In search of the most ideal foreign programme

The four-year Dutch Design Fashion and Architecture (DutchDFA) programme started in the spring of 2009. ArchiNed spoke with programme director Christine de Baan about DutchDFA’s mission, its experiences during the first year, and its plans for the remaining three years.

Christine de Baan

DutchDFA is a collaborative effort involving six partners in the field (sector institutes Premsela and NAi, plus professional associations BNO, BNI, BNA, and MODINT), six major cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Arnhem and Eindhoven) and three ministries (Foreign Affairs; Economic Affairs; and Education, Culture and Science). Its purpose is to strengthen international efforts by means of extra financing, and also by gearing activities to one another and joining forces.

Lotte Haagsma: You have deliberately chosen for a limited number of countries — China, India and Germany — and specific means. It is not as if you control a pot of money from which anyone with a good plan can call on?
Christine de Baan: That is exactly what distinguishes this programme from previous international funding schemes. Actually we are something in between a sector institute and a fund: collaboration between several partners in the field, strengthened by a temporary investment budget. We want to give the international programme such a lash that it produces a long time-lag effect. The programme is an initiative from the partners themselves, who observed that while the one organisation with economic funds organised international trade missions for Dutch designers, while the other with cultural funds made foreign presentations for sometimes these same designers. The idea behind the programme is that the effect of these efforts grows when the organisations gear their activities to one another and tell their story together. And so they have persuaded the three concerned ministries to join in on this experiment. The beauty of it is that this procedure better fits the practice of designers, where culture and economics intertwine daily.

We have noticed you position yourself more strongly in the market with a substantive story. For example, the presentation of Dutch architects at the Shanghai International Creative Industry Week 2009 was organised around the social, spatial and sustainable qualities of public space. A necessary topic for the explosive Chinese urbanisation, which nevertheless hardly plays a role there. Urban public space in China is either commercially or politically defined and is focused on infrastructure and commercial property development. We set up a conference with Chinese colleagues on this subject, visited the Tongji University and held matchmaking sessions with potential principals.

Furthermore, we have started up the Dutch Profiles, short video portraits of various Dutch architects and designers. Last year we made twenty, and will be making another thirty this year. By the end of 2012 there should be about hundred of these. We wanted an accessible means through which a substantive story can be told that is more than a superficial iconic view, with which we could easily provide foreign posts, for example, with well-prepared presentations. They video quality is such that they can feature in exhibitions, but they’re also available on YouTube. Everyone can view, forward or embed them from there.

Dutch architecture is world famous. Is this extra support actually necessary?
The participating ministries and partners in the field have jointly decided to present a number of disciplines. Architecture, design and fashion are internationally favourable, precisely because they have been reasonably successful over the past decades. But it is not always easy to establish a good foothold, i.e. secure more than one commission. Architects tell that in China, for example, it is not easy to manage a business. Because how do you enter into a contract with your client, how do you find a Chinese partner (because you will need one), how do you do business with contractors, and so forth? Securing a commission is only the first step of many.

How can you as DutchDFA provide help?
In Shanghai we started up the Dutch Design Workspace. This consists of a workspace where designers can get to work, and a team that can help designers enter the Chinese market. We would like to develop a lightweight version with the same formula that we could implement at other locations, called Design Desk. It would consist of a staff member with assistant, without workspace in this case, who would function as intermediary. We are still looking for the most efficient formula. But if everything goes accordingly, the Workspace will be self-sufficient within three years. The Design Desk could be adopted by the embassy or another nationally connected organisation In Asia everything is about relations, so a permanent contact that is seen as trustworthy and with whom we often work can perform a bridging function.

Those are activities in foreign countries. Do you also receive foreign countries in the Netherlands?
We organise visiting delegations. The partners often already have their own contacts, and during our visits we build a network. From this we invite people to come over. In June we received a group from India, and in October a group is coming from China. It begins with dispatching, but almost all activities have a return. The Workspace, for example, which focuses not only on Dutch architects but also on Chinese architects who would like to work with or in the Netherlands. They, too, can seek advice here. And also the exhibition ‘Taking a Stance’ with work by four Dutch and four Chinese designers will come to the Netherlands after a tour in a China.

You have chosen for China and India. These are emerging economies, of which India is a relatively unknown territory for Dutch Designers. But why Germany? Don’t we already have long-standing good relations there?
An important reason to choose at least one European country was because it is not possible for every designer to partly move his or her practice to, say, China, India or Brazil. Germany is the Netherlands’ major trading partner. There is a big design connection between the two countries, but the enthusiasm for Dutch design in Germany has subsided somewhat in the past five to ten years. And working in Germany with German clients involves just as many cultural differences on the surface as working in China. Together with InHolland University of Applied Sciences we are researching where typical Dutch knowledge and typical German needs connect with one another. From this we would like to develop a specific programme for the next two and a half years. Meanwhile, we are supporting a portion of the Dutch contribution to the Cultural Capital Year RUHR.2010, GastGastgeber, consisting of a set of special guest accommodations and a pop-up store with Dutch design. In India, where networks for Dutch designers are indeed not that developed, we asked an architect, fashion journalist and designer to record what generally happens in their country in their discipline. What are the key figures, the important schools, interesting centres of activity and so on?

It almost sounds like a research programme, from which the obtained information will later be made available to the different partners, to build on as time goes by.
Structuring knowledge on how you make international contacts and strengthen your position is indeed an important part of the programme. How do you achieve the best possible result from a multidisciplinary, long-term programme covering many market segments? We are researching what works and what doesn’t. That makes it so enjoyable and interesting for me; we are discovering something truly new. When I began, I held a survey among staff at various foreign posts. I asked them about the chances for Dutch design, fashion, and architecture in their country. But also about their wishes for an ideal programme. What, in their opinion, should we definitely do and definitely not do? What they all most certainly agreed upon was that we should watch out for a hit-and-run effect, that we should always provide for a follow-up and always work together with local partners based on local demand. This advice determines our approach. Each time when we have done something somewhere, we weigh the results and look at how we can continue. Thus we build on previous experiences.

Occasionally someone will ask me if I don’t find it a shame that the programme will stop after four years. On the contrary, I find that offers fantastic clarity. In these four years we must achieve an effect that is sustainable. After four years you can always see if certain elements are worth continuing. Because although the programme will stop, the partners will carry on. That is the strength of this plan.