Modern craftsmanship - Rianne Makkink

Agnese Čivle


From November 7 – 12, an international creative workshop in design, as well as lectures by experienced figures in Dutch and Latvian design, were held at the art museum, “Riga Bourse”; the events were part of the Dutch design project, Make Design! Dutch Design Made in Latvia. Standing out as the project's main guideline was the creation of new and innovative design products using traditional Latvian craftsmanship techniques. One of the lecturers at the creative workshop was Rianne Makkink (1964) – architect, instructor at Design Academy Eindhoven's MA programme in Social Design, and co-founder of the internationally acclaimed design studio, Studio Makkink & Bey.

A day before the closing, pop-up exhibition of the workshop, Rianne Makkink agreed to an interview with  and revealed her design vision for today and tomorrow. We sat down in a room at the Latvian Art Academy (LAA) after a short, introductory tour of the departmental workshops at LAA. In our conversation, Rianne Makkink spoke of her outlook on the future: the forging of a community of design; close communication between designers; and the establishment of modern craftsmanship using the language of skills.

For Rianne Makkink, design is both work and holiday, her voice and her language; when she speaks, the word “design” sounds like “life”. Design is a boat in which Makkink sails the world's seas; grasping the oars in two hands accustomed to activity, she dips them deep into the depths of past national traditions, but keeps her eyes on the horizon of tomorrow.

Along with consulting students during the creative workshop, you gave a lecture series titled “Industrious / Artefacts”. What were the issues your lectures touched on?

In large part, my lecture was derived from the exhibition, “Industrious / Artefacts: the evolution of crafts”[1], which my husband [Jurgen Bey, Studio Makkink & Bey] and I curated; it was a representation of the achievements of today's designers in using the skills of traditional craftsmanship.

A large part of Western European society is misinformed about the processes of craftsmanship in the past. Many people believe that craftsmanship was a one-person affair when in reality, historical craftsmanship could be likened to a small factory in which hundreds of people work – each one with his/her skill and the best instruments of the time period.

For example, let's take a look at what went on in a coastal Dutch community that dealt in shipbuilding: we see a serious division of labor here – one man forges iron, a second whittles wood, another weaves cloth, and together they build a ship. This type of shipbuilding died out, but there were people who continued with their craft. Today, we call them craftsmen – representatives of an, in its way, extinct profession. In our days, only a few individuals still work these crafts – each one in his own, almost cut-off, environment.

The craftsmanship of those times possessed an attribute that is very highly regarded these days – work done by hand. My goal is to show that modern design can also use the main instrument used in craftsmanship – the hands. Designers can even make their own tools and operate them by hand. You can order and use a commercially made tool or machine – a modern craftsmanship tool, with which to continue the work by hand – either at home or in a workshop setting. I want to motivate designers to work with modern craftsmanship.

The exhibition, Industrious / Artefacts: the Evolution of Crafts, is on view at the Zuiderzeemuseum, in the Dutch city of Enkhuizen, through February 12, 2012.

It should be mentioned that a driving force is the expense and inaccessibility of industrial manufacturing, which force a designer to think about ways of doing things on his own, how to make his own manufacturing process.

In your opinion, along with industrialization and the view that industrial machinery is supreme, have people lost trust in their hands?

Yes, in large part they have lost trust in their hands; and, by continuing to not use them, they increasingly loose the skills to utilize them.

It's interesting that in our times, the work of a person is markedly more expensive than that of a machine.

Although... that is not absolute! For instance, in China, embroidery is done by “live machinery” because industrial machinery is not always affordable. Dozens of women work in the rooms of these “handicraft factories” – they can do the work by hand faster than a machine could. There you have Chinese quality – the handwork of trained thousands.

And another essential and surprising difference: the Chinese measure their mastery in quantity, while in the West, we believe that the best there can be is one, unique thing made by the hands of a master. In one project [Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness, Contrast Gallery, Shanghai, 2007/2008], we worked with Chinese porcelain masters – real experts in their craft, who were obviously unhappy with our rather small order.

Was there anything in Latvia's craftsmanship scene that surprised you as well?

I have to say, I was really surprised when I found out that there are people in Latvia who still know how to knit; that there are people who know how to care for a garden and grow food.

In the Netherlands, small-scale gardening is becoming a fashion trend – young people are trying to grow gardens even in the city; it's the same with knitting – even children have started to do it; in Europe, there are flashmobs in which the urban environment is “knitted-up”. However, this generation is learning from scratch, not from their parents, from whom these skills were taken away by commercial manufacturing.

Another surprising thing is sign language and the fact that a portion of Latvians still know it!

Although most of the world is still convinced that wealth is in heavy materials and appearances, I look upon that as old-fashioned thinking; I value the ability to communicate and believe that that which happens between people is the wealth of today. Today, through something quite illusive (modern webs of communication), we can communicate with each other like never before! It is similar to the phenomenon of “puzuri” [traditional Latvian hanging-ornaments made from straw], which is communication through nothing. Through signs and meanings.

That, in my opinion, can also be applied to the next ten years in the field of design, in which designer communities could form and people could work within a system. If we turn back to historical craftsmanship – craftsmen kept in close communication with one another and their language was their skills. We have to find a common language in today's design as well. It is important that when people come together, they also make something together – even if it's just a wonderful evening – with each person using their skills and knowledge. That wouldn't cost any money – only activity, participation and time; this is good use of the term “time-banking”. Money? That's not interesting anymore when it's possible to pay with your skills – modern craftsmanship.

Do you hand down this model idea of modern craftsmanship to your students as well?

Yes, for as long as I can be with them. In this-morning's lecture room, the chairs were arranged in rows and the students sat behind one another; I proposed that they get off of their chairs and sit down in a circle on the floor – otherwise, I can't communicate, contact doesn't form and I can't teach – I just end up yelling.

Students from the world-over show up to Design Academy Eindhoven, and I always ask them: why are they here? A great many of them answer that they want to be famous, they want their names in magazines... Firstly, how booor-ing! Secondly – the economy is changing, the world is changing; we are at a crossroads and that is also where design is. Of course, there will always be superficial people and schools that laud the idea of non-functional design and contextual and conceptual design objects; but there will be schools where design will be rooted in community. They are already forming; eventually, they will be even more visible.

I want students to take what they have learned and use it in the future, and I'd like it if people would talk about the work in the workshop/studio, not about the end result – that which is on exhibit. But society is so fond of presentations! They love to judge! We now live in an era of juries – there are TV shows with juries that are always “writing off” somebody's performance with a red cross and a horrible buzzer. I increasingly see that in students – they think that the instructor is judging them instead of teaching them, and that's how they loose concentration – they're thinking just about the end result. Hey! I'm teaching and directing you, not judging. I want to show you the possibility; what is possible in life. The judgment – good or bad – is your doing.

How do you comment on the situation that quite a few artists, especially in Scandinavia, use the term “social design” to describe their work, but in reality, their works are displayed on the world art stage?

Yes, there is malevolent use of terms like this. However, in German there is a wonderful concept called Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the times”, which describes the cultural, intellectual and ethical climate of a specific time period. Today, the world is changing, and society has to change with it; it can't continue like this, every one of us is responsible for the world's future and our fate...

The name of our design studio may be recognizable, but we're not financially rich – our greatest wealth is the ability to travel, to meet with people and communicate through design. It's even better than going on a holiday trip. Design is my work and my holidays; that is my life. Even our living space is joined to our workspace, and the studio is our home.

Returning to the maxim, “design as art and the designer as artist” – what is your view on this separation/union?

The artist is found in his free-thinking universe, the architect is completely stuck and grounded to the earth, but the designer is somewhere in the middle. A designer is and wants to be independent of context, including royalties.

What made you distance yourself from architecture?

Architecture is a dinosaur. It takes years until you can finally bring something to completion in this field. Everything comes with effort, every day brings a new struggle. Design is a miniscule part of architecture, the rest is fighting for reimbursements and payments, wrestling between contracting parties and lawyers...

I wanted to ask, don't you feel hemmed in by design, since the scope of architecture is wider...

I feel free! Much, much freer! So many things are lost in architecture through just the fight for an environment and climate in which you can create something. That's not for me. However, although Jurgen's specialty is product design, he's looking in the direction of architecture; whereas I, being an architect, am turning towards the field of product design.

Jurgen is interested in large scales, which is why the design studio is currently working on... a farm project. Blueprints for a cow farm! In the Netherlands, livestock farming is a very intensive industry, and the development of a new type of farm came as a commission from the government. Currently, the idea of new industrial farms that would improve the animals' quality of life is being developed. Here, we can demonstratively see why a designer is a designer and an architect is an architect, not an artist.

Tell me about other future plans of Studio Makkink & Bey!

There's also a commission from the railway company for a railway station. People have to wait at stations, but the new generation doesn't like to wait, so our task is to adapt the stations to waiting and to make them more comfortable.

The government takes into consideration Netherlands' creative industries by helping them develop their business on a wider scale through cooperation with foreign countries. Assistance comes in the form of legal-, local business-, economic climate- and tax system consultations, the financing of short-term office rent, etc. As a part of this project, foreign partnership points were selected – Germany, Shanghai in China, and Mumbai in India. We're creating interior design in Mumbai.

This year, we're also participating in the social design biennale, Utrecht Manifest 2011, with the project, Help Desk. We're scoping out how to create a designer community in the city that would be open to both students and people from other cities who are interested in social design.

In any case, we're going to be working non-stop until the end of the year; what's next – I don't know... On the whole, the future is uncertain; we don't know what's going to happen. Before, we used to be able to plan into the not-too-distant future – the next five years, maybe a new office; but now... maybe only up until February.

Talking about studio work: what kind of values are programmed into the designs you create?

We look at what is already created, what is around us. There are so many surprising things in the world that exist just because of coincidence; but we, however, purposefully and critically think about how to recycle them and adapt them contextually. That's why handicraft markets are so interesting – the way how craftsmen put things together – it couldn't be simply designed. You just have to train your eye to see these things.

We never look for inspiration in completed design, and I don't advise doing so to my colleagues or students. I encourage them to go out and look not so much at objects, but at how people handle them, use them. That's why we travel – to see how differently people treat and use objects in their daily life, in their environmental context.