civilized Primitives is a very expensive collection to make and sell, but I found it important to make because there’s a message behind the project and when people see it in a museum or gallery or a fair they can understand it without having to own the pieces.

KK: Your design is quite exclusive and perhaps beyond the reach for most of us. You are a designer but your work is artistic and quite conceptual. Do you think it has the power to change the way people think?

KvE: In general I think nobody can change the way people think. You can inspire people. It is not my intention to teach, although there’s always a hidden message behind my work. It’s more about inspiring people.

KK: Conversation Piece is one of the projects with a strong message.

KvE: It’s a protest against very cheaply and badly made industrial products, but it’s also against very exclusive gallery pieces. It’s about the clash between the two, which are also the two worlds I’m in- between as a designer. You always have to question yourself. No matter if you’re asked to design for industry or a gallery, you have to ask yourself what is the intention behind the work. And this is what I tried to communicate in Conversation Piece.

KK: When you design, what are the key elements you take into account? What is important?

KvE: Intuition, I follow my intuition. Behind it now is a lot of knowledge, and I use that subconsciously. When I use color or different materials, I do so by gut feeling. That is what’s guiding me. And also my experience; I have a lot of experience with different materials, different techniques.

KK: Let’s talk about the transitions you make between different techniques and processes. Tell me about the experimentation and scale models, about making the same objects using different techniques and also about different materials. What are the challenges you face each time you change technique or material?

KvE: Each time you change the technique you have to start from scratch in a way and try things out. When I first did bronze casting, maybe seventeen years ago, I did it myself I learned how to make bronze and aluminum molds myself and how to think in positive and negative shapes. And because I’d had this experience, doing ceramics was much easier. I knew already how to work with positive and negative, and pouring wax into plaster molds is not much different from pouring clay into ceramic molds. And because of that I was not afraid to use materials that I’d never used before.

KK: In your work you draw a lot of inspiration from the past.

KvE: I appreciate the past but at the same time I also appreciate things that are modern. In our house we have weird things we find in antique stores and flee markets, but also very modern pieces. I think in the end it’s all about appreciating the good things in life.

When I was working on Civilized Primitives I was interested in the first products that humankind made, like for example how they started to shape stones to use as knifes; and then they were able to cut the skin of an animal. They were also able to make clothing and fire. And with fire they could cook, so they made a special type of pot that could resist the heat. Similarly, at first they drank from their hands but later they started to use bowls. They had a special type—a special shape—of container to keep water in. That’s how I came to be interested in survival and our basic needs, and how you would construct something if you had no machines, if you were lost in the woods. Now we live in luxury; everything runs automatically. At the same time, if you think about big, natural disasters, about what would happen if we ran out of resources, this makes you aware of our basic needs and what you would need to do if there were no electricity or running water.

KK: You said you collect objects from antique shops and flee markets. What are you looking for in an object?

KvE: I like objects with a human touch, that are handmade.

KK: What value do old techniques and handcrafted objects bring to your work?

KvE: I think they make it more authentic, more genuine. It’s being able to invent things, not only to use the techniques as we know them, but also to experiment with existing techniques and use them in a slightly different way. For example I worked in Murano with master glass blowers. When something is mouth-blown, each piece is authentic and slightly different. In the Floating Frames collection each object in the series is also different; they all become their own characters. And I like that.

KK: How important is it to combine artisan techniques with new technologies? What challenges have you found there?

KvE: It’s not always important to combine them. But it’s interesting and challenging because you can make a bridge between the past and the future, like I did in the project Physical Interactions, the three light sculptures. The sculptures were made by hand in the workshop but there’s high technology inside. When people see those light sculptures they don’t know there’s a lot of technology inside. When they realize they can turn the light on by blowing on a sculpture or can activate the dimmer by covering one part of it with a hand, they start to wonder, to laugh a little, to think about how it was made and how it works technically. This project shows that high-tech, mass-produced products don’t need to look sleek and boring; they really can have an identity of their own.

KK: What are your latest inspirations? What are you working on now?

KvE: I am working for Bisazza, an Italian mosaic company. I am designing flooring and a mosaic wall, and it’s all inspired by nature, by what is growing between the tiles—by weed. I want to show that weed is actually very beautiful if you look closely. Actually, it could be nice for a publication. It’s a big production for a commercial brand but it still has a very genuine feeling. I liked that they were very enthusiastic about the theme, which you could say is not very appealing; but the way we did it, it looks beautiful. It shows the beauty of nature. I’m also working on a new concept for Hermès, a new project in glass, and some new carpet designs. And I’m working for a Dutch brand called Social Label. They’ve invited Dutch designers to design something that can be made in a social workshop that is staffed entirely by disabled people. I’m working on lighting made with leather that is leftover from shoe companies. The people in the workshop will make it all by hand. It’s a lot of work but the nice thing is that there needs to be a lot of work because they need to work on something all the time. Normally if you design something for a brand it should not take too much time because otherwise it will become too expensive to produce; but in this workshop they don’t count the time, they only count the amount of material. They actually want to have something that takes a lot of time and involves many stages in the production process. It’s going to be presented during Dutch Design Week and also next year in Milan. So it’s a very nice project because the people in the workshop, the disabled people, are really proud and they work well together. In addition, I’m also doing a couple of projects for private collectors, so right now I have a good mix of challenges.


Written by Kinga Kowalczyk for Design Friends catalogue published by Design Friends Luxembourg. DF catalogue was launched during Kik¡’s lecture at Mudam‘s auditorium on November 23.

Out of the Lab, In Conversation with Nicolas Henchoz, EPFL+ECAL Lab Lausanne

 Design is an agent of change, which can help us make sense of what is happening and turn it into our advantage.

Alice Rawsthorn


Kinga Kowalczyk: Nicolas Henchoz, you’ve had an interesting career path. By training you’re an engineer; you studied material engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, and also journalism. You’ve worked as a reporter, art director, writer and curator. In 2007 you founded the EPFL+ECAL Lab, which is “a design lab that explores opportunities and issues related to emerging technologies”. Your mission is to create meaningful design that translates disruptive technologies into a user experience that strives for more than just aesthetics. It’s important to say that the EPFL+ECAL Lab is not an academic laboratory in the traditional sense, and it doesn’t form part of any particular faculty either. It is fostering a relationship between the academic and industrial worlds, partnering technology received from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne with commercial manufacturers. Let’s talk a little about disruptive technologies first. How do you define them?

Nicolas Henchoz: I wouldn’t call myself an expert on disruptive technologies. A technological advance is all about making little changes, which are rather an evolution than a revolution. You refine the existing technologies by little loops. In my view disruptive means that you have a solution coming from a totally different area, another way of thinking. For example, at the EPFL+ECAL Lab we worked with a technology of dye solar cells inspired by photosynthesis in plants.

Just to explain, Michael Graetzel and his team at the EPFL created this solar cell in the early 90s.

The process is an electro-chemical chain reaction, where a colorant, let’s say raspberry juice, interacts with Titanium Dioxide, which is a powder. In a traditional solar cell silicon captures light and turns it into electricity. In Graetzel’s solar cells colorants are used instead. The colorant catches the light to generate electrical power.

Sunny Memories was a project where your Lab and four other European design schools used solar cells to reinterpret everyday objects by incorporating them into their design.

The traditional solar cell is a sort of plate you stick on top of the object; its form is static and you cannot change it. Michael Graetzel’s solar cells can be a flexible part of the design.

Emilie Rosen’s Heliotone, for instance, explored the concept of a radio where with thinly applied layers of solar cells you could adjust the volume and the channel.

It was interesting to see how an object could be conceived in a totally different way. The concept was to use solar cell as a radio. This cell provided the energy; it also acted as a touch interface and, thanks to an exciter behind it, as a loudspeaker. I strongly believe in objects that are simple and have one function. For a very long time we’ve been trying to integrate everything into a cell phone. The Heliotone shows that it’s possible to create an object that has one specific function and is autonomous, that recharges by itself.

Do you think it will change our relationship with solar energy?

We need to have more autonomous objects that don’t need to be plugged in constantly. The bowl from Sunny Memories is a solar recharger; it can harvest energy. We realized that when the bowl was placed close to a window the light came from the sides and not from above. So the designer decided to put the solar cells—not on top of the bowl but vertically, and inside the material. I think this is the way to work with the solar cell, to find a way to integrate it into the environment, to create a nice object that doesn’t need a lot of energy and is autonomous.

What about Under Pressure? Under Pressure was an exploration of wood and its properties. By using a process called densification, which combines the application of humidity, heat and mechanical force, you changed wood’s physical and mechanical properties.

Densified wood is another disruptive technology. The idea appeared some hundred years ago but has really only been demonstrated in the 2000’s. You can densify fast growing wood like spruce and produce a hard, resistant material like from a rare species in a tropical forest. So you have this disruptive technology. Now how do you create new scenarios of use? How do you open the scope of this technology?

The products that came out of the project were headphones, a door handle, a series of boxes, and high heel shoes.

There were two disruptive elements here. The first was the texture. Nobody expected that we could get such a smooth texture—amazing in terms of touch—straight out of the mold. And then we were able to combine different percentages of densification. In the case of the high-heel shoes we went from 20% to 100%. We were trying to show the potential of the material, its strength and smoothness.

Are you still working on the project?

We would like to, but in Switzerland the wood industry is very small. We need to find a partner in the Nordic countries, or in France or Germany. To make a specific sample is one thing; to begin production is another. You need investment and you need machinery. Wood is a complex material. You must optimize the process. We have some ideas how to do this, but it costs and it’s a risk.

What about Hidden Carbon? It “aimed to make carbon usable in everyday life and offer users new, legitimate, sensitive experiences”.

Often carbon has been used for improving performance, for example in the automotive industry, where you actually don’t see it and don’t care. And carbon has also been used badly and in a stupid way, just to show how high-tech something is, how expensive. Carbon is very stiff, fragile and very light. We asked ourselves, could we find a new typology of objects made of carbon?

The products that came out of this project were a portable swing, glassware, a sort of tube that when connected to an MP3 player, for example, amplified the sound, and a kind of string that was used to easily bind the parts of a bamboo stool. Was this something disruptive?

Was it disruptive? I wouldn’t concentrate so much on that. I want to question this concept because there’s a contradiction. Can we really be disruptive? Innovation is an invention adapted by the user. Why should anybody use something that is disruptive? The important thing is to open up new paths, new perspectives. Solar Cell was purely disruptive. We had a disruptive technology and disruptive scenarios of use, and we could document how disruptive all this was. The bamboo stool with a carbon string was not disruptive at all. It took a vernacular approach and questioned it. The carbon string opened up new possibilities for making the bamboo construction work better. Hidden Carbon is a way of looking at the material differently.

Let’s shift gears. How was disruptive technology and design integrated into the Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab?

Disruptive ideas don’t necessarily have to relate to a specific technology. You can find disruptive concepts in architecture as well.

Montreux Jazz Heritage Lab 1 is a 7×8 meter acoustically insulated booth that fits six people, when closed. But by opening the lateral walls a wider audience can appreciate the 5000 hours of audio-visual content that comes from the Montreux Jazz Festival’s archive.

In the beginning we battled over the concept of what form the archive should take. We didn’t want to recreate the experience of the original concert. We wanted to be as close as possible to the original content for sure, but we didn’t want to create a piece of art based on the concert. To bring it back to life, we thought it should be a different experience.

Could you tell me something more about the design? The booth looks unique.

The key issue here was the screen and the relationship we have with it. We had digital content that we wanted to bring into a physical space, into architecture. How do you integrate the virtual and the physical to produce something that is meaningful? ALICE (EPFL’s Space Conception Research Studio) investigated a lot of different shapes of screen and observed how the image radiated outside of the booth. Inspired by the baroque church’s trompe l’oeil effect, they came up with a curvature that gives you a perception of depth without cheating your eyes the way 3D goggles do. The new shape of the screen allows you to spend hours with the content and stay relaxed. It is much more immersive than the types of screen we know, and you don’t get this tiring stereoscopic effect while watching the concerts. The screen emits light; you are not in the dark and you can see the space around you, which gives you the sense of a very normal situation. And this is something we have been trying to reinforce from the beginning, in other projects as well. We aim to produce something Super Normal, in reference to Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison. The essence of normality is something that connects, in the end, your proposition with the user’s ordinary life. It’s the key challenge to getting disruptive innovation really adopted. Behind this there is a lot of work. The way you frame a concert is different from, say, how you frame action sports. The type of screen we created is adapted especially to how the stage was filmed; it works for certain types of archival material but not for all. So the result is not just a visual reminder of something that already exists. When you are able to succeed in bringing the essence of normality into disruptive design, you can produce something meaningful. And from what we’ve seen here at the Lab, when you produce meaningful design, things don’t become obsolete so fast. In the end you don’t want to showcase technology, you want to create an experience. The thing is to make people forget about the technology and concentrate on the content.

How do you know when you’ve added real value to the projects you work on?

If it’s a good project, it must push us forward. If we produce something that you can see once in a magazine—this is something any good design studio can do. Our added value is producing knowledge that is not just for one project. You must be able to measure results, to draw conclusions, to prove that you have something real and not just something that you’ve convinced yourself of. Our society has always been driven by the search for new stuff, new knowledge. I think that today we’re not disruptive enough, not the way we used to be. My great grandmother lived to be almost a hundred. She experienced the first vaccine, the first car, the first fridge, and the first radio. For me disruptiveness is about thinking outside of the trends and this does not solely involve disruptive technology. What is important is to see how people use and perceive what we create, and then learn from that. The worst case scenario is when you think you have something cool and after three months nobody is using it and you don’t know why.

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Written by Kinga Kowalczyk for DEE Magazine published by Design Friends Luxembourg

Activism by Design

In the new issue of Traces published by Casino Luxembourg – forum d’art contemporain there’s an article I wrote last year.activism_by_design_2

Design awakens desire. Design infatuates and seduces. And design has the beguiling power to stoke our appetite for contraptions and gizmos we don’t yet possess and hardly need. There’s no question about it, design is a business, and as such it feeds on us. This is the sophisticated and predatory ecosystem modern designers must fit into, although the reason they get into design in the first place might be a need to do something worthy, to solve problems, to change the world.

Dennis Elbers and Sven Ehmann, the curators of Resolute: Design Changes, are showing how the design community, empowered by technology, is experiencing a change in which independent creative individuals, with the help of crowd funding, open source platforms, and social media, can have impact on society. “Resolute is the outcome of an ongoing conversation between me and Denis Elbers, the force behind the Graphic Design Festival in Breda”, said Sven Ehmann when I asked him how the project came about. “We did a show about visual storytelling together before. When we were reviewing that earlier show and discussing a potential subject for a next exhibition at the festival, the idea for Resolute evolved. Behind all that is our curiosity about the latest changes and developments in creative culture. We were a bit fed up with nice looking or crazy looking or fancy looking designs and were impressed by the attitude and dedication of a next generation of designers and projects”.

Originally shown in 2014 at Design Festival Breda, Resolute showcased 21 socially involved projects. Organized into three categories—Revolt, Review, and Refresh—and presented through posters, campaigns, pop-up books and board and video games, Resolute addressed topics ranging from urban farming to drone surveillance and genetically modified leather. It traveled to Luxembourg on the occasion of Design Friends’ fifth anniversary and was accompanied by an additional selection of six socially engaged projects called Postscript: Luxembourg. Designers based in or with some link to Luxembourg tackled topics like the reintegration of inmates in a penitentiary, badly designed urban space, and happiness. The recurring element threading through the work was the designers’ concern for people as a community. As Elbers noted in an article for DEE magazine, “The avant-garde of the emerging generation deals with social values by placing their design practice in the middle of society, rather than trying to influence it from above”.

So what does it mean to design from within society? As Cheryl Heller writes, “In this new role the designer’s practice takes place not in a private studio but inside an organization or community”. Today a new breed of designers is on the altruistic mission of growing something good. To do so they are stepping into the world and getting involved with people and communities to understand the dynamics at the root of a problem. Research and the representation of its results has become not only a crucial part of design’s domain but also a powerful weapon against manipulation, corruption and fraud. Communication and collaboration are also an intrinsic part of the new equation, as only by working with other professionals can designers make an impact.

Ruben Pater’s Drone Survival Guide is an example of this. His typology of drones is one of the elements in Twenty-first Century Bird Watching, which itself is part of a larger series of works called Untold Stories. These are politically and socially engaged visual narratives in which Pater researches, analyzes, and presents stories that shed light onto, as he puts it, ‘the unspoken issues’. In this case the issue unspoken is drone warfare and when I asked Pater what inspired him he wrote, “In 2012 there was a lack of reporting on drones, particularly the use of military drones and its devastating effects in areas of conflict. The Drone Survival Guide was an attempt to familiarize the general public with this phenomenon in a visual way”.

Raising awareness may be a first step in change, but obviously it is only a beginning. As Predatory Policy shows, designers have to partner with other professionals to make a lasting impact. Making Policy Public by the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a series of campaigns in which designers, advocates, and CUP tackled public policy. As CUP’s website explains, Predatory Policy is about stopping “predatory equity takeover of affordable housing in New York City”. CUP’s team first did an impressive amount of research and then presented the data skillfully enough to speak to both tenants and decision makers. Looking at the result you can see how carefully the text and graphics have been balanced and how a specific set of solutions is presented to encourage people to take action. This foldable poster became a tool to empower individuals to fight predatory equity.

Socially engaged projects don’t always produce tangible outcomes or results that are easy to measure. Lynn Schammel and Giacomo Piovan are the founders of Socialmatter and the creators of the Jailbird Manual. While talking with Lynn about the Jailbird project she told me that the work they did for the penitentiary’s woodshop gave the inmates hope and self-esteem. Inspired by Enzo Mari’s Open Design Theory, Jailbird Manual is a guide containing a set of woodworking techniques that are tailored to the inmates’ needs. It is the outcome of a collaboration between inmates and designers, at once a manual to be referenced and a point of departure for the inmate’s creativity, autonomy and self-confidence.

There has been a lot of interest in design for social causes over the last decade. MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA, AIGA’s Design for Good, the Finish INDEX: Award and the Changing the Change conference in Turin are just some of the design initiatives that have been launched, and this year’s Utrecht Manifest biennale was called, appropriately enough, Design For The Good Society. But this impulse to design for good is hardly new. Whether Charles Booth was a designer by accident or intuition, the design of his first poverty map in 1889 demystified the state of the poorest parts of London. Meticulously researched by a team of social scientists, economists, statisticians and philanthropists, the color-coded data produced such a public outcry that the government was forced to take action and handle the issue with care.

People like John Ruskin, William Morris, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Guy Debord, Ken Garland, Victor Papanek and other design activists have inspired subsequent generations to design responsibly and consciously. Yet their work has not always led to immediate change. Something—be it the nature of mass production and mass consumption, politics, the commercial character of the design industry—has always got in the way. Why might the new wave of design activism meet with more success?

Design activists are afraid of neither commitment nor hardship. They avidly research and do whatever it takes to fight injustice and corruption, to help the disadvantaged, to help communities, to understand complex systems and cast light upon the thorny issues of our time. But, maybe every new generation thinks they are the first to know how to make the world a better place. Is it not naive to think that the responsibility for growing something good rests solely on the shoulders of designers? Do we not all need to embrace activism, as chances are this is our best hope for meeting the challenges we grapple with? Each of us has to look for integrity in our work and lives, to be sustainable, to learn how to grow something good rather than just buy and throw away. After all, we are part of a community.