When director Ann Goldstein first arrived in Amsterdam taxis didn’t know where the Stedelijk Museum was and nor was it mentioned on maps. The nine year closure had had an effect. “The Van Gogh, the Rijks and the Concertgebouw were all clearly marked, but the Stedelijk had literally dropped off the map,” she says.
Interview by Gabrielle Kennedy
Photography by Ilco Kemmere
The museum’s non-identity coincided with a particularly rough patch for Dutch design. Plans for the proposed design museum had been axed and cultural funding had been slashed across the board.
The reopening, therefore, had added gravitas for design. Plans for the current presentation started back in 2005 for the scheduled 2008 reopening. “Almost everything we have now in the design galleries was based on then director Gijs van Tuyl’s vision,” admits Ingeborg De Roode, curator of industrial design.
The 14 design galleries straddle disciplines from graphic design, to industrial design, jewelry and small sculptures in glass and porcelain.
“A lot was already decided with regards to the concepts and themes of the galleries and from the very start everyone agreed that design needed a good amount of space and attention.”
Goldstein – an American with a strict visual arts background – arrived and was immediately supportive of the plan.
“I love design, particularly graphic design” she says, “and it plays an integral role in Dutch culture. What blew my mind from the start was the mere volume of material – it represents the majority of our complete collection. In the Netherlands design is art.”
Inspired by what she saw in storage, Goldstein decided to add to the opening plans by canceling a design timeline installation and instead including what is now known as the Depot – a cross section of a storage unit showing how the museum warehouses its design collection. Running with this is a film revealing much about design, process as well as selling using and storing objects.
“Before the more formal circuits I thought it would be so interesting for visitors to see how design lives,” Goldstein says, “and how pragmatic the system is – with things divided up according to materials and size.”
For the most part the design collection is presented in loose chronological and thematic order. Clearly the curators are playing to their strengths rather than just mimicking what exists in collections elsewhere.
Dutch superstars like Rietveld and Sandberg get a disproportionately large space, which makes good sense given their overwhelming impact on international design and the spread of modernist ideas.
“Bauhaus and the influence of Bauhaus in the Netherlands is also a big part of the collection,” says De Roode. So we opened with a special presentation on that.”
Design has played a core role at the Stedelijk Museum since the 1930s. “The collection officially started in 1934, but even as early as the late 19th century the museum hosted exhibitions on subjects relating to applied arts and design,” says De Roode.
In the early 20th century, the Netherlands did have a museum for applied arts located in Haarlem. It shut down in the mid 20s. “That was probably an extra reason for the Stedelijk to start its own collection,” says De Roode who admits that while a design museum would be nice, she doesn’t see it as essential.
“I think outfits like Platform 21 that can do exhibitions outside a more traditional museum’s domain are really interesting,” she says. “People often asked if I was threatened by its existence. Of course I was not – their programming was something I could not do here and it strengthened general design awareness, which was good.”
Platform 21 was the incubator for the planned Dutch design museum, but lost its funding in 2009 and had to shut its doors. The Netherland’s’ hopes of having its own design museum shut with it.
The advantage of showing design within a contemporary art setting is that connections can be drawn and visitors can look at the fuller creative world in an integrated context. “And over time I have seen how artists have become more interested in certain aspects of design and can move back and forth,” says Goldstein. “If you think about it, photography not so long ago was not considered art. I can definitely see doing more combined exhibitions in the future.”
“Even just within the design disciplines,” adds De Roode, it may sound logical to present graphic work with industrial design, but in fact it is hardly ever done and it is what we will do more and more of. So I keep on working closely with my colleagues Marjan Boot, curator of applied arts and design, and Carolien Glazenburg, curator of graphic design, with whom I made the design collection presentation.”
This sort of interconnectedness makes big sense if one considers the reach of movements like De Stijl, Bauhaus, Pop Art and even post-modernism. “The boarders between art and design are getting less clear,” says De Roode. “We have small objects and even textiles from the 60s that could probably fall into either art or design. I think the distinction is often more important to the designer or the artists than to us. Let’s just call it an administrative distinction.”
Textile “artist/designer” Loes van der Horst, for example, is currently included in an art presentation.
Now the post-opening congratulations have simmered down, Goldstein has to set about reestablishing the Stedelijk Museum and Amsterdam as an important and relevant art and design hub. It needs to not just make it back onto the city’s tourists maps, but back into the forefront of the international contemporary art and design scene.
“It became apparent to me soon after arriving in Amsterdam just how hysterical people were about the closure of their museum,” Goldstein says. “It was too long.”
“It was very bad for us that it took so long to reopen,” admits De Roode. “Of course as a curator it is frustrating because my job is about connecting with the public and even though we had temporary solutions, the reach was never the same.”
But De Roode also stresses that the museum’s international colleagues did not forgot about them. “The MOMA in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich were in constant touch,” she says, “and we were already work ing together on upcoming projects. They never lost faith in us.”
De Roode’s plan for the future is to focus more on contemporary issues that are driving the industry. These as well as more recent design hits are a noticeable gap in the current presentation, but planned for 2014 is a Marcel Wanders exhibition (his first in Europe in over ten years), and a presentation of furniture from the Amsterdam School, an architecture and design movement from the beginning of the 20th Century, which is well known for its expressive forms.
Dirk vander Kooij is just one of the young Dutch designers De Roode has selected to pursue. She also wants to keep an eye on designers with a social core like Design Academy Eindhoven graduate Massoud Hassani whose landmine detonator “Mine Kafon” has become a media sensation.
Interestingly, just days after this interview professor of Design Cultures at the VU (Vrije University Amsterdam), Timo de Rijk wrote a damning op ed in the leading Dutch daily, NRC Handelsblad. He picked out Hassani’s Kafon as the perfect example of where Dutch design is going completely wrong – too conceptual, completely impractical, and good for little more than exhibiting in a museum. “Mine Kafon”, needless to say, looks amazing and possesses an impressive social agenda, but in its current state, it cannot work.
“Besides that I am always interested in new materials, new techniques and what sort of opportunities these offer designers,” De Roode says. “I like seeing how experiments with ultra-light materials, for example, are being developed and what designers will do with that. I am also interested in how big organizations like disaster relief agencies can learn to make better use of designers.”
The main challenge for the Stedelijk now is to stay relevant and to keep ahead of the curve. Back in the 70s design was simpler to exhibit. For one, the ties to the art world were stronger. Everything was more visual. “Especially in jewelry design,” says De Roode. “Look at Gijs Bakker and Emmy van Leersum.”
But also in the 80s there were not that many venues exhibiting. “Now there are so many more opportunities for designers and artists,” says De Roode. “There are many of galleries showing the cutting edge and that makes it harder for us, but we definitely want to play a role in this … We want to play an integral role in what is happening in design around the world.”
Complicating this further is the question of how to exhibit design at a time when research, experimenting with materials and new production processes have become the focus. Right now design is very much about social improvement and discovering ways that design can play a bigger role in the world.
“It is important to point out that showing and collecting are two different things,” De Roode says. “We can always use smaller galleries to show temporary exhibits.”
Thus far the museum and its design collection have been favourably received. In one now-famous New York Times piece the architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman bluntly queried, “Why is this museum shaped like a tub?” His own proffered answer was not complimentary.
Proposals for the revamp of the old building first came from Venturi and later from Portugese architect Alvaro Siza who proposed a vision of sculptural light. In the end the museum went with Benthem Crouwel’s bathtub proposal.
Kimmelman claims the structure is out of synch with the times, claiming iconic architecture that sits uneasily in its surrounds characterizes a very different more finically flamboyant era. He writes: “Benthem Crouwel’s gonzo design suggests a kind of desperation in Amsterdam’s reaction to Bilbao.”
Goldstein disagrees: “Given what the Stedelijk is, I think the iconic nature of this extension is very appropriate. I think the building is spectacular. It is like one open statement from the outside to the inside, transparent, aesthetically beautiful and functionally effectively. But I also think the way the building is photographed is quite different to how it actually is. It looks like plastic, but up close and inside it really does have a more porcelain feel to it. I love the texture.”
“To me [Kimmelman’s] criticism is very old-fashioned,” says De Roode. “It read like he was just against change and he does not understand the structure because the whole form is very functional. Crouwel didn’t want to just make a nice form, he wanted to make spaces which work well for the museum. His idea that the old museum must always be visible lead to a floating and a subterraneous space. It is as logical as that.”
Mels Crouwel’s was the only proposal that flipped the museum, turning the back into the entrance and thus utilizing the awkward public space – Museum Plein. He also avoided building on the ground floor to preserve views of the old building and instead put the largest space underground. “It is great because you do not get the feeling that this extension is a huge structure,” says De Roode “most of it is hidden underground.”
What definitely does not work is the ugly black truck tower that seems to randomly rise into the air ultimately blocking any real connection with Museum Plein. The tower looks temporary and like it might belong to the nearby supermarket rather than the museum. “It was the only way to get truck access and to house the climatization system,” says De Roode.
De Roode also points out that during the building-stage many people criticized the plan, but once it was opened and people used the space as a museum they came to better understand and appreciate it.
So heading towards the end of its first six months the Stedelijk Museum seems to be very much on track. They have even managed to overcome the early announcement that their funding would be slashed forcing some employees to be let go. “We need to look for new funding now,” says Goldstein who emphasizes that although she is used to less funding in the United States, the tax structure and philanthropy there is completely different. “What works there, does not necessarily work here,” she says.
“I do not want to sound arrogant but we are off to a fantastic start,” says Goldstein. “We will not model ourselves on anyone else. We have an amazing collection, a rich history, and a community that I am quite sure will combine to quickly reestablish the Stedelijk one of the most important cultural institutions in the world.”
“Design can enhance lives,” concludes De Roode. “It is not just about making the world more beautiful. I am curious about how people develop relationships with objects that they use – it is why we want to do the Marcel Wanders exhibition because he thinks a lot about this. People often see design as little more than consumerism, but if it is done well and people become attached to their objects, it can also be very sustainable. Design which addresses social issues can really influence people’s lives.”
This interview was published in Connecting the Dots #7 for the Milan Design Week 2013.
For entire magazine click here.