“Search for reality, and try to reorganise it”

I attended a talk by Jurgen Bey this week, held at London’s Royal College of Art and chaired by its head of architecture, Nigel Coates. The conversation formed part of a series called ‘Sidestepping’, described by Coates as “coming at architecture from different angles”. Bey was inspiring, motivating and freethinking, and had some really progressive ideas about the future of society, as shaped by designers and ideasmen. Here are some of his key arguments and thoughts from the night.

“I have no idea what to do if I don’t build some sort of a context around it.”

In the 1990s, the nature of the architecture industry evolved as practices ran out of time or opportunity to build projects: instead, they modelled them and thought around the concepts contained within them. This led to the development of the industry in a way which wouldn’t have happened if projects were under greater pressure to become real. Bey argues that this is the stage we see the design industry at today. When we don’t need new furniture, it’s better to think about our place in the world, how we want to live our lives and how furniture can, theoretically, have a positive impact on that. It makes more sense, it’s better for the environment and it begins a conversation we all need to have more. Since fame, and becoming a superstar designer or starchitect, became something on which we began to place enormous emphasis, it’s important to requestion the qualities of design as a discipline.

Bey also stated his belief that the new wave of design thinking will come from Germany, which as a country is built on a social basis rather than an economic one. We, as a nation or internationally, are still listening to big brother economics: not able to solve our problems by ourselves, even though we know our big brother (the state/the government?) is wrong. The next step in our progression will come from ‘the creative’ – but the term does not refer to the creative industry as it is at present, because it’s just about selling things.

The differences between design students across the world came up in the post-talk Q&A, and Bey’s considered answer was an interesting one. He felt that Britons are largely rough, outspoken; they want to be different. The Dutch want to be different too, but not too much. Germany design, as the future, contains the most diverse and innovative design students. In Dutch design school, if you go third or fourth in a round-table crit, you are afraid someone will have said your idea already. In Germany, that would not happen. Everyone would have approached the subject in a different way.

“My man interest is daily life.”

Bey argues that the everyday is where the emphasis in design should be – value should be placed on daily life rather than on the special, as we see so much more of it. Synonyms of daily life are largely negative – “everyday”, “mundane”, “usual”, “generic” – whereas we’re sure of it, we have the most of it, it makes up the building blocks of our life; it should be a positive. “The biggest thing you can ever achieve is building your own world”.

“The beauty comes because we misunderstand each other.”

He also  put forward the idea that literature is getting more important, because it allows you to get into the world of daily life. I’ve heard a lot of this talk lately: soft narratives will become more valuable than harsh branding or mathematical certainty. As the world speeds up, contemplation and poetry are bound to become more valuable. Bey also considers the language of art important, as in his words, “in art, they have a way of saying things very softly”. Finally on this point, he talked about the difficult of finding nothingness in London. And the idea that “nothing” has a value; it’s as important as “something”. Appreciating nothingness would not be a bad thing for us, societally and individually.

Future objects

Bey felt that in future, “things will act rather than just be functional”. And he put forward the case strongly that “you can really go far with reality”: perhaps an indication that the fantasy world many designers currently function in cannot, or will not, continue? Using familiar forms and product semantics can breed a comforting familiarity in the user and designer alike; “it looks familiar because you’ve already seen it”. As a  path much trodden by Morrison, Fukasawa and the super normal acolytes, it will be interesting to see where else this idea can be taken.

A gorgeous image of the alphabet as found in butterfly wings (by photographer Kjell Sandved) illustrated Bey’s point that nature has created everything already. The alphabet is flying around as I type.

“Let’s keep on punishing us, because that’s how we can grow”

Economic difficulties, spending cuts and governmental suffocation can have a positive effect, and historically difficult times in societies lead to greater innovation. Studio Makkink Bey are coping by “slimming down – to continue by working with less”. Bey thinks one of the positive effects will be the increase in collective ownership as a business model. Family businesses, and developing businesses into a collective process, are both ideas to consider. His analogy is a persuasive one: pool all your bathtubs and you have a swimming pool. Another benefit of collective ownership is a collective vision; “it’s amazing what you see when you go through other people’s minds”.

A final thought: who owns culture?

“Search for reality, and try to reorganise it”