In Gent, the invisible made visible

 Gent  |  31 January 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Until 5 March, the Design Museum in Gent is celebrating the savoir of hands in its exhibition “Hands on Design”. A happy modern-day marriage of craftsmanship, design and industry. Marking the eighth Triennial for Design…

Since 1994, the city of Gent has honoured Belgian creation through its Triennial for Design. Johan Valcke, director of Design Vlaanderen, a company which promotes Flemish design and curator of the event at the Design Museum, has steered the triennial from the outset, starting up this project which stems from a policy implemented by the Belgian Ministry for the Economy in 2014. After visiting, over a two-year period, some thirty SMEs, Johan Valcke developed the idea to reveal those “helpers” who work in the shadows, those hands which confer high quality to objects through partially hand-made fabrication, while profitability is assured by industrial production. This theme offers an opportunity to discover that craftsmanship, the very essence of creation, is very much present in the 21st century, while also becoming hybrid and hi-tech, used to develop a resolutely humanist and ecological form of design.

Johan Valcke, why did you choose the “handmade” theme in relation to design for this eighth edition of the Triennial for Design in Gent?

“Hands on Design” proves to be the logical follow-up to the topics tackled in the previous editions. Between 1994 and 2000, the first three events unveiled the relationship between artistic professions and design creation, as well as industrial design, graphic design and communication. Over that time, Belgium discovered that it held many real talents in all these domains. The following events featured themes such as the notion of beauty in design, social and service design. Finally, this year, we are paying homage to the often invisible work of hands in design production. All these themes dialogue with one another and bear witness to the creative profusion of Belgian design. In 2017, we wish to place particular focus on the involvement of all those who collaborate, near and far, in the creation of the object, from its design to its final production, via the mastery of production tools. This year, we’ve come full circle as this theme echoes the very first one that we broached in 1994.

When we go through the exhibition, we feel like we’re in the middle of creative studios. Why have you chosen to recreate this atmosphere?

Along with the design studio MaisonCaro set up by Caroline Van den Hole and scenographer Bert Heytens, we designed this event to resemble a stroll through 22 backrooms and storefronts. From the ground floor to the basement, we wanted to bring to life the atmosphere of these studio-rooms where it all happens, without us knowing quite how it does. In other words, we wanted to embody all these gestures and acts which are crucial to production. On this note, the Hotel de Coninck, an architectural edifice built in the 16th century and renovated in the following centuries – and the building in which the Design Museum Gent is housed – lent itself perfectly to this exercise.

So what can we see at the exhibition?

Eighty everyday objects created by 70 Belgian designers! They are mainly young creators, but there are also some well-known designers who collaborate with companies. We show meticulous small pieces, such as those by Ingrid Adrienssens, a jewellery creator who came up with Select, a light switch with enamelled buttons for the upper-end light-switch manufacturer Lithoss, as well as lights such as Maarten de Ceulaer’s Sundial chandelier for the company Alton, drawing inspiration from sundials, along with many other pieces of furniture and accessories. There are also larger objects such as the fantastic handmade boat C23 Avdventure Rowboat by Koen de Gezelle. Plethoric, inventive Belgian production weaving multiple relationships between the artisan, the industrial company and the designer.

The exhibition shows the different stages involved in manufacturing products. What prompted you to reveal the behind-the-scenes of design creation?

The presentation of prototypes, objects in the midst of the production process and finished pieces, highlights the scope of the manufacturing chain, and thus demonstrates that humans intervene at all stages of the production process. These objects attest to the work of many artisan-creators, such as staff placed in charge of various procedures and machines. During my company visits, I noticed a host of activities undertaken by workers who are never spoken about. At the leather armchair manufacturer Duret, women check and annotate by hand the right places in which leather is to be cut by the computer-programmed cutter. This leather is used to make the Yale sofa designed by Sylvain Willenz. Further along the chain, other people work on the wooden structure by hand, or take care of the stuffing of the sofa. To give another example of the omnipresence of handiwork in creation: hat creator Els Robberechts produced a miniature clay stand, Hatdrop, to present her hats and other head coverings. Using this artisanal model, the company Bonami designed a large polyester prototype that was sanded by hand, in order to produce the desired finish. By making the invisible visible, the exhibition pays homage to discretion, to the manual savoir-faire that intervenes at every degree of fabrication.

Looking at things this way, would you say that the exhibition upholds the theory of American sociologist Richard Sennett on “embodied knowledge” in his book The Craftsman?

Indeed, Sennett’s vision goes against a distinction between work by the hand and work by the mind. The sociologist widens the notion of craftsmanship to any practice requiring a human presence, to any learning generated by the use of materials and tools. From drawing to finished products, via computerised models and prototyping, all these stages imply “the intuitive interaction between body and mind”, in his words. Which is what the exhibition tends to symbolise.

What do certain pieces from the museum’s permanent collection bring to these 21st century design objects?

By creating a dialogue between iconic objects and present-day creation, we promote the omnipresence of artisanal savoir-faire in design, whether historically or today. By shedding light on the human aspect of design, the public can also see works from the permanent collection in a new and refreshing way.

Today’s artisan-creators are poles apart from the cliché of the “old woman doing macramé in the kitchen”, in your own words. How is this translated by the exhibition?

In our day and age, a designer-artisan is a creator who is preoccupied with the environment, who uses natural, semi-precious, composite materials, sometimes combining them with hi-tech technologies. These enable them to produce objects that are difficult to produce entirely by hand, they open up to them new fields of possibility. Alex Schrijvers designed the Amours bag for the company 3Dee with the help of a 3D printer which does a marvellous imitation of the grain of salmon skin. Others situate themselves in the trail of do-it-yourself (DIY) objects and open sourcing. The young creator Cas Moor has designed the Honest Stool, whose technical plans can be downloaded on his website. This way, anyone can make it. This year, the Belgian furniture editor Bulo has also decided to manufacture and market it. Many designers also use recycled materials. Antoine Van Loocke has invented Antoku, a knife whose handle is made of altered wood. Kevin Oyen has collected industrial waste to make his Magic Bean, a hand-welded and -polished 100 % ecological seat… Finally, a 2017 design product often supports the values of sharing and responsibility, as underlined by the textile creations of Cathérine Biasino and Marie Mees. The Indigofera Flat carpet, produced by Van Caster, was woven by Nepalese artisans, using vegetal dyes and a design chosen by the Belgian creators. The money earned in Nepal is used to educate local children. Today’s design production reveals this environmental awareness, engaging a number of players.

How do you see this new awareness?

We live in a virtual world, full of screens and flooded with ephemeral productions. “Creation” is an action that has typified the human being ever since the dawn of time. Archaeologists specialising in prehistory started identifying the creatures of the past as human beings from the time that they began fabricating artefacts. “Making” is part of our original memory – we can’t live without it!

Design Vlaanderen has partnered with Fedustria, the Belgian federation for the textile, wood and furnishing industries, and UNIZO, the Union of Self-Employed Entrepreneurs in the Flemish region, in order to support the Fuse project within the triennial. What exactly is this project?

In the context of this exhibition-sale, the Fuse project is financing and exclusively producing new objects stemming from the collaboration of seven trios or duos – artisans/designers/companies or creators/companies – who have worked closely together. This initiative is helping to stimulate a new generation of creators arriving on the market.



“Hands on Design”, until 5 March. Design Museum Gent, Jan Breydelstraat 5, 9000 Gent, Belgium. and

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