Interview with Renny Ramakers
by Agata Jaworska

This year in Milan, Droog presents Material Matters, a future furniture fair. The presentation speculates the impact of a shift in policy from taxing income to taxing raw materials and waste, and its impact on the design industry. The future fair features 20 design companies—both real and imagined—that might come to thrive given the change in policy.

How did this idea come about?

I read an article in the newspaper. Economists, ecologists, political scientists and other scientists were envisioning an alternative economic model in which sustainability is built into the system. One of the things they imagined was that income tax was replaced with tax on raw materials and waste, giving a few examples of what might happen—like no more packaging , new businesses based on recycling, repairing and leasing…

That inspired me. I thought it could also inspire designers and the design industry. Designers are trained to design products. Every year designers and design companies go to Milan, and every year, we see so many new products. Milan is full of new for the sake of new.

When I read the article, I realized some designers are already working in a way that fits into the scenario. Dirk Vander Kooij reprograms abandoned machines into 3D printers that make products using material made of old fridges. Markus Kayser prints products in the desert using the sand as the raw material and the sun as the energy source. Studio Swine proposes fishing plastic debris from the sea, turning it into products on a converted boat factory.

I imagined an alternative fair full of these kind of initiatives. We brought together existing initiatives and invented new ones. The imaginary fair presents some 20 design companies based on the premise that raw materials are taxed and therefore they become very expensive. One invented company, Gallery™ sells what used to be ordinary goods as collectibles. Another, Optical World™ sells illusions. Sometimes we really need a chair to sit on, but sometimes it’s the image that we’re after.

Currently quite a few companies are dealing with environmental issues. What’s the difference with Material Matters?

Environmentally friendly design is still mostly about designing products which harm the environment as little as possible, by using sound resources and by designing products that can be easily taken apart. Material Matters is more narrow because it is only dealing with material scarcity, but at the same time it is broader because it suggests completely different responses. An option could indeed be upcycling, recycling or waste management. But I am looking for more ways to tackle the issue. Maybe renting things is better than a chair that you can recycle. Or if a product lasts your whole life then maybe recyclability is not the most important thing. It is important to broaden the scope.

Essentially the Fair presents business models. Could you see it as a collection of ideas that others could appropriate?

You can think about what impact this scenario would have on companies like IKEA. Its unique selling point is that the products are very affordable, but once materials become expensive, what would their selling point become? They could—just like we do with UP™— upgrade IKEA’s dead stock or offer second hand IKEA furniture. People could return used products, IKEA could redesign them, and people could buy redesigned IKEA stuff.

You could also think of developing new materials from alternative resources, like Suzanne Lee does with BioCouture™, creating fashion with bacteria. Another direction could be designing services instead of products, like teaching people how to furnish their house without buying new products. That’s what Waste Watchers™ does.

Play Shop™, a game that satisfies your need for shopping without buying anything, is an extreme example. How do you see the role of the designer with something like Play Shop™?

A designer could have designed the game. It’s not like design will ever stop turning out products, but designers should stop thinking that every need should be satisfied with a product. Sometimes something else might do.

You bring together reality and fiction in an interesting way, almost not making a distinction between the two. How do you see this?

The ambiguity between the real and the fake creates cohesion. Each company is almost like a one-liner, presented in a tongue-in-cheek way. It’s really about the diversity of possible responses, on the level of the business model and not the details. It doesn’t matter if they are real or fictional.

How do you see the design profession changing?

When Gijs Bakker and I created Droog, we noticed new directions in product design, bundled them and gave them a name. Now, almost 20 years later, you can see that there are quite a number of new directions that designers are going into, less related to product design. Product designers are finding new ways to create a business. Processes are becoming important.

When you look at the profession from the specific angle of material scarcity, you get a very diverse landscape. Material Matters is about virtual design, it’s about reuse, it’s about inventing new materials, it’s about durability, it’s about renting things. It is a mixture of totally different initiatives that at first glance seem not to be related. Bringing this together as a Furniture Fair can have an impact.

Why did you bring them together as a Fair, and not something else?

Just like in 1993, we are bundling the sign of the time. In 1993 this was based on bringing together new visions on products. Now we are bundling business models, scenarios, processes. A fair means that every participant is independent. So many designers are starting their own businesses. I wanted to open the fair to them. This year the fair is imaginary, and is curated by us. We hope to host a real fair next time.

Do you think we need the policy change in order to get such a movement going?

The imagined policy change is the start of a thought experiment to speculate on design. Of course there are also negative aspects to taxing materials, like the disproportional impact on people who do not have much money. The point is not to convince the government that we should make the shift. It’s better to create a movement, and by-pass the need to make policy change.

The project started with imagining that policy changed. The government nudging people with new tax incentives. But in a way, the fair becomes a nudge for the design industry, minus the paternalism that would have come with the policy change.

Nowadays economists are taking into account the environment in their models, seeing biodiversity and water as economic assets. Material Matters wants to inspire designers to do the same—to build business models with environmental concerns at the core. It would be fantastic if this would generate a boom of new initiatives, building an industry of small creative companies that invent new businesses. And we never would reach the need to tax materials.

Join us.