Between image and function

The Background to this Triennial
For quite some time already, the Artistic Crafts Department has been planning to organise a Triennial. Unfortunately the space, the means and the people were lacking all these years and, in fact, there was no real place for mature and interesting design, both in workshops and in the galleries. Moreover, there was no potentially interested public. In 1995, most of these elements are positively present. Most important is the fact that Flanders can today pride itself in having a generation of designers in more or less all the classic disciplines of the applied arts. Our crafts-people work in ceramics, glass, wood, metal, textile and paper. Another reason for holding the Triennial now, is the renewed attention of the media for the applied arts, which is also happening on an international level and results from media interest in design and the subsequent increased interest of the public. A fourth reason is the improved distribution system: today, we have some forty galleries and design businesses1 working in contemporary applied art. Up until recently, there were no more than about fifteen of these centres2. We have therefore invited them to pay extra attention to design in our regions3 in their programmes for the duration of the exhibition of the first "Triennial for Design in Flanders". And last but not least, the government have not only provided the means and the personnel thanks to the foundation of the VIZO and its Artistic Crafts Department (DKA), as a specific promotional body for contemporary design in the Flemish Community. It has also provided the necessary space by refurbishing and extending the Museum for Applied Arts which has enhanced both the capacity and the prestige of the Museum. In the long run, the cooperation of these organisations should not only lead to a more thorough study and promotion and therefore to a better knowledge of contemporary applied arts among the public. It will also increase the quality of the various designers' products.

The significance of this Triennial
The most important objective of the Triennial is to show highquality contemporary Flemish design and place it in its recent historical context. The Triennial is predestined to become a forum in which high-quality contemporary design, possibly designed according to a particular theme (see below), will be presented to the public every three years. The key word in this exhibition is "quality". Its recognition is based on an intrinsic and material knowledge of several designers, artists, journalists, art historians and gallery owners and other experts in this field who are invited twice yearly to discuss the intrinsic quality of the portfolios sent in by the contestants. In this way, the VIZO has brought together a 'group' of about three hundred designers who have shown potential quality. For this first Triennial, the participants were mainly selected from this specific 'group' of workshops. For various reasons, they were not all able to accept our invitation to participate. Some of them felt they were not really 'designers', but rather artists, others felt they were going through a less productive period and others were too involved in industrial design, etc ... The VIZO and the Museum for Applied Arts made a final selection from among the applicants. In the end, one hundred and twelve workshops were selected to present their work. The Triennial is no complete inventory of all design in Flanders therefore, nor does it want to be so. The number and the quality of the exhibitors is sufficiently representative however to give a fair image of today's 'artistic craft design' in Flanders along with its strengths and its weaknesses. Neither do we intend to focus on any particular problematic issue. In subsequent editions, we will increasingly focus our research on particular themes and on the formulation of theories, as our neighbours from the Vormgevingsinstituut (Design Institute - the Netherlands) like to call it. Now we are presenting an introduction, a meeting or a confrontation perhaps, between hundreds of objects and between these objects and the public. There are several fields of tension here such as that between the industrial and artistic craft, between the traditional and the contemporary, between mass-produced products and unique items, between the functional and the artistic, between outside and inside. There are the new challenges of virtual images and networks, not to mention the computer as a 'pencil plus', which all the professional magazines are talking about these days. But we first felt the need to fill in the blank spot of "Design in Flanders' in a concrete and highly qualitative manner.

The Triennial is an Explorative Journey
In this first edition, we present one hundred and twelve workshops, thirteen of which were specifically selected because since 1980, they have only produced high-quality work in which they have been experimenting with function and artistic potential. We do not hesitate to say that most of them have contributed fundamentally to innovation in the art of jewellery and silver smithery (Siegfried De Buck and Jean Lemmens), ceramics (Tjok Dessauvage and Piet Stockmans), furniture design (André Verroken), textile (Anita Evenepoel, Lieve Vermeire, Marc Van Hoe and Martine Gyselbrecht), glass art (Herman Blondeel) and graphic design (Luc Mestdagh, Piet Vandekerckhove and Jaak Van Damme). Most of them have acquired international fame or, as is the case for the textile designers, have gained a large clientele, both in and outside the industrial sector. For this Triennial, we will be presenting about ten works from the last fifteen years as well as recent work from 1994-1995 by these and other artisans. We do not want this Triennial to be the last one. While preparing this event, we have often heard the funny, but not always unfounded criticism that triennials usually have the annoying habit of being one-off events. Of course, we can never be sure of a repetition, but we certainly intend to organize subsequent editions if the situation remains more or less the same as far as people, space and means are concerned. It would be a bad sign if this initiative were not to be continued, because it would mean that the circumstances which have enabled us to organise this first triennial have changed and that in turn would mean that the position of applied arts in Flanders would have worsened.

The Triennial as a Commemoration of the Late William Morris (1834-1896)
When studying contemporary applied arts today, one automatically goes back in time particularly to the 'Arts & Crafts Movement', because that is where one finds the founding ideas of contemporary crafts production and even of industrial design production4. Morris clearly had an influence on H. van de Velde5, as well as on Gropius, Tiffany and others6. Morris was mainly important for England. This explains why he is less known on the continent. His ideas left such a lasting impression that applied arts and design in England still bear his mark. Some consider this as a disadvantage and say that his almost permanent influence explains the less interesting developments in English contemporary design7. Nevertheless, Great Britain will be commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Morris's death by calling 1996 the 'William Morris year'. Officially speaking, our Triennial has nothing to do with this commemoration. Nevertheless, a thorough study of the various books on William Morris and a reading of his republished texts8 has been very enlightening. His century-old ideas which were based on those of John Ruskin (1819-1900) remain very much alive. They are clear practical mental exercises in creating valuable spiritual design in our industrialised Western industrialised society, which, unfortunately, is only too often in pursuit of profit. At the time, his ideas had effect, since they gave rise to the "Arts & Crafts Movement" and, subsequently, to contemporary design in which an understanding of materials, production methods and the labour process are fundamental9. They are still valuable today. In his works we can read about the dissatisfaction about the borderlines between artist and designer; about the creation of space for female designers10. And then we have not even touched upon the political aspect of applied art which was so clearly formulated by Morris. William Morris was self-taught in thirteen artistic crafts, he was a talented writer, a militant socialist, a successful and enlightened businessman, an ecologist, a poet, a journalist and a creative editor. Many issues he raised still belong to the everyday life of our artists/designers. This book contains an article that summarizes his life and works (see below).

The Precursors of the Triennial
In 1987, the Artistic Crafts Department of the ESIM11 organised "Made in Belgium", a retrospective exhibition held at the Heizel in Brussels (9-13 September 1987) and in 1988, another retrospective exhibition during "Vlaanderen leeft" (Flanders is alive) at the Congress Palace in Ghent (22nd of October - 3rd of November 1988). The real precursor of this Triennial however, was the "Materies & Kunst" exhibition (Materials and Art) which was held in 1980 (29th of November - 7th of December) by the DKA of the ESIM in cooperation with the City of St. Niklaas. It was the first event to present a survey of Flemish applied art from 1965 till 1980 from an art-historical perspective. Unfortunately, for organisational reasons the exhibition was only open for ten days and this was not really satisfying. Before that, there had already been some retrospectives held such as "Kunstambachten in België" (Artistic Crafts in Belgium)12, in 1961 in the permanent showroom of the "Nationaal Centrum voor Economische Expansie" (National Centre for Economic Expansion) in the St. Jansstraat in Brussels. On a provincial level, "Scheppende handen in ambacht en nijverheid" (Creative hands in arts and crafts)13 was held in 1966 at the Sterckshofmuseum where Piet Baudoin was curator at the time. On an international level, "Kunstambachten Benelux" (Artistic Crafts Benelux)14 was held in 1975 at the Sterkshof under the guidance of curator Jan Walgrave. And finally, the "Nationale Beurs van de kunstambachten" (National Fair of Artistic Crafts)15 was held in 1975 at the St. Peter's Abbey Ghent in cooperation with the Museum for Decorative Arts and the DKA of the ESIM. Only "Materies & Kunst" (Materials and Art) made an attempt to sketch the art-historical context. Afterwards, there have been many large and smaller exhibitions each focusing on a particular aspect or visualising things without really studying them. However, no other exhibition has since given an overall picture placing it within the perspective of the history of art. We refer the reader to the list of events held by all important organisations which is published further on in this book. The location for the Triennial The Museum for Decorative Arts in Ghent was selected as a location. This location was an obvious choice, not only because of its actual possibilities, but also because of the Museum's philosophy. It collects 20th-century work and emphasises innovative international trends and, of course, houses the topof-the-bill of Flemish design. Where else would we have found such an ideal context? See also the article by Lieven Daenens, the Director of the museum, elsewhere in this book.

The Shift in Content
If one takes a look at the catalogue for "Materies & Kunst" (Materials and Art), one will notice a shift in design between then and now. Over the last fifteen years, the more artistic objects has been replaced by objects with functional features. The word 'craft' is no longer an emotionally charged term (of abuse), but refers to quality. It refers to the capacity of producing personalised work which is aimed both at the maker and the buyer. In our industrialised Western world, it is exactly this element which favours artistic craft. It finds its breeding ground in the far-reaching individualisation of mankind during this last decade and, secondly, in the most recent technological developments. Today's high-tech equipment offers economic opportunities for the creation of spiritual, decently made, interesting and especially personalised objects. Small-scale production has once again become profitable because handicraft and machine-work are once again on an equal footing. And yet, we are still confronted with the marginal areas of industrial design and the plastic arts. These are positive fields of tension because they both interact with the ideas and principles of the applied arts.

Johan Valcke,
Director Artistic Crafts Department, VIZO


Henry van de Velde. Een Europees kunstenaar in zijn tijd. (Henry van de Velde. A European artist in his era), Klaus-Jürgen Sembach and Birgit Schulte & Pandora, Antwerp, 1994.

P. THOMPSON, The Work of William Morris, new edition, p. 87, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 1991.

Jaarverslag Vlaams Instituut voor het Zelfstandig Ondernemen (Annual Report Flemish Institute for Small and Medium Enterprises), p. 54, VIZO, Brussels, 1994.

J. VALCKE, Belgisch Creatief Ambacht (Belgian Creative Craft), nrs 3-4, 26th year of publication, VIZO, Brussels, 1991.

P. ATTERBURY, Continental Drift, in Crafts, nr 136, p. 30-33, Crafts Council, London, 1995.

W. MORRIS, News From Nowhere and Other Writings, Penguin Classics, London, 1993.

W. VAN DEN BUSSCHE, and others, "Materies & Kunst" (Materials and Art), City of Sint-Niklaas, Sint-Niklaas, 1980.

1 Jaarverslag Vlaams Instituut voor het Zelfstandig Ondernemen (Annual Report Flemish Institute for Small and Medium Enterprises), p. 54, VIZO, Brussels, 1994.

2 J. VALCKE, Belgisch Kreatief Ambacht (Belgian Creative Craft), nrs 3-4, 26th year of publication, VIZO, Brussels, 1991.

3 Also see brochure which is published with the catalogue containing the programme of all extra events.

4 My own research soon led me to the Bauhaus (1919-1933), and more particularly to the Weimar-Bauhaus (1919-1924) when artistic crafts were not only appreciated as a basis but also as a final product. So, I came upon Henry van de Velde (1863-1957), since he laid the foundations for Weimar-Bauhaus and so many other things. When studying his work, it became clear that he was very well acquainted with the work of Morris and the "Arts & Crafts Movement", that he studied it and quoted from it in his speeches and lectures with it.

5 See Henry van de Velde. Een Europees kunstenaar in zijn tijd. (Henry van de Velde. A European artist in his era), Pandora, Antwerp, 1994.

6 P. THOMPSON, The Work of William Morris, new edition, p. 87, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 1991.

7 P. ATTERBURY, Continental Drift, in Crafts, nr 136, p. 30-33, Crafts Council, London, 1995.

8 W. MORRIS, News From Nowhere and Other Writings, Pinguin Classics, London, 1993.

9 P. THOMPSON, The Work of William Morris, new edition, p. 87, Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 1991.

10 P. THOMPSON, op. cit. p. 87-88.

11 Economisch en Sociaal Instituut voor de Middenstand (Economic and Social Institute for the Self-Employed) (1965-1991). This institute was a Belgian organisation which included the Artistic Crafts Department.

12 K.N. ELNO, Kunstambachten in België (Artistic Crafts in Belgium), occasional edition from the Nationaal Centrum voor Economische Expansie K.M.B. (National Centre for Economic Expansion K.M.B.), 31st of December 1961, Brussels.

13 footnote to be added

14 R. CORNEROTTE, R. SMEETS, F. KINNEN and J. WALGRAVE, Kunstambachten Benelux (Artistic Crafts Benelux), catalogue of the similarly titled exhibition at Het Sterckshof, Antwerp, 11th of July - 21st of September 1975, Antwerp.

15 R. DUBOIS-VAN DE CAPELLE, L. DAENENS, Nationale beurs van de kunstambachten, 1975 (National Fair for the artistic crafts, 1975), catalogue of the exhibition held from the 11th of December 1975 till the 1st of February 1976 at the Centrum voor Kunst en Cultuur (Centre for Art and Culture), Ghent.

16 W. VAN DEN BUSSCHE, and others, "Materies & Kunst" (Materials and Art), City of Sint-Niklaas, Sint-Niklaas, 1980.