Designer Hella Jongerius in an interview


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2016)

Colours and fabrics affect our well-being. In many cases they influence whether we like a particular product or not. For this reason, industry acknowledges its power in the manufacturing process. Dutch designer Hella Jongerius has made her mark internationally for her typical style, craftsmanship and industrial design. Her furniture, textiles and tableware creations may be characterised as a fusion of past and present, and combine traditional and novel materials. The lady explains her subtle hues and multi-faceted textures in the follwing interview.

Madam Jongerius, how does one create a colour scheme? 

Colour schemes have been researched, categorised throughout the ages, and countless of them have seen the light of day. Many of them derive from systematic scientific research. Others emerge from a personal and thus subjective approach. I let the personal reign. When creating colour systems, I do not have the desire to systemise or arrange them according to some strict set of rules. Ultimately, the colour field is far too large and complex to be fully understood. My work indeed rebels against the establishment of colour flatness.

Do you follow any psychological rules in this process?

My fascination for colour emerges from its enigmatic, inscrutable quality. Colour binds together a range of important topics in life: the aesthetic value in art, the scientific research into our human perception, the philosophical questions on the words we use to address them, their social and cultural relevance. All these subjects are connected to our everyday experience. 

When trying to breathe life into colourful products, is the time of the day of any influence?

In our daily lives we experience colours subjectively, a sensation in a constant state of flux as daylight changes. Apart from colours, our eyes process patterns and connect them with memories and ideas in the mind. The industry’s desire for objectivity and stability as regards to colours neglects and distorts the strong feeling humans have for them. However, the beauty of colours resides in their main property – instability – and this deserves to be experienced.

You are part of a generation of Dutch designers that emerged in the 1990s. Why did you leave Rotterdam in favour of Berlin?

Living away from one’s own culture gives you freedom because you can escape social pressure and rules. Here in Berlin, I am not part of its traditions and culture – I am an outsider.

You define yourself as an industrial designer. Why not as an artist?

My works want to be sat on, touched, used, develop patina, yet also want to make the people who use them become more aware of their production process, materials, original value and heritage. As a designer, I enjoy the challenge of somehow combining my ideals and goals with those of industry.

You have designed business class cabins for KLM. How did this collaboration come about and what attracts you to such special projects?

In 2011, KLM asked me to design the textiles for the company’s long haul business cabins and I was intrigued to redefine a setting so strongly dependent on the company’s signature sky blue. When working on the project, I heard that KLM was in the process of ordering new seats and I persuaded them to let me customise these. After having completed the interior of their 747 business class, two years later they asked me to design the new seats for the 787’s business class and interior design economy class – to design the 787 from front to back, which we completed in 2015. This project was possibly the most intense in regards to pushing the limits. In aviation design, many manufacturers depend on standard fixings. I enjoyed working with a tight set of rules and requirements, really pushing the boundaries. For years, aircraft cabins have been designed as if they were offices with no tactile quality and therefore no product energy. I wanted a more poetic feeling or that of a home or a hotel. 

How did it compare to conventional design?

The difference was the number of people involved and of decision makers to be convinced, everything being much larger than usual, yet my team went about this project just as we would with any other. We analysed existing processes, structures and materials and worked on finding a solution that matched our vision, taking into account the industrial constraints, but also pushing the boundaries.

Why would industries generally be unwilling to change any colours regardless of surface area or light? 

Colour production has unfortunately degraded its actual substance – pigment – and all for the sake of standardisation. The main goal of the industry is to guarantee that colours remain unchanged irrespective of context. But colour, in my opinion, is exactly about playing with light and interacting with its surroundings. Industrialisation has also deprived colours of cultural connotations. Leaving no place for seclusion or questioning the objective, there is only all-encompassing RAL, Pantone and NCS. Millions of colours are categorised, structured and sorted out for us. How can we ever intimately relate to colours again under such standards?

How does good design communicate with people?

Good design refers to context, time, the known and the unknown.

Where in our everyday lives is design tangible and to what extent can design tell a story? 

Design is about the relationship between people and the objects which surround them. Things in our daily lives can tell stories about their function, their use and why they exist. Many objects on the market are produced primarily to be sold at the highest margins. Their stories just empty marketing strategies, intensifying the consumer’s desire for the new. Therefore, a well-designed object can communicate on many different levels so its value is appreciated over a long time, regardless of its age.

What initial steps do you follow once you have a new idea? How do you bring these together to create a uniform concept? 

As regards to context, I have always looked for treasures of the past. I never start with a blank sheet of paper. I am interested in why and how something has been done in the past, and my work begins by analysing and researching that which already exists. After this phase, my working process revolves around materials as these will define the quality of the product. I always tell my designers: Start by “designing the yarn”. Even if you’re designing something that doesn’t use yarn – a chair, for example – you have to start with the basics, because the human scale is key. It helps you realise the importance of attention to detail. It’s a hands-on approach that every industrial designer would benefit from, I think. In a way it’s the hands that come up with the solution in a process that the mind can’t fully foresee. 

After an age of throw-away products, sustainable materials and corresponding manufacturing methods are the way of the future. What responsibility do designers have in improving the world a little? 

I am in this profession because I love it. Yet I also hate it, so I want it to change. There has to be another answer to consumerism, and that could be to have alternative products, to advance the relationship between humans and objects or to replace the new as the main objective of purchasing. If it no longer is about the new, then what could it be? That’s my quest! 

You have been the art director with home and office furniture manufacturer Vitra since 2008, and an advocate of working with a few clients over a long term. Why should designers be selective as with whom to work? 

You can only push the envelope if there is respect and trust between the client and the designer. So first of all, you have to find people who have the same ethics and share the same opinions about our profession. Working with the same people for a long time means that you can deliver customised solutions, saving lots of time and energy that would otherwise go in convincing others.

Which area of design makes your heart leap up? 

Whenever I design my main objective is the user-and-object relationship. I want people to use the result in the long run. My approach is to merge industrial design and craft. I believe in serial production and the great potential of the industry.

What kind of projects are you working on? 

In my work as an art director, my bird’s-eye view guides a company or a collection into a certain direction. To achieve this I design mundane objects – rugs, vases, accessories and furniture. I am very much interested in research and experiments with pigments, shapes and surfaces. Such studies help me build up knowledge and expertise on colour. Both paths fertilise each other, as was the case in this year’s furniture fair in Milan, where my team and I worked on two installations. For Vitra, we created an installation called Colour Machine, which displayed our entire Vitra Colour and Material Library and we published a book: “I don’t have a favourite colour”. Then the Serpentine Galleries commissioned us to create something for the windows of department store La Rinascente, which is next to the Duomo. We developed “A Search behind Appearances”, a large installation set in seven windows where words, textiles and light interact, questioning the way design is conceived. Through an intricate shadow play with words and shapes, the installation examines what is hiding behind appearances. The project was a continuation of the manifesto “Beyond the New” that author and sculptor Louise Schouwenberg and I had presented in Milan the year before.


Picture credits © Markus Jans

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