Many Hands, Many Minds
A Conversation Between Hella Jongerius and Stephanie Rosenthal
Hella Jongerius is internationally recognised for making striking design pieces. Having always aspired to formulate new relationships between objects and users, she has an innovative approach to both the process of design and use value of objects. As an industrial designer, she has worked with major clients, from the airline KLM and the furniture company Vitra, to the United Nations, where she remodelled the North Delegates Lounge at their New York Headquarters. With a background in occupational therapy and carpentry, she has engaged with design from an ergonomic and technical perspective merged with an anthropological approach. Her tactile and sculptural objects reflect on our relationship to physical matter to go beyond functional utility. The concept of the “misfit” and “incompleteness” are the principles that guide her research and design projects. After graduating from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 1993, Jongerius joined the conceptual Dutch design collective Droog, which is known for its vibrant approach to design. In the same year, she founded Jongeriuslab in Rotterdam, a design studio that uses experimental processes. Subsequently moving to Germany’s capital city in search of different working modes and approaches, in 2009 she established Jongeriuslab in Berlin, whose team have worked closely with the Gropius Bau on Hella Jongerius: Woven Cosmos. I spoke with Jongerius to consider the relationship between craft and technology and how this can best serve a changing world.
Stephanie Rosenthal: Wonderful, to sit here in your studio, Hella. I’ve brought with me a selection of books that are quite relevant to our discussions, which I might read quotes from during this conversation. To me it feels fitting that you’re sitting by the windows and next to your new works, which also could be windows. You’ve realised these over the last year for your exhibition at the Gropius Bau. You’ve made exhibitions since 2003, primarily in design museums. Your exhibition at the Gropius Bau follows your 2019 show at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris, where you entered into the realm of contemporary art exhibitions. I wondered what it means for you as an artist to have also worked so closely with industry, including clients such as KLM and Vitra?
Hella Jongerius: Here we have the real windows and the woven windows. To answer your question, I started out as a designer, but my working method is like the process of an artist with a social and political agenda – as an author. My work is always placed within the current time and reflects what is happening in our society, as well as actively questioning my profession. I also question the use of materials and production systems. Working in the field of industrial design, there are lots of boundaries, but every restriction is a new challenge to be creative. I wanted to work in the design world to change something on a larger scale; if we can change something in the industrial realm, the output is broader than when working with individual objects. I want to bring individuality, imperfection and humanity to processes of standardised industrial production. We have to cure what I feel is a sick relationship that we have with our environment by fixing the way in which objects and materials are produced.
Stephanie Rosenthal: In several interviews you mentioned initially wanting to become a hippie. This comment really stayed with me because it is very telling when looking at your career as an established industrial designer. You take a lot of risks and you’re not afraid to leave things behind, to start something new and be free.
Hella Jongerius: I’m a free spirit and I question the things around me. I was raised in the 1970s, a period when you could see countercultural movements on television and hippies demonstrating. I wanted to be a hippie and change something. I was raised as a Calvinist with a moral consciousness. I felt I wanted to add something to the world by being a rebel, a feminist. In the 1970s and 1980s, my first job was working for a self-initiated platform for women who were interested in technical skills – jobs like plumbing and electricity. It was here that I learnt to be a carpenter. I was raised with three brothers and was a tomboy, so I was faced with gender issues early on.
Stephanie Rosenthal: You step beyond the structure of what constitutes design to explore changing worlds. I feel that you challenge what an industrial designer can be, bringing together creative aspects that seem incongruous. For example, you meld craft and the technology that is used in the design industry. To me this suggests merging the idiosyncratic with the industrial.
Hella Jongerius: Yes, I like pushing boundaries to find the fluidity in grey areas.
Stephanie Rosenthal: It seems to me that you have a strong sense of responsibility. This will – to have an impact on the world – is something I feel we should increasingly reintegrate into the art world. Of course art can change things by being poetic and stimulating the senses. However, to me art has always had the responsibility of enhancing critical thinking, which goes further than just rethinking how we look at things. This can undoubtedly also have a meaningful impact on how we act daily. The boundaries within industry remind me of the limitations of social or even bureaucratic structures. We might think they cannot be changed, but they can. You challenge the process of industrial design. I feel this is something we can do with exhibitions – showing how we can change existing systems, and we can only change them by believing in the human aspects of systems.
Hella Jongerius: I totally agree. A museum can be a platform for a designer like me to conduct deeper research, to get lost, to use my intuition by finding answers or raising more questions, to reach people. I want to raise awareness about the layers that are present in objects: the cultural meaning of an object and the material topic in terms of how objects are produced. Industrial production systems have huge socio-political implications. Objects (with their inherent layers) are now mainly communicating to consumers via the market and being new is seen as the main source of value. I see the museum or university as a way of questioning research and critical thinking; as a means of communicating with people and encouraging them to rethink the relationship that we have with our objects. Given the climate crisis, we need a huge revolution in how we approach objects.
Stephanie Rosenthal: You have always put significant focus on research. With your exhibition at the Gropius Bau, we have provided a physical space for this research and, as such, activated it for a public, reaching beyond product. I feel that your interest in weaving is related to this. When and where did your research on weaving begin?
Hella Jongerius: I have designed upholstery and worked with carpets on an industrial scale for 30 years. About three years ago I took a sabbatical so that I could focus on research. I wondered what I had missed by only working with industrial weaving, which I felt had become narrow and economically driven. The boundaries started to become too tight. Just before I started my sabbatical I received an invitation from Lafayette Anticipations to do an exhibition and I decided to work on weaving. I bought a digital Jacquard loom and started the process for a year. I began to think intensely about weaving, with all its cultural and social meanings, its metaphors and potential futures. I then decided to build a loom that was structured for 3D weaving, and subsequently opened a workshop and space for learning in Berlin with other design weavers. Weaving is a huge topic. I wanted to dive even deeper into the topic when I received the invitation from you. The idea of a woven cosmos was present early on in the making of this exhibition and I wanted to look at weaving in terms of it’s full potential: the spiritual aspect as a method of healing, it’s technical aspect and the future potential in 3D weaving, as well as my artistic handwriting with woven paintings. I believe objects can have a transformative influence on people, and this is how they heal. I am interested in the powerful relationships that we develop with objects around us, both spiritually and practically.
Stephanie Rosenthal: I am fascinated by your thinking on weaving’s connection to a sustainable future. In the past, weaving was actually the beginning of the computer and coding. I feel it’s important to consider how we can work differently and how we can now think into the future. Last year you started to talk about your ideas for new application areas in relation to solar cells. What stage have you reached with this research?
Hella Jongerius: We are working with strips of solar cells. These strips are flexible and at the same time strong, lending stability to a woven structure. We use them together with a conductive yarn that connects the strips with electronic elements. This offers a wealth of new possibilities, visual as well as functional. We can create light but sturdy woven solar structures that can unfold when they are touched by sunlight. Imagine how this could change the look of all those fields full of solar panels. They now look like flat black glass shields, this concept could change them into fields of art sculptures. Or we could weave a balcony that pops up when the sun shines. We are just starting this research, it has a lot of potential to connect our weave expertise and engineering with my personal handwriting.
Stephanie Rosenthal: Healing is also rooted in your work – in form, materials and design. You never begin with a white board but, instead, look into the past to use what was there before. The scars of humanity’s past are very obvious when you look back. Connecting these with the future presents a form of healing. Your work is not trying to pretend it’s new. Take, for example, the series Extended Jugs (1997), where porcelain jugs have extended parts made out of polyurethane – a material added to an archetypal form to change it. To me this underlines the idea of repair as a designer, which is very much connected to this idea of healing.
Hella Jongerius: In a way, imperfection is healing for industrial design. We also find imperfection in the digital world, although everything seems so efficient. We cannot escape the fact that we still live in a physical world that is inefficient – as humans we are inefficient. So I think it is very important that we have a human scale when thinking or talking about our objects. Materials always have political and social implications.
Stephanie Rosenthal: Through the process of preparing the exhibition, I have looked again at the objects that surround us, our relationships with them and the period of overconsumption in which we are living. The objects that we live with define us. The book Museum Objects, Health and Healing: The Relationship between Exhibitions and Wellness, by Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird and Jason McKeown (2020) talks about the primacy of the human need for relationships with objects and how these are fundamental for our mental health. I was mainly influenced by the opinions of the authors “that objects keep us well, often without our knowledge and that our understanding of the psychological underpinning of the human object relationship helps us to see how museums can be places of health and healing.” It examines how trauma can be overcome by giving, seeing, donating and carrying objects.
Hella Jongerius: And getting rid of objects.
Stephanie Rosenthal: In recent years Donny Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016) has been like my Bible and I’m always trying to connect it to my work, the museum and exhibitions making. She writes: “We – all of us on Terra – live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times.” (2) The task for us working in a public institution is to not to look away and not to think that we can change the world, I think it is rather this process of not giving up, which Haraway asks for, that is crucial.
Hella Jongerius: I was thinking also about the philosopher Bruno Latour who speaks about all these things and about how there is no hierarchy between humans, plants, animals, things and objects. I like that very much (that there is no hierarchy). I think that has a healing aspect to it. Also, a book by Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (2018), talks about real objects and sensual objects: a real object can only connect to a real object if there is a sensual object in-between. So I’m really trying to understand what is a sensual quality.
Stephanie Rosenthal: When you talk about the holistic I also think about the “cosmic loom”, which connects us to this. It also relates deeply to connectivity, to working together and showing the process of working.
Hella Jongerius: Yes, the cosmic loom. It was very fascinating reading about this. Ancient people used the spindle not only to spin yarns but also to understand the cycles of the sun and the moon; to spin the fates; to understand life and death. Such metaphors are also still present in the language that we use, which comes from weaving. We’ve ruined the planet but we can design our way out of this mess. In that sense, I see the cosmic loom as a metaphor for weaving a new texture for the world, of navigating fate by choosing your yarn in our Anthropocene world.
Stephanie Rosenthal: Weaving and the loom is a metaphor – it really connects us all and brings things together. It also has a certain level of risk because you cannot know what the outcome will be.
Hella Jongerius: That’s why I’m interested in building looms again. A loom was the first industrial machine and the start of the Industrial Revolution. I want to make looms again, but human machines, not industrial-efficient looms where you can’t be creative or where knowledge about textiles gets lost. My new looms can be activated in a group. Weaving is writing with the body in very repetitive movements.
Stephanie Rosenthal: You were also mentioning the animal and the importance of the animal in your work and it was particularly important to you to have your earlier work Frog Table (2009) in the exhibition. How is the frog table connected to your earlier work and to the idea of angry animals in the present?
Hella Jongerius: Over the past few years I haven’t used animals as a topic, but with the frog table I wanted to turn decoration from being two-dimensional into three-dimensional – to scale it up. I thought, “What if a table includes a creature so that the table and you are not alone.” It was about having no hierarchy between animals and objects. Yet animals are objectified in our lives. We eat them. All of the animals in my work so far have always seemed friendly. But actually their position is so dramatic. That’s why I started making pottery again for this exhibition; I felt the urge to create object animals once more, and they turned out to be very angry.
Stephanie Rosenthal: The Frog Table (2009) is a sculpture at the same time as being a table. The animal is the one who is observing you while you sit at the table. The frog is a metaphor for transformation. With the new ceramic work Angry Animals (2021), you’re reflecting what you feel right now, which is to do with the urgency in the world – a moment in which we’re suddenly all aware of the environmental crisis. Artists have spoken about such urgency since the 1960s, but now I think there is really this general awakening. The consumer wants what is sustainable.
Hella Jongerius: Yes, the industry follows what the consumers buy. So they are the ones who have the real power to change something in the world. And we need the governments to set the rules in a way that is totally different to now (when they are set according to a commercial economy and capitalist system).
Stephanie Rosenthal: I do think that culture plays an important role in questioning what we’re doing and how we question the form of caring. It is not a question of perfection or imperfection. When we talk about a process of healing at the Gropius Bau, it is a question of how we actually care and who do we care about? We are in this context of being entangled and I think it will help us to fulfil the responsibility of care.
Hella Jongerius: It comes in layers. Maybe you have smaller answers to smaller questions. You don’t eat the elephant all at once, only bit by bit. That’s also how I see my work: as teamwork where there are many hands and many heads.
Stephanie Rosenthal: You’re currently conducting intensive research through the cultural podium; will there be a moment where you go back to challenge the industry?
Hella Jongerius: It’s true. It’s not only about questioning, it’s also about landing again. Flying and then landing. I now see that multiaxial weaving techniques could be a way of landing in this specific context. Textile is both the strongest and lightest of constructs: we are engineering folded constructions by creating multiaxial weaving, which have embedded power sources. In other words, we are making modular structures as pliable architecture. We can create volume and use far less material compared to, say, brick or concrete. We must ask question like: how can you read an object? What are the relations within an object? This is knowledge. It’s a philosophy. I’ve learned something in the search with my hands and in techniques but, also, in searching my thoughts. I have been building on a library of thoughts. I have an overview of where are we going, particularly in relation to this critical question: what do we need in the world? It’s the future.
Stephanie Rosenthal: Yes, to me that is very pertinent. As you say, it’s a future.
1. Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird und Jason McKeown: Museum Objects, Health and Healing: The Relationship between Exhibitions and Wellness, New York City (Routledge Museum Studies), 2020, p. 2.
2. Donna J. Haraway: Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London (Duke University Press), 2016, p. 1.