Twelve gold awards for local designers, from luggage to lights


The Henry van de Velde Awards draws attention to the best in Flemish design, whether innovative, immensely practical or simply gorgeous

A better plan

Designers in large corporations can really be the unsung heroes of the design world. Take the Cosmolite luggage line, for instance (pictured). While you’ll surely recognise it, the name on it is Samsonite, not Erik Sijmons.

Sijmons has worked at Samsonite European headquarters in Oudenaarde, East Flanders, for more than 30 years. He has designed some 35 types of travel cases that have made it to the market. The Cosmolite appeared in 2008 – the company’s strongest and lightest suitcase to date.

This month the Henry van de Velde Awards recognised Sijmons with its Gold Lifetime Achievement Award. “Although his name might not immediately ring a bell for many people, his designs undoubtedly do,” according to Flanders DC, which co-ordinates the awards. “Cosmolite by Erik Sijmons is one of the most iconic products ever designed for Samsonite.”

Sijmons’s success is based on a combination of beautiful design and a thorough knowledge of luggage components and materials. In 1990, Sijmons designed the Handy Case, a more attractive version of the brand’s hard-shell toiletries bag, and in 1994 the Ziplite, the first hard case with a zip closure. Made from a combination of polypropylene and woven polypropylene, it was a pioneer in hard-shell lightweight luggage.

The first aluminium case followed, the Xylem. The look of the attaché case so impressed the producers of the film The World is Not Enough, Sijmons (pictured above) was asked to design a special version that James Bond memorably held onto while jumping from the eighth floor of a building.

“More than ever before, the ecological reality is forcing the travel industry – and by extension solutions for luggage – to change,” said Sijmons upon winning the lifetime achievement award. “As a company, we want to make a difference with innovative products. The fact that our founder Jesse Shwayder was already using words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘lightweight’ back in 1940 shows that these values are engrained into Samsonite’s DNA. His vision still inspires me to keep striving for the perfect suitcase, with passion and drive.”

The ecological reality is forcing the travel industry – and by extension luggage – to change

- Designer Erik Sijmons

While it’s rare to find a designer with his talent and skill staying at the same company for more than three decades, Sijmons says he’s found his niche. “I particularly enjoy designing suitcases because they evoke exciting stories and wonderful memories of travel for almost everyone.”

Flanders DC, the agency that supports the creative industries, hands out 21 Henry van de Velde awards for outstanding design every January. The 21 winners are divided over seven categories, with three in each category.

One in each category are chosen to be Gold Award Winners, together with Gold Awards for Lifetime Achievement, Company, Ecodesign, Young Talent and Public. Designs by all of the award-winners are featured in an exhibition at Bozar in Brussels.

The Gold Award for a company this year went to Niko, also in East Flanders, a 100-year-old company that designs and manufactures light switches, sockets and electronic interfaces. “Our playing field has gotten so much wider,” says Niko design director Luc Meirlaen. “From making switches and sockets about a hundred years ago, our company has expanded in a relatively short time to interfaces, technology and home automation.”

The Internet of Things is now the driving force behind design, he says, putting them in the same sector category as Apple, Amazon and Google. “We are currently thinking out loud about how our products can be controlled using gestures – or even mind control. Because regardless of what the future will bring, we must ensure that we are ready for it.”

Other Henry van de Velde Gold Awards went to cleaning products firm Ecover; Studio Dott for its SportKompas digital tool, used to help kids choose the right sport; and Standaert Design for its Waterbench, which collects rainwater (pictured above).

“The Henry van de Velde Awards show that design is everywhere, said Flanders DC managing director Pascal Cools. “Every one of the winners has their own beautiful story with an added value – stories about a sustainable world, about maintaining the social fabric, about solving everyday problems. And yes, sometimes about beauty, whether it’s connected to functionality or not. Designers are the bridge between the creative and functional world. They give the world a better plan, and that’s what the Henry van de Velde Awards are all about.”

The Henry van de Velde Awards exhibition runs until 29 March at Bozar, Rue Ravensteinstraat 23, Brussels

Photos: Niko ©Wouter Ramoens, Waterbench ©Dagmar Heymans, all courtesy Flanders DC