No one likes to be put into a box. When it comes to Daan Roosegaarde this is actually quite a difficult task. Being an artist, architect, entrepreneur, and inventor all at the same time, he likes to think of himself as a hippie with an ambitious business plan to customize the world.
By the age of sixteen Daan had already realized what he wanted to do for a living. He also realized however, that being a voluntary prisoner of his own imagination was not easy. Later, in his twenties, this half German, half Dutch gentleman found a way to translate these ideas: via technology and design. Today he uses these techniques to connect people, display emotions and make places in our daily-life more understandable, open and interactive. That is why most of his work is applied and shown within urban spaces.
Daan has always been obsessed with interactive places, not only professionally, but also personally. Driven by a fearless curiosity he travels regularly to explore and discover new spaces, and find – what he would prefer to describe by another word – inspiration. So it is very handy that he does not have a need for materialistic items, prefers to sleep in taxis and loves airports. He feels comfortable with the progress and direction of his work and continues to enjoy joining the dots to connect his innovative ideas. Sleeping in another place every other night, the closest to home for him is his studio in the Netherlands. Out of all his bases it is on the periphery, and it is here where our visit takes place.
What’s your profession?
I am an artist, I am an architect, I am an entrepreneur, I am inventor and son of a math teacher. But most of all I am a hippie with a business plan, that’s what every good designer should be from my point of view. Because what I do is about ideas and emotions, but it is also about making things happen within the now. STUDIO ROOSEGAARDE pops up in different kinds of publications: architecture, fashion, design. I have been on the radar in the field of design a lot in the past two years, and it is also the discipline I appreciate the most. The reason being, art seems to dive into a kind of white cube area, which I don’t understand anymore and architecture has become frozen as the built environment has been on hold within Europe. The developments which are interesting for me at the moment related to architecture are virtual.
So how would you describe what you do?
I personalize and customize the world. I never considered it design or art. Others just describe it like that. But for me it is much more about making our world more understandable, interactive and open. That’s why – besides museums, fairs and stuff like that – most of my installations are in public spaces, like a pedestrian tunnel or highways – places of our daily life.
How did you get in contact with these ideas and work in the first place?
It was when I was sixteen years old. I was still in high school and my art history teacher brought me to the Architectural Institute in Rotterdam. First, I didn’t want to go, but they forced me. There I saw this gigantic wooden model of houses, squares and towers that was by Arata Isozaki, a Japanese artist, and I was utterly amazed by it. Also, when I lived in nature when I was young, I often went out to play and hide in trees. Elements from those experiences would somehow also play a role professionally for me in an urban environment setting. In these moments, I realized that I could transfer and apply these spatial interests into a profession.
What happened then?
Then there was this horrible period, where I got a lot of ideas, but I didn’t know how to express them. Every project starts with a taste in your mouth and you don’t know the ingredients. I realized that, I was a voluntary prisoner of my own imagination. I think it took until about the age of 20, when I was more technology based, to realize that technology was always meant for connecting people. That cities are actually designed and design is important for the society.
What is a designer’s role for you then?
He or she engages with reality, but at the same time wants to update it, hack it and bring something extra. During a time where economic and energy systems are crashing, that’s incredibly important because we need people who link things up again, create missing links and come up with new proposals about how we want our worlds to look like. So I am not a designer, who makes chairs and lamps, which is fine – but I don’t care about that. I am someone, who reforms things.
So what is design about?
It is about performance. We have a saying here in the studio: ‘It is not about the color of your lipstick, it is about whether you can kiss or not.’ It is not about the thing, it is about the behavior, it generates – it is always about the intervention of things that’s why we made the Intimacy-Project. It is about what happens, if fashion is connected to your behavior.
Can you explain the Intimacy-Project further?
Technology is not just something on your screen. Why are we looking at Facebook every day? Is that real social interaction? Shouldn’t we connect to each other more on a one-to-one base? Technology is definitely connected to our emotions also. So we thought it would be interesting to hide and show these things. There are different versions of Intimacy. One is a dress connected to the heartbeat, so the faster the heart goes, the more transparent it becomes. Which I like because the heart is something, which is part of you but you don’t have it under control. So it’s a play on control. There is also a suit for men, which becomes transparent when they lie, which I think is a good statement for the banking and political people out there. So there is a also a level of social critique in the work as well, but it is also quite poetic in my opinion.
Is that also why you call your work ‘techno poetry’?
Well, I always had that desire to create things that make people aware of their body and relationship with themselves. I miss that a lot, that poetic notion of life. There is a growing sentiment of fear with regard to technology dominating us, however, I am more scared about the little robot in ourselves that we cultivate. So if I can create environments which trigger a different side to people and offer a different perspective which they are not normally accustomed to, that’s good. So my work is more about stimulating imagination and developing innovation. It is more about exploring new worlds, rather than facilitating things, that’s why we called it ‘techno poetry’.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I hate that word. Because you look around, you wonder, you are amazed, you are frustrated and you try to come up with new proposals. And sometimes there is a functional element in it. Sometimes there is a pure emotional element in it. So the inspiration comes from that imagination, but also frustration.
So it is more through a daily-life digestions rather than a single moment?
Yes, because this word inspiration is like me sitting on the tree and thinking about something. But it’s different. You have to activate in this world, participate and engage. Then suddenly you see potential and that’s when you zoom in. To make it clear: one day I was wondering ‘why is everyone so focused on cars and making them more sustainable and beautiful, when the roads which actually determine our landscape are still stuck in the middle age in terms of design. Why is nobody looking at that?’ So I started to do research and nobody was looking at it. There were boring road manufactures on the one side, and these inventive cars, which don’t have wheels anymore on the other side. This was all great, however, I didn’t care about that so much because I wanted to operate within the now and look at larger issues. This was the catalyst for the Smart-Highway-Project.
What is the Smart-Highway-Project?
It is about, how can we make our landscape more sustainable. So we want to install light, which charges at daytime and shines at night. Also we have this glowing paint, which can change its color based on the temperature. When it gets cold, the paint turns blue and when it is sunny, it turns yellow. Or when it’s snowing, snowflakes automatically pop-up on the road. In a way it is a very tech augmented reality.
Are there also critics saying that this kind of tech gets too close to our natural life?
Yes, but what the fuck is our natural life? Every tree is planted. In this way, this is also design in a way. So we have the George Orwell scenario: reduction of human activity. Or we have DaVinci, where we learn to cure ourselves and become more human. I think, it’s not about the medium, it’s about the message. How do you want things to look?
How do you want things to look?
I would love to have a microchip sticker on my body, which shows me how many vitamins I need to eat. I also favor concepts like the premium taxi service in Singapore, where they makes sure that the driver is not drunk by putting censors in the steering wheel that measures the sweat of the driver. So the moment they want to take the car, they are measured and if there is a trace of alcohol the car will not start. These kind of weird things are popping up. I think they are incredibly powerful tools to be developed to make our lives more personal.
This will not be done by firms, like Samsung and Sony, they have a different mindset. So that’s where the role of the designer is extremely important. It is more tool than machine-orientated and there is a lot of poetry in it. For example, if you compare it to painters, the way they brush their paint on the canvas, that’s also a technology technique perfected to express the emotion. For me there is no difference between a microchip and a paint brush.
Do your clients appreciate that approach?
Yes, because it’s a new way of building up a relationship with their clients. For example Louis Vuitton is very eager, as we can design a bag or dress with a small microchip in it. So that two weeks later, when the customer walks into their store again, it recognizes them and gives them feedback, an upgrade or a personal greeting. This is incredibly fascinating not only for the fashion industry, but also for our other clients, which range from Vitra, BMW, the Tate Modern and other more public oriented spaces.
Where are your studios?
We have one in Shanghai and one here in the Netherlands in Waddinxveen which exists on the periphery, because we believe that’s where magic happens. Everybody leaves us alone here so we can do a lot of research and develop prototypes.
What relationship do you have to the Netherlands?
I am half German, my dad is from Wuppertal, and I am also half Dutch, my mum is from the Netherlands. It is a troubled relationship. The Netherlands are almost stuck in this ‘yes-but’-mentality. It frustrated me so much, that we made a ‘yes-but’-chair. It works with voice recognition, so the moment you sit on it and say these two words, you get a short but really intense little shock. This is again another social statement. I feel if we do not invest in new creativity in Europe, we will become one big open-air museum. China is developing because there is a lot of liberal thinking there with an appreciation for research and for new and young ideas. The old listen to the younger generations and vice versa.
So where do you feel most at home?
I am a weird guy, I feel at home in places, where most people are like ‘what?’. Home is where my laptop is. Of course I have to have a place to sleep. I lived for a long time in Rotterdam, and now I have moved to Amsterdam. But every other night I am sleeping in a different place. So the closest to home for me is, where I can connect with ideas. That happens best in my studio and that’s also why invited you here.
What about the emotional connection?
I am more a place person, than a people person. I fall in love with a place, before I fall in love with a girl. I feel connected to places where things happen. I love Schipol airport for example, the feeling that I can plug in and plug out any time I want is exhilarating. So I love these transit places. But at the same time over the years, I have learnt to seek out the periphery, where we are now, to concentrate and spend a lot of time, energy and money on ideas in order to make them happen. So home, also emotionally, is where the process is happening and this is either at a transition place like an airport, or alternatively, the studio, where ideas are manifested.
Where do you sleep then?
I sleep the best in taxis, because it gives me postmodern room and it is in motion. I also like it because you are going somewhere, but at the same time you have no idea where you are going in a new city. You have no option but to let go.
Is it easy for you to let go?
When you ask me for objects, it feels like wind, which is kept someone and you don’t really need to do that. So yes, I love the process of letting go actually. But one thing I am definitely obsessed with is imagination. I am a sucker for creativity. I love it.
What effect do you hope to have on people with your work?
That people start doing it themselves. I want more creative people working together to figure out what is meaningful. I don’t have it all. Please go and create new things, which are more interactive and sustainable. I want to activate them, to inspire them. Ok now I used the word, I hate so much (laughs).
Thank you ever so much for this interesting conversation and tour through your studio. Find out more about Daan Roosegaarde and his projects here.
Interview & Text: Katharina Finke
Photography: Jordi Huisman