How would it be with SAM? Would he pay his suppliers a fair price? Would he still make kombucha or switch to GHB? SAM, the autonomous soft drink factory, the first self-owned robot that decides what the customer pays and what recipe he uses. Is he already retired?
The Symbiotic Autonomous Machine SAM, created in 2015 by the designer duo Arvid Jense and Marie Caye, belongs to the legacy of eight years of food design at the Design Academy Eindhoven. When food designer Marije Vogelzang announced that she was stepping down as head of department, the academy decided to phase out the separate investigation until the last batch was ready. Students can still design food in Eindhoven, but there is more of a food design department. The last students of Food Non Food students have graduated before summer.
You might be thinking: too bad, it’s a shame it’s stopping. But Vogelzang, who made her name internationally in the 1990s as a ‘food designer’, sees it the way she sees the food cycle. “Why would you always keep building and wanting more? It might as well die and become compost to grow on.” Even if it is at a time when attention to food is greater than ever.
When she studied at the Design Academy herself in the late 1990s, food design was “basically nothing”, she says. Vogelzang found designing food to be “simply more fun” than making a table or a lamp. And why ignore something as obvious as food? “People thought it was strange, you couldn’t stand it. Food was for housewives and cooks.” That food affects the climate, biodiversity, social relations and health, and that designers have a story to tell about it in their own language – no one had yet thought of that. “Nor did me.” Even after her studies, she found only a handful of people in the entire world who were also involved in food design.
It was until 2013, when director Thomas Widdershoven asked Vogelzang to create a food design department. At the same academy, where she herself would not have dared to take the exam at her ‘white funeral’ – an all-white table full of white dishes – for fear of not being taken seriously.
Times had changed. “Slowly everyone understood that food is what connects everything.” People all over the world were busy shaping the meaning of food, often all by themselves. They wrote to her from Russia, visited her when she gave a lecture in Japan. Now that she got carte blanche from the academy, she couldn’t pass up the chance. It became the first art school in the world with a food department.
The ultimate non-food
It started with stool. A module on defecation for all new students. “Poo is the ultimate non-food,” Vogelzang says, and yet it’s not. “Poo is about health, microbes, and it can only come from food.” She immediately showed: What we do here is not styling. “Styling comes last in communication. What you do is about the message.”
A kind of Marije Vogelzang school could have been created with young designers all doing what Vogelzang did. Something with rituals, meals, residual flows or chickens. “But most of them were very unique in their own expression,” says Vogelzang. “They came up with ideas I never thought of. Or with projects that were very far from food.”
There were students who started working with microorganisms, viruses and fermentation. And it was possible. “Do you want something with mushrooms? Lived! It would be so stupid to stop it.” Students working with living organisms also question their position as designers and the hierarchical attitude of humans to other life. “When you design a chair, you turn dead material into something that lasts, like a creator, a kind of god. You can also take a different position.”
For example, you can see plants as just a raw material. But assuming that plants ‘speak’ through smells, you can try to capture their ‘language’ like Merle Berger’s does. She designs perfumes that appeal to the nose like plants do to insects: attract, repel and defend. Many young designers, Vogelzang observes, are more modest in their approach to second life and try to find the connection.
This may be what characterizes ‘Eindhoven’: the students have to find their own way. And the curriculum moves along with their interests, across disciplines. The Design Academy is more of an art academy than a technical education. The best students change your view, give you new insights.
Vogelzang refers to Adelaide as Lala Tam from Hong Kong, who showed her amazement at everything designed around a cow’s life and death in all her projects. She took the exam with a vending machine, a vending machine which shows how a brass ball casing from the butchery is melted down into a paper clip. Each paper clip represents the life of one cow. “She designs without judgement, she primarily wants to show how magical and beautiful a cow is. And everything was done so perfectly and sensitively.”
A very different example: Alexandra Genis, who unraveled the flavor of strawberries down to the molecular level and made colored objects from all parts, as building blocks for a new strawberry flavor. You can grate them and use them as a loose flavor in dishes. Interesting, Vogelzang thinks, because Genis is researching resistance to artificial substances, now that many people want ‘natural’ flavors. Genis, the daughter of a chemist, shows: everything is molecular, even the taste of a real strawberry. Artificial is neither good nor bad, and may actually be more sustainable. “What’s wrong with artificial flavors if you know there will never be enough strawberries for the whole world?”
Occasionally, a student completes their bachelor’s degree in Food Non Food without any food or living substances involved. For example, there was the student with an empty box, from which an audio story sounded, questioning the education’s raison d’etre and design in general. How much design can the world handle?, wondered Manuel Pellegrini. How many new things do we need? If we know that raw materials are running out and production goes hand in hand with CO2emissions, what is the role of designers then? “It’s a discussion that takes place all over the school.”
Food design doesn’t always have to be complex or elaborate on big contemporary themes. Sometimes the power of a design lies in its simplicity. Vogelzang once went to Lebanon with a group of students. There they met snail farmers who could no longer export their snails. Xander Cummins designed a snail sausage for them so that the protein-rich animals would not be lost. Concrete problem, practical solution.
One of the last students to graduate this year is doing something similar. Camille Pelissou comes from a family of farmers and sausage makers. In the meat industry, separator meat, the last pieces on the leg, is used for frikandels. Pig ears, snouts and legs go to China – the Dutch don’t eat them. But for small farmers it is difficult to sell the whole pig. Pelissou made with her Everything You Can’t Eat – The Frik Show frikandels from the remains, together with a small pig farmer. “To show that those parts can also have economic value.” And can be delicious. “There were even vegans eating my frikandels.” At least the animal hadn’t become waste by eating the exorcisms.
I learned that design doesn’t have to be an object. It was a great discovery
Her second project also proves that designers are not always pompous or abstract. Pelissou translated the Graduation Show catalog from design jargon into common language.
Pelissou didn’t learn how to arrange funds for a project in Eindhoven, she says, “but I got every opportunity to experiment and work with experts. Nothing was too big or too crazy. It was one big playground.” She won’t be the only one less aware of what she wants to be after graduation than when she started. “I thought I wanted to be a food designer. But I learned that design doesn’t have to be an object. It was a great discovery.”
Camille Pelissou takes her cum laude diploma back to France for the time being to master her grandmother’s defunct knowledge and techniques – before they are lost.
Deliberately ethically incorrect
If there’s one thing that stands out about the current generation of students, Vogelzang says, it’s that they’re “desperate to save the world.” Don’t waste plastic, don’t use animal products or dyes. And then, in recent years, social movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter have also emerged.
So much commitment, ‘you can also freeze in it’, says Vogelzang. “Not only in your use of materials, but also in your thinking. If you want to be very spacious, you can be reluctant to hit someone with your design.” A few years ago there was therefore a module where ethically wrong things were deliberately invented. “You need a sanctuary, you need to be able to invent everything.”
Not every design has to improve the world. And not all students have to become independent food designers. There are some who do commercial work for Römertopf, others work for an aid organization, “but they all bring their Design Academy look.”
The creators of the robot SAM are now going their separate ways. SAM himself is doing well, says Arvid Jense. SAM could have become unemployed. But he travels a lot with artists and has been to the Salone del Mobile, the design fair in Milan. He still makes kombucha and tries to convince his audience that you can work very well with a machine. And the good news is: there are now three SAMs.