False Flat

Published this August was the book False Flat. Why Dutch Design is So Good by Aaron Betsky and Adam Eeuwens. A book as a book is meant to be, says design connoisseur Timo de Rijk.

In the same week as the presentation of the bulky design book False Flat, five prominent foreign curators concluded that Dutch art is in a state of slumber and is of no international importance. The reason, they claim, is the harmful effect of the Dutch subsidy culture. Artists work with guaranteed grants provided by state-supported bodies, and private patronage is almost entirely absent. The upshot is that artists are discouraged from addressing a wider, preferably international audience. A convincing analysis, and one vented regularly in recent years. It’s also one that the authors of False Flat, NAi director Aaron Betsky and author-designer Adam Eeuwens, put into perspective, albeit unwittingly. According to Betsky and Eeuwens, it’s precisely that combination of a culture of consensus and an extensive grant system that lends Dutch design and architecture its power, originality and international success.

Needless to say, there are major differences between the international art world and that of architecture and design. The autonomous artist operates within a finely woven network of galleries, collectors, museums and other exhibition venues. In contrast, architecture, product design and graphic design around the world are pragmatic professions practised on the basis of commissions. Except in the Netherlands, where the authorities have created not only the source and means but also the aim and stage for high-profile design (known world-wide as Dutch Design), with grants, various periodicals, state-funded yet independently operating institutes, and some avant-garde galleries. It is, according to False Flat, the only truly interesting Dutch contribution to the world of design. Such independence and freedom from the hassle of commercial reality exists nowhere else but in the Netherlands. Many people (not least the industrial engineers so glaringly absent from the book) will wonder if Dutch Design is celebrated as a winner even though there are no contestants. Is Dutch Design, with its freedom of expression and subsidised experimentation, really better? Or does it simply face no competition around the world? Aren’t we as proud of Dutch Design as we are of flower pageants and korfball, pursuits pursued nowhere but here?

One glance through False Flat is enough to tell you that Betsky and Eeuwens didn’t make it easy for themselves. The first impression is of a dizzying profusion of illustrations, mostly of architecture and landscape but also of product design, old and new painting, graphic design and advertising. The approach points to a broad view and to the promise of explanatory mechanisms that the authors deploy to weave Dutch Design and Dutch personality traits into one narrative. After all, False Flat covers vast areas that differ markedly not only in terms of how they manifest themselves formally, but also in terms of discourse. Everything from the rarefied architecture and intellectual theatre of OMA and UN Studio to the product designers of Droog Design who sometimes see their dyslexia as essential to their design talent.

False Flat is grounded in an historical introduction to the Netherlands, appealingly told in the form of a bike ride from Betsky’s home in the low-lying Alexander Polder to his office in the centre of Rotterdam. Architecture is the constant element that threads the text together right from the start. Whereas many Dutch people view Rotterdam as the country’s only international city, Betsky tries to explain Dutch history and mentality through important historical buildings. The reader jumps on the back of Betsky’s bike, as it were, and listens to new and interesting observations, varying from the deceptive flatness so characteristic of Rotterdam and the whole country, to the creation of Kralingen Lake. But the introduction to False Flat also repeats all the one-dimensional, simplified clichés surrounding the roots of Dutch Design. The Netherlands is characterised by references to the pre-war modernism of Nieuwe Bouwen and the humane modernism of the 1950s (represented by the Van Nelle Factory and the Lijnbaan respectively) and by the supposed aversion of the Dutch to grand gestures and buildings, to vistas and gaudy architecture. The widely embraced expressionist architecture of the pre-war period isn’t mentioned; the big Bijenkorf department store by Marcel Breuer is the exception to the rule (and naturally not the much bigger town hall opposite, never mind the Bijenkorf outlets in The Hague or Amsterdam); and the book omits to acknowledge the big, brand-new Classical bank buildings and the tax office that dominated the face of post-war Rotterdam for a decade.

It is, of course, a neat piece of historiography: False Flat searches for the roots of contemporary Dutch Design, which itself is forever referring to those modernist precursors, and the chroniclers of that movement (for crying out loud) even manage to find irony and humour in it. It is in that process of modernisation and especially in the typically Dutch take on modernism that Betsky and Eeuwens find the key to the success and unique quality of Dutch Design. Whereas modernism elsewhere is heroic and forever aiming for radical renewal and originality, False Flat presents Dutch modernism as a movement that reconfigures and intensifies reality as it exists: ‘Dutch modernism is a design movement because it involves itself in the reorganization of the things of everyday life.’

Once we get off the bicycle, False Flat drops in tempo but increases in depth, originality and subtlety. Betsky and Eeuwens even return to the Golden Age to find explanations and to convince the reader of an all-pervasive and everlasting Dutchness. The reasoning must have been that a people that does not find the defining hallmark of its modernism in innovation will never change. The chapter in which the ideas of art historian Svetlana Alpers from Berkeley are dealt with is pivotal. Betsky and Eeuwens realise that the views of Alpers are somewhat controversial (a euphemism for the scorn heaped on her work in the 1980s by the many Dutch art historians schooled in iconography). Alpers does not ascribe to Dutch painting the symbolic meaning that many people say it possessed for observers. Instead, she points to the ‘seeing is knowing is making’ attitude with which the Dutch view their surroundings: a very strong preference for hyper-realism that was satisfied with the help of a map, microscope or camera obscura. The world of the Dutch, claims Alpers, and with her the authors of False Flat, is directed inwards. Even the city is a domestic interior, and the position of the window in the home is taken by a mirror or map. In the Netherlands, human existence and its cultural context is directed not outwards but inwards. A decidedly convincing argument with it comes to design, as proven by the datascapes by MVRDV, the realistic world of miniature by photographers, and the remakes of existing products by many Droog designers. Rather scant is the attention paid to the relation between divine nature and manmade culture, a contrast that could have made the Alpers viewpoint even more complex and interesting.

False Flat looks great, but there’s a downside to Irma Boom’s graphic design. The whimsically placed biographies of designers scattered throughout are arranged in no logical sequence and sit uncomfortably next to the content of the book. Apart from that, False Flat is everything a book should be. It’s well of intellectual thought and a convincing narrative; it posits a viewpoint, provokes thought, and raises questions. That this book also grabs your attention, come packaged in a graphic layout bordering on the frenzied, and sings the praises of our nation’s design culture – we Calvinists should forgive the makers all that on this occasion, shouldn’t we?