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William Drenttel

A Conversation with Daniel van der Velden of Metahaven


WD: Twelve exhibitions, scores of presentations, more than a dozen “editorial and curatorial projects”: How has Metahaven managed to assemble such a large body of work in only a few years?

DvdV: The question sounds like we have done something physically hard to accomplish. Maybe that is true. Maybe it isn’t. We are all hard workers, I guess. We enjoy what we do.

WD: In your mind, is there a difference between projects you research and those you actually design and produce? And what about making a living? Are you carving out a niche of “other” work that pays?

DvdV: What we do in self-directed or research-driven projects, or in projects that don’t have a client approval at checkout in the traditional sense, is apply a set of interests that generate content. The same energy is brought to commissioned work, too. But in any client-based project the outcome is always informed by the client’s wishes and the limitations set by time, scope and budget. Often these limitations do make the actual design outcome better, but we can only really know if we see alternatives. Metahaven is always about the production of alternatives. There is no hidden niche of work; it is more about keeping the overhead low. But honestly: I am not sure whether the economical survival of a group of experimental designers is such an interesting subject for readers. Maybe you think it is.

WD: I am always surprised by the degree to which readers want to know how people make the work they make in their studio (process), how they acquire those projects (new business), and how they earn a living (finance). I’m interested in not ignoring the question, but approaching it from the standpoint of innovation. We just ran a profile on Catapult Design, a new design firm working on an NGO model, and they revealed that they only made $59,800 in year one (66 percent in donations and only 8 percent in earned income). Revealing those numbers added an important dimension to the reporting because it placed their work in a context of scale — and demonstrated that their projects are supported by a new donor-based model. So let me pose the question in a different way: as Metahaven explores new models to do speculative design and commissioned design research, have you had to invent new financial models for working with clients or partners?

DvdV: Clearly many of your readers are designers. They want to hear about the nuts and bolts of a studio rather than listening to airy waves of self-branding. They see how the field is changing and want to know how other designers deal with it. And all that is totally legitimate. However, I would like to look at what we are from the work we make rather than from our salaries. Our business model is this: you have to take everything as an opportunity and be very entrepreneurial about your work. You have to mix paid assignments with self-directed work; don’t assume that self-directed work is going to be the final solution. It won’t be. Design and clients belong together. We agree with Guus Beumer, Dutch curator and design writer, that redesigning design is not just up to the designers, but also up to the clients: if we need different answers, we also need different questions.

We do not currently rely on donations, but on “for profit” design commissions, research grants, writing and teaching. Vinca teaches editorial design at ArtEZ, a design school in Arnhem, The Netherlands. She also is a mentor at the Design Academy Eindhoven IM Masters, an interesting and influential program the output of which consists of concepts that may become products or services. I teach at the Sandberg Institute design department — the master program of the Rietveld Academy. And since 2007, I have been a critic at Yale University’s MFA in Graphic Design. This is an outstanding and inspiring place for every reason I can imagine. Neither Vinca nor I have a fixed job contract of any meaningful size anywhere. We rely on the trust and support of clients, partners and institutions.


The Sealand Identity Project, 2004 from Metahaven, Uncorporate Identity, 2010

WD: Let’s talk about your work, then. Your Sealand project in 2004 helped put Metahaven on the map. Looking back at the project, do you find it iconographic of your work — “Oh, those are the folks who created that country in the North Sea”? Has such a well-known project proven helpful or a burden to accomplishing new work? Are you planning future projects concerning Sealand?

DvdV: We will soon start a design project about an international organization that does the type of things Sealand originally hoped to do as a data haven. [WD added after publication: see WikiLeaks post here.]

WD: Your work reveals both respect for and deep suspicion of the power of borders. Did that interest derive from your graphic design proclivities, or is design the medium through which you express long-held, deeply rooted philosophical insights?

DvdV: A border on a map is, literally, a graphic device. It is the line dividing two territories. I guess we have always been into borders because they do politically what graphic shapes do visually. Design is absolutely the medium to grapple with this kind of issue. Despite the fact that we live in a connected world of mobility — or maybe even because of it — the power of borders is increasing. Border protection is on the rise, not just geographically but also electronically. Our book Uncorporate Identity contains the example of European countries boasting colorful, Miro-styled tourist identities, while in African countries, these same countries broadcast shrill, dystopian video clips saying: “Don’t try to come here.” An open door for one person is a closed gate for another.


Metahaven, Uncorporate Identity, 2010

WD: Given your interest in the shifting identities occasioned by the European Union, what do you think of England’s first coalition government since World War II? Is it a reflection of contemporary Europe’s increasing fluidity, or of an increasing fracturing of political discourse?

DvdV: We are really interested in the new British government. No doubt it will provide a model for reforms elsewhere. Our 2009 project Stadtstaat referred, in terms of a visual science fiction story, to a Facebook State — though set in Germany and Holland. The Conservative campaign ran an incredibly glib and smartly-crafted rhetoric of Thatcher meets Obama. Unsurprisingly, we heard some ideas that would make F.A. Hayek — the father of neoliberalism — smile. But we also heard ideas we know from people like Cass Sunstein, or Clay Shirky, or Charles Leadbeater, for that matter. The Conservatives have married Thatcher’s small government with crowdsourcing, “Fawlty Towers” with the TED speech. Being familiar with the language, I think the British are being sold a utopia consisting of austerity packages full of thin air. The problem, frankly, is not the embrace of social media by the government but the unbalanced view taken of social dynamics as a whole. That is where the utopian danger is. The state is an incredibly important filter, and if it gives way to social dynamics believing that these are always and universally good — just because there is now YouTube and Twitter, because people post their own content and are nice to each other in online communities — that is a mistake. Above all, it is a human experiment with anarchy. This is why we remade the original Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” tour poster for Icon magazine, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube featured as bands. It is why we have done projects like Stadtstaat. That said, before you dismiss me as yet another Westphalian hooked up to big government, I agree that something has to be done if public deficits are so high. There is no reason why governments should not reform, but the current strategy conceals the real deal: the mass transfer of risk from the public sector to the people. And the term “austerity” is just so uninspiring.

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Comments (3)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

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



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ABOUT THE SLIDESHOW

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