More thoughts on Droog Lab’s ‘Luxury of the North’, from Antoniuk and Jaworska


On Thursday, December 8, 2011, Edmonton’s design community was treated to a co-presentation between Droog Lab, the University of Alberta and M.A.D.E. in Edmonton.
The purpose of Droog’s visit was to discuss the Luxury of the North project in the form of a lecture and panel debate:

  • Here, there, everywhere by Agata Jaworska (Droog);
  • Arctic Imports by Pirjo Haikola (The Why Factory); and
  • Productivity of Nature by Christien Meindertsma;
  • followed by panel discussion with Tim Antoniuk.

Last year, as part of its Here, there, everywhere lab series, Droog Lab teamed up with Tim Antoniuk, head of the University of Alberta’s industrial design department, and a small contingent of Dutch and Canadian designers. Together, they traveled to Nunavut for 10 days, bringing back with them novel approaches to everyday life.

“The aim of the Droog Lab is to see how ways of living in different parts of the world can inspire new directions for the future of design,” says Renny Ramakers, co-founder and director of Droog and initiator of the project. “The Canadian North is known to be harsh. We wanted to see how its extreme qualities might influence new city concepts and urban luxuries elsewhere.”

Luxury of the North is part of the Droog Lab series, Here, there, everywhere, which investigates how people in daily situations worldwide can inspire new directions for the future of design.

According to Tim Antoniuk speaking about his experience working with Droog Labs, “Droog is one of the most innovative design studios in the world. They really helped change the way a lot of people, a lot of schools, a lot of companies see design. They helped define what Dutch design is. They have a pretty long history.”

Antoniuk recalls “This interesting discussion really early on as we were forming the project. I was in Amsterdam speaking with all these leaders of Dutch design in one room, and I asked ‘What do you think about Canadian design?’ And there was no reply.

“I eventually pressed them, and the general consensus was ‘We think Canada’s really open, light, and sustainable …’ and there were all these adjectives that weren’t about products, they were about environment, about a state of a nation in a way.

“Which I thought was really cool. If you think ‘what’s Italian design?’ you think Ferrari, you think Armani, Dutch design you think Droog, German design it’s Porsche, Braun, French it’s couture and fashion, but Canadian design? … And that really struck me.

“So I thought,” Antoniuk continues, “let’s go to Canada for something utterly Canadian, which is way up north, and let’s find out how these people live, and how they live sustainably.

According to Antoniuk, “A lot of the project was going up there with no design agenda, but going up there to explore new concepts of living. There’s all these neat lessons that we learned, that we’re abstracting into the contemporary world.

Agata Jaworska of Droog Lab explains that they “pick project themes that are a hypothesis of what we think we might be able to learn from that particular place, with value for the rest of the world.

“We just thought that Canada’s North has unique things to teach the rest of the world about the theme of survival, Jaworska continues. “Conditions are very harsh, and we saw ways of building housing, ways of dealing with transport, ways of eating, surviving on food, that were quire unique.

Of many unusual experiences from his time in the North, Antoniuk shares one particular insight relating to urban design and how it may (or may not) support culture: “ In these remote northern communities, there’s really high rates of alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and suicide. And a lot of people have said well, it’s because there’s gross problems with overcrowding in housing.

“Effectively, white man came in and gave super small little Western-style houses on stilts, and then up to four generations of family members will live in one house. So you’ll get fourteen people in one super-small little house. And when you’re got 24 hours of darkness and you’re not going out much, problems can be created. So some social psychologists and others have said ‘oh, well the problem is because of overcrowding. We’ve got to give them bigger houses’. Which, may be somewhat true.

“But in speaking with an elder, she said ‘The southers gave us this housing, and it has nothing to do with our culture. There’s no place for storytelling, no place for the kids, no place for our cultural rituals.’ And that really struck me, because when you think here’s a culture that’s got tens of thousands of years of planning for small spaces: they lived in igloos for thousands of years. We gave them southern style housing that helped to destroy who they were or are. And the opposite is that, well, they can really teach us a lot.

Jaworsa also brought back stories: “We had kids who told us their favorite food was ‘sea eyeballs’! It was surprising to see people taking raw seal meet in Ziploc bags, and taking it out with you for the day.

Jaworska was also surprised by “The fact that when there was only daylight and no night time, kids were out at 2 in the morning fishing, with no parental supervison and they were completely fine. They could navigate their landscape and fish and play and there’s ice and lots of dangerous things that could happen, and somehow there’s this kind of social network of people, even kids looking after other kids, so that they manage without the parents. And I think in the south and elsewhere in Canada we’re much more careful with our children.”

“The project is equally relevant in the southern part of Canada as it is to the rest of the world,” Jaworska feels. “It’s not Canada in general that the project comes from, but the North specifically. And so then I think people in Toronto may be more familiar with Inuit than people in Amsterdam or elsewhere generally speaking, but people in Toronto have more in common with people in Amsterdam than they do with Inuit in the North.

From the projects, Jaworska asserts, “The big message is how looking at different communities, such as the north, can inspire future design. It’s important for readers to understand that we don’t go to the North to design for the North and to work with the Inuit or local people to instigate change there. That makes our approach unique: we’re going there to take something that has value for the rest of the world.

And was there an overall message Antoniuk would like people to take away from the project, and the symposium? “It’s really necessary for people to start to think in a new way, to find new contexts of innovation. The world is changing so fast, and so much has been lost. It’s not about regaining our past, it’s about regaining a little of our humanity in a world that’s changing so incredibly quickly.


More thoughts on Droog Lab’s ‘Luxury of the North’, from Antoniuk and Jaworska

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