We inhabit an environment filled with materials that astound us with their capacity to transform. Our challenge is to discover, collect, analyse, process and utilise them.
This holds true not only for materials found in our physical environment on Earth – from rare, extremely pure minerals to hybrid composites— but also for ‘dark matter’ in space. All over the world we use raw materials that at some point will run out. Not only does this constitute a threat to our direct environment, it also results in the disappearance of unique ecosystems and even entire cultures. Yet we continue to wonder at the infinite potential of materials, including their capacity to be used on ever smaller scales. Human ingenuity continues to throw up new meanings, under constantly evolving aesthetic conditions.
When these materials are shaped and transform in to more or less functional objects, we refer to them as things. Design is the framework for understanding these altered pieces of our material surroundings as things—the furniture in homes, the machines in factories, the utilities that transport light, power, and electromagnetic frequencies through space or beneath the ground. However, the design perspective alone does not suffice when faced with the vast majority of commodities, technologies, and infrastructures that shape our everyday lives. While design views the thing first and foremost as an isolated object of desire, our fundamental coexistence with and reliance on things demand different tactics, at levels ranging from the microscopic to the gargantuan, from the intimately close to that of the often invisible megastructure, privately owned or shared, and from the sensually tangible to the confoundingly immaterial.
These comprehensive views must mesh between the institutional, academic, and logistical frameworks that developed in the 20th century to look at materials and things as forms, symbols, concepts, commodities, tools, artefacts, and possessions. Crucially, the interlacing of aesthetic power with political and economic agency within things and materials must be confronted. And in the embrace of the immaterial as an increasingly important factor in the way we organise society, the question of things becomes particularly critical: while design continues to question enduring archetypes of creative production, the rapidly updating technology reshaping our world stretches our conception of things as clearly-defined objects.
Projects developed on this premise and in the context of Things and Materials include:
Series on Materials
Series on Materials, an exhibition programme within which an individual material is examined from historic, speculative, and sensory perspectives. Fellowships form the starting point of an exploration of the various materials, after which a formal approach is selected in which to present the outcomes to the public, be it an exhibition, publication, or film. Previous projects have included WOOD: The Cyclical Nature of Materials, Sites and Ideas (fellow Dan Handel), PLASTIC: Promises of a Home-made Future (fellow Tal Erez), and GLASS: Engine of Progress (curators Koehorst in 't Veld).
Temporary Fashion Museum
The Temporary Fashion Museum was an experiment that turned the entire building of Het Nieuwe Instituut into the first national fashion museum in the Netherlands. The exhibition interrogated the myths of renewal and timelessness that underpin the fashion system, and approached time as fashion does—as a fluid phenomenon and a framework for speculation. The Temporary Fashion Museum also dealt with the museum as an institutional model, played with possible approaches to the visitor, and introduced activities such as shopping, dressing up, and making into the exhibition space.
New Material Award
The New Material Award is a biennial award for material innovation by artists, designers, and architects, organised in collaboration between Stichting Doen, Fonds Kwadraat and Het Nieuwe Instituut. The award functions in two ways: a jury selects two winners through the competition every two years, while the website also works as an archive and research resource in various categories. Various submissions are also exhibited during Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven and the Salone del Mobile in Milan.
Biodesign, an exhibition based on a wide range of projects that harness living systems for types of creative production within art and design, curated by William Myers. Biodesign links advances in fields such as medicine and architecture with challenges related to climate change, increasing populations, and resource depletion—envisioning a system in which design, production and use take in to account the consequences they wreak on different environments and forms of life. The exhibition actively stimulated speculative investigations through workshops, including a presentation by renowned performance artist Stelarc.
Matter is a series that explores the shifting relationship between design practice and matter. It brings together designers and other practitioners to imagine non-exploitative and non-human centric forms of engagements with materiality, and inquires what it means to design with social and ecological sensitivity in the age of escalating environmental crisis.
International Materials & Design Network
Het Nieuwe Instituut founded the International Materials & Design Network to organise collaborative projects with international partner organisations, to enable knowledge exchange on innovation in materials, design and sustainability and to support talented Dutch designers to expand their international networks.
As the curators of the exhibition Finders Keepers, the editors of the design and crafts magazine MacGuffin reveal the universe of the collector, bringing together objects from dozens of collections and exploring the collectors’ strategies, the aesthetic pleasure of collecting and the hidden life of things.
Designing the Surface
Surfaces are full of contradictions; declarations of falsehood and denials. Designing the Surface, an exhibition where the final topcoat targets the senses, investigated a compendium of artefacts over five sets: lustre, patina, faux, teflon and agency.
Speculative Design Archive
With a temporary archive installation, Het Nieuwe Instituut speculated on the possible contents of an archive for design and digital culture from the Netherlands. Who will save what – and how, and why – for future generations? Together with its visitors, Speculative Design Archive uncovered the value of both acknowledged masterpieces and forgotten treasures.
And Other Spectres
And Other Spectres is a series of essays, exhibitions, public events that investigate agents that, being generally imperceptible or barely visible to the human eye, are able to permeate the sphere of the body (whether it is human, machinic or that of the nation-state) and its prosthesis in the form of computers, domestic and private spaces, triggering a multitude of cultural stories and fears. The series includes the projects Malware and Spirits in the Material World.
This exhibition considers the role of a fashion garment as a socio-political carrier. The hoodie is a staple of contemporary dress, hyped as a trend and a must-have item; but elsewhere it is also a topic of moral panic, banned by certain institutions and dissected by the media as an emblem of inequality, crime or deviancy. Curated by writer and curator Lou Stoppard.
Reading Sites is a series of written perspectives on the broader field of design. Taking events from design weeks to biennials as its starting point, the series invites designers, writers and critics to reflect on emerging tendencies and design ideologies, arriving at new narratives that can foster alternative, shared and non-exploitative futures.
A diverse series of dialogues with makers, designers, journalists and critics on design. The discussions take a close look at the designer’s process from raw material to final object, exploring issues of aesthetic and technological change, ethical positions, sustainable cycles, and innovation in how objects perform and interact. In a culture saturated with design and mediated by digital technologies, these dialogues explore how the traditional sense of meaning, value, and materiality are being reinvented.
Conceived as a spa resort, the exhibition Lithium highlights the beneficial and destructive aspects of the eternal human search for energy. Researchers, designers and artists reflect on the role of the chemical element lithium in powering today’s economy. How many times can we recharge our batteries without addressing the causes of depletion, in both human bodies and the planet?