"In design, there are merchants and pastors," explains Hella Jongerius. "I'm a design pastor. Today I step out of the closet to fight for new industrial values." In Jongerius' stirring presentation at Design Indaba 2015, the Dutch design icon explained that designers fall under two designations: merchants, or those making things to feed the retail demand for "new" and pastors, designers that are on a mission for ethics. "We live in a society where we shop without any conscious and there’s too much shit design," Jongerius laments. As a design pastor, she is on a mission to evangelize for a holistic approach to industrial design that, "connects cultural awareness and social responsibility with practical economics."
For over two decades, Jongerius has honed a unique approach to the design process, striving to unlock the potential of a product through a unique approach to materials research and development. Her studio practice, Jongeriuslab, has produced iconic designs for manufacturers like Maharam, Ikea and Vitra while her role as art director for companies like Vitra and Artek are a testament to her broader influence and deep approach to color theory, materials and a holistic approach to design. Her work for Vitra includes creating a Color and Surface Library for use across the portfolio.
Jongerius' recent redesign of the business class cabins for KLM's fleet of 747s, is a great case study for understanding how the designer fuses craft and industry, creating a more nuanced relationship between objects and the people who use them. Beginning the process with an intense exploration of what was possible and not possible, Jongerius admittedly asked a lot of questions. But through an exchange with the client where, "we gave a master class in what design could be...and they gave a master class in all of the restrictions of the industry," the KLM team joined Jongeriuslab in questioning what was possible and pushing against those boundaries.
Part of that process was to visit suppliers—textile mills, seat manufacturers, surface and material fabricators—to understand and work on the materials themselves. In a collaboration with Dutch carpet producer Desso, Jongeriuslab created the world’s first cradle-to-cradle carpet in the aviation industry. The wool for the carpets was harvested from sheep that were being bred for the meat industry, utilizing what was previously considered a waste product. The pop of KLM blue was created with yarn made from recycled KLM uniforms. Old carpets from the aircrafts will also be returned to the manufacturers for rescue.
In both the design process and the final product, one can see the working hand. For this project, the Jongeriuslab team was tiny: besides Jongerius herself, she worked with product designer Arian Brekveld and textile and color specialist Edith van Berkel to create a, "signature for the brand," as van Berkel explained. A Hands-On approach meant that the designers worked by modeling in foam and working with real materials on a human scale.
There are very few airplane seat manufacturers and typically the process of designing a cabin means buying a seat off the shelf. Brekveld worked on the shape of the seat itself. "We made it more contemporary and fresh, creating a sense of protection," he explained. "It has to do with shaping the shell within limits. The original seat has an egg shape but we thought it was too obvious. We tried to make it look as much as possible like an ordinary seat. But it's an airline seat that is full of technologies. So we played with certain radiuses and created flat areas."
A cabin’s lifecycle is about 20 years with intense usage and in this highly industrial space, Jongerius stressed that, “even when you’re surrounded by industrial products you need to recognize yourself—you are still a human being.” To that end, a craft approach created a warmer, more inviting atmosphere for World Business Class passengers.
"We developed our own fabric," van Berkel explained. "We created a contemporary shape and feel, color wise and material wise, and we stretched the materials wherever possible. In shaping and reshaping [the seat], developing our own colors for the plastics and the texture of the plastics for manufacturing in the US, we created diversity within limits to give the cabin a personal feel, a homey feel, a comfortable feel." By using 100% wool textiles, introducing a broad spectrum of materials beyond plastics, adding hand-sewn details and simplifying elements of the cabin, travelers are able to relax into an in-flight cocoon. These details, which convey a sense of, “seeing someone as an individual,” have become a point of pride and an investment by KLM in their customers.
A tenet of Jongerius’ process is a dip into the archives. This way of working, she explains, “takes back a loss of cultural awareness in the world of the new.” During the KLM re-design, the team discovered a Gerrit Rietveld sketch showing multiple color fabrics in a KLM cabin. Although the Rietveld’s design was never realized, the basic premise was honored in the new cabin interiors. Employing a range of five simple yet subtle dark hues for the cabin seat covers—eggplant, dark brown, night blue, cobalt and dark gray—serves to differentiate space for passengers and also tricks the eye to make the cabin look larger.
Those familiar with Jongerius’ work recgonize her use of dots and her work on the KLM cabin bears her signature. “The dot softens,” Jongerius explained. A repeat dot textile was used for the pillows and a double weave curtain featuring, you guessed it, dots, divides business passengers from economy. But more than just a visual signature, the dot represents a humanness, a warm approach to what can easily be a sterile industrial space.
While the designs for the World Business Class cabins are currently being rolled out across the fleet, Jongerius is working on an overhaul of the economy class on the 787s. Surprisingly, Jongerius shared that her work on the pillows and blankets has become the most difficult product because of the demands placed on the materials: washed after every trip and the need to stay fresh. She is still working to find the right material, giving the same attention to detail to, “the actors that no one cares about.”
It’s this care and focus that makes Jongerius a unique evangelist in a crowded field of both merchants and pastors. Her work imbues emotion and memory in industrial objects, communicating, reinforcing and reflecting our humanness. At Design Indaba, she challenges designers to draw out the potential of objects beyond “just new.” Through a layered, holistic approach, designers can excavate the true value of the relationship between object and humans.
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