Then as now, the core element in design is binding

Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen's key note address at Design School Kolding’s 50th Anniversary

Today I had the great pleasure of having lunch with some of the students who attended the school's first graduating class 50 years ago. Students from the class of 2017 also attended the lunch. It was wonderful to experience 50 years of history gathered around the same table, wonderful to listen to the conversation between the young and the old designers, wonderful to realise that designers still have a lot in common, although they belong to widely different age groups and have had very different educations.

The commonality between them is their love of the material, the craft and of aesthetics. They share the desire to help make our surroundings more beautiful and better. But of course there are also big differences, for example in the perception of what design can actually be used for. Whereas the class of 1967 is primarily craftsmen and women, who have created beautiful one-of-a-kind works of art, the class of 2017 is thinking of design from a broader perspective. For them design is a tool for creating meaningful products, services and systems. For the class of 1967, the "binding" in the weaving is the key element. The class of 2017 designs "bindings" in widely different contexts and with very different techniques: Analogue and digital, material and immaterial.

Design students of today are keen on demonstrating how design can contribute to binding community and society together.

Rosa Tolnov Clausen, for example, who graduated from the Design School in 2013 and is an outstanding weaver, uses design as a lever to help blind people get an active and rich life in which they contribute to society. Or, as Birk Marcus Hansen, from the same graduating class, formulates it: "I use design as a tool to explore the world, ask questions and find answers." For him, the "font" in communication design is not limited to appearance and the size of letters; rather it is a tool to visualise contexts that generally make life easier. It may be a question of making it easier to navigate in the virtual world, or finding one’s way around the local library.

Both Rosa and Birk are portrayed in the school’s anniversary publication, ”50 Years. 50 Voices of Design”.

The Danish design
DNA As mentioned, irrespective of the time span of 50 years, I would like to be so bold as to declare that the class of 2017 and the class 1967 share the same Design DNA, a DNA whose starting point is the Danish welfare society.

Allow me to summarise this story: In 1933, the then Social Democratic Prime Minister, Thorvald Stauning, entered into the Kanslergade Agreement, which laid the foundation for the development of the Danish welfare state. All across the political spectrum it was agreed that Denmark must be a society in which "few have too much and fewer too little." That was the basic story that more or less inspired the great Danish designers after the Second World War, headed by renowned furniture designer, Børge Mogensen, and FDB (the Danish cooperative). To put it simply: Politicians saw to it that all children attended school and had a roof over their heads and a bed in the hospital when they fell ill; designers on the other hand saw to it that everyone had proper – functional – furniture, utensils and other house items at reasonable prices. This was also the starting point for the famous jewellery designer, George Jensen. He wanted to make jewellery that ordinary people could afford. That is why silver became his preferred material.

In other words, Danish design became an essential part of the development of the welfare society, not least because central and local decision makers decided that the public space should be equipped with Danish design. Therefore, if the citizens did not, or could not, buy designs themselves, they were still exposed to modern furniture and other designs, because their child's classroom, the doctor’s waiting room, the hospital and public transportation was filled with Danish design. Visit Kolding City Hall, for example, or take a trip with the IC3 train and you will know what I am talking about.

Danish design and the welfare society share the same values
There has thus been a very close connection between the values that have carried the development of modern Denmark and Danish design, a development we often summarise in one word: Democratic. Danish design is for everyone.

Here is another example of the connection between design, culture and social development: Since the establishment of the first folk high schools back in the mid-19th century, access to learning has been based on the assumption that learning should be enjoyable. The starting point was that it is easiest to learn if you are feeling good and are having fun doing it.

In other words, the concept of play has been an integral part of the Danish schools and the educational system and in general of the approach to children – an attitude that is reflected in the development of design in the Danish toy industry. Here the notion of enjoyment and the right of the child to have the very best is absolutely central. With the motto ‘Only the Best is Good Enough’ LEGO is today the world's strongest brand.

The Danish design society
In 2011 a government committee pertaining to Danish design summarised its recommendations for the further development of Danish design up until 2020 in the following vision:

"In short, the Committee envisions that in 2020 Denmark is known worldwide as the design society. By that, we mean a society that at all levels and in a responsible way has integrated the use of design to improve the quality of people’s lives, create economic value for business, and make the public sector better and more efficient.”

Rather than developing a vision purely for Danish design, it became a vision that embraced the relationship between design and society. It thus followed the track that, more or less deliberately, has been laid for the collaboration between design and society since the Second World War. The aspiration was that Denmark should become the pioneering country which could demonstrate that design can contribute to the improvement of society and of people’s lives.

Design School Kolding – the future
This is the direction for the development of Danish design that Design School Kolding is deeply committed to, and which we want to develop further based on the challenges facing the world today.

First of all we want to address the climate and resource issues. Design and designers can help create a more circular society. We want to show that the concepts of thrift and simplicity, which are part of the Danish design DNA, can be used as a lever for the further development of, among other things, the many environmental initiatives that Denmark is already known for.

Secondly, we want to show that design and designers can help solve the problem that too many people these days are excluded and feel that they are unable to influence either their own development or that of the community. We will help to design new and better relationships, so that older people or others who, for some reason, do not function 100 per cent, nevertheless get the chance to participate in society.

Finally, we want the whole world to play. The reason is that the world needs more creativity, and we know that people who play become more creative and skilled in solving complex problems. Therefore, we have decided that we want to be very good at educating designers who can design exceptional play experiences.

Design at its best helps people to reach their full potential, i.e. to be creative and imaginative. That is what we educate our designers for at Design School Kolding and what we want to do even better in the future.

DesignBYKolding. The prototype of the design community
The school is very proud to be located in Kolding, which has made design the focal point of its municipal development, an initiative that has just been rewarded with a nomination as a Unesco Design City. Once again, I would like to say, Congratulations! The city council was very courageous and forward looking in giving design such a prominent position in the development of the municipality. I hope that we at Design School Kolding can help transform Kolding into the prototype of the "design community," the municipality that everyone travels to in order to experience how design supports all citizens in their attempt to flourish; where children are taught design at an early age, and seniors are introduced to design through the municipal Meals on Wheels programme. Let Kolding become the municipality of the world, where most people's lives are improved through design.

We are also proud and grateful to be situated in a region that is very supportive of our design efforts, including the work under the aegis of Design2innovate, which has ensured that more than 600 small and medium-sized companies have learned to use design. I also want to thank our partners who ensure that we stay relevant – LEGO, ECCO, Kopenhagen Fur, Lillebaelt Hospital, Kolding Municipality and many more. Thank you so much for believing in us and pushing us to become even better.

Finally, I would like to express my special thanks to all those employees who have struggled over the years offering their blood, sweat, toil and tears to steadily improve this school. I would just like to mention one person by name, knowing full well that behind and in front of her are all the rest of you who have also had an invaluable impact on the school. But the one person I would like to mention specifically on this festive day is Vibeke Riisberg. I do not think the school would exist today if it were not for Vibeke, who forged ahead and proved to the world that a designer is capable of writing a PhD thesis. Thank you, Vibeke, for making this possible and thus helping us to follow the research path. I am hoping that Design School Kolding will become even more international and even more visionary in its knowledge building in the future. At the same time we must maintain our warmth, kindness, cosiness and hospitality as our hallmark. The aroma of food wafts through the entire building. Students are present around the clock. Noise emanates from the workshops. Most of the time there are visitors from home and abroad. This is Design School Kolding. Let us add play as the mindset that will be permeating everything we do in the years to come. At Design School Kolding we create good design through play, and we design the best opportunities for people and communities to flourish. Come and join us!

Dear former and current students, dear former and current colleagues, dear guests: Congratulations on our anniversary. Let us not only celebrate the 50 years that have passed but also the 50 years ahead of us.