There Will Be an Increased Focus on Materials

Interview with Hella Jongerius

Exploring the connection between materials and humans has been an ongoing pursuit for Hella Jongerius. However, the Dutch designer, who primarily works in Berlin, recognizes that the relationship to the materials and spaces around us is about to change. Here, she speaks about the challenges and opportunities this might provide.

What changed for you in the past couple of months during lockdown?

I wanted to make sure that the young people from all around the world, who were working here in my Berlin studio, got home before lockdown. So they all left. That means there are only a few of us now, we all come in two mornings a week. For the rest of the week, I'm working there alone.

It has probably been a while since you have done that?

Yes, and I must say, I loved it, it felt like a luxury. So while I knew there was a tragedy happening outside, inside it was very peaceful. It has given me time to reflect on all these busy years of practicing. I had a chance to look at my archives and I'm reading again.

Do you think this experience might permanently change the way you run your studio?

No, I don't think so. I've always had a studio in Berlin and one in the Netherlands. So working from a distance is normal for me. But I also believe as designers, you need to be in the studio and be together. You need to be able to pass the work from one desk to the other desk. What might change, however, are the kinds of questions that come in for us to engage with.

In which way? What kind of questions will clients bring to you, do you think?

Even more “humanness” needs to be injected into environments. That topic has been on my agenda for a long time, not just since COVID-19, but recent events have made this idea even more important. Also, I think the role of materials will become more relevant. Again, this was a topic I was already concerned with. As designers, of course this was a main focus for us because of our sustainability agenda. So an important material evolution, or even revolution, was already under way. But now, there will be an even bigger spotlight on materials because hygiene is playing a very important role. And there will be an enhanced focus on tactility. So the question will be: to work with materials with a tactile, human connection and also make sure they suggest a clean, hygienic feel. The way we might be able to do that is to focus on craft processes, and on honesty in production and maintenance, work on the longevity.

In the future, many more processes, like conversations, will be happening digitally. What does this mean for the design of physical spaces?

I think if you are spending your day on a digital platform, once you enter the physical space again it becomes all about connection, about touch. And it's a contradiction because when you think about touching, you often think about textiles. For instance, about woven materials. But now, in a public or semi-public space, perhaps knitted textiles might make people feel like they are too “private”, they get dirty easily, people might become more susceptible to germs or dirt. So there is a question here for a designer, or a conundrum, how to incorporate tactility? This could for example come from the way you upholster furniture, by explaining how the surface can be cleaned easily, or by working with patterns that give the object a human signature.

So there are a lot of compounding factors. You mentioned sustainability continues to be an important factor, but hygiene is now an issue – including ways of cleaning materials regularly. So it appears that designers, in the future, might become even more concerned with the raw materials for the objects they create, with the production cycles but also with their maintenance and afterlife. Do you think role of the designer is expanding to include more areas?

A good designer was always busy with those topics. But now there are facts, and higher goals. There is an inevitable, clear responsibility on our plate.

Designers need to be more focused on materials than on the end result. Maybe a while ago, a designer would have just picked materials according to what was available or on offer, but now they should get involved into the creation and production of materials.

You have worked with KLM before to design the interiors of their planes. At the time, you also investigated the behaviour of people in these semi-public spaces and worked on tactility and “humanness”. How do you think movement in public space, including travel, is currently changing?

What I find interesting now, when I am now in the public space is: There is no longer a faceless crowd, but individuals. We are aware, taking care of each other. Even though we have to keep our distance, there is an acknowledgement, and a respect. We nod or smile at each other as we negotiate our shared spaces. Also, there is an appreciation for nature and for outdoor spaces. So these might be increasingly incorporated into buildings, public or semi-public spaces. There might be a need for different outdoor furniture typologies that enable only one or two people to meet and sit at a distance from other people.

This is not the first time the design of our personal surroundings directly has been influenced by global events. The insecurity and human longing for safety after the September 11 attacks caused people to retreat into their homes - the trend of the Scandinavian-inspired “hygge” home comfort is often described as a corollary of this event. Do you think this current crisis will also inspire this kind of “nesting” movement?

The difference this time is that we were forced to retreat into our homes. And yes, that did give us time to examine the home, to critically examine our furniture, perhaps repair or clean something. We were very focused on our living environments. But we missed the social interaction that is connected to being outside and in public. We want to be mobile again, interact or enjoy culture. I don't see us all going on long-distance flights soon, but also I can't imagine there will be a pronounced retreating, nesting instinct this time. There will be a focus on being together.

In this crisis, we also perceived a lot of suffering through isolation, particularly in older people. Nursing homes were closed for visits, or people isolated at home. Do you think this might lead to more structural changes in the way we live? Inter-generational living arrangements, perhaps?

I think that was a movement that was already happening, but it might become more dynamic. However, I do think we might need to re-think some of the typologies we know or live with. What about the way nursing homes or health care facilities are designed? The crisis has put the spotlight on the shortcomings in these facilities, which are often designed as medically safe but feel inhumane and sterile. Also, our homes had to serve entirely new functions. They became classrooms, families were fighting for privacy to do their work. Perhaps the way we have set up our homes needs to become more flexible, we need new typologies of furniture or ways of dividing space flexibly. There is lots of potential for change and experimentation.

Publication date: 3.7.2020
Images: © 1. Vitra; 2. Jongeriuslab: Paper maquette – human workspace; 3. Jongeriuslab: Pencil drawing – human workspace; 4. Watercolour study – human workspace

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