The position of the designer seems to change. The designer formally known as the furniture designer hardly exists anymore. Single minded furniture design courses are discontinued in the UK and did not exist in Holland for at least 50 years. So... things change and that is good.
Designers nowadays work more hybrid and on more than just furniture design (or just industrial design) They design also products (both one offs or mass-produced), interiors and they are involved in architectural projects, interiors and exhibitions. This needs specialist knowledge and expertise on many levels.
Next to it the role of the designer is changing too. The classic set up of designer-client was already challenged in the 80's in the UK by designers like Ron Arad & Tom Dixon when they started to bring out collections themselves although often from bare necesity because designers could not find any clients. In the NL the young designers in the early 90's decided to take similar paths (Droog Desing picked up on that) and designer Piet Hein Eek even has his self-created factories by now.
For the last 15 years young designers have been showing their work themselves continuously at side-events during fairs in Milan etc. and these young designers can hardly be bothered to go to the actual fair anymore.... The companies there rarely seem to take on younger names and the royalty system connected to the classic system is told to be bankrupt. It means that a parallel world next to the classic system has developed and rooted. In this world the restrictions of production & functionality of products were getting more loose and were swopped for expression & storytelling. The focus on products moved towards objects & projects. Galleries and places to show the work of this new generation came up. Art fairs made areas free for design-related booths and the side-events during fairs have become a business model on its own. Having done some shows in London myself (1997 tramshed, 1998 truman brewery) it is clear that also the sideshow system has changed. Owners of scruffy places were happy to give away a space for a week for a soft price, but have come to realise that they can make serious money with renting out derelict places or use the design weeks to lure new renters by showing of how creative the space and area can be so the space for designers is gone the next year. Consultancies have popped up to offer help for designers who like to show work at fringe districts and in some cities they throw up new fringe districts wherever they can. Where the Milan fair of 1989 had about 10 shows in the city because companies decided to show in their own showroom and not on the fair, there are now more than 600 sideshows during the Milan furniture design week. Sometimes the bizarre feeling crept up to me of the designers role in these events is nothing more than spicing up the area for the greater good of others than themselves and their presentations not much different from a person showing his skills on a funfair. Not many designers really get something out of the sideshow system nowadays and this system has slowly become as segregative and treacly with a similar groove as the fairs before them.
This makes that the latest and youngest generation is looking again at another way of getting their work across. A generation that also suffers from lack of space and works from laptops and desks only with no workshops. Renting those only for a few hours or days when needed. For them digitalisation has become a powerful work tool to take their projects even more in their own hands and to show, market and sell work themselves, but also to get their ideas across and to work globally.
The work of the current generation is more active. Since some don't even have a studio anymore (in big cities simply too expensive) they work where their projects are and go out. The designer becomes more that of a strategist a social worker and their work makes design even more hybrid. The problem solving furniture designer seems to have become a problem solving social worker / strategist... looking at our bigger problems in the world; dealing with global environments, energy and water problems, food and health issues. A book like Looks Good Feels Good is Good by Anne van der Zwaag taps into that. When these type of designers connect to clever and connective thinking and the conceptual methods - that designers have been raised with in schools for the last decades - this can turn out to be quite an exciting new direction for design and a great tool for innovation. Just look at work of studio Swine, Marjan van Aubel or Dave Hakkens to find some examples of that. The digital part in design also makes that things become more transparent and democratic. The open source designers, the social designers the community related designers - the freethinkers of our age - are in design for the greater good, they are less interested in promoting their own name or even take their name away from the door like Benjamin Hubert did last year.
I am exited about this. Someone mentioned that furniture design might be in a pause at the moment where it has to get to terms with the digital and new ways of living.... I love furniture and probably will always keep turning back to it, but I do believe it is sound and healthy to look further than furniture only. In the last years I sometimes had to justify myself to manufacturers for the non-manufactural sides of my work, or explain to one-off clients that I also liked to work on mass-produced items. I am happy to be a hybrid designer and also worked on a social project on Fogo Island Canada. I think a more open and transparent situation could be beneficial for design and bring some interesting shifts in a world that locks itself up in its own cocoon sometimes. I work for manufacturers but also look forward to work more in the strategic and social field of design. I love storytelling, but I believe in the power of knowledge and problem solving and trying to make sense and it feels nice that design seems to go back to that.
Ineke Hans, June 2016