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Dutch designer Hella Jongerius has been fusing “opposites” in her work for almost three decades: traditional and contemporary, craftsmanship and industry, age-old techniques and new technologies. Along the way, she is starting a color revolution, after dedicating the past fifteen years of her life to researching colours and materials. She uses her innovative, fusion approach to create everything from furniture to textiles and houseware, bringing unique character and a pop of color to all manner of spaces.
Hella Jongerius was born in 1963 in De Meern, a village just outside of Utrecht. Growing up on a tomato farm in the seventies, her first contact with design was through traditional handicrafts, mostly knitting and macramé. Despite initially rejecting the idea of going into textiles, it was the medium which brought Hella’s creative talent and dexterity to the surface. She went on to study creative therapy, which she later abandoned for design school.
At Design Academy Eindhoven, she discovered a world of weaving and knitting for the industry. It was the industrial application of crafts which broadened Jongerius’s horizons, and made her realize textiles could be much more than a domestic hobby. Though she didn’t pursue this field of design until years later, at the academy she learned all kinds of manufacturing techniques. She remembers a school which embodied a more vocational approach to design, as opposed to the more academic attitude focusing on conceptualization and personal development prevalent today. Jongerius firmly believes in the former.
Immediately after graduating in 1993, she became a part of Droog Design, which marked a turning point in her career. The new design collective – meaning “dry” in Dutch – was all about the freedom of exploring different concepts and rethinking the consumerist norm. Droog launched an entire generation of Dutch designers, like Jongerius, but also Marcel Wanders, Richard Hutten and Jurgen Bey, reviving Dutch design. Initially, Hella Jongerius thought “my work coincided with a movement, which enhanced its cultural importance”. However, she soon broke with the collective to explore her own interests in design away from the label of the influential movement. She established her own studio called Jongeriuslab in Rotterdam in 1993, and has dedicated herself to research on colors, materials, and textures ever since. In her work, the rural and metropolitan forces come together, merging crafts with the industrial process to produce lasting objects.
From her studio – which moved to Berlin in 2009 – Jongerius has worked on a number of independent projects, as well as collaborations with major companies. Early on in her career, she was approached by Maharam, a leading textiles brand, for work on a project in celebration of their 100th birthday. “I’m not interested in simply doing a fabric,” was Jongerius’s reply, which sparked a longstanding partnership founded on research and development in the textile industry.
‘Repeat’ – the simple name behind one of the most iconic projects between the designer and brand – challenged the industry with a new scale for upholstery textiles. The design focused on the idea of individuality within serial production by repeating a pattern every three meters, as opposed to the traditional 35 to 70 centimeters. This allows each item in a suite of furniture to display a different segment of the design making them related, yet unique. Since its launch in 2002, ‘Repeat’ has been both a success commercially and in terms of pushing the traditional norms of manufacturing.
Hella Jongerius has also taken aviation design to new altitudes in her work with Dutch airline KLM since 2011. She used her knowledge of textiles and color to transform often drab cabin interiors. Jongerius designed the seats for business class in their entirety, as well as a range of fabrics for the curtains and carpeting of the cabins. The focus was on creating a more stimulating and tactile experience in an inconvenient and limited space.
Hella Jongerius is known for carefully selecting the brands she works with, and is focused on building lasting partnerships and worthwhile products. She is also of the belief that making new items is only one aspect of design. Working on the improvement of existing products is another of her interests, reflected in her work for furniture giant Vitra. Her partnership with the company began with the ‘Poltrona’ sofa in 2005, but her role has since expanded to art director for colors, textiles and surfaces.
Hella Jongerius was the mind behind the updated color scheme of the Eames plastic chairs, bringing them closer to the designers’ original vision. The irregularities in the materials from the early years had been replaced by uniform colors obtained through more advanced technology over the decades. The result – a standardized and regular, but clinical and soulless finish. Hella Jongerius is seeking to change the faceless industry standard by showcasing the richness of “unstable” colors.
She opposes the prevalent design attitude in which color comes after function, form and material – treating it with equal priority. Jongerius’ view of color is one of embracing its multi-layered beauty exposed by the fluctuation of light throughout the day. Her ‘Breathing Color’ exhibition at London’s Design Museum in 2017 presented the results of fifteen years’ worth of research, hoping to turn design away from industrially produced colors.
The objects on display included textiles woven from yarns of varying hues from UV exposure, as well as her recognizable faceted vessels called ‘color catchers’. Each is painted in one shade of grey developed by Jongerius, yet, to the eye, the faceted surface is seemingly comprised of many shades of the color. This demonstrates the rich effects light and shadow can have on an object, as well as reflections from its surroundings. Jongerius even finds a way of making grey less drab; by mixing contrasting colors as opposed to combining black and white, she obtained a more layered, richer grey than is usually found on the market.
Now a seasoned designer with a platform, Jongerius uses her position to appeal for a change in the fundamental way the design industry works. Together with theorist Louise Schouwenberg, in 2015 she launched a manifesto titled ‘Beyond the New: a search for ideals in design’. It calls for the abandonment of an increasing obsession with the new which continues to devalue design. Instead, they hope designers will utilize the far-reaching potential of the industry to bring high-quality products to the general public. Products rooted in research and cultural awareness and made of tactile and expressive materials.
Hella Jongerius is devoted to weaving an enduring narrative into a market saturated with novelty. The significance of her work lies with her approach to design that scratches beneath the surface, bringing questions of longevity, individuality to light. She is constantly rethinking the commercial norms with her designs as well as her research. It is her in-depth, hands-on approach that infuses a sense of trustworthiness into the final product, further attested by her enduring partnerships with leading brands. In the midst of a throwaway culture, Jongerius’ designs are a rare gem – iridescent, rich, and beautiful in their flaws.
As she herself has expressed, “sometimes it’s the apparent flaws, the quirks and individualities that we most appreciate in a product. These are the marks that make something stand apart, that tell stories of a life, of creation. Often they are the marks of the makers – signs of manufacture by careful, skilled human hands.” Bringing craft and color into the core of the industry is Jongerius’ lasting legacy.
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