The web of life

What do design students actually do after they graduate? An installation at the Dutch Design Week by Atelier NL offered a three-dimensional visualisation of the career paths — and professional networks — of recent Design Academy Eindhoven graduates.

This article was originally published in Domus 964 / December 2012

In the eyes of aspiring creative designers, Atelier NL appear to be a case of storybook success. Since their graduation from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2006, Lonny van Ryswyck and Nadine Sterk's studio has enjoyed exposure in mainstream press and positive critical reactions in gallery exhibitions. Still, they are not the typical star designers of the Dutch sphere. They use design not as a vehicle to produce objects, but as a method to reveal hidden patterns in the landscapes of information around us. The fact that they do often make objects, from ceramic vessels to knitted lamps, stems from the idea that these data patterns are best visualized using the material in question. In an on-going project, for example, they dig up natural clay from different sites around the country and fire it to bring out the colour spectrum that results from different historical patterns of agriculture and industry.

While Atelier NL previously dealt with the physical landscape, their latest research venture delves into the social context of the design world itself. During Dutch Design Week 2012 , an event that by nature celebrates material outcomes and financial achievements, the duo chose to present no objects at all — or rather, one very large one. Curious Minds is a large wooden structure laced with colourful threads that map out the destinies of hundreds of Design Academy graduates over the last five years. Atelier NL was curious: people might say they are designers, but how do they actually spend their time and earn a living? Through surveys sent to alumni of the school's renowned bachelors program, they asked people to report, day-by-day, the nature of their work — as designers or non-designers (independent or under-contract), as students, or other.
Top: Atelier NL, <em>Curious Minds</em>, installation view during Dutch Design Week 2012, Eindhoven. Above: Installation detail
Top: Atelier NL, Curious Minds , installation view during Dutch Design Week 2012, Eindhoven. Above: Installation detail
At the large scale of the installation, the viewer can conclude that the majority of graduates do set out to be independent designers, and by 2011 the proportion of independent practice has grown larger than ever before. However, another perspective emerges through parallel interpretations of the data in other media. Graphic visualisations by Studio Truly Truly show that most of the surveyed individuals take on other jobs outside of the design context, and that the impression of the artistic maker in the studio is but one of many real roles that designers take on, both by choice and out of necessity, in order to support themselves. Simultaneously, Mike Roelofs collaborated with Wouter Kooken to produce cinematic portraits of five different characters, from independent non-designer Jeroen Wijering, who developed the JW video player for online streaming, to Kim Schipperheijn, a designer under contract at Vlisco, a company producing patterned fabrics for the West African market.
Atelier NL, <em>Curious Minds</em>, installation detail
Atelier NL, Curious Minds , installation detail
In Atelier NL's studio, the previously unoccupied Four Apostles church in Eindhoven, van Ryswyck is surprisingly honest about the precariousness of her own position. "When we graduated, we were one of the lucky few to get a lot of media attention, but we didn't really know if we were successful, or if this was what we even wanted." As a practitioner in the field, she is well versed in the inexplicable whims of the commercial market as well as the sacrifices (low to no pay and extremely long hours) that are implicitly demanded of the new graduate who opens a studio. Indeed, the learning curve of the independent design practice is conditioned by a distinct lack of consistent information or established protocols about the real world. In casual conversations or over drinks at an opening, one hears tiny anecdotes of the logistical and financial workings of independent design: prototypes that undergo horrific transformations in the process of mass production, commercial successes that even the creator dislikes, designers surviving mainly on insurance claims, and cannily-crafted contracts with galleries.
In the installation, Atelier NL collaborated with other designers, photographers, and writers, and the project's potential can only grow as more agents from diverse backgrounds contribute their own forms of expertise
Atelier NL, <em>Curious Minds</em>, installation detail
Atelier NL, Curious Minds , installation detail
With Curious Minds , Atelier NL seems to be challenging the idea that this outcome is the only possibility after a creative design education. Van Ryswyck has brought up the issue herself with the studio's interns: "One girl was very good at illustration, and I thought, 'You could be really great working in a company.'" The intern in question, however, had already been bitten by the promise of the independent design studio. The question for the young degree-holder, standing at the dawn of their career, is how to maintain the individuality, constructive scepticism, and unrestricted power of expression that they learned in school, at the same time as they place themselves within larger networks of cooperation and production. The situation may seem insurmountable, and yet, in this project, Atelier NL points to a possibility outside of the corporate world. In Curious Minds , they have already collaborated with other designers, photographers, and writers, and the project's potential can only grow as more agents from diverse backgrounds contribute their own forms of expertise. As the installation shows, professional independence may no longer be the only dream. Tamar Shafrir (@tamars)
Atelier NL, <em>Curious Minds</em>, installation view during Dutch Design Week 2012, Eindhoven
Atelier NL, Curious Minds , installation view during Dutch Design Week 2012, Eindhoven
Mike Roelofs collaborated with Wouter Kooken to produce cinematic portraits of five different characters for <em>Curious Minds</em>
Mike Roelofs collaborated with Wouter Kooken to produce cinematic portraits of five different characters for Curious Minds
Atelier NL, <em>Curious Minds</em>, installation detail
Atelier NL, Curious Minds , installation detail
Atelier NL, <em>Curious Minds</em>, installation  view during Dutch Design Week 2012, Eindhoven
Atelier NL, Curious Minds , installation view during Dutch Design Week 2012, Eindhoven

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