An oracle-like presence, Li Edelkoort has advised the design industry with big-picture lectures, books, articles, and exhibitions to wide influence for more than forty years. Her company, Edelkoort Inc., counts three offices worldwide—one each in Paris, New York, and Tokyo—that track the pulse of lifestyle and culture, to economy and social science. From 1999 to 2008, Edelkoort was chairwoman of the Netherlands’ Design Academy Eindhoven, and in 2011, cofounded the School of Form in Poznan, Poland. On the tails of her recent appointment as dean of a new Hybrid Design program at New York’s Parsons School for Design— a multidisciplinary course soon to roll out this year and next—we met with the forward-looking Dutch doyenne to hear what she sees in store for the future.
You cast an incredibly wide net through your work—how do you and your team begin to tackle such research? What piques your interest?
It all boils down to the same thing, actually—our work always starts with a point of view on the future. For me, everything is related and holistic: The exhibitions we organize are three-dimensional trend books; our lectures are audible forecasts. I think having a vast general knowledge somehow allows us to be able to intimately know, as well, the details. It’s not only articulating a trajectory of what you see; there is one more ingredient, which is intuition. It’s the most important tool. I rely on it very heavily and it has not disappointed me, ever.
As you’re spending more time in New York these days, what are your thoughts on American design?
American design doesn’t have as much of a voice because there is no distribution, no marketplace. Here, I am amazed that I can buy vintage, old carpets, Moroccan treasures, arts and crafts, re-editions, but I cannot easily buy contemporary design. I wonder: Why isn’t there a sort of American IKEA, or a Gap for interiors? There are large brands, and good brands as well, but they never seem to reach a critical mass.
Why do you think that is? Do you see signs of that changing any time soon?
Outsourced production has jeopardized economies and humanitarian standards. Through technology, we might
be able to create newer, smaller, more mobile, and more flexible brands. I’m excited that we’re now beginning to see young designers reinventing machines, or recreating old ones to get to the making that they desire. They see the machine as an alter ego, friend, and companion. There’s also nostalgia for the Industrial Revolution—it started as a visual thing, which we’ve seen in interiors: the heavy-duty, industrial metals and so forth. That was only announcing our growing interest in production. Now, we’ll begin to see more customized, made-to-measure tools.
As you begin to shape the Hybrid Design program at Parsons, how do you think design education can evolve to address these changes?
There’s a real necessity of the humanities. I believe we’ll grow toward a society where different disciplines will blend. As individuals, we’ll be able to live several lives—you’re not going to learn one thing and do it for the rest of your life. We’ll invite students from all areas to come together and explore very big subjects, like the body, space, and time. We’ll also have a master’s in textiles—an endangered field of study, but one that is making a comeback. We’ll work to bridge technology and craft, then find links with industry to form realistic propositions for their work.
Do you find it challenging to constantly stay one step ahead of the design industry?
No, I’m always ahead, even with students. It’s the nature of my work. I need to be the trailblazer. The older I get, the better I know how to do it, which is very strange—even I didn’t expect that. I don’t do many things anymore but that doesn’t seem to have hindered me. I never take notes or photos; it’s still about growing this tool—this intuition. Sometimes, I’ll forget to listen to a detail and then make a mistake. But if you listen, it’s very perfect.