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William Drenttel

A Conversation with Daniel van der Velden of Metahaven



Daniel van der Velden, Society of the Query, 2009

I first met Daniel van der Velden in Brno, Czech Republic, in 2008. Among a group of outstanding designers presenting at an International Biennial of Graphic Design, I was struck by the content of Metahaven's work — politics, borders, immigration, social networks and economic theory. Metahaven is a partnership of Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk (whom I recently met in Amsterdam). I have also written about a recent Metahaven project, proposals for a new graphic identity for WikiLeaks.

My fellow Design Observer OBlog critic, Rick Poynor, has described them thus: "Metahaven is one of the most theoretically informed, strategically adept and articulate groups of thinkers operating in graphic design..." — high praise from a writer who has challenged the current state of Dutch graphic design.

Daniel and I started this interview months ago when
Uncorporate Identity was being published, and it dragged on as we attempted a sustained conversation by email, while we were both traveling over many months. While I share Rick Poynor's respect for the larger Metahaven project, I went into the interview troubled by some of their actual design work, as well as by the language that defines and surrounds their practice. If this interview seemed awkward and testy at times, it is probably because of these biases — which I brought into this dialogue, despite our many mutual interests and shared concerns. I have let the conversation stand as it happened, edited by both parties only for sense and clarity.


William Drenttel
:
Daniel, let's start at the beginning. What is Metahaven?

Daniel van der Velden:
Metahaven is a design studio. Vinca Kruk and myself are the founders. We work together with other designers and researchers under the Metahaven name. We specialize in client-based work (publications and identities), research (which may be exhibited, printed or experienced online), and writing. Installations, art projects, communication strategies, texts, publications, interviews and public lectures are all part of our output and are situated under the general rubric of “critical design” — however welcome, unwelcome, acceptable or unacceptable such a term might be!

WD: A number of years into the practice, what are the distinctive talents and contributions of Metahaven’s two partners? What brought you together as a team in the first place?


DvdV: Our first projects dealt with the confrontation of a place — a fixed location on the map — with a flow of images, ideas and information. That place was Sealand, a former anti-aircraft platform in the North Sea, which was proclaimed an independent principality in the 1960s. Since the early 2000s Sealand has tried to be a data haven and an offshore bank, after having attempted to become a casino. A few years ago it was put up for sale on eBay. The Pirate Bay tried to buy it. Through Sealand’s online image economy we wanted to bypass the idea of a centrally organized corporate identity. Think of the difference between a corporate brand manual and a Google image search on that brand. Vinca Kruk and I, having worked on the Sealand project, realized that we wanted to do more with this idea than a one-off try at “design research.” For the past three years, Metahaven has been our full-time practice. What brought us together, aside from this concrete assignment or case study, was an interest in speculative design. The idea of fantasy and fiction being an important part of what defines a project.

WD: Is there something about how you work that suggests the abstraction of the traditional design studio as a physical place? Or it’s mutation into something networked and decentralized? When you describe Metahaven as a studio — as in artist studio, design studio — does that have historical meaning for you today? At Winterhouse, I know we’ve always struggled with whether we’re a company or a firm or a studio or an institute — but the place or space was always a big part of our life in design.

DvdV: Currently our home base is Amsterdam, but we are traveling quite a bit. The place is important — wherever it is. Our studio is located in an interesting area that is less quaint and picture-perfect than the cliché image of this city. Being based in Amsterdam, however, doesn’t make our work “from Amsterdam.” It is tempting to think that it could be from anywhere — while we share some roots with Dutch design culture, there is a sense of that culture now having become global, or at least having assumed a global style. I also would like to try to de-mythologize the idea of a networked studio. Of course a networked studio is a wildly interesting idea, and don’t we all love decentralized and leaderless networks so much more than bureaucracies and other pyramid structures — let’s say the Tea Party vs. Total Design? But the more a studio is decentralized, the more it needs coordination and management. If you are working from different locations, then your coordination standard — or set of online tools — replaces the common space you would share in a more traditional office or studio environment.

WD: I’m sure this will come up again, but since the Metahaven starting point was “a shared interest in speculative design,” can you define “speculative design”? As opposed to what? Who else does speculative design today (or in the past) that you respect? Is design research the larger description of the practice? I suspect “design research,” too, means something specific to you.

DvdV: Design as a tool used to inquire, to research, to anticipate. Also, design as an instrument to imagine. In our understanding, the idea of “speculation” even includes just pitching for a new project, a process which many designers hate (and some clients love). Any design pitch is somewhat speculative. It gambles on the probability of future events; either a particular idea about the entity making the commission, or just the question of whether the proposal itself will be selected to become a reality. A web platform like Crowdspring, and its rising popularity among both clients and designers, shows how the pitching landscape is being reorganized. When discussed from the point of view of critique, speculative design anticipates a reality, and uses that as a critical device. That is where it really differs from pitching. Most well-known speculative designers so far have been architects. Groups like Archizoom, with their seminal No Stop City, but also earlier urbanists like Ludwig Hilbersheimer, drew urban plans that reflected political critiques of society. Speculative design presents science fiction in the here and now — think also of people like Alvin Toffler. One design approach we feel quite affiliated with is that of the British duo Dunne & Raby, whose work relates to technocracy, guided by personalized approaches to well being and risk management. We also feel affiliated with groups like Slavs & Tatars, although you might argue that our work is a little less geared toward fiction and a bit more about reality. In our work, reality is interesting because it approaches fiction; because reality often provides the strongest form of fiction. Then “design research.” You can research by design, or research for design. We try to do both.

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Design as personal expression. I smell a Rick Valicenti Redux - perhaps with a little more social consciousness.

I am glad designers (or should I say artists) can still talk clients into anything!
Swiss
12.29.10 at 08:35

Speculative Design or Improvisation?
Metahaven’s irreverence is their ability to improvise as they use design as an instrument to imagine. Their speculative process is to inquire, research and to anticipate new ideas. Here is Daniel van der Velden in 2005 at the Walker Art Center with Maureen Mooren. Thank you.
Carl W. Smith
12.30.10 at 07:43

Thank you William and Daniel!

Swiss (and anyone else, really), I'm curious:

Where do you draw the line between personal ideology and professional practice? Do you actively pursue work? If so, what values guide that pursuit? Do you allow the work to come to you? If so, do you accept all of it? If not, what criteria are considered in choosing what to accept and what to decline?

Genuinely would like to know.

Thanks again for this interview.
Zak Jensen
01.25.11 at 03:48


Design Observer encourages comments to be short and to the point; as a general rule, they should not run longer than the original post. Comments should show a courteous regard for the presence of other voices in the discussion. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that do not adhere to this standard.
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ABOUT THE SLIDESHOW

A slideshow of images from the book Uncorporate Identity, and other projects by Metahaven.
View Slideshow >>

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

William Drenttel is a designer and publisher, and editorial director of Design Observer. He is a partner at Winterhouse, a design consultancy focused on social change, online media and educational institutions, and a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY William Drenttel

Looking Closer 5
Allworth Press, 2006

Looking Closer 4
Allworth Press, 2002

Looking Closer 2
Allworth Press, 1997

Looking Closer 1
Allworth Press, 1994

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