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April 10, 2013

NCR-09 [Economy]: Over Indetifiying Products and Production

A text by Freek Lomme from the 9th issue of the New City Reader “Economy” edited by Unfold

A leap into a global future beyond local post-industrial conditions, alongside Eindhoven design firm Lucas Maassen & Sons.
The new frontiers for contemporary design, those which establish our states of being, have relocated. Change is inevitable and necessary, as free producers set their sights on further and further limits.

Struggles in classes
The design firm Lucas Maassen & Sons engages with the world from its basis in Eindhoven, a city that has proclaimed itself to be the “smartest region in the world”—a city that has renamed itself as “Brainport”. Eindhoven was essentially built upon the rise of Philips, the international electronics giant, in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, and it became established during the era of consumerism.
Eindhoven is a typical “Western” post-industrial city. In the 20th century, many people were drawn to Eindhoven by the job opportunities at Philips. The first influx consisted of nearby farmers unable to maintain their small farms, followed by former workers from the eastern Netherlands’ textile industry, labourers from Spanish, and, after 1970, an increasing amount of Turkish and Moroccan workers. The people that gave rise to this industrial city were primarily of rural descent and minimally educated. Therefore, the old population of the city is solidly working-class, living up to the motto, “Stop talking, get to work.”
At present, this working-class population is either unemployed, working in office jobs, or retired. Meanwhile, their sons and daughters have enjoyed the fruits of education and a welfare-oriented economy. They are able to enjoy the typical Eindhoven education, such as the Technical University (developed under Philips), or even the elitist Design Academy Eindhoven—more than anything, for those who would rather “start talking”.

New kid’s concepts
In a way, Lucas Maassen is one of these children. His parents moved to Eindhoven from a small nearby village in the early 1970s, as his father took on an architecture professorship at the Technical University. Maassen, who in turn attended the Design Academy, developed a conceptual mind and a keen awareness for new opportunities in modes of production, technical methods, and the quality of manufactured outcomes. He graduated in the early 2000s, shortly after the first wave of “Dutch Design” icons—including Hella Jongerius, Richard Hutten and Piet Hein Eek—inspired by the Design Academy’s artistic leadership of Gijs Bakker and Li Edelkoort.
Maassen was trained to appropriate conceptual thinking as a means to produce the applied anew. But what was there to apply? Why would he design another chair? Instead of producing new chairs, he started to conceptualise chairs that, through irony, would reflect upon the entire neoliberal industry and the rise of design–art as a token of high-culture. Often using a strategy known in the art world as “over-Identification”_, he applied extremes within his one-offs—extremes in size (Nano Chair), in value (Sitting Gold), in reproduction (Script Chair) and in other parameters.[1]

Towards new statuses
Although post-industrial dogmas are still vibrant, as recognised in Eindhoven’s profile, the actual economic viability of creating a post-industrial form of production is arguable. There may indeed be knowledge in town, but there is little available production capacity beyond a few rather frivolous 3D printers and several exclusive fields of craft. Furthermore, for now and the foreseeable future, the real Eindhoven population is unable to buy these products at a level that would substantially support the design sector in line with its education. In other words, the actual market for “design” as knowledge-based production is very much exclusive and limited.[2] Even more, in the aftermath of the post-industrial era, the push towards the new has become questionable.
The inevitable conclusion is that the “Western” economies have reached their maximum, and can no longer be protected with the protectionism and financial dominance that gave the “West” its post-colonial dominance. Progressive people in Eindhoven, as in other post-industrial areas in the “West”, are now reconsidering the means of production.

Another turn
In this context, Maassen’s practice has taken another turn. Over-identifying the sphere of the chair’s capacity does not seem to enhance the vitality of design or infect design thinking; therefore, he has begun to play upon the realm of production, exploring the foundations of its current post-industrial mode. In this sphere, Maassen again applies over-Identification in multiple ways. For example, in Sitting Gold, he proposes a business model that defines value on the basis of material rather than on the basis of cultural meaning and authorship. This model allows decadent Westerners to transfer their wealth in euros (money earned in the consumer societies of the late 20th century) into the more fundamental, solid value of pure gold by purchasing a one-kilogram golden chair. Apart from the value of gold, authorship becomes an added value: as a designed object it becomes even more costly. The more golden chairs are sold, the more valuable the price of gold becomes. Therefore, this model is based on authorship of the circulation of gold in the form of the best design object—the chair. This model pushes the limits of entrepreneurship in the aftermath of the decadence of the neoliberal order.
A second model undermines this order culturally. While the gold model over-identifies the capacity of a financial order to sustain itself purely on the basis of market values, this second example over-identifies the actual conditions supporting the economic feasibility of the underlying production climate—the conditions of labour. The “west” (and the Dutch in particular) have conducted a rather culturally arrogant position towards ecological friendliness, labour conditions and labour wages. While leftist political ideologues make their plea for morals and ethics, the real consumer and producer could not care less. As globalisation equalises the economic terms of production and consumption, the ideologies put forth must adapt to another reality, one with painful implications for the ideological consciousness of production in the “west”. Here, Maassen’s over-Identification strikes again, this time through the establishment of Lucas Maassen & Sons—a company wherein design authorship becomes both democratic and ostensibly exploitative via the employment of his children, who work up to three hours a week in his design factory (the maximum allowed by child labour laws).
In the end, the over-identifying projects of Maassen are rather performative gestures questioning the means, manners and modes of design production as an economic sum in a changing world, deriving from the local yet simultaneously aware of the global.

[1] “Instead of succumbing to society’s pathetic demand for small creative acts, artists should over-identify with the ruling, post-historical order and take the latter’s immanent laws to their most extreme, dystopian consequences”, according to the back cover of BAVO’s Cultural Activism Today: The Art of Over-Identification.
[2] Even more so as the public support via governmental subsidies, infecting new thinking and production, are very much downgraded.

*Freek Lomme is a curator and writer, director of Onomatopee projects and occasional ghostwriter as a critical follower of Lucas Maassen (and Sons).

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