"I came here to be alone," Dutch designer Hella Jongerius says, explaining why she moved to Berlin from her native Netherlands. "Questioning the limits of the design profession—that’s my talent. So I wanted the space to research and study, to answer my own questions rather than the demands of the design industry." Up until three years ago, Jongerius ran a busy ten-person studio in Rotterdam. "But I didn’t want to be a people manager anymore," she says. "I wanted to be a beginner again, an outsider." So she sorted through the contents of her studio and moved the essentials—and herself—to Berlin, glad to be alone with her work.
Misfit, then, was an appropriate title for the major retrospective of her work earlier this year at Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and the Irma Boom–designed book published in its wake. In many ways, Jongerius doesn’t fit in.
One of the talented and successful Dutch designers to emerge with Droog in the 1990s, Jongerius is the female exception in the boys’ club of top designers. Her genre-shattering work combines craft and technology, tradition and innovation, and high and low tech. Not for nothing does she call her studio Jongeriuslab; her work is more about conducting experiments than making design statements. She shows a stubborn reluctance to confine herself to a particular market: Her range extends from one-off design art pieces for Galerie Kreo to mass-produced (but still hand-finished) items for Ikea.
The term misfit also applies to Jongerius’s delight in imperfection and irregularity. Her designs are often warped, scarred, or left partly unfinished. "Perfection is macho," she says. "And boring. I like to see the hand of the maker." Soft Urn, the 1993 Droog rubber vase that put her work on the map, has a simple form that retains jagged marks from its casting process. Her B-Set porcelain tableware is intentionally fired at too high a temperature, giving each piece a unique deformation. Thanks to her long-term collaborations with design companies like Ikea, Vitra, Maharam, and the porcelain factories Nymphenburg and Royal Tichelaar Makkum, Jongerius has helped spark a resurgence of handcrafted detail in manufactured objects. "Hella wins their trust," says Louise Schouwenberg, the curator of Misfit and Jongerius’s longtime friend and collaborator. "And increasingly, she works directly with experts and craftsmen in those companies to take what’s already there and bring it up to date. Her designs don’t shout. She happily puts the work of others on show."
In her large studio in Prenzlauer Berg, a new series of dishes she’s creating for Nymphenburg underlines her restrained approach. Combing through the factory’s archives and pattern books, Jongerius extracted a detailed model of a fox, some ceramic makers’ marks, and a thorny pattern. Then she arranged them on a simple bowl to create a fresh story from old elements.
As Jongerius’s work progresses, she has moved from the monochrome simplicity of Soft Urn and B-Set toward a more colorful, richly crafted vocabulary. The Polder sofa she designed in 2005 for Vitra features modulated shifts in shade and texture, and combines trailing threads and hand-sewn buttons (modeled on thrift-store finds) with Vitra’s expert cabinetry. "The marketing people said a sofa in six different shades would never sell," she scoffs. (It did sell, and well.) Salespeople often resist her work, she notes, because of its novelty. A 2002 Maharam fabric with a lengthy 3.3-yard repeat was considered unmarketable because it would be difficult to display in showrooms. Jongerius stuck to her guns, and the fabric remains in production today.
More recently, Jongerius has embarked on a mission to transform the design industry’s use of and attitude toward color. "We need an alternative, because the industrial palette is so poor," she says. "Modern colors are stable—and that’s about it. They don’t change with the light, so they don’t look alive. And if we want a darker color, we just add black, which, sadly, makes all colors gray." For years, she has used pottery glazes to experiment with color recipes, culminating in the 300 Unique Vases installation at the Misfit exhibition. Jongerius—together with the Royal Tichelaar Makkum craftsmen with whom she collaborated—layered oxidation glazes with industrial and synthetic pigments in a spectrum of colors. The final circular arrangement suggests an alternative, three-dimensional color wheel in which each shade’s inherent dynamism shines, thanks to its relationship to the others.
It came as no surprise, then, when in 2005 Vitra entrusted her with overhauling its color system. Her first decree: Produce the plastic Eames chair in three shades of white. "People mainly bought the white one, so I said ‘If that’s what they want, let’s give them more.’" The overhaul took several years, and she remains Vitra’s color consultant.
Currently, the busy designer is developing a new color system for shoe brand Camper. The challenge there, she explains, comes in creating a palette that lures buyers away from black and brown. Meanwhile, she is pro-ducing her own paints—starting with a range of 15 rich, velvety Colourful Blacks—with Swiss company kt.COLOR.
Though her color mission continues, "the research is done," she says. "I need a new research project and I have one: plastics." The material needs to be rehabilitated in a range of ways, Jongerius believes—–from the aesthetic (currently "it looks either cheap or high-tech futuristic") to the environmental ("we need bioplastics"). She’s looking for industrial partners to aid her experimentation. And so begins her next odyssey, in a new medium: the latest challenge for a design rogue with a remarkably broad comfort zone.