The man who introduced Flanders to design


Ghent's Design Museum pays tribute to pioneering director Lieven Daenens with a show that displays masterpieces in the collection

Retiring director chose his personal favourites for Linked

There’s more to design than just Philippe Starck or the Eames. Names like Hans Wegner, Alessandro Mendini and Mies van der Rohe might not sound familiar, but they are considered absolute masters in the world of beautifully shaped lamps, cutlery and chairs.

Linked: The Collection is Networking, on view at Ghent’s Design Museum, contains 30 ultimate masterpieces from its permanent collection. But unlike in previous shows, the selected items are surrounded by renowned pieces, ancient and recent, from other places so that the exhibition offers an in-depth look at the past, present and future of contemporary design.

But more than anything else, Linked is a tribute to the life’s work of the museum’s retiring director, Lieven Daenens.

Daenens started his career in 1973, a time when, he says, “the word ‘design’ still had to be invented”. Under his impulse, Ghent’s Museum for Ornamental Art became the first museum in Belgium to focus on 20th-century design.

But it would take until 2002 before the museum was allowed to change its name to Design Museum Ghent. Now still, it remains the only design museum in the country.

An impossible task

The exact number of pieces the museum collected under Daenens’ stewardship is unknown, but he reckons it’s “3,000 or 4,000”. So when curator and design critic Chris Meplon asked him to pick his 30 personal favourites, he felt he had been given a pretty impossible task. “I had always regretted that the museum wasn’t big enough to show everything we had,” he says. “Choosing my favourites felt like choosing between children. How can one choose from 3,000 children?”

Choosing my favourites felt like choosing between children

- Lieven Daenens

Eventually Daenens decided to focus on the pieces that were the most important in the history and development of international design. To further filter the selection, he concentrated on the pieces he had a personal bond with because of the amount of effort he put into finding and obtaining them.

“They are the museum’s most precious pieces,” Meplon says, adding that Daenens bought some of them at a time no-one else was interested. “Now, museums all over the world are looking for some of these designers, but most of them just can’t be found anymore or are too expensive.”

Take the red vase by British designer Christopher Dresser. It looks like an artefact of the ’60s but was in reality made in 1893. The museum acquired the piece long before Dresser got the recognition he deserved as a design pioneer. “He’s the absolute forefather of contemporary design,” Daenens states. “He’s the one who introduced Japanese simplicity and refinement to Europe, after having been one of the first Europeans being allowed access into the country. That is quite something.”

In the exhibition, Dresser’s vase is shown next to Richard Hutten’s “Dombo”, an unbreakable cup with gigantic handles for toddlers, designed in 1967. “They were put together in the first place because of the characteristic handles,” explains Meplon, who sought the pieces in Linked that are not part of the museum’s collection.

But at the same time, the curator says: “It’s two iconic images in the history of design, separated by more than a century of history. While Dresser’s vase must have taken hours to produce, dozens of Hutten’s cups can be manufactured in less than a second. The contrast refers to the dominant definition for 20th-century design – aesthetically appealing, cheap, functional and industrially manufactured mass products.”

Virgin terrain

Much in the same way, a one-legged desk stool designed by the Flemish avant-garde architect Gaston Eysselinck in 1931 is exhibited next to a one-legged desk chair created by the Italian brothers Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni in 1957. “Both chairs take a certain distance from what is decorative or aesthetically accepted,” Meplon explains. “The creators asked themselves: How can we create something modest and simple? Even though both are equally important for the development of design, the creation of the Italians was praised all over the world, while the chair by the Belgian never received any attention.”

To distinguish junk from quality, you have to know your history

- Lieven Daenens

Linked goes further than a collection of objects. Three integral room interiors by Belgian Art Nouveau masters Victor Horta, Henry van de Velde and Paul Hankar are also on view. Daenens admits that it was van de Velde, who was also a painter and an architect, who ignited his love for design when he was still a student.

“It was strange,” he says, “we were studying art history in buildings designed by one of Europe’s most important architects. But none of my professors ever told us anything about him. I started looking for more information, which was terribly hard to find. It was virgin terrain, but that’s what started it.”

Forty years later, Daenens has one piece of advice for those who want to follow in his footsteps. “When buying pieces, I have always had only two criteria,” he reveals. First: “The design had to be pioneering. When bought, it had to be worthy of a place in the museum, immediately. I never have and still don’t believe in speculation.”

And second? “There’s a lot of rubbish out there,” he says. “To distinguish junk from quality, you have to know your history. Only then you can see if something is truly innovative. Those who don’t know their history, will be easily tricked.”

Linked: The Collection is Networking
Until 2 March
Design Museum Gent
Jan Breydelstraat 5

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