Lidewij Edelkoort on Why Doing Less Is More
The Dutch-born trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort, founder of the Paris-based consultancy Trend Union, has a knack for being ahead of the curve. In fact, she kind of is the curve, the rare mind who—with her sharp eye, wide-ranging tastes, and quick wit—is able to situate herself within past, present, and future. She astutely understands historical markers of time and often predicts, with surprising precision, what the Next Big Thing is. Working for clients across a variety of industries, from fashion and textiles, to interiors and hospitality, to cars and cosmetics, to retail and food, Edelkoort travels the world studying the subtle market shifts that shape our lives. A sociocultural omnivore with a deep design knowledge, she’s the dean of the Hybrid Design Studies program at Parsons School of Design, where she’s spearheading a new M.F.A. in textile studies.
Since founding Trend Union, in 1975, Edelkoort has gained a cult following as a sustainability-minded soothsayer. For more than three decades, corporate leaders have gravitated toward her, as one would a shaman, for strategic, big-picture advice. In the late ’80s, she started giving her now-infamous trend presentations, in which she unpacks, interprets, and predicts the market movements developing before us. An archaeologist of the modern day, Edelkoort is part curator, part sociologist, digging up vast amounts of information, much of it visual, so as to infer, intuit, and map out complex explanations of the now. Her findings aren’t fanciful, even if on the surface they may appear to be high-minded. They are indeed quite often pragmatic, if not also paradigmatic. Sometimes—as was the case with her 2015 “Anti-Fashion Manifesto,” a treatise against the wastefulness and greed of the global fashion industry—they also tend to be refreshingly direct and pointed.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Edelkoort speaks with Spencer Bailey about a movement back toward the farm and nature; the notion of animism (i.e., that a soul is embedded in everything); combatting fear in a time of prolific fear-mongering; and her reasonably optimistic belief in a more collaborative future.
Edelkoort discusses why the “re-farm” movement is taking hold and why she feels that, more and more, we’re moving inexorably toward nature. She also brings up the idea of animism.
Edelkoort and Bailey talk about greed in the context of the current moment and how candid corporate altruism at companies such as Patagonia and KLM is suggesting a way forward beyond faux “sustainability” marketing gimmicks.
Edelkoort goes into the richness of the textiles around us, and how they can function as markers of time and, as she puts it, a “blueprint of society.”
Edelkoort talks about the importance of slowing down, and suggests that if we all thought more deeply about time the world would be a very different—and far better—place.
Edelkoort looks back at her upbringing in the Netherlands, then details her path at the Design Academy Eindhoven, where she was chair from 1998 to 2008, and explains her current role at Parsons.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today in the studio we have Li Edelkoort. She’s a trend forecaster, founder of the Paris-based trend company Trend Union, dean of the hybrid design studies program at Parsons School of Design… The New York Times has described you as “more stylish than Faith Popcorn, more esoteric than Martha Stewart.” I thought that was pretty funny. And you’re working in a wide range of industries, including fashion, textiles, interiors, cars, cosmetics, retail, food…
I wanted to start this conversation on a topic that came up the last time we had a long conversation together, and that was on stage at NeueHouse in 2018, about a year and a half ago. You declared in that conversation that the future is the farm. Which is something you’ve been saying since at least as far back as 2011, where I could find it. Do you still think the future is the farm, a year later, and what is it about this idea? Why the farm?
LIDEWIJ EDELKOORT: I still do believe it’s very important because basically everything we need comes from the farm. The food, the flowers, the seeds, the yarns, the material for the yarns, the fibers, maybe some beverages, vitamins, and on the farm the life is very different. Many young people now are leaving cities because of cost and pollution, so there is this “re-farm” movement where people have either little farms, just taking care of their own needs, or they work with a bigger farm or they rent from a farm. They want to be near to the farm.
SB: You’ve long mentioned this idea of animism. It’s a belief you have in this idea that there’s a soul in everything, from pebbles to moss to rivers to shadows—even words. Why do you think it’s important to have that idea, animism, in your mind all the time?
LE: I started to explore this maybe ten years ago, and it’s growing on me. It [has become] more vital because of the current situation, in which we are over-consuming so enormously that we need to get to new terms with ourselves. In the idea of animism, which is the religion, if you want, before all religions, it’s a religion without a God but which is just in all of all living matter, and you can find this in Japan, in Africa, in America, in Native Americans, in Finland, in Iceland, in Lapland. It’s a general belief system. Kids are born animists, [understanding] that you cherish and adore living matter, even if it looks dead, like a pebble.
There is a massive amount of energy in those things, and now a new philosophy, called New Materialism, believes that all matter has the right to be and should have something like human rights or animal rights and that we should be much more careful with material. And if you look at design, when a design is really well-conceived, and when a designer has put a lot of energy in this object, this object starts to come alive as well. So it’s about choosing things in your life which are relevant, which are necessary for you—not just functional, also emotional—but which talk to you, where furniture becomes like a pet, where you have a real relationship with things. And because you choose them so carefully and precisely, that narrows down your needs and the pleasure you then derive from this is much greater.
We just did an exhibition in Stockholm where we [chose] ordinary design, ordinary Scandinavian design, everyday things, with this method in mind, and it was quite amazing what happened. It was very clear which items would make it and wouldn’t make it, actually. And then we had to install the exhibition. We were not allowing ourselves to make nice still lifes, so you can trick yourself into making something beautiful. Every single item had its own pedestal, was singled out, and it worked. It worked amazingly well. And the audience, even the manufacturers, were actually very much in tune with this idea.
SB: You mentioned that we’re all born with this animism—that as children we exhibit it.
SB: Connect, yeah. What do you think it is about culture, about society, that maybe beats it out of us or takes this animism and channels it into another direction?
LE: Culture is singling things out in another way—is varnishing reality, sometimes. I do see, at this point, that we are moving away from culture, strangely, towards nature, as a source of everything which is exciting and pleasing [to] people, including tree-hugging and forest-bathing and these new behavior patterns. Away, almost, from going to a museum, unless the museum is doing something quite radical. So that is very bizarre, because I’m born with culture as a leading source of information and excitement and direction, if you want, and suddenly it is directionless. So we do see a real enormous, radical change in society, suddenly. We’ve reached a tipping point, I think, this summer.
SB: Yeah, you were talking about waste and how wasteful we’ve all become as a society. I was curious, just given the news about Forever 21, the retailer that popularized fashion with selling these five-dollar tops and said last night that it’s filing for bankruptcy. Clearly, this is a sign of, okay, shopping malls are dead, retail’s changing. But there’s more to it than that.
LE: That was the shopping street.
SB: Madison Avenue.
LE: It’s now a ghost town, that area, because once the fashion stores go, also the bread shops go and the cafés go, the bank is going. You know, it’s just empty. It used to be a very big draw for tourists. The system is seriously ill. Seriously, seriously ill. The overconsumption is leading to neglect, and there is no fantasy about fashion anymore, because we don’t give enough care to the making of clothes. And it’s all the time the same thing, because it’s data and marketing which are ruling this industry, and so we have not moved on for the last fifteen years, I would say. Same old, same old, same old, same old.
And so now we are going to pay the bill, and I think that the only way out is actually to create new companies and new startups, because it’s pretty hard for the old, heavy ships to turn around, even if they promise that they will be carbon-free in ten years or whatever is the promise. It’s almost impossible because every little detail of the road of development needs to be reviewed, so it’s an enormous task. So it’s actually possibly much more easy to start again.
SB: It’s interesting, too, that it’s coming at a moment in which, at least certainly in the United States and Europe, we haven’t seen this kind of political turmoil in a really long time, combined with technological advancement that’s making it in many ways easier to start a company, to create a platform, whatever it is.
In connection to environmental waste, you wrote an op-ed for Dezeen this past summer that I wanted to bring up about the “Camp” exhibition at the Met Gala, which you described as “a violent act of haughtiness, displaying a deep disdain for everybody else, for ordinary people,” continuing, “The display of waste was mesmerizing and sickening, as in reaching and overstepping suddenly a limit. The same day the U.N. published a scientific survey that certified that because of human greed, excess, waste, and abuse of our habitat, we will lose one million species, animals, trees, plants, and foods.”
Aside from what you wrote, why do you think, or how do you think the Met, this institution that we—
LE: This temple.
SB: This temple, yeah. How do you think they and the other people involved with that event could be so out of touch with the now?
LE: It’s unbelievable, especially since last year it was an exhibition about the influence of the Catholic church, so there was some decency and some monks and some sisters and especially in the Cloisters, it was quite … I would say on-trend, with being more sober and so on. Then this choice has been very, very bizarre.
I think it was basically about gender fluidity, and they didn’t want to name it this way, so it became this camp word. The exhibition was much more interesting than the visitors of the gala, by the way, but still I don’t think it’s… It was a very unnecessary event, and while watching it I could see how uncomfortable also all the stars were. Uncomfortable in not finding the photographer, not being able to pay for the $150,000 pearls, and so on. It was so violent, and so I could directly connect with Marie Antoinette, and I saw the guillotine, and I saw that there [would] be havoc if this continues, and many people didn’t like this op-ed because they like Gaga. I like Gaga as well, but I felt sorry for her.
A week later there was a very young blogger [Umair Haque], and the title of his op-ed was “America [Just Had] Its [Very] Own Versailles [Moment],” and he came to exactly the same conclusion as I. He’s half my age or even less, but we had exactly the same vision—that is very unique, to that extent. So we’ve both seen something which is cooking and which is avoidable, but we need to change moral centers, basically.
SB: You even struggled to find humor in any of what was on display that night.
SB: I wanted to also talk about this moment we’re in from a perspective of greed, which was connected to what happened there, but obviously every generation has its moment of greed, or every culture or society has a certain way of dealing with this. As a trend forecaster and somebody who’s always looking ahead, where do you see [that] greed falls into the current culture that we’re in?
LE: To get rid of greed is the only way forward, so we have to somehow train ourselves and others in being more content with a bit less, and also trying to analyze why greed is now leading us—especially America, more than any other country—and that there’s never enough money, and that there’s this fear of not having enough, and it’s clouding all principles, it’s clouding all political standards. It’s perverse. It runs away with you, actually.
Everybody has periods where greed becomes very important in your life, and then when you take a step back—not a big step, just a few steps—and you try to rationalize [the] things you do, you suddenly see that you can do shopping for less, that you can be happy with different hours, different travels, different modes of locomotion, that suddenly maybe a train is very interesting.
So there is, I think, very new ways, and it could help to re-create a life which is a bit more in tune with ourselves, because greed is a principle which corrupts you from within so you lose yourself. “I need another pair of shoes. I need more food. I need more whatever we need.” And in fact, we don’t. We can just go to our cupboards and find this box which has not even been opened yet, and this is the reality of our life today. We don’t even unpack. So shopping became, maybe, a sort of treatment for our illness with society, and so it’s very urgent now that we heal this whole system. It’s really going away from being addicted to greed.
SB: And marketing, of course, has so much to do with this in terms of how we’re sold to and what we’re sold. Do you think that, in this current moment, with access to more information than we’ve really ever had, and the kinds of conversations that are happening on social media, do you think that marketing in some ways is losing its power and that there can be a way for the mass to push forward this… We’re seeing it with Greta [Thunberg] and the climate movement.
LE: Yes. She’s formidable and very gracious. She knows how to talk, also, so well, which is amazing for such an age.
Her not taking planes has become very important in Scandinavia. Flight-shaming, they call it. You say to your friends, “You shouldn’t go on holiday that far, and not that often, and think twice before you fly. If you can do something else, try to do something else.” You see that there’s enormous effect, and now there has been an ad by KLM, which is a very big airline, to say, “Fly less, please.” It’s like Patagonia saying, “Don’t buy a new jacket, we’ll repair your jacket.”
There is suddenly the impact—enormous commercial impact—of saying to your own clients, “Do less.” And then you actually sell more, because that makes you very avant-garde and of the moment. So it’s the reverse movement which is winning.
SB: Do you think if enough Patagonias, enough KLMs, come about, it can become the norm, not the avant-garde?
LE: I hope it will. I expect it to be that way, because I’m now convinced, really… Since a few months, really, that radical change is coming and there’s no turning back. I had doubts because when I look at Wall Street and these huge companies I lose faith in our future and I think it’s impossible, but there [are] so many signs I’m picking up.
Also because of the anti-fashion movement and our seminars around this whole topic, that there is money to be made, first of all, in clean energy. There’s a lot of money to made, secondly. So it’s surprising that in this big country there is so little of it, because if you make electric cars, why don’t you make electricity also? You have the money to do so, to set it up, and make even more money.
So the whole thing is that once ecology equals economy, which is what is going to happen, then I think the boat will turn. We are now witnessing that it is possible, actually, to provide for a group of people, to provide salaries, to provide security, within the boundaries of sustainability and ecology. So it is possible and it is joyful.
A company like Veja, they make sneakers. It’s two former young bankers. They didn’t want to become bankers anymore. They wanted to make a change, so they decided to make sneakers because they both love sneakers. They have this company which is doing really well. They’re completely transparent. They have posted online all the salaries, from the cleaning person to themselves, and the team is super happy, having a very nice life. One of them is doing a Ph.D. about this whole philosophy, and how it’s completely integrated in their lives and they are super content.
SB: So you really see values-based businesses, values-based lifestyles, as being—
LE: In New York, Emily Bode. She’s making these beautiful men’s garments made out of antique fabrics, old lots of fabrics. She doesn’t buy new fabrics, almost. She’s very conscious. She’s becoming very popular. She’s going to be a big name in this universe, and she’s just doing good, basically.
And when I look at my students working in textiles, they are all into natural fiber, new fiber, creating hybrids between technology and craft, and so it’s all moving towards new solutions. So I’m getting more optimistic by the day that this is going to happen. There’s a huge [amount of] work still to be done. I’m lucid, but I’m more confident that we are able, too. And I have decided that it’s actually very amazingly fantastic to be alive now because we are like pioneers. We have a new frontier… Everything has to be reinvented, everything.
So if you imagine that [with regard to] architecture, but also building materials, also location hunting, also strategies for cities, also clean water solutions, and so [on] and so [on]. New tabletop, new carpets, new… I’m looking around here, you know? New boxes, new instruments. Everything will have to be redesigned. So the rethinking of everything will be so inspiring. If you’re creative, this is the period.
SB: It’s interesting in the context of who we’ve had on this podcast, because the season started with Neri Oxman, from MIT. Neri’s one of these people [who is] very much rethinking how things are made, produced, what opportunities we have through thinking about new materials, or materials that actually are millennia-old, but rethinking how we can use or turn those materials into new things.
On the topic of textiles, that’s obviously something very near and dear to you, and in your teaching role… We’ll get to Design Academy Eindhoven, where you were before Parsons, but you started the M.F.A. textile studies program at Parsons in 2015, and this program is, as you have described it, it bridges Silicon Valley and Hudson Valley, high-tech and slow craft. What is it about textiles that you think has a power to define the moment we’re in or express culture and—
LE: Who we are?
LE: Since a textile is a computerized thing—although it’s very, very ancient—it has to do with codes and manners of weaving. Through this you can actually read the period you’re in, because it’s always very connected to the culture it comes from, as a blueprint of society, almost.
For instance, now let’s say maybe the dominant fabric is the quilted bodywarmer, which is a piece of armor, basically. This explains that we have fear for our future and for our being and even for our survival. And so textile reacts to that and explains that, and it is worth a study one day to really historically verify my thesis, but I think, as far as I can see, this really happens.
So it’s very connected to us, because it’s on our body, it’s on our furniture, it’s all around. And now we see that textiles will also become building material, maybe we will make planes which are knitted, we will use textile in almost every other thing. So it will become, I believe, the material of the twenty-first century, because we’re developing new fiber, stronger fiber, strong and light, which is very important in many cases. There’s people thinking about knitting bridges, so there [are] far-reaching scenarios into the future of buildings which will be knitted by robots, by themselves.
SB: Like a spider with a web.
LE: Yeah. We look a lot at insects for inspiration, and nature in general. People are really introducing new fibers, new ways of making things, because of what we see happening in nature. The other week, a week ago, the Aalto University published that they take the bark of trees and they glue it together with algae, so it’s sea and land combined, and this becomes a new plastic. So it’s [possibly] a new matter which we can use—instead of plastic—which is totally biodegradable.
This exists already a long time—that’s the whole thing. Already fifteen years ago, I spoke with the agricultural university in my country, the Netherlands, and they have potato plastic, they have maize plastic, they have milk plastics. It all exists, but nobody wants to pay the extra dime.
SB: And I think there’s also the question of scale. How do you scale those things?
LE: Exactly, but we need to invest.
SB: You’ve been operating, since 2011, a program called Talking Textiles. It’s a series of exhibitions, workshops, conferences. You also launched New York Textile Month in 2016. In 2018, with Eileen Fisher, you created an upcycled textile line. Talk to me about all of this work. Obviously in addition to teaching and creating this program at Parsons, you’ve been basically living a life of talking textiles.
LE: Advocating textiles. We did this together with Philip Fimmano, my curator buddy, because we knew—we also learned from the industry—that we were losing it, that we’re losing the production of textiles, the making of fiber, the making of yarns, the dyeing of color, and so on, that specialists were no longer there. Because of the farming out of production to the eastern countries, the skills were going, and we were in… It became an endangered species, as such, and so a future of just T-shirts, denim, plastic, steel, and wood, for me, was unthinkable, because I love textiles as an expression and as a tactility. Our fingers love to touch fabrics, and so on.
So this is where we wanted to alarm public opinion in interior especially, and so we made this show in Milan, which was a surprise show, and everybody was mesmerized because it had never been shown in Milan. There was all this design, but no textiles to speak of. And it has helped, I think, to make people aware. It was shocking, strangely. It was a shocking exhibition.
It helped the discourse come along and then we never stopped doing it, and now we have another exhibition, which travels, which is called “Earth Matters,” which is looking at textiles through that lens, and we continue to do so because it is back on track. There is, we can say, a trend towards textiles, even wall hangings, textile artists, fiber artists, are back in [museums] and in galleries, so suddenly there is this new vision of it. I’m super happy about it, but now it can be even more so because textile exhibits are always on the backburner of a museum. The opening is always together with another opening of design because maybe textile is not prestigious enough, and I want it to become more prestigious and a more vital part of who we are.
SB: I think it’s worth noting that, across the street from us right now, is an exhibition [“Textiles Revealed”] you curated on Belgian textiles at a gallery that normally shows art.
LE: Yes. This is to speak to other galleries: “Please, next September, program fiber art.”
SB: You mentioned fear, and fear is obviously something deep in the culture right now with who’s in the White House and just the political dynamic of this country and the certain movements in Europe as well. In 2003, you curated an exhibition called “Armour: The Fortification of Man,” that has to deal with this, this notion of fortification, of building a wall around yourself to be strong amongst a moment. How do you see everything we’ve been discussing, namely textiles but all of it, this idea of a searching for nature, the idea of “the future is the farm,” how does that all relate to fear?
LE: To combat fear there is not so much other to do than to learn, to exchange, to be together, to share, so it’s all these very simple human values, actually, which are able to combat fear. But because now people live alone with their phone and with other people long distance, the fear is able to creep into society much, much more than before because we don’t have this backbone of society, of friendship and belonging. All that is missing in society now, so that needs to be addressed very urgently, I think, starting with young kids.
The first good signs are there. I read this article of young kids no longer wanting phones, refusing phones to make their parents sick, and that might be the beginning of a new generation. They look at their parents and they think they’re crazy.
SB: I think it’s telling, too, that some of the people who have helped make, market, bring these devices into the world in Silicon Valley and San Francisco don’t even let their own kids use the devices.
LE: They are smarter.
SB: They probably know more.
LE: Yes, and we now all know what it does to the brain, especially babies, which are already working with screens. In all hotels I see babies at breakfast with their screens. That is [a] disaster, because we already know that then the brain is not fully going to be built, so the inroads to the brain will not be paved. We don’t even know how much brain damage there will be.
SB: I think about the Juul, these e-smoking cigarettes, and the deaths that have been directly linked to them, or the illnesses, but what hasn’t been as written-about as much are maybe not the direct deaths, per se, that we know of yet, but the illnesses and all the things that are coming out of our attachment, our addiction, our relationship to these devices.
LE: Yeah, it’s very strong because, also, we use the devices as our new television screens, so it becomes so intimate, it’s already there all the time, and we have no idea what will be the end result of this great scheme, but we do know that society is losing its cohesion, and this is why people are desperately looking for some form of celebration, something which can replace religion, some place to be together, and you see this, for instance, in Japan.
There is a real comeback of reading, and there is very beautiful big libraries being made where people hang out the whole day, meet each other. There is a hotel which is just a hotel around books, so you go there to read. They have [six] thousand books, so you can stay a long time. I can see in Japan, which was the first country to be into electronics, the Walkman and so on, and now my audience there is less dependent on the phone. It’s the first country where I witnessed this. It’s very cool.
SB: It’s interesting you say that, because Michael Kimmelman, who we had on the podcast earlier this year, he wrote, a couple weeks ago, about a project in Long Island City in Queens by Steven Holl. It’s a new library there. It was interesting reading the piece, [in] which he is very complimentary, I think rightly, about the building being this beacon for the community.
Reading the comments, though, you started to see all these other, “Why is the city wasting all this money on the building?” and, “In a world where we don’t need books anymore, why are we housing books?” This is how some people think, so I think at this moment where we are so driven by technology and our devices, where very often the case is that we serve them, they don’t serve us, how do we reconcile that? How do we show the public the value of, say, the library?
LE: The library is already much more than just books, first of all, and can become even more, I think. The other day I saw that even renting clothes could take place in libraries. You would just go to the library, get a very nice coat, and you bring it back after a week. So that would be very cool and [it] could be also an object, could be pets, maybe, plants? It’s possible that the system of [the] library, which is renting and visiting things in a specific place in a city center, could become even more than it is today.
It is already, because there is a café. It’s very well-known that Barnes & Noble became so popular because people went there to flirt and look at each other’s titles, and then [it was] very easy to start a discussion, or people would just sit there with certain books to attract certain people. So it is a language which is a social language, and I think that we need, desperately, this type of spaces.
SB: Right. Now we have—
LE: Not to be alone.
LE: No, there’s a generation now that doesn’t know how to flirt. They don’t know, when they go to a bar, how to actually receive a compliment or attention. But I think that the next generation is going to come back to that, because it’s such a lonely planet, and when you see people swiping eventual partners, like waste, it is pretty horrendous if you think about it straight for two minutes.
SB: Selling yourself [in] a few sentences and photos.
LE: Yeah, and of course there is a lot of fake here, also, and a lot of pretending. It’s convenient. It’s a convenient system, but there is a lack of soul and surprise and yeah, it’s dehumanizing, I think, everything we do.
SB: On a positive note— [Laughs]
LE: [Laughs] But this is positive note.
SB: Yeah. No, it is. It is.
LE: The whole revival of the library is a positive development.
SB: On a positive note related to technology, you did a project a couple years ago with Google and Ivy Ross, who also has been on the podcast—
LE: Great friend, also.
SB: —it was called Software, named after a project or concept you’d first introduced twenty years before, in 1998. It was really about this idea of the importance of tactility and [about] textiles being a way to make technology live more harmoniously in our lives.
LE: And the integration of textiles in our working and living life, connecting those two very simply and effortlessly, and how, within the home, it brings together family and friends—extended family—and how you are actually sharing a lot of time together with your own devices, but still there is the sharing, there is the showing, there is the togetherness, and so on. Of course, we cannot live without technology anymore, it’s completely interwoven to our lives, but it’s nice if we give it the right place. That’s the only thing we need to do. And then it’s fantastic to explore and to research. We both are writing, so you know how essential this tool has become to find details of ideas and so on, so for anybody it’s a gift, also.
SB: In this world that we’re in now, of seeming efficiency and ease and everything done with a click, how do you view time?
LE: Time needs to slow, as your company already tells us. It’s a great name. Time in New York is very slow, strangely. For instance, when I’m working here, the day is twice as long as in Paris. Then when I go to Africa, for instance, West Africa, there it’s like a day is three days, almost. A week is definitely a few weeks. So the way we experience time is different in different countries. How that works, I don’t know. I just know that this is what—
SB: You experience.
LE: Yeah, it’s really very, very strong. So in the beginning, when I come back from Europe after a while, I have to adjust my days, because at 11 I think it’s 2, and after lunch I think it’s time for a drink. It’s very bizarre. And so in America, in New York at least, you have a massive amount of time to do things. This is why people also can have many meetings in a day. In France, in Paris, it’s almost [like] when you get up already you feel that it’s almost done, the day. There is this enormous stress about time. So I would like to know what is this? Is it maybe the air which is different, which compresses, or… I don’t know what is the reason, but it’s just different.
SB: I can attest, being in Paris during the heatwave this summer, that time moved really quickly, and I think that had to do not just with Paris but with the heat.
LE: Yeah, and there’s no air [conditioning] in our buildings [in Paris], so it’s pretty horrendous. [Laughs]
SB: There’s a book Carlo Rovelli wrote recently called The Order of Time. It’s actually looking at time through the lens of physics. There is a little bit of truth, in literal physics terms, in terms of time being different between the sea level and the mountain, and so I’m sure there might be some truth to the physics of how a certain city operates or a certain climate operates in relation to time.
LE: This makes it very interesting. We once gave a lecture, I gave a lecture in the Guggenheim which was a twenty-four-hour lecture on time, and people stayed sometimes twenty-four hours awake. And I was the before-last speaker, so that was a challenge. And I evidently connected the idea of time to textile, because you can stretch time, you can double-weave time so you have two different time levels actually which connect, sometimes also in your work when you work intercontinental, you can take time on the bias so it becomes something else altogether.
And so I do believe that we have not thought enough about time, and that we could actually profit much more from time if we would give it a bit more time. If we would study it more and study ourselves in connection to time. We’re just rushing through life as if death is the destination we want to be, and we don’t take the time to step back and to reflect on this. It might start to happen now, I think, because it’s more discussed than before, and there’s more knowledge, also, about it. I write about it for one of my clients who’s dealing with watches. So I’ve been thinking a lot about time recently.
It’s something very magic[al], how sometimes a few seconds can be so long and a few hours can almost not exist. That’s really weird. It’s all about the attention you give or how surprising something is or how beautiful something can be—or a person can be. Even dinners. There’s dinners which seem to be never-ending, boring affairs, and then there’s other dinners where it’s 2 o’clock before you know it and then you enjoy so much. So the time then is so different. It’s hugely connected to what we experience.
SB: I was listening to a podcast over the weekend, on Longform. It was an episode with Ken Burns. Ken was talking about his craft and his practice, and he has seven different film projects going right now. At the same time, he talks about how each of these projects is scheduled over many years, so he’s thinking about time in these scales that are really counter to how we are all operating in this current moment of instant gratification. So, I’m curious, connected to what you’re saying about time and how we experience it, the value of appreciating the slow, in a moment when everyone feels propelled to go fast.
LE: We are supposed to go fast, and people say things [like], “Go fast,” but if you really analyze things, they don’t go so fast. Notably, trends don’t go fast at all. They’re very, very slow, and they’re getting slower by the minute. And this is because, I think, marketing is just slowing the whole innovation so much down that there is almost none left, and so you will see that some items will just be there forever and ever and ever and ever. You go to the shop, you already have three of those, so why bother?
This is true in many industries, that we say it’s fast but it’s actually not that fast. And the more we run—running is not very time-efficient because you lose a lot of energy, you get there a bit faster but not better, so you have to repair, you have to restore, you have to rethink, you have to do many things to catch up. So possibly it’s much better to do things with more concentration, giving it a few minutes more. If you would give everything you do a few minutes more, it would change your life, possibly. Think about [that] before you send an email, especially in the evening. All that sort of thing where we react immediately and nervously.
SB: To be not so much reactive but proactive.
LE: Yeah, and think twice and listen to our intuition, which we don’t do because we don’t give it time, and avoiding all sorts of debacles, actually.
SB: I think it’s interesting. One of the pieces of feedback I get about this podcast is, “Your episodes are an hour long. That’s kind of long.” We actually describe what we do as short-form content with a long view, and I think there’s truth to that. It is short-form. An hour is short-form. Even though it is, in an audio format, maybe longer than most people are used to, think about the duration of your day. Think about the duration of your life. If an hour’s really valuable…
LE: And the thing with podcasts is that you also do it while you’re doing something else, so you’re washing dishes or you’re cleaning or you’re arranging your desk. It’s good because it helps you do other things.
SB: I’m sure someone’s cleaning right now, listening to this, laughing.
LE: Yes, swiping the floor or emptying the cupboard. And of course in car, in travel, or Sunday morning. That’s why it’s so popular right now as a new format. Podcasts also will be sold or rented in libraries, by the way, as is film.
SB: I want to go back a bit. I want to go to 1950. You were born in Holland. You studied fashion at ArtEZ Academy in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and went on to become this very esteemed trend forecaster. That was through a job in retail at the Bergdorf’s of that period and place, basically, and you moved to Paris in 1975. Tell me a little bit about your trajectory. Was the notion or idea of trend forecasting even a thing as you were coming into it in the seventies?
LE: It was not very well-known. But one day at art school there was a lady who came to give a lecture about styling officers, as they are called, and she recognized me as somebody able to do so because of the questions I asked. And indeed, that day, I found my calling, so that was very cool, since I just saw myself [doing] this. Then I willed myself, which I continuously do when I want to do something new, I will it, and then it happens.
My traject[ory] is without any planning. I never plan something. I just roll from one thing to the other and the curiosity in a new domain then brings me into a new facet of my life, so I keep accumulating functions and interests and skills to become this multi-person. But it all connects, because it’s always relative to our time, our future, and so on. So this forecasting is, in a way, almost a basic tool from which I can do every other thing, like writing, curating, editing, teaching, and so on.
SB: Did your parents influence you at all? What did they do?
LE: No, there was no reason for me to go there. I just made a drawing for a competition in a local newspaper, and we had to make a carnival costume, so I made the shortest mini dress I could draw with a little pair of shorts, otherwise it was indecent. And it has the ribbon saying “Carnival.” And so the newspaper said that it was much too serious to be considered for the prize, but that I had a special mention because they just came from Paris fashion show and they had seen that dress with shorts on the runway and they just wondered how this kid somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Netherlands had gotten wind of this in the same week. Then I asked them, “Should I study this?” and they said, “Yes, maybe you should, and you should go to an art school to do fashion design.” So it was completely coincidental.
SB: And your path—
LE: But the vision was there, obviously.
SB: Yeah, so it started with this drawing?
SB: That’s so interesting.
LE: Yeah, it’s cute.
SB: And you’ve now been teaching for two and a half decades, starting in 1993, where you were teaching at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where you later became chair of the school from 1998 to 2008. Talk about that time there. The school, of course, is really known for being this radical place of education, [and] became a place of experimentation. You described it as a utopia, and I’m curious, looking back on it now, how you feel about the impact that that school had on you but also that you had on it.
LE: I enrolled at a very good time, just before 9/11, and, as we all know, 9/11 changed our life completely. Still does. Everything we live today has its anchor in that moment. And so this made the task of being a chairwoman of a design school pretty daunting because you could not even talk about design, obviously. That was not on our mind. And so the notion of design changed, almost overnight, and we went from shiny, glossy Italian streamlined to chunky, recycled, invented, reinvented, reconstructed stuff, fun stuff, made by hand, made by man, woman—and I was [a] witness of this, and I saw suddenly this whole new generation of designers find new solutions, make new materials, make new colors, new ways of expressing, and this was the birth, if you want, of what now is called design art or author design—that has cemented, I think, the fame of that school, and I have enabled the students and the school to show this. So I have been very important for them to make them internationally famous, we can say, and I have privileged the students above anything else. Everything I do, I’m thinking from the students, so it’s with students in mind that I do all these things and that we create new departments.
We created the department called “Man and Well-Being” because in my own career I felt that the well-being industries were growing so fast that they were in need of guidance in design, design thinking. We created a master’s called “Man and Humanity” because I felt that it was important for a certain number of students to go out in the world and to help others to create their livelihood and a new existence, and so that design could become a humanitarian tool. So we did many things which somehow reacted to needs in society, but especially also to needs in the young generation of that day.
It’s remarkable, because the school is still incredibly good and the city became a famous city because of that school. So that’s very bizarre, how one institute can completely change a whole environment.
SB: Not totally unlike the Bauhaus, in a way.
LE: Not totally, and also Antwerp with the Antwerp Six. It happens once in a while.
SB: With Parsons, as dean of the hybrid design studies program, what does that mean? What is hybrid design studies?
LE: It basically means that I think that young people today cannot learn one thing anymore. They will become a hundred years old. They are maybe now 23, 24, so if they choose one direction only, how are they going to fill that huge span of time? So for sure now, we see that students and designers work together. They add other disciplines to what they do. I can see it in my students. They are textile designers but also chefs, so they cook the fiber, or they’re [a] textile designer in their nose because they use fragrance in the textiles, or they are textile designer and a geek because they’re completely into new industrialization and so on. Or they are actually artists, performance artists.
So it really works. I really already have proof, after one year, that my vision is right, that we should educate very young people, especially also freshmen, with programs which challenge everything in them, so all creative skills and work on sound, on environment, on building, on drawing, on video, on photo, on music, on everything. Sort of a roller coaster of learning, and then, from there, you will have friendships which will be there for all your life, so in your life you also know where to go if you want to add music or you want to add footage or whatever it is. So it’s to create bonds, to create awareness.
Once you’ve made a logo, for instance, you don’t have to make logos all your life, but later on when you’re dealing with a company, you know how to ask for a logo. You see what I mean? You know how to judge. So it’s important that we touch many, many domains so as to be prepared [for] a future which is a future of collaboration, of project management, of dealing, I think, with a life where you, as I do, roll from one thing to another. Gradually you shift your focus. Many people will have a second life, somewhere after 50, and start a completely new career or even maybe three careers, because we will work until 80, possibly 80 or 90. We also will learn on the way there, I guess.
SB: Right. Of the future, you’ve talked about this notion of choosing humanity, of altruism being a big trend, of this notion of nomadism, that, because of the devices we have at our disposal, we’re able to work and live and exist wherever. And connected to all of that, of course, [is] this idea that the age of the individual is over. How are you bringing that, all of those ideas into this hybrid program?
LE: I only have this textiles program, which is a shame because I wanted to do also many other projects which have not seen the light. But maybe they will, hopefully, in the future, because they are mind-blowing, I must say. Because once you start thinking this way, you just see the future. You see that it would be so cool to learn… I created this program which was dealing with the body, with time and with space, which is all you need to know, actually. So the body, you would learn how does the body work? How does the brain move the body? How does the body eat? What does the body eat? How do we clothe the body? How do we represent the body in film and in drawing and so on?
Same with time. How do we express time? How do we experience time? How do we draw time, and so on? And the logic of the program is that you learn, in the end, enough drawing and enough writing and enough dance and enough singing, all these things you learn, but you learn them scattered instead of programmed, in a very strict program, so it also [teaches] you flexibility, adaptability, great momentum also to improvise. We are losing the idea of improvisation completely, and it’s very important as a skill. So it would prepare people [for] a new life, a new existence.
SB: We started this conversation with the farm so I wanted to end it, also, on the farm, specifically flowers. You started Bloom magazine in 1998, and it was the first magazine to analyze trends in horticulture, offering through that a new understanding of nature. How do you think about—a little more than twenty years later—flowers now, in today’s culture? And specifically the potent place they play in our ever-shifting lives?
LE: I’ve been working with flowers since that magazine, and for instance, in fashion they are just standard. Standard every season, there is flowers. Flowers have become completely integrated into our lives. They do take on new behaviors and new visions and visuals. We are drawn to dried flowers or to wildflowers or to bed herbs or whatever is going on. It’s a big domain, so we have a lot of variety to talk about.
And now I think we go more deeply into the flowers and the plants and the trees, because it’s only now that we start to understand that you can make music with flowers. You can take the vibration of the flower and its sound. There is a huge research into the forest floor and how trees grow and how intelligent the internet of trees is, much more than our internet is, because they care for each other, they heal each other, they warn each other, and so on.
So there’s a lot to learn, also, from this domain, and I think that is where the new direction is, is to understand much more intrinsically, what is going on there, and we’ve been focused on animals for a long time and we will continue, but now suddenly we see these other forms of life also as instructive for our own behavior and well-being and future, so it’s a beautiful moment for the farm and the forest.
SB: And with flowers specifically, what do you think they can say about us right now? Outside of fashion, of course.
LE: They say, “Turn your face to the sun.”
SB: I think that’s where we’ll end. Thanks, Li. This was great.
LE: Thank you very much.
SB: I appreciated you being here today.
LE: It was very nice. Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Sept. 30, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our director of strategy and operations, Emily Queen, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.