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The Crystal Palace as a model

A conversation with Koehorst in ’t Veld about Glass: The Engine of Progress

Gert Staal

In 2014, Jannetje in ’t Veld and Toon Koehorst were involved as designers and editors in Wood, the first in the series of exhibitions about materials at Het Nieuwe Instituut. This was followed a year later by the exhibition Glass: The Engine of Progress, for which Koehorst in ’t Veld not only acted as spatial and graphic designers, but also as curators. In a short interview, the designers reflect on the development of the exhibition and the significance of the role of curator for their design practice.

Gert Staal — Even while working on the Wood exhibition, you got involved with the contents. You enriched the original concept by exhibition maker Dan Handel and translated it for a Dutch context. How different was it to work on Glass?

Koehorst in ’t Veld — ‘An exhibition designer will almost always respond to a curator’s story. That was the case with Wood. Our additions followed the storyline mapped out by Dan Handel. In the case of Glass, there was no such foundation to build on. Even so, it was quickly laid. The choice of Het Nieuwe Instituut to take the World Expo as the unifying theme for the complete programming of the institute offered us a pointer straight away. After all, there’s a wonderful link between glass and the origins of the World Expo: The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. For that event they built The Crystal Palace: a vast glazed structure that served as an exhibition space. When we established that link, it became clear that The Crystal Palace would become our metaphor and perhaps even our exhibition model.’

Gert Staal — Then you faced an endless sea of possibilities: from glass in architecture and drinking glasses to glass art and the domain of high-tech glass industry. How did The Crystal Palace help you to define the exhibition story?

Koehorst in ’t Veld — ‘As we read up on the subject, we soon discovered the miraculous and almost alchemic quality of glass. It is a material for specialists, and in that sense very different to wood, which everybody is able to use. What’s more, we were struck by the importance of glass in the history of science and, maybe stretching it a little, to the history of civilization. Glass is a material of discoveries. Both in the form of lenses and in laboratory test tubes, it has radically altered our understanding of the world. You see that aspect reflected The Great Exhibition. What was presented there was the result of scientific curiosity, industrial production processes, and designers’ imaginations. The links between those three became relevant to us.’

Gert Staal — In this exhibition you operate in the domain of the chemist as well as in that of the architecture historian and, for example, the science museum. No doubt that caused some difficulties. After all, in none of those areas are you a complete expert.

Koehorst in ’t Veld — ‘We are perhaps specialists in just one domain: images. And it is precisely in the making of images that glass has played such a crucial role. We trace three lines of historical innovation: the lens, the tube and the cable. Thanks to the glass lens, the cathode-ray tube and the X-ray machine, we can see beyond the limitations of the human eye, and the glass fibre cable forms the backbone of the Internet that enables us to see the whole world on a smartphone. A number of the most fundamental innovations in which glass was instrumental have extended and deepened our vision, or opened up dimensions that were previously invisible. As image specialists, we feel legitimised in taking on this theme. Het Nieuwe Instituut sought us as designers, and we approached the subject from that perspective.’

Gert Staal — If you had to summarise that approach in one word, what would it be? Koehorst in ’t Veld — ‘Amazement. Not only at the complexity of the material itself, but also at the material as a vehicle for human curiosity and amazement. How glass has continually altered our view of the world.’

Gert Staal — You said earlier that The Crystal Palace was more than just a metaphor. You assumed that it could also act as a model. How is that reflected in the spatial design?

Koehorst in ’t Veld — ‘The design reconstructs aspects of The Crystal Palace, in which we replaced the materials and spatial elements of the 19th century with their 21st-century equivalents. You see that for example in the application of timber floor elements and Luxaflex. The most crucial contribution to the appearance of the installation came from the steel components used in modern greenhouse structures. Just as Joseph Paxton turned the botanical hothouse into an exhibition building, we draw on the typology of the “glass city” for our presentation. The glasshouses in the Westland horticultural area have become the actual structure of the exhibition.—‘Wherever possible, we opted for glass tubes and lenses in places where we needed media or illumination. CRT televisions, with old-fashioned cathode ray tubes, are used as screens, fluorescent tubes provide illumination, and Fresnel lenses are an essential part of the overhead projections. You encounter all these types of glass first of all as museum items, but for us it was important that they were also functional components of the exhibition technology.’

Gert Staal — Glass spotlights many discoveries and, in that sense, reflects the optimism of The Great Exhibition of 1851. But the downside also surfaces here and there. X-ray technology invades our privacy at airports; glass-fibre cables provide agencies like the NSA with unlimited access to digital data transport.

Koehorst in ’t Veld — ‘Compared to the other presentations related to the World Expo theme, Glass was certainly not the most socially urgent exhibition. Histories of innovation show, first and foremost, progress. By their very nature they are positive in tone. But they always provoke some conflict, and we spotlight them in places. Even so, as far as we were concerned, the urgency lay essentially in the reintroduction of an encounter that was very common at the time of The Crystal Palace but is no longer so. In The Great Exhibition, science, industry and design were completely natural allies. With a material as complex as glass, the designer is of little significance on his own, even today. Collaboration with producers and researchers is vital. In the choice of scientific objects, industrial materials and the examples of design in the exhibition, we wanted to emphasise that very interdependence. Or, to put it differently: to break away from the primacy of design. Some product designers must, to their disappointment, conclude that their work did not play the leading role in this exhibition.’

Gert Staal — The fun for visitors lies, in part, in the peculiar combinations of design objects and items from the depots of science museums and companies’ archives. Like campaigners from the Animal Liberation Front, you delved deeply into the vaults to open up crates containing all sorts of collections. What does that say about your view of the role of the curator?

Koehorst in ’t Veld — ‘True, we acted not just as designers or curators who looked at the big picture. We also derived intense pleasure from sifting through depots, digging out obscure objects, wonderful items that haven’t been seen by the public for years. And the most remarkable thing of all was that they were set in the context of design, thus provoking new stories. That’s what we’re looking for as exhibition makers. How can we orchestrate that temporary encounter in such a way that it can provoke surprising relations? The way that objects from totally different worlds engage with one another – if only for a short while.’

Gert Staal — What effect has working on Glass had on your understanding of your role as designers?

Koehorst in ’t Veld — ‘Shortly after finishing our studies we started to design the magazine Frame, which we combined with a follow-up course at the university. You actually see both perspectives reflected here. You could view Glass as the counterpart to a themed magazine that contains not only essays but also critical discussions, interviews, columns and even advertisements. All those genres are present in the exhibition, except in this case we were not the designers who made the occasional suggestion to the editor regarding contents; here we took on the role of editor. And with pleasure. Moreover, the exhibition is the result of a thorough study in which we didn’t shirk the complications of the subject matter.—‘That dimension is becoming increasingly apparent in our work. Sometimes we assume the guise of an archivist or a journalist, sometimes that of a curator or editor. Basically it’s all about the narrative power of the image, and therefore about the position of the designer. But working on Glass has also confirmed just how more interesting the playing field of the designer can be if you can play such a wide variety of roles.’ —