Geert Staal in conversation with Koehorst in ’t Veld about Glass: The Engine of Progress
In 2014 Het Nieuwe Instituut asked Jannetje in ’t Veld and Toon Koehorst to design Wood, the first in the institute’s series of exhibitions about materials. This was followed a year later by the exhibition Glass: The Engine of Progress, which Koehorst in ’t Veld not only designed but also curated. In this short conversation the designers look back on the genesis of the exhibition and the importance of curatorship for their design practice.
While working on the Wood exhibition you had some involvement in the exhibition content. You augmented the curator Dan Handel’s original concept and translated it to the Dutch context. How different was it to work on Glass?
‘In most cases an exhibition designer will respond to the curator’s story. That was also the case with Wood. Our additions followed the storyline set out by Dan Handel. With Glass there was no such foundation, but we soon found one. Het Nieuwe Instituut’s choice of the World Expo as the guiding theme for its overall programming immediately gave us a lead. After all, there is a wonderful connection between glass and the origins of the World Expo: the Great Exhibition in London of 1851 was staged in an immense glasshouse, the Crystal Palace. Once we made that connection it was clear that the Crystal Palace would be our metaphor and perhaps even our exhibition model.’
You were then faced with a vast range of possibilities, from glass in architecture and drinking glasses to glass art and the field of the high-tech glass industry. How did the Crystal Palace help you to define the exhibition’s narrative?
‘As we read up on glass we quickly discovered what a wonderful and almost alchemical material it is. It is a material of specialists and in that aspect very different to wood, which anyone can work with. It also became clear how important glass has been in the history of science and indeed in the history of civilisation. Glass is a material of invention: optical lenses and laboratory test tubes have radically altered our understanding of the world. You see this aspect reflected in the Great Exhibition: the objects shown there were the result of scientific enquiry coupled with industrial manufacturing and the imagination of designers. For us, the link between these three parties was highly relevant.’
Did you find it problematic dealing with both the history of architecture and scientific applications of glass? After all, you cannot claim expertise in either of those areas.
‘We are specialists in only a single area: that of the image. And it is in the making of images that glass has played an especially crucial role. We followed three histories of innovation: the lens, the test tube and the fibre optic cable. The lens, the test tube and X-ray apparatus have allowed us to see beyond the capacities of the human eye and fibre optic technology is the backbone of the internet, which allows us to see the whole world through a smartphone. Many radical innovations in which glass played an essential role have extended or deepened our insights and granted us access to dimensions that were previously invisible. As image specialists we felt qualified to broach this theme. Het Nieuwe Instituut approached us as designers and it is from that perspective that we tackled the subject.’
If you had to sum up your approach in one word, what would it be?
‘Amazement. Amazement at the complexity of the material itself but also the material as an engine for human curiosity and ingenuity. How glass has constantly overturned our worldview.’
Earlier you intimated that the Crystal Palace was more than just a metaphor for you. You saw that it could also be a model. How is this expressed in the exhibition’s spatial design?
‘The design re-imagines aspects of the Crystal Palace but we replaced the nineteenth-century materials and spatial elements with their twenty-first-century equivalents. You see that, for example, in the use of wooden floor parts and Venetian blinds. The installation’s emblematic image is provided by the steel elements from modern greenhouses. Just as Joseph Paxton transformed the botanical glasshouse into an exhibition building, we have used the typology of the horticultural ‘glass city’ for our exhibition: the greenhouses of the Westland became the architecture of the exhibition.
‘Wherever possible we opted for glass tubes and lenses for monitors and lighting. We used old-fashioned cathode ray tube (CRT) televisions as monitors, fluorescent tubes for lighting and Fresnel lenses for overhead projections. You first encounter these kinds of tubes and lenses as actual exhibits but it was important for us that they were also functional components of the technology behind the exhibition.’
Glass elucidates countless inventions and thus reflects the optimism of the Great Exhibition of 1851. But here and there we also see the negative aspects of the applications of these technologies: X-ray technology undermines our privacy at airports and fibre optic cables give organisations such as the US National Security Agency (NSA) unlimited access to our digital data traffic.
‘Compared with the other exhibitions around the World Expo theme, Glass was certainly not the most critical in social terms. Histories of innovation are first and foremost histories of progress: they are inherently optimistic in tone. But there are always conflicts and we highlighted some of these. Nonetheless, we were more concerned with reintroducing a marriage of disciplines that was quite normal at the time of the Great Exhibition and which no longer exists. Science, industry and design were natural bedfellows in the Great Exhibition. With a material as complex as glass even today a designer can do very little alone. Partnerships with manufacturers and researchers are indispensible. It was precisely this mutual dependence that we wished to emphasis through the selection of scientific objects, industrial materials and examples of design. Or in other words: we wanted to puncture the primacy of design. In some cases the designers involved in a product we displayed had to draw the disappointing conclusion that it was not their work that played the main role in this exhibition.’
The fascination for the visitor resides partly in the wonderful combination of design objects with pieces from the storage rooms of science museums and industry collections. Like a kind of Animal Liberation Front you raided the cellars and opened the cages of all kinds of collections. What does that say about your approach to curating?
‘Both as designers and as curators we are not only interested in the headlines. We took intense pleasure in rummaging through the depots to bring to light obscure objects: beautiful items that had not been displayed publicly for years. And what is most extraordinary is that they were suddenly placed in the context of design, thus giving rise to a new story. That is what we seek as curators: how to stage these temporary encounters in order to create surprising relationships, how objects from totally different worlds can become better acquainted, even if only briefly.’
What effect has working on Glass had in terms of your understanding of your role as designers?
‘Shortly after graduating as graphic designers we began designing the magazine Frame in combination with another university degree course. You see both perspectives reflected here. You could see Glass as the pendant of a thematic magazine that contains not only essays but also critical pieces, interviews, columns and even advertising. Except that this time we were not only the designers who occasionally made suggestions to the editor-in-chief. Here we were the editors too. And we took great pleasure in this role. The exhibition was the result of in-depth research in which we did not attempt to sidestep the inherent complexity of the subject.
‘We are increasingly defined by this process. Sometimes we take the guise of an archivist or journalist, sometimes that of a curator or editor-in-chief. But at its basis our work is always about the narrative power of the image and therefore it always comes down to the practice of design. But working on Glass confirmed for us how much more interesting the designer’s playing field can be if you are able to play the full range of roles.’
Translation: Gerard Forde