In the autumn of 2005, AMO, the research arm of Rem Koolhaas’s architectural practice, presented its research-based opinion of an initiative to build a new design museum in the Zuidas district of Amsterdam. The founding partners were the city of Amsterdam, ING Real Estate and Premsela, the Dutch Platform for Design and Fashion. AMO’s report included the statement “The world does not need another design centre.” This provocative one-liner was grounded with a seemingly endless list of design centres, design museums, design festivals, design conferences, design galleries and design capitals. In 25 years, the number of design centres around the world had quadrupled! And we had yet to begin. Not as the Design Museum, but as Platform21: its incubator. Our mission was to use this pioneering phase to develop a concept that would go beyond just another design centre
MUSEUM PLATFORM EXHIBIT EXPLORE OBJECT SUBJECT
Setting up a test case for a design museum that would be more than a design museum was a challenge, to say the least. It called for an unorthodox programming approach and a critical analysis of the cultural scene. With the high density of design-related activity taking place, some overlap seemed inevitable. As Platform21’s artistic director, I had one goal from the beginning: not to do what others were already doing. We wanted to achieve successes of our own. Copying the tried-and-true wouldn’t yield anything beyond what we already knew, and since many design exhibitions used the same object-oriented format, there seemed to be plenty left to discover. Platform21 had no history, no collection to fall back on, and no specific design discipline to serve. What we did have was a location – a unique 300m2 cylindrical space in a former chapel – and a programming budget. We decided not to exclude anyone or anything. We wanted to discover our own parameters and, most of all, to learn by allowing ourselves the freedom to make mistakes. We let curiosity guide our programming and worked in the manner of a magazine, putting neglected subjects on the agenda. And we did it all at a fast pace and with the aim of activating and involving the public.
EXPERTS ENTHUSIASTS COLLECT SHARE TASTE MEANING
Design is especially appealing as a subject because of its breadth. Everything has a design, but not every design has the same value for everyone. We surround ourselves with stuff because we can give it numerous different meanings – functional, emotional, cultural, economic, symbolic. Seen through the eyes of different people, a single product can yield up a wealth of stories. As a curator, you don’t need to add much to those stories; you only need to be interested in them. An apparently insignificant object can be of great personal value and tell us more about a given culture or period than a star designer’s masterpiece.
One of our first shows at Platform21 was devoted to adults and their cuddly toys. It occurred to me and the people around me that there was a growing number of grownups who carried around character toys they had special relationships with. We wondered why they did it. These characters were often homemade or else very carefully chosen. Not only was character design a growing part of the creative market, it stood for a new kind of platform that merged DIY culture and professional design practice. Character fans were people who were interested in each other’s shared fascination with things with two eyes, not design perfection. To do justice to this movement, we needed to find the right way to present the subject. We found a solution in sending out an open call appealing to characters’ owners to explain what was so special about their ‘friends’ and lend them to us for inclusion in the show. This approach proved to be the right one: we got responses from the well-known and the unknown, and the range of characters and testimonials we collected provided a convincing sampling of every imaginable kind of character and character love. The exhibition was accompanied by workshops, films, performances and talks and drew many enthusiastic visitors. When the critics decided the show wasn’t a design exhibition because it was too unpretentious, we knew we were on the right track. Personal narratives would regularly recur in various forms in our later projects and serve to generate the engagement we sought.
NORMAL ODD LINEAR CROSSROADS LECTURE DIALOGUE
One of the meanings of the word ‘platform’ is ‘place or opportunity for public discussion’. We would have been unworthy of our name if we had not organised encounters and debates. But in the cultural world, meetings and discussion nights often draw people with the same background or professional interest, especially when the subject matter relates to a particular speciality, such as design. Our intention from the beginning was to reach people from a range of backgrounds. One of Platform21’s stated goals was To become a platform where seemingly disparate groups can inspire and strengthen each other. But how could we accomplish that? How do you know who else besides your regular supporters might be interested in a given subject? And how do you convince those people to give up their precious free time and spend an evening with strangers? To do that, you have to do more, consider other kinds of themes, try out new formats and communicate differently. Bringing together a few specialists from different areas isn’t enough to get the neighbours through the door. You have to find out where their passions lie. At least, that’s how it worked for us. The 50-odd events we organised took a variety of forms, but they had one thing in common: the focus was on passion, not profession. You can unite a diverse group of people if they share a passion for a subject. And in this way, you can bring together high and low art, professionalism and hobbyism, design and science, on an equal footing and in a productive way, and generate new conversations.
An unforgettable encounter between professional designers and hobbyists took place in the Travels Through Paradise project. We asked curator Cynthia Hathaway to devise an event related to hobby culture. Out of her personal passion for the world of miniatures, she came up with the idea of dividing a model railway track into metre-long sections and letting miniature train enthusiasts and professional designers and architects build the surrounding landscape together at Platform21. After all, both these groups are devoted to creating ideal worlds. During the building process, the hobbyists turned out to be the professionals. It became clear that through years of patience they had amassed a unique body of knowledge and impressive techniques for actualising their ideal realities in miniature form. Conversely, the designers’ and artists’ conceptual and creative visions of the ideal world proved eye-opening for the hobbyists. After the construction period, though, we failed to reach an audience as diverse as our building team, largely because we deployed the wrong communication strategy. The title Travels Through Paradise was poetic enough to draw art lovers but didn’t strike a chord with model railway enthusiasts and their supporters. In hindsight, we realised we should have made it clearer that the project had to do with miniature-building. By the time the press picked up the project, the show was already over!
SERIOUS PLAYFUL PASSIVE RESPONSIVE PRODUCTS TOOLS
Another lesson we drew from Travels Through Paradise was that the process of making things held a surprising amount of appeal. A messy workshop full of strange materials and tools has an aesthetic and informative value of its own and excites people’s imaginations. It allows you to show the process of transformation without detracting from the final product’s value. Another bonus is that a workshop’s presence instantly gives a space a more informal, playful character, so that visitors are quicker to ask questions and take more time to immerse themselves in the show. This kind of setting also allows research and less successful experiments to take on a valuable meaning. The art lies in finding the right balance between a genuine workshop (making) and a public exhibition space (showing).
The kitchen and the laboratory are two metaphors for the workshop, and the shop and the showroom for the exhibition space. We tried out every hybrid form in between. For Platform21 = Cooking and Constructing, we built a kitchen setting in the exhibition space and cooked and baked there as well as showing films, objects and demonstrations. Platform21 = Hacking IKEA was half (hacked) shop and half lab for conducting experiments within fixed parameters. Platform21 = Repairing came closest to a workshop, with workstations and tools and a showroom full of new solutions.
In these and other projects, we noticed that the more open-ended and subject to multiple interpretations an exhibition was, the more people got involved. In a hybrid setting, it’s OK if something gets moved, added or removed halfway through the show. When you’re emphasising the importance of process, it’s only logical that your programming be dynamic. The meaning of the exhibition opening also changes. It’s no longer the magical moment of the unveiling of a static display of the results of exciting research but rather the start of that research. Of course, if you fail to communicate this well enough, you’ll be asking for trouble. In our context of a ‘design museum in the making’, it wasn’t always easy to explain, since the usual audience is object-obsessed and has different expectations. Dingeman Kuilman came up with the playful solution of making all our project titles verbs, i.e., Platform21 = …ing. This not only meshed well with our preference for everyday programming themes, but also made it clear that Platform21 was an activating platform, something that was happening right now.
EDUCATE CATALYST CONNECT DESIGN SKILLS
In four years of programming events and searching for a legitimate concept for our more-than-just-another-design-museum, we came up with a host of new possibilities, and a few more questions. Could a design centre be a catalyst for inspiring and engaging people and getting them involved in projects? A place that would garner broad support, and where exchanging knowledge and skills would be as normal as buying an admission ticket? From a business perspective, a hybrid between shop (or supermarket), workshop and exhibition space might work. But would it be desirable? Could such a place help people to let go of discipline-specific thinking and prove equally interesting for designers, architects, electricians, hobbyists and artists on the one hand and managers, hair stylists and scientists on the other? These are big words, but could such a centre take as its goal the empowerment of creativity, through providing tools, displaying outstanding examples, and staying open to multiple forms of creativity? Or would it – without the framework provided by expert knowledge, curatorial taste, and a museum like status – end up as nothing more than a big craft club?
As a small-scale, pioneering entity, Platform21 functioned exceptionally well. We showed that by addressing appealing, timely themes, we could reach and engage a great many people. The evolving success of the outcomes of Platform21 = Repairing and the many times the Repair Manifesto has been translated and forwarded prove you don’t necessarily have to be big to become important. But since we never charged visitors an admission fee, we can only guess how much success might have brought us money-wise. Becoming a cultural institution of stature would have been a challenge in another way, just as an increase in size would have definitely raised new problems. Our next step would have been to further develop the aforementioned concept of a hybrid shop, workshop and exhibition space, under the name of Supermaker. Economic and political circumstances prevented us from taking this step, but that does not detract from Platform21’s importance as a unique initiative. With this book, which describes many of our projects in DIY form, we like to pass the torch.
To be continued.
*With thanks to Dingeman Kuilman, former managing director of Platform21, who concluded, in an astute analysis of Platform21’s significance, that what we had done was to ‘undesign the Design Museum’.