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MAD lifts veil on design as a business venture
With 50 million coffee cups in use and more than three million kitchen knives sold, the success of Piet Stockmans and Vincent Jalet’s line of products for Tupperware shows how much Belgian design has boomed over the last couple of years. The new exhibition The Power of Object(s) focuses on both the innovative and business side of the work of Stockmans, Jalet and two dozen other local designers.
Most design exhibitions tend to showcase the creativity of the items on view, but the Brussels fashion and design centre MAD Brussels and ING Belgium have chosen to also put the spotlight on their economic value.
“The intention of The Power of Object(s) is to show the public what kind of turnover design can generate,” explains Danny Venlet, MAD Brussels artistic director and a designer himself. “We chose 25 representative Belgian designers and asked them for three things: their most iconic design, their bestseller, and the one that is the most profitable.”
Visitors to the exhibition get a unique peek into the portfolio of some of the country’s top designers. “It’s interesting how a designer’s most iconic object isn’t necessarily the one that sells the best, or the other way around,” Venlet says. “At the same time, the top sellers show that there is a real industry, a real market for design.”
A couple of figures: Brussels-based jewellery designer Christa Reniers has sold more than 32,000 rings, the candle holder designed by Xavier Lust, also from Brussels, has been bought more than 80,000 times, and with 50 million of his “Sonja” cups in use, Stockman’s design is present in nearly 75% of all Dutch hotels, bars and restaurants. The Genk designer’s iconic cup has reportedly been counterfeited 17 times.
Gathering these financial specs for the exhibition wasn’t easy. “Not every designer had the information available, and some were very reluctant to reveal their numbers,” Venlet says. “Designers tend to be idealistic, but at the end of the day, they need to make money as well. This kind of data is inspiring for young designers but also for future clients and producers.”
Take the humble “universal series” kitchen knife, for instance. Vincent Jalet of Aalst first designed it for Tupperware in 2009, and it has since generated earnings of €1 million. “Many people probably don’t even realise this is a Belgian design,” Venlet says. “The knife is produced in three different factories, to give you an idea of its economic value.”
In addition to the design objects and the figures behind them, The Power of Object(s) also includes video footage of designers talking about their work. In one clip, Antwerp designer Axel Enthoven – best known for his “Opera” camping van – mentions how design has different rules than art. “It’s about compromising ratio and emotion, as you have to take into account the price of your design as well as whether it’s possible to manufacture.” Brussels-based ring designer Christa Reniers, on the other hand, says: “I only make what I like.”
The video in which the featured designers are asked about the local dimension to their work is also one to watch. “There are a lot of Belgian design labels, but there’s no such thing as Belgian design,” says Davy Grosemans, the Limburg designer of the colourful Lungo watering can. And Brussels-based product designer Alain Berteau feels that “we’ll only be able to talk about the success of Belgian design when it actually creates employment.”
So where does this “Belgian design” label come from? “Belgian designers should be quite proud of what they do, but they’re introverts compared to their colleagues from neighbouring countries,” says Venlet. He points out that, in the past, Belgian designers went to renowned international design fairs represented by the Vereniging voor Zelfstandige Ondernemers (Union of Independent Entrepreneurs) or under the “Flemish”, “Brussels” or “Walloon” design label.
“But once outside of Belgian borders, these words don’t mean a thing,” Venlet says. “Belgian as a label makes sense. That’s why The Power of Object(s) is important as well, as it is one of the first large exhibitions about Belgian design in our own country.”
Visitors keen to get their hands on some Belgian design will be happy to learn that there’s a pop-up store in the ING Art Centre, where you’ll find quite a few of the objects from the exhibition as well a number of other clever items by local designers.
Until 11 January, ING Art Center, Koningsplein 6, Brussels