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Hella Jongerius: on colours, creativity and respect in design

written by Laura Traldi

Dutch designer Hella Jongerius is convinced that true creativity when inventing colors for the home only stems from steering away from fashion and trends. And advocates the need for courage and respect in design.

Dutch designer Hella Jongerius‘s destiny is strange. Since the beginning of her career, the art director at Vitra (for colours and materials), Artek and Danskina does everything she possibly can to steer away from trends and to avoid being in fashion. Yet she dictates it. He works for a few, very select companies, he says sentences often inconvenient and against the current, he never used his name as a brand. Despite this, it is difficult not to see traces of his language in the passions that have been a few years: that of contrasts (between smooth and rough surfaces, between leather and fabric), for functional elements used as decorations (from buttons to seams), craftsmanship reinterpreted in a contemporary way.

The impact of Hella Jongerius work on a whole generation of designers and companies is not only justified because she has been working for mass manufacturers (such as Ikea, Camper and  KLM); or because she is one of the few people in design who can revisit the icons without losing their nature (she has been doing it for years for Vitra); nor because she is passionate about something that the large public likes and understands, fabrics (for Kvadrat and now also Danskina).

The language of Hella Jongerius has crept into the global imagination because it has responded – since the early 90s – to a collective need even before it was formulated: the one for authenticity, for the search for a new (more personal) way to make industry, for a formal essentiality that does not give off coldness but warmth and intimacy.

La East River Chair di Vitra su un tappeto di Danskina

La East River Chair di Vitra su un tappeto di Danskina

We met Hella Jongerius at the Vitra booth during the Salone del Mobile , where she presented the 28 new colors of Hopsak Textiles (a classic of the 70s of the Swiss company) and updated versions and two shades of the East River Chair (the chair she designed for the delegates from the United Nations building).

People often think of color as an element of styling. Is a new color palette a work of design or styling?

It depends on how you deal with it. Color is not a tinsel but a key element of the object. Alone does not exist, it comes to life in relation to something else: a surface, a material, a form, a function. To choose it well you must therefore take into account many variables. You work like a puzzle, looking for the perfect match between the various elements. In this sense, it is definitely design and not styling.

How long does it take to create a new color?

At least one year because the color must be designed together with the surface treatment. My starting point, in fact, is the yarn itself: how it reacts to weaving, to painting, to positioning on the surface of the product – when it is in tension or in a suture point. It is not possible to predict how two yarns will behave when they meet in the same structure, how they react and what will be the final color perceived by our eyes. Everything about playing on nuances and balances. This takes a long time. In the case of the Vitra Aluminum Chair, on the other hand, it took a lot less time because it involved revisiting an existing fabric.

How do you decide which new color is suitable for updating a classic?

Personally I start spending months in archives to absorb the designer’s sensitivity to color when he designed that particular product. I do it because a remake must take into account the taste of the author. On the other hand, however, we must not even fall into the effect of nostalgia. That’s why after the archive I try to see the object as if it were mine and to frame it in today’s space and time. From which side do you get more intrigued? Where does the light stop when it hits it? Where does it flow away? Understanding the thing before me is essential before proceeding with the selection of the color that is never unique but a mix of yarns designed specifically as a result of the answers to the questions I have made on the object.


L’Aluminium Chair Group di Vitra con il rivestimento Hopsak nei nuovi colori

What do you need to work with the classics?

It takes respect, of course, and understanding why one thing is what it is, what its character is and how to emphasize it. Along with respect, however, it also takes the courage to add contemporaneity. And then know when to stop. Sometimes you push yourself too far and you realize you’re doing something a little too fashionable. If it happens you must be able to stop immediately, otherwise you would distort the icon. But if you remain too close to the original, the immediate recognition triggers the nostalgia effect, which is not good. The aim of the project, when working on the classics, is to find the balance.

How do you design a timeless object?

Always keeping an eye on trends to avoid them carefully. I am very conscious of the flavors that are breathed, of the tastes that are forming. And the risk that a designer runs is influenced by it. I’m not obsessed, indeed in the first part of the project I work very freely. But as soon as an idea begins to be “final” I start to ask myself: could I have done this a few years ago? If the answer is yes, then it’s not good. We must not deny ourselves and our own taste, but we need to go further and further.

How to avoid trends and fashion?

It’s not easy. But it must be done. In fact, today’s trends are already old but they appear to us as new, fresh, captivating. Instead, we must try to always have clean eyes, to be guided by intuition, to observe everything but have a clear mind when planning. I often go away – physically and mentally – from a project for some time, then come back. And this detachment helps me to see things with a new look. But I think that, to avoid trends, what matters most is culture, what we are inside. I am a Calvinist, I am a sober, silent person. And even the companies I work with are somehow. I use color, craftsmanship, materials and fabrics. But I’m not a decorator. All I do is to create intimacy between people and things.

In the past you have been very critical with Dutch design. I remember, in particular, when you told Alice Rawsthorn (on the Herald Tribune) that Holland was churning out “too many designers, all too detached from the real world and lacking an intelligent agenda”. It was 2009. What do you think about today?

First of all, I do not live in Holland anymore, so maybe I’m not the most suitable person to comment. However, in general, I think that in design it is increasingly difficult to find critical voices. In particular, there is more and more talk about each other, designing for a small audience that often is that of the designers themselves. Dutch designers often put too much thought into the things they do – environmentalism, new production techniques, processes. Instead I believe that industry can only be changed if one works in it. Too many young people are out and do not even try to get in …

Well, it’s not really easy to get in …

True, it’s very difficult. But it always has been. But often designers are closed on their positions, do not leave the box. Even today, very few things are designed by designers: in general, only furniture and little else. But there is a whole other world that needs the skills of designers: from technological start-ups, to companies that produce food, to those who think about services. That of the designer is a profession that can still give so much, but it’s time to stop thinking that everyone has to draw furniture. I hope the new generation is able to enter this world to be designed and can influence it in a positive way, from within.

Would you do it?

No. I belong to a different world. I am grateful for what I have. I managed to live out of my talent, I was able to express myself and I made my living by doing what I love. I was lucky, I was born and raised in a period when all this was still possible in the world of home, interior. If I were young, today, however, I would not fossilize traditional design, I would look for the new one. Which is elsewhere, and it’s all to be invented.


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