We had the pleasure of crossing paths with Koen De Winter, one of Canada’s top creatives this week, hope you enjoy the conversation we recorded.

Tell me about your journey to Canada and into your design life here, what was that like, and how did this shape your creative life? I must admit that Canada was not our first choice. We intended to leave Holland, in order to move back to Sweden. The very first company to contact me was Lego A/S, but moving from the Dutch to the Danish countryside was not our intention. The second to react to the announcement was our importer distributor Danesco Inc. in Montreal. Initially I declined Knud Peterson’s invitation but eventually we accepted. My wife, our two children and I arrived in Montreal in the end of august 1979.

Initially it required some adjustments. I had not used French in more than a decade and my English was far from functional. In addition to that, design at Danesco was not the kind of product development I had practiced it in Sweden, Holland or Denmark. It Koen de Winterconsisted of a broad range of tasks including what we would now call branding. On top of that, it was a one-man show. I did all the photography, graphics, designed the showrooms in Toronto and Montreal, gift shows in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal, all retail and other packaging, a catalogue that would grow to over 7000 products…and product development. In a very pleasant but sometimes challenging way I had to deploy a creative flexibility that stretched over a number of different design disciplines. But we did rather well, even earned some recognition in the fields of graphics and exhibition design, design awards in Germany, the U.S. and some Design Canada awards…and Danesco Inc. grew.

Early on I contacted the professional association. I met with the selection committee that was very surprised to hear that I did not know what a portfolio was, so I had to answer: You can see my products at Eaton’s, The Bay and all good kitchen or gift stores. To my own surprise that simple statement of facts surprised them, so I added that I was in the permanent collection of the MoMA and a few other European and North American museums. I was invited to the board a few weeks later. Being part of and active in a professional organisation was probably the best introduction to the many challenges ahead.

Addressing the question: how did this shape your creative life, I have to say that it certainly enlarged the scope of my practice and it somehow re-enforced my initial position that design is first and foremost a means and not a goal, it is a service to society and not to designers and to some extend I willingly neglected my personal professional ambitions and concentrated on the areas in which I felt most useful.

Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles of Good Design has been held up over the years as a seminal system for producing great design. Do you think they still hold true, and is it even possible to have a top-level set of principles today? It is difficult to comment on Dieter Rams’ ten principles. In many ways they state the obvious whereas the real principles of design are principles of balance. To be innovative is a CRI_228333good example. The point is not innovation as such but how much? I prefer Ray Loewy’s “ most advanced, yet acceptable” because the balance of the two is the real challenge.

To be innovative is easy, to advance in an acceptable way is much more difficult. The same questions are raised by the second principle. What is useful? Is the status a product gives to the owner a function? What about useless functions? Most BMW owners have no clue about the particulars of car racing, yet they prefer the brand over the better Audi. If you were trained, you would be able to race the BMW and not the Audi. In other words the car has functions the driver will never use, but they are a large part of the decision making process.

Your question is very pertinent. In a fragmented culture like the one we live in, one has to wonder how relevant overall design principles are. From being a qualitative notion that covered both intentional and intelligent solutions to material needs, design has become a household word that includes both lack of intelligence and intention, as long as you can photograph it and put online.

Most of these “ideas” have a attention span as long as an “I like” click and continue to live for ever in cyberspace, but few of them even acknowledge any of the real challenges of our world: the environment, the fact that we are three times as many on this planet as the day I was born, or problems of such blatant inequality that a large part of that population has no roof above it’s head…and trust me, a CNC cutter that wastefully cuts away a badly designed plywood shelters is not the solution.

So, yes I think we should re-write some of these principles but do it according to principle 7: Good principles are thorough, down to the last detail.

Your body of work is pretty broad, what have been some of your favourite client/products and why? It is often challenging to measure satisfaction in design. Yes, sometimes the client relationship is exceptional and gives a lot of satisfaction. There is no question about the fact that my relationship with the owners of Axis Lighting was instrumental in pulling the embryo of a company all the way to a market leader, employing Tip_n_mix_432x432_hundreds of people. But that is the nature of design.

It is rather easy to be proud of an acclaimed product, the Mepal/Rosti jug in the MoMA collection or the Tip&mix bowls for the same company, awarded in Germany and the U.S. but neither of them was a commercial success. I tend to be most proud of the products that have lasted for a long time. The 314 mug, the melamine plates have been on the market for more than thirty five years. The most spectacular of my “designs” is not a product but a system that avoids a product.

More than forty years ago I was asked to design disposable dishes, cups and tumblers. In the early stages of the research the more environmental friendly but also the most economical solution showed to be a more rational system of storing, handling and washing the existing porcelain and glass products. So I initiated the development of that system. The results were so convincing that it has grown over the years to “the” system for hospitals, restaurants, airports, you name it. It is simply based on good ergonomics and proper procedures and saves on water, on energy and detergents but most of all on labour costs. I called the company Rendisk (of the Swedish “ren disk”: clean dishes) and with several hundred employees the company is still the leader in its field and serves a market from Finland down the Arabic peninsula. It is one of these too rare examples of solving a product problem by replacing it by a more efficient process or service, and reducing environmental impact dramatically in doing so.

There seems to be a real blurring of the lines between architecture, interior design, graphic and product design that is stimulating an evolution in all the creative silos. Does it make sense to be a specialist anymore? I do not know if the statement on the blurring lines between different design disciplines is an accurate observation. A small group of professionals have always crossed the lines, but have not necessarily been successful commercially or critically. I do not think that we will remember Philippe Starck for his architecture or Michael Graves for his product designs, nor Frank Gehry for his contribution to the Tiffany collection.

I am not sure those cross-overs work well. In my own practice, I see the difference between a line designed by the excellent British architect John Pawson and promoted as the John Pawson cookware, and the more successful cookware line Atlantis I designed for the same company, Demeyere in Belgium. Both lines are high end and sold at comparable prices, but one is the design of a well-known architect and difficult to sell and the other of an almost anonymous industrial designer sells well.

Beyond the exposure it provides, I fail to see a good reason for this widening of the professional fields. Most of our fields of activity have become far more complex and to do justice to this more complex task we need to specialize more. On the other hand, I truly believe that we have to specialize less in education, because to be a specialist is a nice thing as long as you exercise in a field that you love andstents1 that you can be passionate about. But in order to discover that passion, you have to start in a much wider field and find your own way, so why not start that education with all those abilities we have in common, and allow students to find out through projects in different fields, what exactly they are good at and get passionate about.

I know there are exceptions to the rules of specialization. The stent, the mesh tube that keeps many other heart patients’ and my arteries open, was inspired by the work of a dentist by the name of Charles Stent, but I would prefer that the heart surgery would only be done by a dentist in extreme and exceptional circumstances.

You have had a long career in this business, what advice would you offer design students and emerging designers to prepare them for the creative industries today? If I was cautious or even pessimistic, I would limit my advise to: work twice as hard, because the way things work now is that you have to have a “public” career that provides you with the much needed exposure, and you have to have a professional career that allows you to live from what you are doing. Considering that your useful work rarely gives you exposure and vice versa, you have to make time for two careers, which is a good reason to work twice as hard. But being an optimist, my advice would be to work half as much because the need for your services is a need that you identify first. But in order to be able to identify problems that can be solved by design, you have to live a life with time for observation and with time to let the observations mature into good solutions. You can only do that if you work half the time. The advantage is that by observing well, the time to develop solutions will be shorter and you will in fact be more productive.

I have said this many times. A career is like climbing a mountain. If you only look at the top, the ultimate goal, you will fail and be discouraged. Fail because you will fall over the stones in front of you, and lose courage because when looked at it all the time the top does not seem to come closer. If you only look in front of you, you will not stumble over the rocks, but you might find out at the end of the day that you climbed the wrong mountain. So the solution is a combination of the two. You look at what is in front of you and from time to time you look up to see if you are still on the right mountain. Strangely enough and because you only look from time to time, the top will look closer each and every time and it will encourage you. Last but not least, it is so much more pleasant to do it as a team.

Tell us about your latest venture Atelier Orange, which we absolutely love. What motivates you now and prompted you to create a ceramic manufacturer/brand in Canada? Atelier Orange is a long story that starts with the fact that there comes a time one has to let go. Even the most talented, the most passionate among us has a limited mandate. My other ambition was to design and produce myself. The only production technology that I know inside out is ceramics. It was my first education prior to the Design Academy in Eindhoven and so Koen-de-Winterwhen we moved to the countryside to mark our retirement I started to produce stoneware and porcelain products. In spite of my experience in housewares, I produced a number of other products, but slowly and surely I went back to what I knew best. It was quite successful from the start, and with the valuable help of Ginette Rochon, who was my also my partner in HippoDesign Inc., we started Atelier Orange.

In both cases I did not want to have my name attached to it because I always believed in the team more that in one leading person. The early success encouraged us to build a brand new workshop with activities spread over three floors. I soon found out that to be a craftsperson is very different from being a designer. As a designer you rarely look the users of your products in the eyes, as a craftsperson you do not see all of your customers but many.

The feedback is direct and clear and your customers expect you to listen to their suggestions. I love the dynamics of that relationship and so each time I have to build new moulds (our production is mostly cast) I improve and change the product according to customer suggestions.

We soon had requests from a variety of countries but with a few exceptions to satisfy our curiosity, we kept our market limited to Quebec and the city of Ottawa because we are very close. My idea behind this limitation was that if we could not prosper by serving that chosen market, we were simply not producing the right products.

On another level it also proves that any attention given by the designer to a particular product results in a better product. Even a product as old as a mortar and pestle has still room for improvements and to find out that professional laboratories recognize that your mortar and pestle works better than the one from a large laboratory equipment producer makes it worthwhile.

There is no doubt in my mind that Canada and especially Quebec will become a large producer of ceramics. Canada has the raw materials, but most of all the energy and in spite of low cost labour in China and soon to come in Africa, costs of energy will grow to a predominant factor in the equation of where to locate production. 10, 20, 30 years from now Hydro Québec will still produce electricity at rates that are fractions of what it cost in other countries. In other words, energy costs will always be a substantial part of the production costs.  So to build a certain know how on production methods seem to me an important activity. Atelier Orange cannot do that, but it can contribute to show that a rational production in these conditions produces an affordable assortment of products.

Click to see Koen de Winter’s fave design.

Images courtesy of MoMA.
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