Icons of design in Flanders

A remarkable selection of contemporary Flemish design on show in the Flemish Parliament, Brussels
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2 October 2003 - 10 March 2004

"Icons of design in Flanders ... a little daring", says Johan Valcke, director of VIZO Design Department and co-responsible for the selection.

The title "Icons of design in Flanders" has deliberately been chosen and is even a little daring. It contains two ideas which need to be explained first of all, to get a better understanding of the whole.
The word “icon” evokes an association with the word “intangibility”, with glory and glamour. An object or person that has become an icon or can become one, appears to be superior to the rest, to triviality – no matter what kind of triviality. So we were really conscious of the danger of using such a title in relation with design in Flanders because design in Flanders is not intangible, neither glorious nor glamorous. At first sight, there are almost no icons of design in Flanders. So why did we choose this title and how did we interpret the word “icon”? In van Dale (Dutch explaining dictionary), it only gets - besides an explanation about its religious meaning - “image” as a meaning. We will certainly show strong “images” in this expo, but this is only one aspect of the way we interpreted “icon”. Communication and identity are also strongly integrated in our view as an entity of symbolic images. Much to our surprise, we noticed that the unsurpassed Encyclopaedia Britannica supports this point of view in one of its depth articles: an icon is explained as a cluster of related and non-related symbols. An icon refers to non-verbal communication, just like signals, signs, symbols, gestures and the principle of the “proxemics”. “They are actually groups of interactive symbols, like a funeral ceremony, or an Impressionist painting. Although in examples such as these, there is a tendency to isolate icons and individual symbols for examination, symbolic communication is so closely allied to all forms of human activity that it is generally and unconsciously used and treated by most people as the most important aspect of communication in society. With the recognition that spoken and written words and numbers themselves constitute symbolic metaphors, their critical roles in the worlds of science, mathematics, literature, and art can be understood. In addition, with these symbols, an individual is able to define his own identity. “ That is why it is easier to understand why the public searches for icons and has no problem accepting them.
In this broad sense, there are certainly icons of design in Flanders, such as our contemporary fashion designers from Antwerp and the work of Maarten Van Severen. Other designers in Flanders do not have this status, in spite of the fact that there are surely more designers, working in Belgium or foreign countries, who have reached a very high level and deserve such a status. In this context, it is not only the symbolic value of certain products or objects that is qualified, but also the value of people who acquired more or less an icon status or should be able to acquire one. The first can be found in industrial and graphic design, the personal icon status is particularly acquired in applied arts.

This brings us to the explanation of the second idea. We consider design to be industrial, graphic and design-led crafts (applied arts). Design in Flanders is not non-existent at all, but relatively invisible. We use and “experience” a number of specifically designed objects without being aware of them. Furthermore, we do not know that they were designed and created by designers from our district. So this lack of knowledge has as a consequence that design is not really valued as it should be in our region, although recent research showed that our public loves design and is even sensitive to it. Design is too often presented as a patching up utensil for companies in trouble or to boost the image of Belgium and Flanders. And this is allowed, but design is in such a context used for only part of its values. Design can do more, so companies as well as authorities should invest in this field in a sensible way.
In this exhibition, there are several levels to be distinguished. The most important part is the promotional aspect. On the one hand, we collected objects which have been designed and produced in Flanders in the last ten to fifteen years. They remain in our memory because they created a strong image, because we used them every day or because they were accepted by a large public; on the other hand, we were looking for objects that had the possibility to become an icon. The selection of this collection of objects has been presented by Lieven Daenens and myself, and has been supported by the Steering Committee, composed by the Flemish Parliament. The names and objects of the invited designers were established on the basis of the expertise and knowledge of this Steering Committee, which did not happen without discussion. Although designers, selected by VIZO, constituted the basis of this selection, they did not get exclusivity. A lot of criteria were used in order to make a well-considered choice. The strong aesthetical image, the originality, the authentic creativity of the designer, the quality of the object (both constructive and material), the public name, the recognition in foreign countries and the commercial success played their role in taking this decision. So we were searching for a product or an object which left marks in our contemporary community in Flanders or beyond.
By request of the Flemish Parliament, we did not accept any fashion or jewellery designers. The first group would be covered in the future, while the others had a problem concerning infrastructure (safety and display possibilities). It was risky to choose a number of younger designers who realised one or more objects in their relatively early career, because we thought they had the force to leave their marks in this world. That is why we decided to offer them a platform.
Some objects, firms or designers are missing in the exhibition and this has something to do with the professional, judicial or personal view of the firms or designers concerned and their willingness to participate. The exhibition is also set at a historical level. We paint a picture of what has happened in Flanders in the field of design in the last ten to fifteen years, without assuming an inventory. It is useful to refresh our memory. There is an identification level. A lot of objects in this expo are known and unknown at the same time. Who knows that a Bentley as well as a Skoda Octavia have been designed by the same designer, by a Flemish designer? Who knows that our bancontact terminals have been designed by an international top design agency from Kruibeke and that the same company works for aerospace technology? Who knows that the trams in Strasbourg and in other French cities including the Belgian tubes, have been designed by a Belgian design agency?
In this way, this collection of concrete products can be sublimed into a cluster of symbols, which encourages a larger awakening of our own identity. This does not mean that there is such a thing as Flemish design, but that design in Flanders is rather fully part of the international community. The diversity of high-quality products and objects naturally proves this.


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