Driving Dutch Design: Staalslagerij

Driving Dutch Design (DDD) helps young designers on the road to becoming real entrepreneurs. This year, the trio behind Staalslagerij is one these ‘drivers’. The men from Rotterdam will be presenting their work together with the rest of the DDD class of 2018 in the Klokgebouw during the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, which is taking place from 20 to 28 October. Joost Dingemans (1989) and Titus Wybenga (1990) talk about what drives them and their dreams for a collective, creative laboratory in Rotterdam.

The three childhood friends from Rotterdam – Joost, Titus, and Jesse – have been building things together their entire lives. For the last three years they have been combining their talents in their own multidisciplinary design studio Staalslagerij. “At school we used to build all these crazy installations without calculating anything or even thinking about what we were actually trying to achieve,” recalls Joost. Now, fifteen years later, they are still creating crazy installations, but now it’s for clients such as museums, universities of applied sciences, festivals, and municipalities with social experimentation as the defining feature. “Designing is connecting.”

When did you know that you wanted to found Staalslagerij?

“I was searching for a way to continue doing what we were already doing”, says Joost. “I wanted to understand what was and what wasn't possible, so we could make our installations better and perhaps even influence human behaviour with our products. I initially decided to study at Delft University of Technology. This university has a certain prestige, which meant that my family supported me in this decision. But when I stopped my studies there and moved to the Design Academy in Eindhoven, my parents didn't understand what I was doing. They did support my choice, they just hadn't expected this sudden change of course.

Over the years I received all kinds of reactions from friends and family. Many of my friends completed a more traditional education. For a project for the Henk op de Helling dance festival in Amsterdam, we had to work throughout the night the final two weeks before the opening. When those friends saw the installation, one of them asked: ‘Was this actually really worth it?’ That's the last thing you want to hear. Of course it was worth it! It exists – that alone gives it value. For my friends it's not always clear what a project will result in. But that's not something that I ever concern myself with. We often hear people saying that something won’t work or that it never could work. We always try to turn these comments into questions and ask ‘how can it work?’ instead. That actually results in something productive. People sometimes can’t believe that we can live off what we do. They don't understand what it is that we make, so they can’t picture it actually brining in any money.”

Does this motivate you?

“Absolutely,” confirms Joost. “If someone tells us that something is impossible, that’s when we become interested. People sometimes even come to us with an idea that everyone believes is impossible to achieve. We see it as a challenge to prove them wrong.”

The fact that you work with three people must help this process along.

“Certainly. And, on top of that, we have a multidisciplinary approach and are not afraid to work together with others. If we need a mural or an app for an iPhone, we find someone who can make that. In this sense, we operate as connectors. We understand that you can't do everything yourself. If you think you can, you set yourself up for failure. Instead, by dividing a project into individual segments, you can find someone to work on each particular subquestion.”

Is creating connections what you'll still be doing in ten years?

“I see us being experts in designing curiosity in the next five to ten years and that we do this through many collaborative projects. I actually hope that we'll have a type of commonwealth set up by then. This will be a close-knit network of parties that we can collaborate with and in which everyone can apply their particular field of expertise. We hope to also have a new location where we can experiment with prototypes and new techniques to create as many ideas as possible.”

A type of collective laboratory and a platform

“One of the things that we love about our work is its versatility,” says Titus. “With a collective you can take on many different kinds of assignments, whether these are prompted by philosophical or technical questions. But, since taking part in Driving Dutch Design, we have taken a slightly different approach to this. Working together with others isn't always easy and sometimes we need an extra dose of realism.”

How did you end up at Driving Dutch Design?

“Friends of Joost had taken part in the programme before, and the idea to further professionalize ourselves really appealed to us,” explains Titus. “The three of us are friends and we have been entrepreneurs for three years now. But, as designers, we can be a bit idealistic. Because we want to make a positive contribution to the world, we have a tendency to forget that we also need to look after ourselves. We love our jobs, but you earn more working at the municipal parks and gardens department than we do. The missing link is a sound business model. We have always been builders and literally hold the tools to our own success in our own hands. In the future we want to focus more on design, so now we are investigating the ways in which to best sell that idea.”

What did you learn about this?

“The three of us are quite modest. If you look on our website you'll see that we let our work do the talking; we let it advertise what we are all about. Neither one of us wants to be in the spotlight. Our clients come to us because they love our projects, but we'll never go to some networking event and tell people: ‘Do you know who you should be working with? Us!’ At DDD we were given a masterclass in storytelling by Paul Hughes. He explained that you shouldn't talk about what you do, but about what it does. It is about clearly outlining what the client can achieve with the products you create by understanding their needs and desires and using that knowledge to appeal to them in the right way.”

“Our personal coach taught us how to improve the way we handle acquisition, as this is something that's not constant for us. We're either incredibly busy, or we have nothing to do. She hammered in the point that we have to clearly identify which projects are going ahead and which aren't. We get plenty of requests, but they don't always result in an assignment. If such a project doesn't get assigned to us, we need to find out why. Do we need to adjust our prices or change our services? We never really bothered with things like that, because all three of us would get buried under our projects in the busy periods. At times like that there is no one to keep the company running and bring in new work. That's something that we're going to change.”

How do the three of you differ?

“I focus on generating ideas while Jesse is more about the technical side of our projects. Titus engages with the social aspect of our work,” says Joost.

Which project garnered the most unique responses from society?

“Here in the Delfshaven we worked on an incredibly cool co-creation project,” says Joost. “Our district is struggling with high levels of unemployment, and many of the young people just hang around on the street. We involved them in creating a new interior for an old police station that can be used as a base for youth workers. We worked together with a construction company that engaged young people who didn't have any work experience – something that was an obstacle to them finding a job. We were able to use our own experience to guide them, and I thought it was great to chat to the young guys who I always saw hanging around on the street,”

Is your work guided by this social factor?

“Yes, we create work for public spaces,” explains Joost. “There is always an audience. We once created a mobile couch for the Municipality of Rotterdam. This was designed to ask people questions and quickly get a response. Sure, you could use a boring survey, but we choose to literally go out and sit down with the people. We are interested in how you can engage people, inform them, or how you can draw them to a specific place. We always take social context into account in our work. After all, design always serves a purpose.”

Over Driving Dutch Design

Designing for the future, that is what Dutch Design Week is all about. Main sponsor ABN AMRO joins forces with the Association of Dutch Designers (BNO) and the Dutch Design Foundation (DDF) to organise the Driving Dutch Design masterclass design talent driven by passion and ambition. The process lasts ten months, during which we help designers navigate the world of business. The campaign titled ‘Echte drive is niet te stoppen’ (real drive cannot be stopped) is an ode to these designers of the future.