Do we have to change to stay the same?
‘Bring them on, the roaring 20’s’ wrote NRC Handelsblad on the second of January, 2020. And: ‘2020 will revolve around system change. Full of innovation, change and excitement.’ Well, roaring it is. 2020 is a year of major events that have presented our systems with a need of inevitable change. And not only the systems. Individuals, communities and companies are literally forced to reinvent life as we knew it. In the sixth and final studio session of Driving Dutch Design, Anouk van Mil (MILC) talks with Dorian Kingma (SMELT), Jeroen van Veluw and Renee Scheepers (Scheepers&Renee) about reinvention.
Personal versus professional
What exactly does reinvention mean to them, especially in a year in which everything is different? Renee is an experience architect, a new discipline that she has developed to provide insight to what people long for in architectural and construction projects. She believes being able to continuously reinvent herself is the greatest benefit of being an independent entrepreneur: “Tomorrow I could decide to design a new profession. Or to market myself differently. I value that flexibility a lot.”
Dorian sees a clear distinction between personal and professional reinvention. “Personally, I don’t like change, haha.” She is part of social design duo SMELT, that creates space for conversation on controversial and loaded topics. They reframe these topics and want to rediscover and reinvent them. “With SMELT, reinventing is at the heart of what we do. People have a very clear opinion about the topics that we focus our projects on. They are stuck in their own mindset. We always try to design something where people are encouraged to move out of their comfort zones.”
Action versus process
“I always find it scary to change things. But I noticed this year that if you start walking besides the path you normally walk, it can be very profitable,” tells Jeroen. He is a designer of functional objects, like furniture or entire spaces. His vision is to design them with simplicity and with the users. By participating in Driving Dutch Design, he consciously initiated change. “It was a clear action, with the intent to change. In that process I reinvented myself.”
All of these insights pose an interesting question: is reinvention an action or a process? Is it a change or a movement? All drivers agree that reinvention is organic, continuous and constantly in motion. “To me life itself is one big research journey,” says Renee. Self-development, reinvention, personal, professional; they all go together in the same ongoing process. “If I develop myself personally, it also fuels a development professionally.”
It is reminiscent of a quote by artist Willem de Kooning, ‘I have to change to stay the same.’ Yet, there may also be peace and stillness in the movement. Dorian: “Going forward is a good thing, but I do think we give it too much credit. It can also be beautiful to stand still and realise: look what’s already here and how amazing this is and I have achieved this.”
Being aware of what you have and what you do, Jeroen describes this feeling as, “On a personal level, I’m often very satisfied with what I have and what I do. But at the same time in my work I really want to keep moving.” According to him, this is part of being a designer and a form of freedom which comes from being an independent entrepreneur; to be able to do and choose what you want.
Reinventing of the self
Value versus value
That freedom can be a blessing, but it can also be the curse of entrepreneurship, according to Dorian. At times she finds it overwhelming to realize that éverything is possible. “I think that originates from our capitalistic ways. A company has to grow. That belief runs deeply in our culture.” The Drivers see a need for collective reinvention in this. “There is no stop to this freedom. It always has to be more, further, longer, bigger. Will the moment arise that we can no longer move further?” Jeroen suggests.
“Corona gave us a glimpse of that,” is Renee’s answer. An external factor that forced life-as-we-knew-it to a pause. It made Jeroen wonder how a designer like him would work without the capitalist system. “What if there is no abundance of money. What if it is no longer a matter of ‘there is no difference between making one chair or ten’. I’m curious about that.”
This is an exciting thought. A sense of urgency buzzes across the table, to focus less on economic growth and more on the human dimension. Renee tells she wishes to look at completely different values. “We have become pretty far distanced from our basic human needs and what people need to live their lives.” Renee has experienced in her work too much emphasis on systems and spaces which focus on keeping the economy and society going. “Instead of focusing on the people that actually have to use it. I think there is still room for reinventing.” With the projects of SMELT, Dorian wants to achieve that people review their own values, and those of others. It is her personal mission that people with an opposing opinion, by means of open conversation, can connect to each other. “And have them open up to that. To the idea that this too can happen at other times, places and with other subjects.”
Creation versus crisis
Is the time for change now? For reinvention? Crisis and emptiness offer space for change, and designers thrive on that, according to Renee. But, Dorian warns, inequality should not become too great. “To the point that things get so bad, the gap becomes so big, that people will think ‘This can never be bridged, so whatever.”
It can be a designer’s role to create that space, to close those gaps, or to bring comfort. By reinventing existing frameworks and giving shape to examples of a ‘new normal’, of how it could be. Jeroen: “As a designer you have been trained for this. To explicitly not do what is ‘normal’. If you look at it this way, designers are the ones who can create these examples.”