HONESTLY speaking

SHE’S KNOWN FOR HER THOUGHTFUL FURNITURE PIECES. FOR DUTCH DESIGNER INEKE HANS, DESIGN IS MORE THAN JUST «QUIRKY OBJECTS WITH A PRETTY COLOUR».

When Singapore’s very own design week, Singaplural, took place earlier this year. Dutch designer Ineke Hans graced the event as a jury member of the 48 Hours Challenge as well as the Furniture Design Awards (both organised by the Singapore Furniture Industries Council). Invited to sit on the judging panel for the 48 Hours Challenge (where groups of students had to transform a retail showroom in 48 hours), witnessed her warm nature and quick wit first-hand. However, Ineke doesn’t suffer fools lightly (one student-designer found this out for herself, but more on that later).

Call it tough love, but being the students’ toughest critic actually stems from a sincere desire to help these young guns do better. And they recognised her efforts, as many (including the aforementioned student) approached the straight-talking designer afterwards for more advice.

Singapore’s fledging design industry could use some honest-to-goodness feedback from an award-winning name whose work has been produced by international furniture brands such as Cappellini (Neo Country), Offecct (Smallroom) and SCP London (Spilt coat rack). Ineke established her studio in 1998 in Arnhem, Holland, and besides furniture, she has also designed jewellery and interiors, as well as published a book on her work called Mindsets. When we asked her what she thought of the local work she has seen so far in the judging process, she says, «For the 48 Hours Makeover, the quality was completely varied. Some of these students (who didn’t win) came to me later on and asked questions and I tried to explain it to them, but I just had the feeling they didn’t get it at all. When I was teaching, I found that the extremely good students hardly need attention, which is a bit of a pity.»

Students, to her, are «a bit like young dogs», in that they show great enthusiasm for everything they do. «There’s such a drive in them,» she says. While it’s important to guide them, she is also mindful not to let her experience stop them (or herself) from asking questions and being curious. «With experience, you have to be careful that you don’t go on automatic pilot, but experience also helps me tackle more complex processes. I can now see things much better — how they work with one another.»

Perhaps it was a lack of experience that caused one student designer much awkwardness during the judging of her team’s work for the 48 Hours Challenge. When asked by the jury on how she would re-purpose their design (3-D geometric frames made using bamboo sticks) after the contest, the student cheerfully responded that she could turn the shapes into lampshades. Ineke immediately protested. She explains why: «If I designed a chair, or a light, I have to think ‘what is a chair, what is a light’, and how should it behave? This girl was simply proposing that she had a holder for a light bulb, but it’s not a light. I can’t accept mediocrity. It’s also very bad for design. Many people in the world already think that design is about quirky objects with funny colours, and I have to work very hard to say that it is also about intelligent products that do more than just be quirky.»

One big problem she (and the other judges) noticed when judging the student category of the Furniture Design Award (FDA) was that while the students visualised the item well, they had problems translating the drawings to actual products. «The students have to make a prototype, which makes it very real, but they were struggling. It’s not happening only here, it’s global. A lot of young designers are able to do three-dimensional drawings so well in the computer, and it all looks beautiful but as soon as you have to make a chair and sit on it, it’s a completely different thing.»

She says in Holland, schools have started cutting down on workshop space because of concerns over safety. «The school directors are thinking that maybe the students might chop off their own fingers, so they close the workshop. But it is an essential part of design — you need to know how things are made, otherwise you cannot innovate in the processes,» she argues. As there was no first-prize winner in the student category for the FDA. the jury decided to do something practical with the prize money instead. «We suggested sending the five finalists on a trip to Thailand or Indonesia to attend workshops, to go to factories and see the (manufacturing) process.»

When quizzed on what good design is to her, she responds, «a product has to communicate, and it has to have a certain beauty. Ultimately, people buy something because they want to have it, so you have it to make it attractive. But what I think is attractive is different from what you think.» So, designers can’t please everyone, she says. «I can design for the company’s clientele but at the same time, I’m also a consumer and I have to like it too». Ineke admits to having a soft spot for designing chairs. But if given the chance, she says, «I would like to design a camper van -they look horrible on the inside. It would be great fun to work on that, you’d have to think about making small spaces usable.»

Although she designs a whole «mix of things», her philosophy remains the same. «I try to take things down to the basics,» she says. «I like to design an object almost as if it were a simple children’s drawing.» There is no better example than her Seven Chairs in Seven Days project, where the pieces look very much like pictograms when viewed from the side. Her chairs for Cappellini (Neo Country and Fracture) also display a bare simplicity that is endearing. «I’m pretty simplistic myself,» she laughs. «Sometimes I wish I could design something really stylish and elegant. I hate it sometimes that I always end up with these really chunky objects!»

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