When it comes to product design the quality and value of Northern creativity is almost uncontested. The minimalism and cleanliness of shapes, surfaces and materials define the signature style of Studio Mieke Mijer, which has showcased its projects internationally. The studio was born from a collaboration between the designer Mieke Meijer and the engineer Roy Letterlé, both graduated in Eindhoven, a city that is establishing itself as a talents’ workshop within design and technology. Since her student’s days at the Design Academy, Mieke Meijer has experimented with materials and construction processes, designing a new kind of wood made out of old newspapers. This material has now become the basis for another collaborative audacious project, the NewspaperWood BV. Together with the designer we talked about the studio’s prolific production, sustainability, users and future challenges.
When and how did you know each other?
Roy and I met in 2001 in Eindhoven (The Netherlands) where we both studied. Roy was in the second year of his bachelor in Structural engineering and I just started at the Design Academy Eindhoven.
How did you decide to start the collaboration and create Studio Mieke Meijer?
Our collaboration was not a deliberate decision; it kind of started naturally. After my graduation I started my design studio when Roy had a job as a teacher in structural engineering. From the start he was already involved in all projects, whether it was finding the right solution for a design problem or helping out in production. When we moved to a bigger studio he took a day off as a teacher to be able to spend more time in the studio. Slowly the scale of the projects changed from product design to interior architecture, in which we can combine both of our qualities. Separating the individual contribution to the projects is nearly impossible. Naturally both of us have our own specific interests, ideas and skills. Projects generally bounce back and forth between Roy and me utilizing our combined skillset.
How did you come to develop such a personal and experimental design language?
By doing, trying, making mistakes, and repeating it again. We started from nothing and without a clear direction but over the years we developed our signature step by step. We have a shared interest in industrial architecture, which started when we visited Zeche Zolverein and Landschaftpark Duisburg in 2008. This specific type of architecture became an endless source of inspiration to us. We are very much interested in the liminal field between architecture and product design. This enables us to move freely, regardless of architectural restrictions and outside the boundaries of the traditional product.
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When you start designing a new product, what’s your approach?
Our work usually starts from construction principles and architectonic shapes that interest us. From there on we try to find out which function could fit the form or principle. The next step is often going to the workshop to make a proof of concept. We share the workshop with two other design studios at Strijp-T, a former Philips building. For us it is really important to be able to try things with our own hands, experiment, and design by doing. We really believe that we come up with other solutions when working by hand than the ones we would get by only using our computers as tools. A word we recently discovered that relates very much to our work is ‘tectonics’, defined as “the science or art of construction”. By choosing materials on their unique properties and connecting them in a beautiful way we show the beauty of construction as a source of clarity and formal lightness.
Sustainability is one of the main challenges for designers nowadays. How do you face it within your works?
In general the local design scene is quite sustainable, I believe. Contrary to the contemporary design scene in some other countries the Dutch one is mostly focused on the thousands of small businesses that have a DIY approach to design and manufacturing. Due to housing issues designers tend to group together in disused industrial areas like Sectie C, The Yard, Piet Hein Eek, etc. A sort of communal design is developing here. This in itself is not new, but what is new is the openness of the network, and the collective will have to be relevant to make a difference or be different. Designers keep on telling stories in the same way that they have been doing in previous years. But more and more there is a need to not only sell as much as possible, as fast as possible, and for the highest price (the superstar designer idea), but there is an intrinsic need to address real social, economic or environmental issues.
For us as a studio sustainability is not necessarily designing with recycled materials or designing things that are recyclable. But we try to design and produce things that people would like to keep for the rest of their lives. People will always need ‘things’ but there is no need for buying a new table every two years. In some projects sustainability plays more a key role, like in one of our latest projects, called Material Depot. It is a furniture concept based on perforated panels. None of the individual components have specific functions, allowing them to be combined any way you like – which potentially grants them a longer lifespan. The project is in line with what is known as a ‘building passport in construction’. The passport details the circular characteristics of a building. Making the destination of a building or a product at the end of its useful life an integral part of the design process leads to a more efficient recycling of materials and to a lower waste of resources.
What is the role played by the user in your interventions and projects?
Function in our designs isn’t always 100% determined. We never have a specific end-user in mind but we like the user to be free to use the work the way he/she likes. Our work sometimes questions the relation between human and objects, or redefines it.
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For the exhibition Once Upon Design: New Routes for Arabian Heritage you made an installation that recalls the traditional Middle East courtyard housing, which seems also a functional and interactive product. What possibilities did you want to offer to the users through this work?
Our first Middle East experience was in 2014 when we exhibited at Beirut Design Week. It was an unforgettable experience that made us go back several times and made us connect with people from other Middle East countries like the United Arab Emirates. Because we have a specific interest in (architectural) heritage we were invited to participate in an exhibition on this topic. One of the most important landmarks in the traditional heritage architecture is the Shaikh Saeed Al Maktoum House. The residence of the ruler since 1896 is currently being used as a museum for historic documents and pictures. There are three striking wind towers often seen in traditional architecture. They were designed to use in dense urban situations where there was a need to draw air down into the compact courtyard houses.
Like we did in previous projects, we rescaled and recontextualised the architectural structure of the traditional courtyard in an outdoor interactive installation. The design allows a degree of openness and, at the same time, respects traditional values. One of the main functions of the courtyard is its positive thermal impact on the surrounded living spaces. The lower level of the installation is repurposed to cultivate plants, protected from the region’s harsh sunlight with partial coverage. The cooling effect of plants refers to the natural cooling characteristics of courtyard architecture. By situating this work on the balcony of 1971 Design space in Sharjah (United Arab Emirates), it remains in relationship with the surrounding landscape. Visitors are invited to sit and take a look at the old boats, recalling the commercial and cultural exchanges that made and continue to make the coastal cities of the Gulf the places they are today.
Industrial Landscape 01 and Objet élevé seem to share the same purpose: to be useful, tightening the spaces. What’s the main objective of a product when you create it?
Objet élevé was the first staircase we did commissioned by Just Haasnoot for his residency in Wassenaar, The Netherlands. It functions as a connection between two floors while also offering space to work, collect and store. The staircase stands in strong contrast to the elegant 1930s residence and transforms a high-traffic area into a memorable residential room. Industrial Landscape 01 was commissioned by Christian Ouwens for his gallery in Rotterdam. Both staircases strongly relate to previous installations we did inspired by photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers’ black and white photography is renowned for the systematic photo series of industrial buildings that closely resemble each other in function and design. Following our own interpretation, we reconstructed these buildings into functional installations. 
Also, your ongoing Industrial Archaeology series, for instance, is inspired by the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. What are your visual referents and sources of inspiration that are not strictly design-related? 
What I found interesting about the photos of Bernd and Hilla Becher is that the shapes of the buildings are purely determined by the machine inside or by the task it is mend to perform. They are not meant to be aesthetically pleasing, and that gives them somehow their beauty. Not so long ago we discovered the work of Danila Tkachenko. He is a Russian visual artist working on the field of documentary photography. I love his series Restricted Areas, documenting Russia’s abandoned secret military cities.
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Besides the design studio you have also co-founded the project NewspaperWood, which reversed the usual production process by transforming newspapers into wood. How did you start this project and what does it mean to you?
NewspaperWood started as a student project at Design Academy Eindhoven. In the spring of 2003 I started my third module in the department Atelier at the DAE. This department – which no longer exists – was different from all others: the classes took place in the middle of the workshop. Students who chose this direction were makers. Experimenting with materials was the basis for each assignment.
It all started with an assignment about wood. Wood is, in its smallest form, the basis of paper. Once turned into paper it does not come out of the paper recycling cycle anymore: it stays paper. I thought it would be nice to turn the process around and turn paper into wood again. When I started making a ‘paper tree’ I didn’t know what it would look like. The result was beyond expectation. Besides the fact that the material seemed to act like wood, it was just beautiful!
After partnering with Vij5 (Arjan van Raadshooven and Anieke Branderhorst) in 2007 and the presentation of the material at its infancy in 2011, Vij5 and Studio Mieke Meijer decided to join forces in a new company. In March 2014, NewspaperWood BV was created by Arjan van Raadshooven, Anieke Branderhorst, Mieke Meijer and Roy Letterlé, so we are a small team. NewspaperWood BV is dedicated to the production and development of the NewspaperWood material in order to find new intermediate products and innovative applications. In 2012 and 2014 we collaborated with the French automotive brand Peugeot for the application of NewspaperWood in two concept cars, the Peugeot Onyx and the Peugeot Exalt. These types of collaborations bring the material to a higher level because we could start industrialising its production process. It was and still is a very challenging process because newspapers are very low quality material; therefore the development of the NewspaperWood material is an ongoing process.
What do you think that designers can do to respond to the contemporary issues, such as energetic crisis like climate change? What is the role of the designers in this scenario?
It is important for designers to be aware of these issues and take responsibility when possible. And designers do. If you look at the graduation shows of the Design Academy Eindhoven of the past few years, for example, there are always projects related to these issues. But design is a broad business and not every designer can be a specialist in this field. Also it’s not only designers who should respond to these issues; there needs to be awareness and the will to change in all types of businesses. We surely need to collaborate more.
What is your next goal as designers?
We find it important to stay close to our personal fascinations and inspiration. The aesthetic of the industrial complex as well as architectural principles are a recurring topic in our work that will offer us inspiration for many more years. Currently we are working on projects that utilize this aesthetic into a new product line that is more accessible to a larger public. Following this we will also be looking for ways to create more (digital) interaction with our products by using sensorial technology. Also we will continue teaching in order to contribute to the development of the local design scene and to keep in touch with current events.
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